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By Adam Cathcart
The pigs were being slaughtered in the streets when the news of Kim Jong Il’s death arrived in Dachuan, a small logging village in the mountains of western Sichuan province. Over the immense and extended cacophony of the blood-letting, the retired head of the local bank explained, with a bit of apologetic joy, that the villagers were getting ready for Spring Festival, then turned back to the news from Pyongyang, shaking his head at the retrograde tendencies of China’s Korean socialist brothers.
It was a fitting juxtaposition, watching events in North Korea amid the production of reams of red pork with rich peasants in China. Meat, after all, was the sine qua non of success for Kim Il Sung and his son, both of whom proclaimed their magnanimous desire to make good on the promise of “rice with meat soup” in every pot (and a tile roof for every rural house). Yet, as even a cursory read of virtually any analysis or short trip to the North Korean border with China can attest, the battle for higher living standards—as opposed to monuments—in essentially every place outside of the DPRK’s model capital has been lost. Mao Zedong said he could do without meat, making revolution with just grain and rifles, but North Korea has ample rifles but no grain, and the revolution is dead.
Amid the welter of random, confusing, instructive, and occasionally cruel responses to Kim Jong Il’s death among Chinese, Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 has been a touchstone. This particular parallel, encouraged by Chinese state media, is significant because it implicitly holds out the hope that a market-oriented North Korean Deng Xiaoping might yet emerge out of the factions assumed to be maneuvering in Pyongyang. But North Korea is hardly exiting the “fractured rebellion” of a Cultural Revolution. The DPRK remains instead in the thrall of a persistently centralized leadership system in which Kim Il Sung and his son had purged, jailed, exiled, or killed all the advocates of possible systemic alternatives. In Andrei Lankov’s phrase, the “blade of state of state remains sharp enough to cut off its diseased parts,” and gazing at the grizzled ranks of the Pyongyang senior elite, it seems unlikely that some wholesale adoption of Chinese-style market reforms is in the offing.
The Reluctant Embrace of Kim Jong Un
On December 21, Wen Jiabao went to the North Korean embassy in Beijing, bowed to Kim Jong Il’s portrait, and said: “We believe that with the Korean Workers’ Party under the leadership of comrade Kim Jong Un, the North Korean people will certainly powerfully pass through their grief, pushing forward to new successes in socialist construction.” It was a turn of events which but a few years earlier would have been seen as unlikely. Since Kim Jong Il’s stroke in 2008, and the rumors of Kim Jong Un’s existence as a viable successor to his father in early 2009, the CCP has gone through a number of stances toward the idea, ending in the acceptance of the successor. In the aftermath of the North Korean nuclear test of May 2009, Beijing loosened its grip on journalism about the DPRK in the Chinese media, using the new latitude to serve the Party’s foreign policy purposes. Publications about the North Korean role in starting the Korean War were suddenly acceptable, and, more importantly, a number of unflattering portrayals of the “weird” Kim family began to emerge. Chinese public intellectuals like Zhu Feng and Shen Dingli speculated about rapid changes in North Korea and the CCP made clear its desire, at the very least, for North Korea to transition to a more collective leadership centered in the Korean Workers’ Party rather than in the enfeebled Kim Jong Il or his relatively unknown successor.
However, after Kim Jong Un’s formal unveiling at the September 2010 KWP Congress in Pyongyang, the discourse shifted decisively toward a more supportive line toward the “young general.” Likenesses between Chinese and North Korean political cultures were emphasized; in mass magazine portrayals, CCP scholars encouraged Kim Jong Un to “make his mark via some achievements in writing about communist theory.”
Even Kim Jong Un’s foreign experience was highlighted in Chinese media as beneficial. It seemed that in some important ways, Kim Jong Un could be used to send home the message to China’s unreceptive youth: It may be fine to spend a few years studying abroad and fall in love with Michael Jordan, but when you come home, it’s all about the Young Pioneers and Party building. More importantly, the junior Kim’s probable role in North Korean attacks on the South Korean vessel “Cheonan” in March 2010 and on Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 was downplayed in the PRC. South Korean stories which asserted that Kim Jong Un had assumed control over North Korea’s northern border security, like most narratives focused on refugees, did not enter the public discourse in China.
The CCP’s evident nervousness about stability in North Korea, and its protective stance toward the DPRK, means that no loud public doubts about Kim Jong Un’s inexperience are presently welcome. Suggestions that the successor is incapable of leading, when allowed at all, are placed in the mouths of foreign experts like the International Crisis Group’s Daniel Pinkston, and qualified with some implication that South Korean media reports could all be false anyway.
North Korea appears to have made only a minor rhetorical concession to Chinese pressure by referring to the idea of “uniting around the Korean Workers’ Party and Comrade Kim Jong Un,” a phrase codified in the DPRK’s official response to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s initial statement of regret at Kim Jong Il’s death.
Economic and Cultural Exchanges
The legacy of Kim Jong Il’s rapid—one might almost say rushed—advancement of cooperation with China in 2010 and 2011 hangs in the balance, and the CCP will be eager for cross-border trade and tourism to resume. A rather explicit December 20 editorial in the Huanqiu Shibao, entitled “China is the Reliable Friend Upon Which North Korea Can Rely during Transition,” stated: “We suggest that as soon as it is appropriate, Chinese high-level leaders go to North Korea, where they will intimately communicate with North Korea’s new leaders at this special time that Pyongyang can send a distinct signal to the world [by taking the Chinese path].”
In the weeks prior to Kim Jong Il’s death, China had been pressing for more clarification and motion on the two new island trade zones in the Yalu River near Sinuiju. While the Chinese side has been investing an immense amount of money in construction of what is essentially a new city outside of Dandong and a large new super-highway worthy bridge to the DPRK, the North Pyong’an leadership has been everything that privately infuriates Chinese partners: uncommunicative, inaccessible, and (according to the Daily NK) suddenly purged.
Far more promising is the development at Rason, on the far northeastern edge of the Korean peninsula, where China has brought in an old Korea hand named Tian Baozhu, a Kim Il Sung University graduate and former Consul-General in Pusan, to set conditions for further Chinese investment in this highly-desired port which finally offers eastern Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces access to the sea and cheaper means of shipping coal to ports like Shanghai. Rason remains a source of rumors from South Korea and the active advocates of immediate North Korean collapse, who often imply that China is not simply constructing the port but has secured it with a few thousand PLA troops. Such impressions are unlikely to slow the CCP in its push for more access and faster development of Chinese business interests, particularly in the minerals sector, in North Korea.
Chinese cultural exchanges with North Korea have been, in the DPRK context, incredibly extensive. The oft-maligned Korean Central News Agency has opened up exchanges with Xinhua, performing arts delegations tour across the Chinese mainland, and a Confucius Institute is open in Pyongyang with some 800 students. Tourism to the DPRK, another area of possible peril—seven Chinese tourists and businessmen were killed in a mysterious crash outside of Pyongyang on Thanksgiving Day—is an area where the Chinese side puts a great deal of stock and aims to develop further from even remote cities like Qiqihar and Mudanjiang. The extent to which the North Korean side remains committed to the speed and intensity of these relationships is something which the Chinese government is particularly keen to observe.
Border security on the northern frontier remains a complex and sensitive issue, as well as military-to-military relations. The fact that eight North Korean border guards were reputed to have run headlong into the Liaoning hills in late November is not to be forgotten; the fact that China was hosting the Japanese Self-Defense Forces Navy in Qingdao (of all places) from December 19-23 is another area which under normal conditions might cause strain on Sino-North Korean relations.
Kim Jong Il’s death does not alter the fundamentals of the bilateral relationship, but it does offer an opportunity to take stock of this most fraught and significant relationship. The speed and intimacy with which it continues is of interest to us all.
Adam Cathcart is Assistant Professor History at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington and the editor of SinoNK.com.
By Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Earlier this year, a Beijing-based Israeli journalist named Rachel Beitare contacted me out of the blue to set up an interview about the impact the Arab Spring events might have in China. I ended up impressed by the caliber of the questions put to me, so I started keeping an eye out for her byline, in case she published things in English (much of her work comes out in Hebrew, which I don’t read). I wasn’t disappointed, as before long Foreign Policy ran a smart commentary, ”Guilty By Association,” in which Ms. Beitare looked at the way the Party had been not just cracking down on critics of the government but hassling their relatives as well. When I opened a Twitter account, she was someone I made sure to follow (she tweets as @bendilaowai), and she’s one of several China-based journalists I think uses the medium especially well.
I was thus excited to learn from her Twitter posts that she’d made it to Wukan to report on the dramatic events unfolding in that South China community, where villagers have been mourning a fallen protester while engaged in a stand-off with representatives of the government. A recent NPR report described the Wukan struggle as a conflict that “began as a property dispute [and] has escalated into an open revolt [that has become] one of the most serious episodes of unrest that the Chinese Communist Party has faced in recent years.” The Wukan events are important because they underscore just how much anger there is in China over efforts by unscrupulous developers and corrupt officials to take advantage of rural landholders, and have a special interest to me, since just before the story broke Megan Shank and I had made the final corrections on a story, “Anxious Times in a Rising China,” which will appear in the Winter issue of Dissent magazine and focuses on recent protests and expressions of discontent in the PRC.
Eager to learn more about what is going on and to find out what she makes of it, I sent Ms. Beitarie an email with a set of questions; these are provided along with the answers she sent in Tuesday morning (Beijing time):
JW: You recently tweeted that you’d finished a report on the protests. Is it online yet? If not—or if it is only up in Hebrew—can you fill me in on what sort of piece it is, if there’s a main take-away about the state of play or likely prospects of the struggle?
RB: Thank you very much for this kind introduction. The report I was tweeting about will come out in Hebrew this Thursday. It’s a magazine piece for “Calcalist” in which I try to chronicle events in Wukan pretty much hour by hour from Saturday onward (we are still updating it). That was actually my editor’s suggestion and was a good way to give a sense of a story in progress and to record the ups and down in daily life in Wukan these days. It is a bit like tweeting actually. We also tried to give a broader perspective in the text to show how each of Wukan’s grievances is related to a broader issue in China. I suppose the main take-away is that whereas Wukan’s problems are local, a real long-term solution can only come through some wider government reforms in China. I really don’t have a definite view regarding the prospects of the struggle, but I’m not very optimistic. I’m afraid at least for the leaders of these demonstrations, there will be severe retribution, though for the village as a whole, they might get some of their land back, so it can make things a bit better, but I don’t see much chance of a fundamental change under the current system of village governance.
JW: I’ve been following the Wukan events long distance via reports like a much-circulated early one by Malcolm Moore and the later one by Louisa Lim, from which I pulled the phrases used in my opening summary. Have these given me a clear basic sense of what’s been going on and the stakes of this confrontation? Is there anything crucial that you feel is being left out or underplayed in the international coverage of the standoff?
RB: The reports you’ve mentioned were probably some of the best to come out of Wukan, and of course Malcolm Moore deserves all the credit for being the first to break the story to international media. In general I think there has been a lot of really excellent reporting from many different angles. Obviously I haven’t read all the reports, so I can’t say if something has been left out. (Last night in Wukan’s improvised media center, a few locals asked me to show them via my computer whether their issue was really being reported. We did a Google news search that came back with some 1300 hits in English and hundreds in Chinese.) However, one point I can think about that will probably still be open for much discussion is the role the foreign media itself has been playing in this story. Inviting the media in was the villagers’ own decision and helped them get a lot of publicity, but it may land them in even bigger trouble in the end than if they hadn’t. I think we all need some distance from the situation to properly analyze the pros and cons.
JW: A month or so ago, I would probably have been tempted to flag the high-speed rail crash of July as the most significant Chinese political event of 2011, due to the rage unleashed online by the event itself and the Party’s efforts to cover-up what had happened. Others might have put Ai Weiwei’s detention at the top of their list. Do you think Wukan might tell us even more important things about sources of discontent in today’s China than either of those two things?
RB: Oh absolutely. The reason Wukan is such a gripping story is that the village’s situation encapsulates almost all of the big issues that trouble Chinese society: Rural poverty vs. rapid development, unchecked power, growing economic gaps, environmental degradation, corruption, official violence, the balance of power between Beijing and the provinces, it’s all there in one incident. Also, the power of the Internet and social media, as well as their limitations—that was demonstrated in the Wenzhou train crash case and with Ai Weiwei and is also present here.
What’s more, the Wukan case is different than either Wenzhou’s or Ai Weiwei’s in that it takes place in the countryside, where most Chinese still live and where the problems are most acute, but get little attention, so definitely it touches all the most serious reasons for discontent.
JW: Any final thoughts? Perhaps about lines that could be drawn, however tenuous, to connect developments in Wukan to the Middle East and North Africa or the Occupy protests in other parts of the world.
RB: Well, unlike the people in Egypt or Libya, in Wukan they clearly and repeatedly say they do not wish to overthrow the government and trust the Communist party. How sincere they are in saying this remains for us to speculate about but that is the message they want to get out.
Having said that, there are some similarities to some movements we’ve seen around the world this year in both causes and conduct. They are similar in that protest stems from a sense of gross injustice caused by ever growing economic gaps. Another similarity is in the way people form their own mechanisms for self governing a micro-environment, in Wukan like in Tahrir or in tent cities in NYC, Madrid, my hometown, Tel-Aviv, and elsewhere around the world, and in how people gradually find ways to educate themselves about their own situation, the causes of what is happening to them and valid ways to solve their problems.
The situation here is very different, but maybe the sentiment of people power, the will and ability to work together with others to achieve better results instead of trying to get results individually is very similar. Ironically, educating and organizing peasants is how the Communist Party itself got to power so they probably understand better than anyone else the potential of such developments in rural areas, which is why the Wukan case is important—and the situation very risky for Wukan’s people.
This post also appeared at Dissent.
By Howard W. French
I am eager to read Chinese news accounts of the life and death of Vaclav Havel, whose central message might be summed up as the necessity for individuals everywhere to cast off their apathy and assume their rights – and agency – as citizens.
The death of this figure of major importance to the history of the late- and post-Cold War world will inevitably generate talk that is heavily focused on Europe, just as the attention of the Western media and foreign ministries tended to stay almost exclusively bracketed on this region (with China, for a time, serving as a crucial exception) as the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union crumbled.
Scarcely noted around that time, were citizens’ democratic uprisings in Africa (Benin 1990-’91, Mali and Zambia ’91) that opened history’s door for a new era of participatory representative politics around the continent. I say scarcely noted by the press, but also scarcely heeded by Western chancelleries, which judged such events to be small beer when compared to the exciting things happening in more “important” places elsewhere.
Little diplomatic energy was invested in supporting this early wave of African democratization. In part, this was due to the fact that it seemed to violate tenets of conventional wisdom in political science, and hence diplomacy, which held that democracy could not take root in countries that did not have a substantial middle class.
What contributes to making China so interesting today is that the country now boasts a large and fast-growing middle class, making it ever riper, some theorists hold, for the emergence of real citizens’ movements that can push back the frontiers of the state and win greater space for the individual, and for civil society.
Havel’s death coincides interestingly with an example of just what the tender green roots of such a movement might look like, meaning of course the protests underway in Wukan. Six years ago, I covered a remarkable, and remarkably similar uprising in Shanwei, in the very same part of southeastern China.
It was ruthlessly put down by paramilitary police, and mention of it in the Chinese press and Internet was largely suppressed. In all likelihood, the state will find a way to quash the Wukan protests, as well, but even as it works furiously to censor the Internet, word of the uprising, and of its significance for the emergence of a broadening rights consciousness in China, is getting around.
In Africa, largely ignored and scarcely supported by the outside world, a similar kind of rights consciousness began to spread and take root in the 1990s. That it was able to do so without the existence of a robust middle class in so many places remains an important and largely untold story; a fertile subject awaiting book-length exploration by enterprising journalists and historians.
Western Europe and the United States ignored African calls for a Marshall Plan for the continent, as it emerged from the ruinous misrule common during the Cold War. Remarkably, in more recent times, Africa has gradually begun to harness its own wealth, so long stolen and misappropriated. Growth is said to be fast and accelerating on the continent, which finds itself in a demographic sweet spot, and courted by rich new players, conspicuously led by China. Middle classes, ever more familiarly globalized, are emerging nearly everywhere one looks.
Whether this growth will lead to real and solid development remains an open question. Outcomes will naturally be very different according to the country. Here’s my wager, though, that the emergence (or not) of the Havelian citizen, the networked individual who is jealous of his rights and demanding of the state, will be decisive.
This essay first appeared at Howard French’s personal website and is being reposted here with permission.
While we usually take off the last two weeks of December, we’re delaying our break a little bit due to the momentous events of the past week: recent protests in Wukan, the death of Václav Havel, and now the announcement that Kim Jong Il has also passed away. We’ll do our best to cover these topics amid the chaos that accompanies the end of the academic term and arrival of the holidays. For now, follow us on Twitter (@chinabeat, as well as editorial team members @mauracunningham and @jwassers) to catch links to what others are writing about these breaking stories. Also, we’d like to point readers in the direction of Sinologistical Violoncellist, the blog of recent China Beat contributor and Sino-DPRK specialist Adam Cathcart, where he’s collecting a wide range of links to stories and analysis concerning Kim Jong Il’s death.