September 2011

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By Lua Wilkinson

“I had to leave our son back in the village when he was two months old,” the 20-something sitting across from me explained on the hard-seat train heading from Shanghai to Xi’an. “I had to get back to work. This will be the first time I’ve seen him in five months”.

The young woman had met her husband when working at a restaurant in Shanghai in her late teens and decided to get married soon thereafter. Their marriage has been problematic; both live more or less equal distances from their hometowns, one to the north, one to the south. Because of their low-paying jobs and status, taking care of a child in the city where both of them live and work was out of the question.

Grandmother and grandchild in Yunnan Province. Photo by Lua Wilkinson.

Encountering women who have moved from the village to the city without their children is an everyday occurrence in China. During my last year here, I have interviewed dozens of women about their migration experiences. A registered dietitian and medical anthropologist, I came to Shanghai on a US Fulbright fellowship, where I planned to study infant feeding practices among China’s internal migrants. I have always been intrigued by the cultural contexts of health and nutrition, but realized migrants’ experiences extend far beyond “cultural contexts”.

Due to policies promoting urbanization, internal migration has skyrocketed in the last thirty years in China. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, there were 131 million rural to urban migrants at the end of 2008, representing just over ten percent of China’s total population. Of course, as anyone living in China knows, this number is incredibly fluid and difficult to actually assess, but it is estimated that women of childbearing years represent more than one-third of these workers. Because of China’s household registration system and healthcare policies, a pregnant migrant woman often must return to her natal township to deliver her child, but may need to return to work in the city immediately post-partum. Children are often left behind in their natal villages with grandparents as caregivers when the mother migrates.

Estimates put the number of these children, known as liu shou er tong, or “left behind children”, at 23 million. Working to understand the causes and implications of this startling trend has caused nothing short of headache in Beijing. China has experienced some of the fastest economic and social changes since the history of capitalism, and this new mass migration – and what to do about it – provides one of the most evocative case studies in China today.

Labor migration is a worldwide phenomenon and often a sexy subject for grad students coming to China. When I started thinking about this project, I had some exotic far-away idea of what a “migrant” exactly was in China. I dare admit to everyone that in my media-filled American mind, a “migrant” worker in China was a farmer-moved-to-city, working hard in a sweat-filled factory, peddling goods on street corners, doing whatever he or she could to scrape by in the big bad city. I had this romantic notion of them struggling through hardships on waves of dreams, always looking for a better life at the other end of the factory, the urban street corner, or the massage parlor.

In actuality, “migrant” is difficult to define. I have met numerous “migrant” Chinese women who have college educations, have lived abroad, and send their kids to private schools in Canada, all while their household registrations are still considered “rural”. Because of this lack of definition, blanket policies are difficult to implement. I quickly realized that my own romanticized idea of sweatshop migrant, while a reality in many areas, did not represent the only group of people moving around China looking for work at any given time.

“My children are the same ages as the ones I take care of here,” explained the nanny of a well-to-do foreign family living in Shanghai. “There’s nothing really for me to do back in the village though. I’d love to be home raising my kids, instead of someone else’s, but what choice do I have? I never went to college. But I have to make money so they can have opportunity. Thinking about my kids though makes my heart sting.”

Women are often forgotten in the shaping of migration policies, and therefore many of the services necessary for women or families are not included in policy guidelines or program assistance. Policies and laws that protect migrants, for example, rarely mention women outside the context of sexual trafficking. While trafficking of women is a global crisis that deserves special attention, not all women who migrate are trafficked. Most migrant women in China move to find educational opportunities, jobs, and access to resources that aren’t available to them in rural areas. But there is little to facilitate their specific needs of childcare, infant feeding support, educational training or healthcare.

“We came to the city after our son was four months old,” a woman giving me a manicure explained to me while caring for my nails. “We were thinking maybe we could bring him here after we both had jobs and some savings. But after a year, my husband left me and now I’m just scraping by.” Now six years old, her son has been living away from home as well, boarding at school during the week. “But what can I do? There’s no life for me back there. There’s no life for me here either, but at least it’s interesting.” She looked at me happily and said, “But my life is still okay, being single. I don’t have to put up with anyone I don’t want to! I miss my son so much, but how am I supposed to take care of him here? My house doesn’t even have plumbing!”

Schools came up in almost every conversation I have had with these women. Migration, family planning policies, and urbanization are putting a strain on the education system. Local schools are closing due to low attendance, and are being centralized into boarding schools. This causes more pressure on families to work to provide for school expenses.

“I have one son, who is 21,” one of the caretakers of my apartment building explained to me, mop in hand. “And a daughter who is 11. My son works in town outside of the village fixing bikes. But my daughter…well, my husband and I had to make a decision early on: do we send her to school or not? Schools cost money nowadays, we have to pay for room and board. So we decided that we had to come work in Shanghai and send her to school.”

This phenomenon has absolutely affected children. Studies show children of rural-to-urban migrants experience feelings of abandonment, anxiety and lonliness, But another perhaps less obvious problem is childhood malnutrition. In recent years, China’s Ministry of Education has implemented a rural primary school Merger Program (PDF), merging small rural schools into large centralized ones. The hope was that by concentrating resources, schools would be better fit to serve the needs of these children. Unfortunately, s tudents at boarding schools are actually more likely to have chronic signs of malnutrition, including micronutrient deficiencies. The reasons behind this are numerous (PDF), but include poor storage facilities for food brought from home, poor provisions of food by the school, and lack of nutritional knowledge of staff. Iron deficiency anemia is high as 60% in some counties, adversely affecting students’ ability to learn. Chronic malnutrition, in the form of growth-stunting rates, is much higher in rural areas and among students who board.

Grandparent and grandchild in Yunnan Province. Photo by Lua Wilkinson.

It is clear that when a mother moves away from her child, multiple other people must step in to make decisions for that child, all the way from infancy to adolescence. What do grandparents feed infants when the mother is unavailable to breastfeed, if they cannot afford infant formula (i.e. soymilk or rice)? What are the roles of the media, infant food companies, pediatricians and health care workers in shaping families’ perceptions and practices about what a child should be consuming? How do households make these decisions, and what is the influence of the mother as a wage earner versus the grandparents as caregivers? Among the many mothers I’ve spoken with, their answers are pretty straightforward. “I don’t have any choice in how my son is being raised. I wanted to breastfeed, I know it’s the best. Mei banfa [There’s nothing I can do], I have to work.” said the woman on the train. “I hate that my son is being raised on milk powder, full of chemicals. But I have no choice. Mei banfa.”

In Yunnan, at a women and children’s clinic, I spoke with the chief pediatrician on our walk home from clinic one day. I asked her what she thought the effects on the health of infants were of these liu shou er tong. ”Huge impact, definite influence,” she said, her slightly raspy Yunnan southern drawl rich with angst. “Right now, the main causes of infant mortality are pneumonia and diarrhea, both related to malnutrition. Sometimes the grandparents have no idea what to feed their kids, and they might not recognize something is wrong until the baby is very, very sick. They then have to come into the hospital.” I asked what the answer was, how can we start an education campaign, what kinds of things can we do?

She sighed. “It’s not education. It’s the breakdown of the family. There is no family anymore here. That is the problem.”

Lua Wilkinson recently finished her graduate degree in medical anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver and is currently in China as part of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. A registered dietitian, she has worked in clinical nutrition settings, public health and policy development, and health education projects. Her current research interests include nutrition and the role of social inequities, infant feeding among migrant women, and the worldwide impacts and causes of malnutrition.

By Nicole Elizabeth Barnes

Gail Hershatter’s new book, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, is the outcome of a decade spent conducting oral history interviews of 72 women—and a few surviving men—in rural Shaanxi province. The interviews focus on farming women’s experiences of political campaigns in the 1950s, ranging from land reform to the 1950 Marriage Law to agricultural collectives. The book adds individual women’s voices—often quoted at length—to the narrative of 1950s rural reform, illustrating the taffy pull between empowerment and continued discrimination that women experienced throughout the decade. The Gender of Memory is incredibly thorough, emotionally powerful, beautifully written, theoretically innovative, and personally searching; it will have an earth-shattering effect on the study of Chinese history, calling scholars to new fields of inquiry for decades to come. In order to find out more about the making of this landmark book, I talked with Gail Hershatter and conducted the following interview:

NEB: This book is the product of collaborative research conducted with Gao Xiaoxian, Shaanxi native, research office director of the Shaanxi Provincial Women’s Federation, and secretary-general of the Shaanxi Research Association for Women and Family. Can you tell us more about how you first met Gao and how the two of you decided to collaborate?

GH: Gao Xiaoxian was invited to an early conference on “Engendering China” that I helped to organize in 1992, but because of a blip in U.S.-China tensions, she and others who were then working for the Women’s Federation were not able to attend, although she sent a paper about rural women in the first decade of post-Mao reform. I met her later that year at a conference in Beijing. We quickly discovered a common interest in the years of early socialism in rural China. For me, as I say in the book, this interest was partly a response to the lack of good teaching materials about the collective era. In between Fanshen’s mesmerizing account of land reform and the reportage of the 1980s, surely many complex things had happened in the countryside, but it was difficult to get beyond policy pronouncements and cheerful posters to a more complex picture. (In the past 20 years, the scholarly picture has improved somewhat with respect to rural China.) Women far from centers of power were even less well represented in the historical record than rural men. For Gao Xiaoxian, who was deeply involved in trying to assess and improve the status of women under the reforms, it was important to understand how three decades of collective arrangements had changed people’s aspirations and capacities. While almost everyone else I met in China was talking about rupture between the Mao era and the reforms, she was curious about continuities as well. We couldn’t stop talking, and we hatched a project to go interview rural women in Gao’s native Shaanxi. Once we got started, it was difficult to stop. We were both reluctant to bring our interviewing trips to an end.

NEB: You describe Gao’s usefulness as a partner in the section “Listener” in Chapter 1, which details the importance of having local contacts, the ability to speak the Shaanxi dialect, and a local identity to get access to villages and introductions to the women interviewees. What skills did you bring to the table for this partnership?

GH: Often, believe me, I asked myself what I was contributing to this project beyond a lot of complications for Gao Xiaoxian. It was easy for her to move around the countryside alone; with a foreigner in tow, permissions and logistics got much more complicated. Once we were installed, however, no one monitored or interfered with our interviewing. Gao Xiaoxian generously says that she always learned something from how I interpreted the stories women told us. Perhaps I brought some experience with oral history interviewing and analysis. Mainly, however, I think I brought the curiosity and omnivorous interest of an outsider. If something in an interview or a village situation confused me, I usually attributed it to my ignorance. If something confused both of us, however, there were usually interesting conversations to be had about it.

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Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry, eds., Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011. xiii, 336 pp. $24.95 (paper).

By Chen Xi

On the book cover of Mao’s Invisible Hand, edited by Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry, there is a photo of Mao’s colossal statue, which was seen everywhere in urban China before the reform era. Most such statues have been demolished since the 1980s. Was Mao’s style of politics swept into the historical dustbin with them? The book shows that such legacies are surprisingly resilient. Even some past practices consciously rejected by the reform-era leadership, such as mass campaigns, continue to shape policy making and implementation today.

For the Chinese who have struggled for modernization for more than a century, history was often regarded as a burden. This book, however, indicates that, for reform China at least, historical legacies are not a liability but an asset. In their introduction, Heilmann and Perry contend that without revolutionary legacies, China’s stunning economic growth and impressive political stability over the past three decades would not have been possible. The reforms have particularly benefited from so-called guerrilla-style policy making. Developed during guerrilla wars and revolutionary mobilization, this policy style features ceaseless change and ad hoc adjustment and proved especially useful for coping with uncertainties and surprises in the reforms.

Heilmann’s study of experimentation provides an illuminating example. Since the times of Communist regional bases, the CCP has developed a tactic of “proceeding from point to surface,” which gives room for local officials to develop models on their own while retaining final say for the center. This work style contributed to a variety of innovative policies in the reform era. The CCP’s adaptiveness and learning capacity are confirmed by Shaoguang Wang’s study of rural medical financing. According to Wang, the CCP learned not just from experiments, which he believes were quite limited in pre-reform eras, but also extensively from local practices.

Of course, while revolutionary legacies have contributed to the success of the reforms, they have also created problems. Joseph Fewsmith focuses on the flip side of the legacies. As he argues, the CCP inherited from the revolutionary era not just policy flexibility and adaptability but also personalized power structures, especially at the local levels, which lead to the widespread abuse of power and constitute a formidable barrier to effective governance.

While the revolutionary legacies continue to shape today’s politics, they have been substantially adapted. After all, the CCP has experienced generational changes, with revolutionary leaders replaced by technocrats. In addition, the CCP is faced with quite different tasks today from those in the revolutionary era—namely, the challenges posed by governing a market economy and maintaining political stability in a diverse and mobile society. Several studies in this volume explore how the methods and mind-sets of the revolutionary era have been adapted to a dramatically new setting. Perry’s chapter on the New Socialist Countryside campaign suggests that although the campaign tradition, which is the hallmark of Maoist politics, continues to be useful in many policy areas in the reform era, it has in fact been converted into “managed campaigns.” Unlike mass campaigns, managed campaigns combine the Leninist tradition with technocratic technique and usually target grassroots bureaucrats instead of the masses. Similarly, Nara Dillon argues that the CCP’s approaches toward the voluntary sectors (such as NGOs) maintain important aspects of Mao’s campaign tradition but also have increasingly relied on legalistic methods.

Adaptations are not limited to the campaign tradition. As Patricia Thornton argues, the CCP also changed its method of social investigation from an examination of “typical cases” to random survey methods. This change reflects a new relationship between the Party and the population: the mobilized masses as potential activists have been replaced with a depoliticized, passive audience. Similarly, Yuezhi Zhao’s study of the Party’s control of the media, while highlighting continuity with the old methods, shows how those controls have also been “selectively abandoned by the CCP and subverted by liberal ideological forces in the market-driven media system” (p. 229).

How do the Maoist ad hoc approaches reconcile with a market economy that values predictability? Despite the CCP’s efforts at adaptation, we might expect severe conflicts and profound tensions. In fact, the tensions between Maoist political style and market reform are among the most interesting issues addressed in this book. While many chapters touch upon this topic, it is most explicitly explored by Benjamin Liebman’s study of legal reforms. Since the late 1970s the Party has enthusiastically pursued modern forms of legality, but from revolutionary history it also inherited the embrace of populism by legal institutions. Consequently, the Chinese legal system is characterized by tensions between trends toward professionalism and toward populism (p. 170). He notes a worrisome tendency of the past decade: legal institutions have been more frequently instructed to yield to popular pressure from the media and the xinfang system.

Such an apparently short-term setback of legal reforms actually reflects the long-term difficulty in modernizing Chinese society. Heilmann and Perry rightly point out that, to a certain degree, Maoist policy style actually has its roots in the long line of traditional thought in China, “which stressed fluid, dialectical, and tactical approaches to managing ubiquitous tensions and contradictions” (p. 15). Other studies in this book, such as Fewsmith’s examination of personalized power structures and Jae Ho Chung’s study of central-local relations, confirm that many aspects of Maoist methods and mind-sets reach back far beyond the revolutionary era and into the imperial eras.

Under the shadow of such a long tradition, the Western model of modernization, which features bureaucratic and legalistic approaches, has seldom been wholeheartedly embraced in China. When today’s leaders, like Mao several decades ago, become unhappy with the constraints imposed by legal reforms and other institutional developments, they are tempted to scrap them in the name of rejecting “blind copying of the West” and, instead, pay tribute to historical tradition.

While Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century often deplored the stubbornness of Chinese tradition and the difficulty in modernizing Chinese society, the fluidity and flexibility of that tradition have served the country surprisingly well in the reform era. Mao’s Invisible Hand was produced at a time when more than three decades of prosperity and stability do not appear in danger of ending, and its overall tone is optimistic and approving about Maoist approaches, even though some authors have expressed some doubt about the long-term impact of these approaches. No matter what people, including Chinese leaders, think of the historical legacies, they will continue to shape the special path that China will take.

This is one of the most insightful and thought-provoking books published in recent years on the critical questions about China’s developmental path and the role of history. It provides few definite answers to those questions, and the contributors evidently disagree with each other in some important aspects. However, this volume, skillfully edited by Heilmann and Perry, presents lively debates in which we are all invited to join.

Chen Xi is Assistant Professor in Department of Political Science at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently working on Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press).

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

If China suddenly democratized, would it cease being labeled as a threat? In his forthcoming book, Who’s Afraid of China? The Challenge of Chinese Soft Power (Zed Books), Michael Barr argues that fears of China often say as much about those who hold them as they do about the rising power itself. Using examples from film, education, media, politics, and art, Barr proposes that much of the reaction to Chinese soft power fails to spot the meaningful connections between the country’s domestic politics and its attempts to brand itself internationally. Here, in an excerpt from the Introduction, Barr outlines the self referential nature of fear and how it relates to Sino-Western relations.

On the Fear of China

The idea for this book came from a BBC Radio 4 interview. In it, the commentator asked his guest, an executive from the China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), whether or not ‘we’ should be ‘worried’ that China was investing so heavily in oil and gas fields in Russia and Latin America. Of course the Sinopec representative gave the expected reply: there was no reason to worry. China was on the path of peaceful development and needed the energy resources to fuel its growing economy, which benefited the entire world. The interviewer accepted the response and moved on. But what struck me about the exchange was why the interviewer felt the need to ask this question in the first place.

No doubt part of the reasoning behind the question was a general concern over a finite supply of natural resources. Would a hungry rising China leave ‘us’ cold and ‘our’ cars running on fumes? But it seemed to me that this was only part of the picture. Other countries are also rushing into the energy market, albeit with much less impact than China. Would he have asked this question if Poland or India were buying energy supplies and raw materials at the same rate? Could the fear of China be tied to its sheer size? 1.4 billion people means that nearly one out of every five people on the planet are Chinese. Yet India’s population is estimated to overtake China’s by 2030. And clearly, for all the talk of India’s emergence, there is not the same level of worry as there is around China.

The interviewer was not just expressing a personal concern: the same question was, and is, being asked across dozens of other countries. Should ‘we’ be worried about China? Did the concern stem from the fact that many Chinese oil companies, whilst increasingly publicly traded, are still largely state controlled? If so, was there a subtle subconscious desire for ‘us’ not to want to see a non-democratic regime succeed? Was there a sense in some of the discourse about the rise of China that somehow the country was morally inferior to other, democratic states – meaning, of course, the states that ‘we’ live in and come from? And if so, then what does that say about the role China plays in ‘our’ imagination?

The interviewer’s question as to whether or not we should be worried about China begs another key question: who are ‘we’? Who’s afraid of China? The only plausible answer, in my view, is that it depends on the issue. Being afraid or not of China is not an either/or proposition. It is both/and. In some cases, the same person, family, community or country stands to win and lose at the same time, depending on what criterion is used. Foreign companies’ ability to source products from China leads to cheaper goods. Chinese technological innovation leads to new ideas and options – lightweight supercomputers or clean-energy technologies. Chinese students studying abroad contribute to local economies, and so on. At the same time, these trends can have negative consequences for the very same people they benefit. Cheaper products are produced in places where the enforcement of safety regulations often lags behind, creating toys with lead paint or toothpaste with diethylene glycol, a chemical used in engine coolant. As universities accept more Chinese, who often pay higher fees as international students, fewer places are available for others, making entrance more competitive.

China is changing the world in significant ways, but it would be a mistake to assume that China’s rise is simply that of a self-contained economy. Rather, one reason for China’s success has been its embrace of de-verticalized and multinational networked production. This means that it has embraced the trend to separate functions and services from a single integrated model to a variety of foreign partners who are able to produce more efficiently. So when the Chinese government builds a high-speed rail network or nuclear power station it not only increases the number of contracts for their state-owned companies; it also increases the business for Siemens or Westinghouse or any number of other international firms. These new modes of production also make it easier and cheaper for innovators in developed economies to translate their ideas into products since they avoid working through huge vertically integrated companies.

But it is not only economic goods that are co-produced. The way China is represented is always conditioned by the way the West is representing itself, and the two representations subsequently reinforce each other. In exploring the BBC interviewer’s question further, I began to see that fears of a rising China could not simply be tied to the traditional ‘hard power’ issues of economic growth, natural resource access and military might. To be sure, these are important. Yet, underlying them is a deeper set of questions concerning identity. Having a job or having a sense of security are not ends in themselves. Rather, they provide the means to an end, what many would call a ‘good life’. In other words, the rise of China isn’t only an economic event; it’s a cultural one which impacts ‘our’ very identity. Thus, focusing on the traditional structures of international relations misses the way that culture shapes how people think, behave and perceive others.

I do not mean to suggest that fears of China are not real for some. But too often such fears are expressed and analysed without exploring what lies beneath them. There are good reasons for this: it is often easier to recognize nationalism in others than in oneself. But fear is in some sense subjective – it is an emotional response to a perceived threat, whether that threat is real or not. So reaction to China is not necessarily dependent on events in China. In this way, fears of China can often say as much about those who hold the emotion as they do about China itself. ‘Tell me what you are afraid of and I will tell you who you are’, writes the philosopher Dominique Moisi, who has done as much as anyone to illustrate the role emotion plays in international politics.

Yet it is also the case that perception is conditioned by the context in which people find themselves. For something to be frightening, the situation in which it is encountered must have a corresponding emotional potential. Such is the case with the fear of China – for its rise comes at a time when the West is deeply mired in philosophical and political questioning over the strength of its own institutions and long-held beliefs about the universality of its values and systems of government. Progress, after all, is less a quality of history than a self-confidence of the present. And as China rises, it is seemingly – unlike the Middle East, the other great Other – full of hope and confidence for its future.

But fear is not merely about the object in question; it is also fundamentally about the self who is in fear. Emotions can reveal much about oneself, since often what disturbs us is not things in themselves but our opinions about them. However, self-reflection is hardest during moments of fear. Heidegger reminds us of this when he writes that ‘he who fears and is afraid is captive to the mood in which he finds himself. Striving to rescue himself from this particular thing, he becomes unsure of everything else and completely “loses his head”.’ Fear reflects this moment of fragility in a person, a culture or even an entire country. It involves something that is impending; thus it expresses uncertainty and legitimizes (sometimes unsubstantiated) speculation.

In this context, fear actually helps to re-establish a sense of community and group identification in the face of the external threat. For political fear does not develop in a vacuum. It is framed and maintained. Politicians will say again and again that a state’s foremost duty is the protection of its people. Thus a government must make it clear when it is combating something that is causing fear – a flood, a disease or an oil spill. But in so doing, this can cause the fear to escalate, since the state legitimizes its acts by referring to the danger that creates the fear in the first place. In order to boost its legitimacy, the dangers are sometimes exaggerated. As we shall see, this is sometimes the case with China.

Of course China is not feared by everyone. Nor, when it is feared, are the reasons always the same. Reaction to China’s rise differs in Southeast Asia compared to India, and in India compared to Europe. But there tends to be a common connection between fear of China and a weakening of the democratic ideal. In fact, a culture of fear can even reduce the gap between democracy and authoritarianism, since in the name of fear governments push for measures which violate their own commitments to the rule of law and due process. One need only consider the West’s reaction to Islam, a fear deepened but not solely created by the 11 September attacks.

Historically, views of China have been as diverse as they are today. In the case of the West at least, they have also been shaped as much by circumstances ‘at home’ as they have been by those in China. Eighteenth-century Jesuit descriptions of China emphasized its good government, examination system and codification of laws. Less than a hundred years later, as Europe underwent the Industrial Revolution, China looked increasingly backward for its failure to modernize economically. Here, shifting views of China had more to do with changes in Europe itself than with changes in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). In the eighteenth century, for example, Voltaire and Leibniz used China’s supposed ‘philosopher-king’ model to attack corrupt French and Prussian monarchs. In the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, many intellectuals became Maoists while dreaming of a revolution at home. This trend continues, as we will see.

China similarly views the West through its own preoccupations, and in the process helps construct the very meaning of the term ‘Western’. Both official policy and popular culture in China view the West through a narrative of the ‘Century of Humiliation’ – that is, China’s defeat in the Opium Wars, its forced opening up to traders and loss of territory to European powers and, most humiliating of all, Japan. China specialist William Callahan perceptively calls China the ‘pessoptimist nation’, given how contradictory emotions are used in the formation of China’s changing national identity. Nationalism is continually produced and consumed in a circular process that knits together both urban and rural, rich and poor, mainland and overseas Chinese. In this way the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) boosts its own legitimacy through a form of anti-Western nationalism. But this policy both feeds into and grows out of the emotions of ordinary Chinese. Patriotic education and popular opinion are intertwined, just as the pride of a once great civilization and humiliation over its subjugation are interwoven. In this way, China’s domestic politics are inseparable from its foreign relations. They are bound together, linking national security with nationalist insecurities. Easy labels (China is authoritarian, the West is free) not only miss areas in which freedom exists in China or is under threat in the West, but more importantly they limit any ability to acknowledge the inherent fluidity of identity – both Chinese and Western.

Michael Barr is Lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University. He has published on issues pertaining to Chinese soft power, biosecurity, the history of medical ethics and dual-use bioethics.

Excerpt from Who’s Afraid of China? The Challenge of Chinese Soft Power, © Zed Books 2011. Reproduced with permission.

(*Front page headline in Chinese Business View (华商报), September 17, 2011; “下一站,幸福”)

By Jeremy Tai

On Friday, September 16, I joined thousands of other curious Xi’an residents for the opening day of Northwest China’s first subway line. After five years of construction and four days of trial runs, local headlines announced the official start to the “Age of the Metro” (地铁时代). The Metro is supposedly the latest chapter in the story of modernization efforts dating back to the 1930s, when Xi’an was first connected by rail to eastern China. At that time, the New York Times reported that “new life flowed through Sian, ancient seat of China’s northwestern empire, giving promise of restoring some measure of the glory that was hers in centuries long past” (NYT “Trains Amaze Populace,” December 29, 1934). This sentiment is not lost on present-day Xi’an, as the construction of the subway system has been undertaken alongside a 2005 plan to “revive the imperial capital” (皇城复兴计划), materialized in Tang Dynasty theme parks and attractions.

Bell Tower subway station in Xi'an

Running on a north-south axis, Line 2 of the Xi’an Metro is just one of six routes expected to be built by 2018 as the city works toward the goal of relieving traffic congestion, especially within the walled city center. Local news sources like Xi’an Evening News (西安晚报), Sanqin Daily (三秦都市报), and Chinese Business View (华商报) praised the values of speed, convenience, comfort, reliability, and going green, contrasting the experience of underground travel with surface transportation, namely, public buses, privately owned vehicles, and taxis. According to a Sanqin article, the subway will usher in a new credo for urban living: “Time is life, efficiency is money” (时间就是生命, 效率就是金钱). The cost of riding the subway (2-4 yuan based on distance traveled) remained unproblematized, presumably because its efficiency makes up for being twice as expensive as regular and express buses (flat rates of 1 and 2 yuan, respectively). Of course, cost was hardly an issue for opening day passengers, many of them elderly, who appeared more interested in capturing the Metro’s novelty with their cameras than commuting. A fellow spectator crowded next to me reckoned she might take the subway once a week from work, but the fare would certainly be too expensive for her to do so every day.

Local flavor: A mural celebrating Qinqiang opera on one subway station wall

The Metro presents an occasion for local officials and residents to imagine Xi’an joining tracks with a world system of metropolises. From the news coverage, it is clear that the “happiness” (幸福) reported in local reactions to the subway is measured in terms of “internationalizing” (国际化). While the sterile, fluorescent lighting, widely posted rules of conduct, and advertisements for real estate and 3G smart phones may be familiar to subway riders in any Chinese city, the space of the Xi’an Metro is given a distinctive flavor with motifs drawn from local culture, such as Qinqiang opera and shadow puppets. Videos played on repeat throughout the trains reassured audiences that local authorities took care in digging tunnels deep enough to avoid damaging potential cultural relics typically found closer to the surface. They also installed proper supports to protect existing historical sites like the Bell Tower. The impulse to accommodate reified images of both a local past and a universal future was even present on my first ticket.  The design depicts a Silk Road caravan traveling away from the Big Goose Pagoda to meet its modern counterpart, the Xi’an metro emerging from an unidentifiable background of skyscrapers and cloverleaf interchanges. Likewise, one billboard admonished passengers to “touch history and experience the future” (触摸历史, 感受未来).

Metro ticket

For a city that seeks to become one of China’s largest metropolitan regions over the next decade, the Metro is expected to open up the suburbs through what Wolfgang Schivelbusch described as the “annihilation of space and time” in his study of nineteenth-century railroad travel. Its effect on the perception of distance and travel time between points in the city is supposed to be particularly acute for urban white-collar workers (上班族) used to accounting for the unpredictability of public transportation. Yet the creation of value and desire along the outer edges of the city remains uncertain. Crowds quickly thinned out by the time we reached the end of the 20-kilometer route at Beikezhan (北客站) – otherwise known as Xi’an North – a massive terminal that seems more suited for flights than for the high-speed trains to Zhengzhou and Luoyang that replaced them. This monolith stands alone in a nearly barren landscape awaiting the momentum of real estate speculation. The impact of the subway on local sensibility cannot simply be calculated using the logic of planning and development. Instead, we will have to see how different classes of Xi’an residents come to inhabit and make sense of the Metro as it becomes part of everyday life.

Outside Beikezhan (Xi'an North Station)

Jeremy Tai is a PhD candidate in Chinese history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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