June 2011

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By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Last week witnessed the publication of Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (Public Affairs, 2011), and over the weekend my take on the book appeared online at the recently relaunched Asian Review of Books. That review is reposted here with the kind permission of the ARB, almost exactly as it ran there. Those who are interested in learning more about Hvistendahl’s arguments after reading my essay can, of course, buy the book, but U.S.-based followers of the blog have another option as well: catch one of the public events (including a June 28 L.A. stop) on this list.

Why are there so many more boys than girls in many parts of China—and how worrisome is this phenomenon?

Freelance journalist Mara Hvistendahl had questions like these on her mind several years ago, when she set out to do interviews in Suining, a county midway between Beijing and Shanghai that for much of the past had been “notable only for its ordinariness,” as she puts it. Suining, she claims, is the kind of place where even the food veers away from extremes (dishes are “a little spicy, a little salty, a little sweet”, neither fiery like those of Sichuan nor as elegant as those of Guangdong) and even the best known historical celebrity started out a man “of humble peasant origins” (before leading a popular rebellion more than two millennia ago that made him Emperor).

What drew her to this otherwise ordinary setting was one extraordinary thing: a gender ratio that, even for China, was horribly off-kilter. In 2007, some 150 boys were being born for every 100 girls (slightly more boys than girls tend to be born globally, but anything over about a 105 to 100 split is considered a significant departure from the norm). The fruits of her time in Suining, where she heard tales confirming that sonograms followed by sex-selective abortions rather than female infanticide were at the root of the problem, was a superb Virginia Quarterly article called “Half the Sky: How China’s Gender Imbalance Threatens Its Future” (2008). Material from that work of reportage, supplemented by an impressive amount of reading (in scholarly publications in multiple fields and about many lands), plus travels to far flung locales (European and American, as well as Asian), has now been reworked into an ambitious, provocative, and carefully-crafted book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.

Some of her travels were part of an effort to piece together parts of the Chinese gender ratio story, but Hvistendahl (full disclosure: she’s an author I met in Shanghai two years ago, have been interviewed by occasionally, have shared a stage with at a UC Irvine event, and have interviewed for China Beat and the Huffington Post) also moved outside of China for other reasons. Taking her cue from a milestone 1990 New York Review of Books essay by Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing”, which deals as much with India as with the PRC, she was determined to bring into the picture various parts of Asia (and beyond: Albania gets a look in) where skewed ratios resembling if not quite matching those in Suining can also be found. In addition, she is concerned with ripple effects: the way that a disproportionate number of young males growing up in one area can lead to new kinds of sex trafficking and marriage migration pulling young women out of another. One of the book’s most riveting sections, for example, tells of the tragic plight of Vietnamese woman kidnapped and taken across the border into China.

Despite its wide reach, it is the China questions sketched out above that lie at the heart of many sections of Unnatural Selection, for the PRC is the Asian country in which the book’s widely-traveled author has spent the most time and also the Asian land about which she has read most deeply. And this is all to the good, not just because of China’s size and economic significance, but also because an inquiry into Chinese demographic dilemmas has a special timeliness right now. For there is a debate underway within the PRC about whether the moment has finally come to abandon or dramatically scale what is typically called the “one-child family policy”—a somewhat misleading term, since for most of its history there have been some kinds of couples (e.g., member of ethnic minorities) who have been allowed to have more than one offspring.

* * *

The questions about China that Hvistendahl grapples with, though very much of the moment, are not new—and were not even new when Sen wrestled with them in his oft-cited look at the missing women of Asia two decades ago. I am keenly aware of the longevity of the questions, as they were on my mind more than a quarter-of-a-century ago at the very start of my academic career. In the early 1980s, working toward a master’s in East Asian Studies at Harvard, the then-novel reports of Chinese villages with 110 or 120 boys for every 100 girls fascinated me. An effort to work through the phenomenon led to my first research paper using Chinese-language sources (mostly letters to the editor of a PRC women’s magazine dealing with prejudice against daughters and mothers who failed to bear sons), and to my first publication: an article on “Resistance to the One-Child Family” in the June 1984 issue of the interdisciplinary journal Modern China. I remain proud of that piece, which tried to clear up some basic misconceptions about the dynamic of Chinese birth control efforts early in the post-Mao era, but a decade or so on, I realized how much richer my discussion could have been had I had access to Sen’s article with its pairing of China and India. I now realize that an even more multifaceted handling of the theme is possible if one follows the chains of argument that Hvistendahl explores, such as bringing to the surface the complex role that Western “population bomb” theories and development discourses of the 1960s, as well as technological breakthroughs, have played in the tilting toward sons in much of the developing world.

Before saying more about this important aspect of Hvistendahl’s book, it’s worth recapping briefly the state of play in early discussions of what, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to by its standard name: the one-child policy. What intrigued me in the early 1980s was how differently, in reports on this subject, skewed sex ratios and the preference for sons over daughters more generally were handled in the Chinese as opposed to the international press, and how little was said in either set of writings about how economic reforms had altered the material benefits of having a son as opposed to a daughter.

What was the thrust of most Western coverage of the Chinese birth control drive at the time? One key theme was that the one-child policy was being enforced via measures that were “draconian” (a favorite word of columnists, in particular). Another, in addition to women being forced to have abortions (the most sensational revelation of the early 1980s), was that there had been a resurgence of female infanticide. These phenomena became so intertwined in some discussions of the topic that readers could easily conclude that the shockingly high gender imbalance in some counties was part and parcel of government policy, or at the very least, take for granted that the Chinese Communist Party had no concern with male-female ratios, as long as rigid birth quota targets were hit.

In the Chinese press, on the other hand, each sign of a preference for sons over daughters was presented as flouting, or at least failing to accept, official policy. The one-child family drive was predicated on the notion that couples should be happy with a single child, whether male or female. The standard visual propaganda used to promote the policy was of a mother, a father and a daughter as a happy and complete nuclear family unit. Indications of a strong preference relating to the sex of a child, as well as any mistreatment of women for bearing daughters (reflecting the belief that a wife had a responsibility to provide her husband and his family with a male heir and that she somehow determined the sex of the fetus she carried) were condemned in official publications. The magazine Zhongguo funu (Chinese Women), which I drew from in my first article, ran heartbreaking first-person accounts of mistreated mothers of daughters, who had been verbally or physically abused by their husbands and one or both of his parents, as well as explanations by the editors of why this behavior was wrong. To condemn these mothers, the magazine claimed, was to act in backward and immoral way: it was to fall pray to “feudal” old patriarchal notions that had no place in the New China. It was also to be “unscientific” in assigning “blame” for an unwanted outcome—the editors sometimes stressed—backing this up with references to fact that the chromosomal make-up of the father’s sperm, rather than anything related to the mother, leads some children to be born male, others female.

One of the main points I made in my article in Modern China about the enduring preference for sons in the PRC was a fairly simple one, which—had I written the article a bit later—I might have linked to a phrase Bill Clinton would make famous: “It’s the economy, stupid.” What was left out of the picture in both Western reports (that attributed the problem to official birth control policy) and Chinese commentaries (that treated all gender bias as a holdover of pernicious traditional beliefs) was how having a boy as opposed to a girl was likely to affect the living standard of a rural family. For all the experiments in social engineering Mao Zedong introduced from the 1940s through the 1970s, including some designed to do away with gender bias, the Chinese government had never focused on uprooting the general pattern of rural women marrying into their husband’s village.

When marriage works this way, the general rule is that female children cost their natal family resources in the short term and then, once grown, contribute their labor to, and bring offspring, into the household of their in-laws. Grown sons, by contrast, end up not just working for but also bringing new children into their birth family. During the heyday of collectivization under Mao, this differential did not matter nearly as much as it once had, since the family ceased for a time being the most important economic unit. Crucially, though, two of the main early post-Mao policies were a shift toward allowing farming families to keep profits from land they worked and the drive to limit births. In other words, there was what Mao would have called (as this was one of his favorite terms) a fundamental “contradiction”: people were told it was inappropriate to prefer sons to daughters at precisely the moment that, in addition to whatever lingering old gender bias had remained in place, a new economic incentive favoring male over female children was coming into play.

* * *

One of the many accomplishments of Hvistendahl’s book is to show that there have been additional “contradictions” at work in the pan-Asian “missing women” phenomenon. For simplicity’s sake, we can boil these down to contradictions linked to visions of what it means to be “modern” and contradictions tied to technology.
A central element in the first sort of contradiction pre-dates the implementation of the one-child family policy. It goes back to Western writings in the 1950s and 1960s that harped on the apocalyptical implications of high birth-rates in the developing world.

Here, in a much stripped down form, is my paraphrasing of the way Hvistendahl lays out the situation, in sections that owe and acknowledge a considerable debt to Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly’s important book, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Harvard University Press, 2008):

If only, some proponents of “population bomb” thinking argued, methods could be found to ensure that couples outside of the West embraced more “modern” small family ideals. Given the strong bias toward sons in many places, one thing needed was to make sure that couples who kept having daughters would not just keep trying and trying to have a male offspring. To solve the problem of overpopulation, the key would be to convince couples that having more than two children was no longer feasible (the planet could not take having people procreate at more than just this replacement level)—and allow them to be confident that one of those children would be a son (e.g., if their first child was a girl, give them much better than a 105 to 100 chance that the second would be a boy). But something was left out of the equation here: if a magical means could suddenly appear to guarantee that hundreds of millions of couples wanting to stop at two children, who had a girl first, had a boy next, the result would be a dangerously off kilter demographic picture. There would soon be an incredibly large number of men who would be expected to marry (and for the most part would want to marry), but would grossly outnumber eligible women.

Turning to technology, recent decades have seen moves toward—or full realization of—various sex selection methods that can alter the odds dramatically in favor of having a son or daughter, depending on a couple’s wishes. These range from the relatively low-tech (sonogram machines that reveal the sex of a fetus) to methods so high-tech they border on science fiction (fiddling with genes to produce babies with sought-after traits). The contradiction here is that, while reports of skewed gender ratios in China in the 1980s sometimes focused on the re-emergence of a very old method of diminishing the number of girls in an area (infanticide by drowning), the single biggest factor in the current tilt toward boys in many parts of Asia has been sex-selective abortion by couples who have learned, after amniocentesis or more often a sonogram, that a pregnancy (in many cases, a second or third one in a son-less family) would lead to a daughter’s birth.

What we have here is a messy combination of factors that take us far beyond a clash between “traditional” values and state policies. We find instead situations in which old preferences are reinforced by new practices (e.g., the economic reforms in the Chinese countryside) and can be acted upon by using new machines. There is no “typical” Asian couple responsible for contributing to the large number of “excess men” (males growing up in areas with too few female age mates), but Hvistendahl shows that, when imagining one, we might do well to conjure up a couple striving to embrace a modern ideal (only having two children) and making use of modern technologies, rather than let our minds think only of a “traditional” and “backward” pair who need to be educated by the state to have their ideas brought up to date.

* * *

Unnatural Selection does much more than complicate the picture of the causes of skewed sex ratios. What I have not touched upon are the parts of the book that delve into past and present visions of the problems that can be caused by populations with disproportionate numbers of men—sections that creatively move between quotes relating to the American “Wild West” (a violent setting where women were scarce) and material drawn from scholarly monographs on Chinese peasant rebellions in which “bare sticks” (bachelors without marriage prospects) played crucial roles. Also deserving of mention is Hvistendahl’s intriguing analysis of the links between efforts to be able to select for sex and to select for other traits (from immunity to particular diseases to specific facial features and skin tones)—an analysis that takes her from East and South Asia to a Southern California clinic.

Neither have I described her clever method of keeping a book of this kind lively and readable: making sure that each chapter features a life story (this is revealed in chapter titles such as “The Demographer”, “The Parent”, “The Geneticist”, “The Prostitute”, and “The Bachelor”); nor, indeed, the tricky moral line she walks on a hot-button issue, staking out a nuanced position on abortion that reflects her commitments as a feminist and concern about the ill effects of easy access to techniques that can end a pregnancy that is unwanted because of the sex of a fetus.

It is a book that does a great many things well. In the end, though, its most important take-away point is likely to be the need—when thinking about the causes and “the consequences of a world full of men” (to borrow a term from her subtitle) —to remember that the situation involves many strands. I know that, after reading it, I will never think about Asia’s disappearing daughters in the same way again. And to pay the author a much higher compliment, I would wager that, after reading Unnatural Selection, Amartya Sen might well feel tempted to say the exact same thing.

By Silvia Lindtner

As scholars we speak frequently in public and are confronted with various interpretations of our work by others who at times do not share our own viewpoints. Though this often brings with it excitement at the opportunity to form bridges between academic and other discourses, reaching audiences beyond our own disciplines and engaging a wider public still remains a challenge for many of us. We look at these conversations as opportunities for further debate, for mutual learning, and for being introduced to different perspectives on our work. At times, how one’s work finds resonance elsewhere surprises, illuminating the scholar’s responsibility to engage with institutional and political actors that might appropriate our work to accomplish their own goals. Being a young scholar, my first encounter with such an experience came in late April of this year, when China Daily correspondent Kelly Chung Dawson reported about a conference panel on Internet technology in China that I participated in.

The panel was entitled “Changing Social Configurations and New Media Technologies in China” and took place at the Annual Association for Asian Studies conference in Honolulu, Hawaii. My co-panelists Randy Kluver, Steven Balla, Cara Wallis, Marcella Szablewicz, and I spoke from various perspectives on the role new media and Internet technologies play in relation to cultural, social, and political re-configurations in China. Our underlying goal was to position the role of Internet technology against more common deterministic views that either render technology as an opportunity space to solve larger societal problems or as a means to increase the reach of government control.

Ironically, what Kelly Chung Dawson took away from our panel was in many ways exactly that: an inherently deterministic take on technological change in China in line with the national discourse that portrays political intervention into cyberspace as a largely productive one. We had attempted to provide a nuanced account of policy change in regards to the changing IT landscape in China and we expressed the importance of moving beyond binary and overly simplistic accounts that focus on IT regulation alone, as is so often the case in Western mass media outlets. Taking Dawson’s article seriously, we did not succeed in communicating the importance of understanding technological shifts in China as working in dialogue with (rather than determining or being determined by) social, political, and economic change.

And so perhaps, for the responsible scholar, this encounter with a particular kind of media uptake should provide the opportunity to reflect on her role as a knowledge producer beyond the academic publication: How does one engage diverse audiences and members of different disciplines? How does one find a language that communicates clearly, yet still allows for a complex argument? How can we engage others through dialogue instead of quick assessments, especially in times when decreases in funding resources and pressures within one’s own institution often don’t allow for more in-depth engagement?

From an academic perspective, this encounter has made me think of what Nigel Thrift entitled “soft capitalism,” the up-take of theoretical work and knowledge productions in circles beyond the academy – the provocation that knowledge production within academia does not deserve (anymore) a privileged position in our society today. The latter seems appealing to me, as I am intrigued by the blurring of disciplinary boundaries and passionate about approaching my ethnographic encounters in part as forms of collaboration and encounters in distributed knowledge systems (Marcus 2009). What alternate modes of collaboration could we envision for the academic scholar – for example with policy makers, state officials, and media? To what degree can and should a scholar be hold accountable for the ways in which her research finds resonance elsewhere?

What the medium of the blog allows me to do here is respond to the media report by crafting my own story. And so I want to share with you what I thought were some of the exciting issues raised at the panel that didn’t end up in the China Daily article:

The different talks brought to the fore political interests that stimulate technological and policy change, issues of class and practices of distinction-making that flourish despite the increase in people who have access to Internet technology, as well as transnational collaborations between the local IT scene and centers of technological innovation elsewhere. Wallis, for example, explored forms of governmentality that emerge in training programs for young migrant women, who are encouraged to “govern themselves” as technology-savvy, self-reliant citizens in order to become “good citizens.” Szablewicz and I spoke to the creative Internet practices among young Chinese, but also to the ways in which technology comes to function as indicator of social status, class distinction, and as an expression of the quality citizen. We illustrated how Internet and new media practice in China is not just a bounded local phenomenon, but evolves in relation to  translocal IT narratives around new forms of innovation and creativity. Balla reported on citizen engagement in the policy process and illustrated how much of the engagement remains restricted to elite users and members of the wealthier upper-middle or educated classes. Kluver spoke to the ways in which political culture in China is expanded through technology and e-governance investment, but also explained linkages to the larger political project for China’s position in a global market.

What these various findings on technological shifts tell us is that technological change in China is not the story of technology as an enabler of a linear path towards modernity, but rather of a complex entanglement of particular material affordances, China’s changing role in global markets and politics, new institutional collaborations and transnational engagements of the local IT industry, and development in other areas such as urban redesign and NGO work. We explored how these changes unfold on the ground, for a diverse set of people such as youth, young entrepreneurs, migrant women, policy makers, and designers.

Passionate to push forward cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary engagements and learning, I position my encounter with this particular media uptake with a hopeful outlook. Media and new media (like the one this response will be published in) converge in interesting ways (Jenkins 2006), providing opportunity for experimentation with expression and playful encounters with others who might be difficult to reach otherwise. So, perhaps one day, a China Daily correspondent will not only attend our panel at some future AAS meeting, but also engage us in a discussion so that we, as scholars, can learn from her own experiences and the multiple disciplinary and discursive landscapes she had to learn to navigate, just as we did, in order to do her job well.

Jenkins, H. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press.
Marcus, G. E. 2009. Multi-sited Ethnography: Notes and Queries. In Mark-Anthony Falzon (ed.), Multi-sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research. Ashgate.
Thrift, N. 2005. The Rise of Softcapitalism. In Knowing Capitalism. Londong: Sage Publications.

Silvia Lindtner is a PhD candidate in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine.

By Shelley Rigger

Taipei 101, the blue-green glass tower that reigned for six years as the world’s tallest building, is everywhere in Taiwan. Its image appears on advertisements, magazine covers, brochures, guidebooks, and billboards; the soaring structure itself is visible from nearly everywhere in Taipei City. As ubiquitous as Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl TV tower—and considerably more graceful—Taipei 101 has become the iconic image of contemporary Taiwan.

Patterned on the tiered design of traditional pagodas, the 101-story tower consists of eight cubical sections with gently sloping sides rising out of a massive 20-story base (a less generous description: a stack of Chinese takeout containers). The topmost floors and spire take the shape of a stupa, a Buddhist monument, and the building is decorated with traditional motifs symbolizing fulfillment and health. Taipei 101 is an engineering marvel, the world’s tallest building—built atop a tectonic fault, stabilized by a massive, gilded sphere perched on giant pistons twelve hundred feet above the ground. According to C. Y. Lee, the architect who designed it, Taipei 101 blends recognizably Chinese elements with cutting-edge global aesthetic and technical standards. In his words, the building embodies “Oriental philosophy and Western technology.”

Lee’s magnificent building is beautiful from any angle—from any angle, because Taipei 101 stands completely alone. Unlike skyscrapers in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and New York, Taipei 101 does not compete for sunlight with a forest of similar buildings. It was constructed at the edge of Taipei as part of a redevelopment scheme to update a sleepy residential neighborhood. The next tallest building in the city is less than half its height, and three miles away. Taipei 101 thus stands absolutely alone; no man-made object obstructs the views from its eighty-ninth and ninety-first floor observation decks. On a clear day, one can see the point where Taiwan disappears into the Taiwan Strait to the west and the East China Sea to the north.

When he accepted the commission, architect Lee knew he was designing a building that would embody Taiwan’s grandest aspirations. Originally envisioned as a typical office complex—a sixty-six-story tower flanked by two smaller buildings—investors and politicians talked themselves into something far more ambitious. Given the mandate to design the world’s tallest building in a city in which fifty stories had seemed massive just a decade before, Lee predicted, “The location and height will reshape the Taipei skyline. The impact will be enormous; it will be [an] icon not only for Taiwan but to the world as well.”

C. Y. Lee accomplished his mission: Taipei 101 is a magnificent building, an icon, unquestionably. But does Taipei need an iconic building? Did it make sense to spend almost two billion dollars constructing this behemoth in a city with plenty of office space? Why expend vast resources engineering solutions to typhoon winds and frequent earthquakes when there was ample vacant land nearby? What does it say about Taiwan that the island would become the home of a project so expensive, so hubristic, so gratuitous and disproportionate?

It is easy to dismiss Taipei 101 as the product of an overeager society of strivers with a serious inferiority complex—and that possibility is not lost on the building’s neighbors. Taiwanese are proud of the achievement, but not too proud to make fun of the building and criticize everything about it—from its architecture to its feng shui. As a symbol of contemporary Taiwan, Taipei 101 cuts two ways. It captures Taiwan’s vitality and optimism; the fact that Taiwanese could finance such an undertaking reflects the island’s extraordinary economic dynamism. At the same time, the building’s solitary profile parallels Taiwan’s isolation. From a distance, it can look fragile, lonely, and exposed.

Taipei 101 may be a vanity project, but if ever there were a country that could be forgiven such a folly, it is Taiwan. For centuries, even as its economy and culture flourished, the island was regarded as a political sideshow, the object of other nations’ attention, never as the subject of its own history. Taiwan and its people have been traded back and forth among great powers, their fate decided in distant capitals, their voices absent from the negotiations.

Since World War II, however, the island has developed an identity and aspirations of its own. Its people have resisted outsiders’ efforts to absorb, subjugate, and marginalize their homeland. Keeping Taiwan alive as an autonomous actor in international politics and economics requires determination and energy. It also requires creativity, as Taiwan has been forced to work outside the world’s conventional structures and practices. The qualities that made Taipei 101 possible—ambition, invention, perseverance, and a strong tolerance for risk—are the same qualities that allow Taiwan to survive and prosper as a major global player.

The purpose of this book is to explain what it is about Taiwan—an island slightly larger than Belgium with a population a little less than Ghana’s—that has won it such a prominent role in global economics and politics.

To understand why Taiwan matters we will explore how the people living there built a society capable of economic and political feats so astonishing that scholars call them “miracles.” We will also consider the unique international predicament that compels Taiwan to seek the global limelight and that powers its domestic politics. We will see that Taiwan matters for practical reasons (its companies make most of our notebook computers and flat-screen devices) and moral ones: Taiwan proves that a determined nation can attain democracy, freedom, and prosperity peacefully. And I will try to persuade you that Taiwan matters for a more fundamental reason: it matters because its people, like all people, are ends in themselves, not mere instruments of someone else’s destiny.

Taipei 101 is at the eastern terminus of Hsinyi Road. At the western end stands a tall building from another era, Taiwan’s presidential office. In its day, it too was a skyscraper, with a two-hundred-foot tower rising above a magnificent marble entrance flanked by massive, elaborately decorated six-story wings. The building was completed in 1919 as a headquarters for the governors-general who ruled Taiwan for fifty years on behalf of the empire of Japan. In 1895 the Qing Dynasty ceded the island to Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki—a treaty whose legitimacy Chinese nationalists deny. Japan viewed the island as an opportunity to prove its bona fides as a rival to imperialist powers in Europe. Within a decade, Tokyo was ready to declare its Taiwanese colony a success, and in 1906 it invited its best architects to submit designs for a government building capable of crowning its achievements.

The winning design took years to build, but the result was the imposing, ornate building that still stands today. It was badly damaged by U.S. bombing during World War II, when Taiwan served the Japanese empire as a source of food and soldiers. After their surrender in 1945, the Japanese cleared out and, following renovations, new occupants moved in. The flag they hoisted atop the tower belonged to the Republic of China.

The ROC had been established in 1912 after Chinese revolutionaries striving for democracy and development overthrew the Qing Dynasty. From the beginning, the Republic faced profound challenges. Warlords—independent military leaders loyal only to themselves—controlled much of China. Differences in political ideology and personal loyalties drove vicious infighting within and between the two main political camps, the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In the 1930s, Japanese expansionism deepened the crisis facing the struggling ROC state, forcing Chinese of all political stripes to concentrate their energies on resisting Japan’s occupation of eastern China. But when World War II ended, conflict between the KMT and CCP reignited and the Chinese Civil War began. Four years later, in 1949, the Communists proclaimed a new Chinese state, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the defeated ROC government fled to Taiwan. Its president, Chiang Kai-shek, moved into the building at the west end of Hsinyi Road.

For the ROC government and the 1.5 million refugees who joined the exodus to Taiwan, the island was not a homeland but a place of exile. For the next forty years they devoted themselves to the task of keeping the Republic of China alive in the hope that it might someday return to the mainland in triumph, drive the Communists from power, and restore itself as the reigning Chinese state. To this end, they built Taiwan into a launching pad from which to mount their campaign to “recover the mainland.”

The 6 million people already living in Taiwan when the refugees arrived had a very different view. For them, Taiwan was the only homeland they had ever known. Though their ancestors had lived in Taiwan for centuries, most families could trace their origins to the mainland, and many had been eager to see the end of Japanese colonialism. Still, the ROC’s policies reduced Taiwan to a pawn in a fight between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party—two entities whose goals and aspirations had little relation to those of ordinary Taiwanese.

The Kuomintang’s driving ambition was to recover mainland China, but the economic policies it adopted in pursuit of that goal were transformative. Under the protection of the United States, which regarded Taiwan as a crucial bulwark against Communist expansion, the KMT adopted a state-led economic development plan that soon put Taiwan on the road to prosperity. As chapter 3 details, the little island was a global leader in light manufacturing by the 1970s. It continued to clamber up the value chain in the 1980s and 1990s to take its place as a leading high-tech center, a story we tell in chapter 6.

Economic growth did not bring political reform, at least not right away. As the likelihood of an ROC return to the mainland diminished, more and more Taiwanese began to question—at first in secret, and then more openly—the ROC’s determination to prioritize its mainland recovery project ahead of the island’s social and political modernization. Some—nearly all of them living outside Taiwan, beyond the reach of Chiang Kai-shek’s secret police—even went so far as to advocate making a clean break, that is, declaring Taiwan independent, not just of the PRC or the ROC, but of China itself.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwan’s political system evolved from single-party authoritarianism under the KMT to multiparty democracy, and the debate over how Taiwan should view its relationship with the mainland emerged into the open. Many longtime residents believed that decades of subjugation to the KMT’s “mission” had prevented Taiwan from developing its own sense of nationhood and pursuing its own destiny, while those who subscribed to the KMT’s view feared that allowing Taiwan to claim a status separate from China would foreclose forever the possibility of a non-Communist China. When the People’s Republic of China weighed in with its preferences, it became clear that redefining Taiwan’s identity could also bring it into a potentially catastrophic confrontation with Beijing.

The PRC maintains that Taiwan has been Chinese territory for centuries, so it is Chinese territory today. Beijing does not recognize the ROC’s legitimacy; in its view, the Communists’ victory in 1949 extinguished the Republic, leaving the PRC as the only state representing the Chinese nation. The fact the Chinese government does not currently rule Taiwan is a historical anomaly that must be rectified.

For decades, the PRC’s position was the inverse of the ROC’s: it swore to “liberate” Taiwan, to annex it to the PRC by force. In 1979, a new generation of PRC leaders, determined to open China to the world, traded in that policy for a less bellicose objective: “peaceful unification.” Since the early 2000s, Beijing has emphasized patience, arguing that unification need not come soon. Still, its bottom line is firm: Taiwan must not renounce unification. If it does, say PRC leaders, China’s sacred territory will be severed, and that is an outcome they refuse to accept. As Premier Wen Jiabao put it in a 2003 interview with the Washington Post, “The Chinese people will pay any price to safeguard the unity of the motherland.” Myriad policy statements and comments from Chinese leaders leave no room for doubt: the price they are willing to pay includes war.

Taiwanese see the situation very differently. They are at best deeply ambivalent about unification. The reasons for Taiwanese people’s reluctance to unify with the PRC have changed since the 1940s, but the fact of that reluctance has not. In the early decades, Taiwan’s government taught its people to resist the PRC out of loyalty to the ROC; it was the PRC, not China, that was to be rejected. Over time, though, the appeal of “China” has faded.

As the island’s democracy grew and deepened, the political gulf between Taiwan and the mainland widened. Today, many Taiwanese resist the PRC because they value the political and economic freedom they enjoy as citizens of an ROC whose jurisdiction is limited to Taiwan. They still oppose folding Taiwan into the PRC, but they now see little benefit in giving up what they have to become part of any Chinese state headquartered on the mainland—even a non-Communist one. “Little Taiwan” is enough for them, not least because 1.4 billion mainland people and their leaders inevitably would dominate a unified Chinese state.

If few Taiwanese are ready to risk losing their way of life for an abstract notion like the territorial integrity of China, there is little more enthusiasm for putting that way of life at risk for a different abstract notion, Taiwan independence. In the parlance of pollsters, the mainstream preference, one shared by three-fourths of Taiwanese, is to “maintain the status quo.” The Chinese phrase used in surveys translates as “preserve the way things are now,” and that captures well what most Taiwanese hope to do, recognizing that “the way things are now” includes not foreclosing the possibility of unification someday and continuing to fly the Republic of China flag today. As U.S. Senator James Leach has said, Taiwan can have democracy or independence, but not both. Increasingly, too, Taiwan’s economic prosperity rests on maintaining cooperative relations with China, which is its top target for trade and investment.

This, then, is the central dilemma facing Taiwan: how to live both freely and at peace. The PRC insists that if Taiwan does not at least pay lip service to unification, war is inevitable, but the vast majority of Taiwanese prefer to avoid unification as long as they can. Navigating this narrow passage is the central challenge facing Taiwan’s leaders and voters. The high stakes and limited options help to explain why Taiwanese pursue politics with such uncommon passion.

Shelley Rigger is Brown Professor of Political Science at Davidson College.

Excerpt from Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse, © 2011 by Rowman and Littlefield. Reprinted with permission.

by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Henry Kissinger and Robert Bickers don’t have much in common. One is a U.S.-based octogenarian; the other a U.K.-based scholar roughly half as old. Only one, Kissinger, has been characterized by Christopher Hitchens (among others) as a perpetrator of war crimes. And only one, ironically Kissinger again, has won a Nobel Peace Prize. Kissinger spent some time as a professor, but then went on to work as a diplomat and business consultant. Bickers, however, while writing about diplomats and entrepreneurs (along with policemen and other kinds of people), has made his career solely within the academy. This list could be expanded almost indefinitely. And yet, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something that links Kissinger (whom I’ve never met) to Bickers (an old friend). Namely, their most recent books, Kissinger’s On China and Bickers’ The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914, have some interesting shared traits.

For example, On China (which I recently reviewed quite critically for Time) is aimed squarely at the intellectually curious general reader, and the same goes for Scramble for China (which I recently praised in passing when introducing a “China Beat” Q & A with Bickers). In addition, both books have been published by parts of the Penguin publishing empire and both are long (On China clocks in at around 600 pages, Scramble for China at around 500). More significantly, both books are largely concerned with illuminating broad patterns and narrating key moments in the history of Chinese relations with other countries (though, not surprisingly, Kissinger is most concerned with U.S.-China ties and tensions, whereas Bickers pays more attention to policy decisions associated with Whitehall as opposed to the White House). And both are by authors who assume that to make sense of today’s China, we need to understand the clashes between China and the West (and later China and Japan) of what in the PRC is called China’s “century of humiliation,” lasting from the 1840s through the 1940s.

These last two parallels are no doubt what led the Financial Times to turn to the same person, Chris Patten, to review each book. Now, Sir Chris and I may be almost as different from each other as Kissinger is from Bickers, but I was happy to discover that when it comes to these books, the former Hong Kong Governor and I seem to be (pardon the pun) on the same page. His review of On China is, like mine, one that takes issue with key parts of a book that, while earning some outright pans, has been treated with kid gloves in a surprising number of high profile venues. And if you place Patten’s review of Scramble for China beside his review of Kissinger’s book, you get the feeling that he, again like me, would say that if you only have time to read one big Penguin book on China this summer, make it be the one by Bickers, which he calls a “fair and fascinating” study of major issues in modern Chinese history.*

In a sense, it is unfair to compare the two books, given how different they are in terms of style and approach, and the crucial fact that Bickers ends his account in 1914 (with some attention to legacies of the past in recent times), while the real heart of On China (and its best parts) deal with the era when Kissinger was a player on the diplomatic scene. What does seem appropriate, though, is to ask which author proves a more illuminating and trustworthy guide in helping readers think about specific issues that concern both Kissinger and Bickers. How on target are the books, for example, in explaining why Chinese relations with the West took such a rocky and tortured course from the late 1700s through the early-to-mid 1900s? And how effectively do they draw attention to the similarities as well as differences between Chinese and Western ways of thinking about history and diplomacy? On these fronts, I see On China as deeply flawed (for reasons I hinted at in my Time review), while it is precisely in these areas that Scramble for China shines.

One way to sum up a key contrast between the two books involves the notion of “normalizing” Chinese actions, which Bickers does very effectively but is something in which Kissinger shows no interest. For those primarily interested in U.S.-China relations, the term “normalizing” brings to mind the steps taken during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations that led to the “normalization” of ties between Beijing and Washington—moves for which Kissinger deserves (and in On China claims) a good deal of credit. In academic China studies circles, though, the phrase also conjures up efforts by various scholars to get away from assuming that everything about the world’s most populous country is inscrutable, understandable to outsiders only if they have been initiated by experts into the strange workings of an exotic culture that share few common referent points with the West. To speak of “normalizing” China is to call for an approach that, while acknowledging the distinctive aspects of Chinese culture and history, also makes room for seeing the country as capable of conforming to general patterns.

A now classic illustration of a “normalizing” move comes in Paul Cohen’s seminal study of the Boxers, History in Three Keys . Without downplaying the many things that made the Boxers extraordinary, Cohen argues against seeing their calling on spirit soldiers to help drive Christianity from their land as a completely “exotic” phenomenon. He reminds his readers that not only have there been many settings in which the coming of the West inspired similar responses from colonized or partially colonized populations, but, even more strikingly, he notes that missionaries attacked by the Boxers often called on supernatural powers to come to their aid. The Scramble for China provides an equally compelling illustration of the pay-off of “normalizing” moves. This comes in Bickers’ discussion of tropes of “humiliation”: he insists that a sense of wanting to make up for having been “humiliated” in the past has not just shaped contemporary Chinese foreign policy moves but also British moves against the Qing in the mid-1800s.

Kissinger makes it clear that he will have none of this, and the fact that he titles his very first chapter “The Singularity of China” is telling. Throughout On China, he takes pains to stress that both what we should admire and fear about “the Chinese” (often presented in monolithic terms: no room in his account for divisions between elite and popular culture, regional differences, etc.) are the things that make them radically “other,” unlike us. There is no reason to doubt that this approach reflects Kissinger’s view of China, as it has been shaped by his visits to the country and his wide reading on its history (though when it comes to pre-20th century events, Kissinger relies heavily on works published decades ago: you will look in vain for nods to works like Cohen’s and other landmark monographs of recent vintage). It is worth noting, though, that presenting China as exotic makes his diplomatic achievements of the 1970s seem especially notable. And it is also true that a vision of Chinese culture as very difficult for outsiders to understand works to the benefit of groups such as Kissinger Associates, Inc. (an organization whose activities relating to the PRC, as Elizabeth Economy notes in her insightful review of On China, is not mentioned in the book, but should have been) by making their particular kind of specialized knowledge seem indispensable.

I’ll end by using just one example of a phenomenon that Kissinger often uses to play up the exotic nature of China, but which could just as easily have been put to normalizing use. This has to do with historical allusions. Kissinger often claims there is something “ironic” and distinctively Chinese about the way that Mao Zedong and his lieutenants presented themselves as opposed to Chinese tradition, yet were fond of describing their plans of action in terms of parallels to events from the distant past to defend strategic choices. Part of the “Singularity of China,” according to Kissinger, is the country’s distinctive relationship to history, which results in an enduring, unchanging, and unique strategic mindset unaltered even by professed iconoclastic tendencies. There are, however, two big problems with this. First, Mao, while presenting himself as an unsparing critic of one strand of Chinese tradition–the imperial variant of Confucianism–often claimed to be deeply attached to various other strands, especially those represented by rebels of the past. And even when they invoked periods, people, and texts that were ideologically out of favor at a given moment, Mao and his comrades in arms were not doing something particularly exotic. No more so than Western atheists who say that a Biblical tale, like that of Solomon, illustrates a valid point, or American generals living in a country supposedly much less interested in the distant past than China feeling confident that when they refer to a strategy as being like “Caesar crossing the Rubicon,” everyone in the room will know what they have in mind.

* The view that Scramble for China is more essential and illuminating reading than On China is not shared by book buyers: it’s impossible to compare statistics for the U.S., as Bickers’ book isn’t out here yet, but in the U.K., Kissinger ranks #1 (for the hardback edition) and #4 (for the Kindle one) among Chinese history books at Amazon’s site, while Bickers comes in at a, still very respectable, #9. As for likely U.S. sales, it’s hard to imagine, alas, that we’ll soon be seeing stacks of Scramble for China at Costco comparable to those of On China I noticed at my local branch (perhaps tempting some people looking for Father’s Day gifts) last weekend.

By Tami Blumenfield

The first winter I stayed with a Moso (sometimes spelled Mosuo) family in southwest China, my weeks of Naru language tutoring did not help me get very far in understanding their conversations. I had trouble sorting out the names and relationships of the ten to eighteen family members who ate meals together and lived in that household. The apu (grandfather) joked to me that I, an American citizen who had been living in China, was now in the foreign country’s foreign country; no wonder I was disoriented. Their corner of Yunnan was culturally and linguistically distinct from other parts of the country, which was also foreign to me. While this presented some challenges, it also offered the attraction to learn about a new and different place. I have never heard the Chinese tourists who seek adventure within the bounds of their own nation’s borders describe these areas as foreign countries, but the orientations and conversations they relate are intriguing all the same. Through touring, they are developing and deepening a kind of state-approved narrative. This is most evident when travel agencies guide them and literally narrate their experiences.

Moso guides rowing tourists on Lugu Lake.

This narration takes on new importance when groups go beyond the borders of the Chinese state, venturing to unfamiliar territories like Europe. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos recently wrote about his experiences traveling with a Chinese tour group to Europe during the 2011 Spring Festival holiday period. The members of his group spent lavishly on gifts but ate nothing but Chinese meals the entire ten days they traveled through Europe. Beyond the expected descriptions of fast-paced touring and minimal time per city and per attraction, the interesting part of his story was the way that the tour leader, Guide Li, narrated China’s role in the world, and the way the other travelers accepted and developed this narrative. To summarize it briefly, this involved frequent criticisms of the ‘European’ lifestyle for its slow pace and propensity to protect workers’ rights. (Among the horrors Guide Li cites are having to endure a five-hour meal in Spain, and getting stuck for four hours in traffic because striking police failed to control the vehicles.) The tortuous process of battling local opposition to construct highways and the lackluster European work ethic are lauded by Guide Li as proof that hard-working Chinese, never mind farmers’ struggles to retain their land or workers’ needs for better rights protection, will soon surpass Europeans and regain their rightful place in the world order.

Osnos also pointed out the slightly hopeful, if fleeting, moments of group members questioning official narratives: perusal of a Wall Street Journal and discussions of the learning that resulted; attempted deviation from the tour itinerary to linger a few more minutes in Florence at the end of the trip; and a futile effort by group members to eat, just once, somewhere other than a Chinese restaurant. It’s not clear whether these moments actually indicate the nascent shoots of change that Osnos and many other Euro-American observers of China seem to hope for in Chinese citizens set free of the constraints of the Chinese regulatory regime—after all, Chinese students in left-leaning Seattle have demonstrated in favor of state policies even without direct inducements, showing that it’s not merely a lack of information through state censorship that influences or determines behavior—but these moments were posited as the potential openings that could act as a wedge toward broader transformation.

Reading this account of a Chinese tour group—fast paced, with narratives controlled carefully by the guides, and with a strongly educational content approved, no doubt, by official sources—reminded me of the groups I have seen in southwest China’s Yunnan Province. For several years I lived, studied and worked in the Lijiang and Lugu Lake areas, where flag- and bullhorn-toting guides leading upwards of 30 tourists from other parts of China were a frequent sight. Often, these people had not known each other before the tour began: many small groups (usually 2 or 3 people) who had purchased tours separately were quickly brought together and formed into visually cohesive units through the provisioning of matching gear, most often brightly colored hats and visors. In other cases, entire work units ventured out en masse, leaving families and partners behind at home and engaging in the sort of enforced leisure that I often heard described as requiring exhausting effort.

A tour guide wearing a stylized version of another ethnic group's vest waits for her group to return from their boat ride, rowed by an older Luoshui woman (not a tour guide).

Tour guides joked to me that they called themselves gaoji baomu, or high-level babysitters, as they shepherded people from one site to another and took care of their basic needs for food, drink, entertainment and rest just as one might do for a small child. This notion of requiring the care of a guide is often disdained by more independent travelers, but others appreciated the security of touring with others. For example, two twenty-something unmarried women whose tour group stayed in the same guesthouse as I in Luoshui, a village of around 700 people that receives half a million tourist visits per year, explained one evening as we sat at the hearth that their families would not have permitted them to travel independently, but they worried less with them safely ensconced in the protective cocoon of the tour group. (I suspect that their families would have been even more reassured to learn that they were in the hands of high-level babysitters.)

Osnos explained in an online chat forum, “Travel, in a sense, is now part of the basket of middle-class goods that the government tries to make available to people as a way of maintaining satisfaction and stability.” Part of this provisioning involves a continual effort to lower costs and make travel more affordable. Thus the travel agencies that sent out tour groups constantly sought bargains and pushed down prices through relentless competition. The PBS Frontline program Is Wal-Mart Good for America? describes the reverse auctions used by the retail behemoth to pit suppliers against each other in order to obtain the lowest possible price. Similarly, agencies heading to Luoshui pit family-run hotels and guesthouses against each other in an effort to obtain the lowest possible room rates. For Moso people, who value hospitality to the extent that visitors were sometimes barred from leaving until they stayed longer or accepted additional parting gifts, adjusting to this more competitive environment has not been easy. At times the travel agencies have demanded room rates so low—15 yuan (about two dollars) for a standard room—that family guesthouse operators would hardly even earn enough to cover the electricity bills.

Aba Luzo, a village leader who keeps track of boat rowing income and coordinates rowers so that each household representative receives a turn.

Where tourism remained profitable for Luoshui families, though, was in an area that the travel agencies could not control, because the village had collectivized several activities and standardized their prices: leading tourists on horseback rides, rowing them on boat rides, and dancing for them (and with them) at the nightly bonfire parties. Income from these activities was divided collectively among every household that sent a representative to the designated team, which many of them did. Thus even without the lodging income, families could still earn healthy proceeds from the tour groups that poured into their village like clockwork.

Much like Europe’s Tour Guide Li, the guides I observed saw themselves as positioning the narrative. They studied texts and memorized scripts to pass the exam certifying them as tour guides. Standing at the front of the bus with a microphone or walking through fields with a bullhorn, they emphasized certain features that they knew would engage their captive audiences. In Chen Weijun’s 2005 documentary Observing Mosuo, the camera documents the journey through the tour group’s perspective. In this complex society that has inspired intense debate among researchers from several academic disciplines, everything from marital customs to household architecture receives a firm and indisputable explanation from the mouth of the tour guide. Intriguingly, what tourists hear is not exactly the official version. The Moso are a group whose bid for national-level minority-nationality status was rejected, leaving only a provincial-level compromise designation as a ‘ren,’ not a ‘minzu’ (that is, a ‘people,’ not a ‘nationality’). Nonetheless, in the parlance of many visitors, if not necessarily their guides, they have become a de facto ‘minzu’: Moso-zu. No one bothers to correct this slippage.

Will this different, if unofficial, status and the economic benefits that tourism brings suffice to overpower official state narratives? Perhaps. Regardless of the outcome, however, the droves of tourists and their guides play an important role in reconfiguring the landscape that deserves the attention of even the most cynical observer. Beyond those bullhorns lie layers of narratives to decipher.

Tami Blumenfield is Visiting Assistant Professor of Asian Studies and International Studies at Portland State University.

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