December 2011

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By Adam Cathcart

As an attempt to drain the seemingly endless reserves of paranoia fed by China’s rise, the extension of Chinese “soft power” [ruan shi li 软实力] into Western Europe is one of the more interesting stories of our day. How the Chinese Communist Party uses culture and cultural exchange to shape its image in Europe varies, like any good guerrilla strategy, depending on conditions.
In the performing arts, PRC-sponsored groups tour European stages, acting out a meta-drama that pits twirling autonomous-region Uighurs against the ubiquitous Falun Gong-affiliated Shen Yun ballerinas (and their army of granny pamphleteers). Embassy-sponsored photographic exhibits celebrating modernization on the Tibetan plateau contend with high-buck seminars by the Dalai Lama.

And every so often, a man with the slick hair of fifth-generation CCP leadership will turn up in Europe to remind his variously enthused and recalcitrant constituents that China’s leaders indeed animate culture on the far side of the globe: Witness Xi Jinping in Europe in spring 2010, opening museum exhibitions with the Belgian king, or Wen Jiabao’s evident delight in announcing “German Culture Year in 2012”. These exertions of soft power in Europe are intriguing and significant. They are intertwined with Chinese ascendancy, both in perception and hard fact.

Clearly China can rise peacefully, but can it do so gracefully?

The latter claim seemed very much in doubt over the eleven weeks which lapsed between the April 3 arrest and June 22 release of Ai Weiwei. Ai’s detention, and his ongoing harassment by the authorities, calls into question the very basis of China’s soft power strategy in Europe.

The conventional wisdom has it that the Party was very nervous about Ai’s impact within China and that the arrest was primarily about sending a message to intellectuals and dissidents at home. Plenty of evidence would appear to support such a view, buttressed further still by fears of the tremors from the democracy movements in the Middle East. In an interview with Die Zeit’s Angela Kockritz, one anonymous Chinese artist analyzed Ai’s arrest through the prism of domestic politics, stating:

One has to look at the arrest in view of the timing. The National People’s Congress had just ended, and many young politicians assumed new posts. Their predecessors had left Ai Weiwei in peace, because they treasured his father [patriotic poet Ai Qing]. The new generation wants to signal that this protection no longer exists. [“Ausserst nervoes: Ein Besuch in Ai Weiweis Kuenstlerdorf,” Die Zeit, 7 April 2001]

But no less than a new cadre’s shot across the bow, Ai’s arrest was also made to function within the matrix of the CCP’s cultural-political strategy toward Europe, and became a point of significant tension within Sino-German relations. The ongoing exchanges and underground tug-of-war between Germany and China, those two economic and cultural leviathans, continues, but the case of Ai Weiwei (“der Fall Ai Weiwei”) brought about what can only be called a diplomatic-cultural crisis in Sino-German relations and prompted a number of calls to examine the effectiveness of soft power deployed by both sides.

Ai Weiwei and Germany

The levels of heroism and notoriety enjoyed by Ai in the West are particularly broad and deep in the German media. Before his detention and eventual charges on tax fraud, Ai had become a ubiquitous presence in Germany. His acerbic critiques of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Wenchuan earthquake, internet censorship, architectural practice, and a host of other issues, rapidly elevated him in Germany to the status of China’s foremost dissident, an artist-provocateur who also happened to have a large footprint in Germany. Thus, German writers, artists and casual observers of the Chinese scene had celebrated Ai’s output of exhibitions, interviews, and would-be spark-to-prairie-fire blog posts. After all, he was an artist attempting to free himself from the fetters of a totalizing state, an endeavor with historical resonance in Germany. Ai Weiwei became, in so far as the newspapers were concerned, a man of singular stature and moral weight, comparable in a sense to the limited number of incorruptible and principled intellectuals who had resisted both the blandishments and the torments of the Nazi system and then the German Democratic Republic.

Certainly Ai never held back in his German-language interviews:

Heinrich Bork, “Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei: ‘He Who Lives in a Dictatorship Must Resist’,” Suddeutscher Zeitung, 16 September 2009.

SZ: How common is it for people in China to be hit by police?

Ai: Every day, maybe every second. When they want to oppress you, they often hit you a second time. Some people resist arrest, and on that account they have their legs broken. Others are confined in “guesthouses” which function like a dangerous prison. This year the Chinese Communist Party celebrates the 60th anniversary of our state. They revel in their own radiance [Sie sonnt sich in ihrem eigenen Glanz]. But all fairness, all justice is sacrificed to this system.

Ai’s beating in Chengdu in 2009 and his subsequent rush to Munich for surgery, the exposure to his own blood raised the level of authenticity, self-awareness, and ideas (already well established for a European audience) of the artist as a kind of martyr for self-expression and human rights in China, indicate that the artist had inherited the core of these contrarian characteristics from his father, the poet Ai Qing, in whose Resistance War poetry the notion of a bloody-browed and laughing defiance was prefigured.

His reception in Germany being so warm, Ai voiced a desire to set up a base camp in Berlin, even as, in November 2009, the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs was handling rumors of an investigation into Ai’s finances. Ai’s response at the time was to deflect it all as theater and revel in the adulation from Germany, publishing puff pieces in Munich about his chef, a man for whom “cooking is like calligraphy…[or] sleeping; one doesn’t need to learn how.” However, in the weeks before his arrest, it seems Ai had premonitions that his grace period was up, as related to Heinrik Bork of the Sudddeutscher Zeitung in the last documented interview before his detention.

Ai Weiwei and the “Art of the Enlightenment” Exhibit

When Ai was finally detained amid the modernist arches of the Beijing Capital Airport, he was en route, eventually, to Germany, and sat but a few hundred meters away from German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Westerwelle, too, was on his way back to Berlin after successfully inaugurating the much-celebrated “Art of the Enlightenment” exhibition at the newly renovated National Museum. The exhibition, a tour de force of German humanism and the roots of European democratic thought, seemed to signal a renewed openness, even in the context of the CCP’s recent crackdowns on dissent. Nearly seven years planning had gone into this Kantian Aufschwung, involving cultural contacts on the highest level. If there were ever a Trojan horse to stride up the steps near Tiananmen Square after 1989, this was surely it.

With Ai’s disappearance, the question of German galleries pulling out of the exhibit was raised immediately in the German press. This was hardly a new debate: at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, spectacle and invitations had also at stake and the confrontation over cultural matters and human rights remained unresolved. Museum directors began to muse openly about bringing the Enlightenment exhibition back home to Germany, and German elites wondered how China would make its “German Culture Year in 2012″ anything other than a farce. (There are only so many times, one article noted, that the Chinese axiom “the path is the goal” can rescue one from a dead-end process.) Berlin summoned the Chinese ambassador to issue a rebuke, but no contracts, or exhibitions, were cancelled as a result.

There followed in Germany the usual stable of statements by legislators, defenders of human rights, and defenders of dialogue, contrasted with conspicuous silence from economic interests. At Tacheles, a 798-like art space—itself a monument to technology built in the 1920s, occupied by the SS, bombed in the war, and picked up again as a magnet for free-thinking and -inhaling Berlin left wingers after 1990, now threatened by wealthy developers—someone pinned up a flyer urging people to call the Chinese Embassy in Berlin, ask “Where is Weiwei?” and hang up. The Chinese government was largely silent, employing a strategy of letting adversaries vent and subsequently fragment themselves was generous to the CCP.

The CCP’s press responses quickly took on a pedagogical intent. As in the case of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize ceremony, where Beijing demanded that countries skip the ceremony, the CCP seemed to be using its punishment of an intellectual figure as a means of reinforcing the image of the Party-State’s imperviousness to foreign critique. For the CCP, the desired result perhaps, was foreign opprobrium itself, which—a story was sufficiently spread via oral rumor, then acknowledged and redigested by such leading organs as the Huanqiu Shibao—could be fed into the nationalistic echo chamber of the Chinese internet, thus reminding netizens that external criticism of China’s path forward is not simply unfair, but part of the larger topos of international conspiracy meant to keep China down at any cost.

After biding its time, or after receiving permission to comment from the Propaganda Ministry, on April 16, Huanqiu Shibao placed its article the uproar about Ai Weiwei in a prominent position on its website. In China, a handful of government-approved Netizen comments on the story (they have since been scrubbed away completely) summed up the preferred response nicely:

Who is Ai Weiwei?
What is “Der Spiegel”?
If the West supports it, we must oppose it.
The same countries that criticize us now were part of the 8-power intervention [of 1900]…
Ever since the Opium War…

Ultimately, it appeared that Germany’s economic needs would take primacy over its ability to take a principled stand against Ai’s detention. Articles published in the Berlin Tagesspiegel raged against Germany’s inability to elevate human rights over trade, describing Germany’s total impotence in the case of Ai. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was put in the rather uncomfortable position of having to deny Der Spiegel reports that she had actually called for the release of Ai Weiwei. When Wen Jiabao arrived in Berlin in June, Merkel began their meetings at a Wannsee villa that had once belonged to an artist persecuted by the Nazis. This beautiful bit of political theater was completely lost on the Chinese audience: as the Frankfurt Allegemeine Zeitung ruefully noted, the Chinese media was treating Wen Jiabao’s state visit to Germany—the largest CCP delegation to ever visit Berlin—as no more important than a side trip to Kazakhstan.

In the battle for public opinion over Ai Weiwei, China had may have lost in Germany, but the Chinese state was never particularly interesting in debating the case, and, apart from a few evocative banners hung at Berlin galleries, its cultural ties with German institutions did not appear to suffer. While the Chinese state’s self-descriptions are so often suffused with narratives of humiliation, it appears that the slap had been inflicted mainly upon Germany, at Westerwelle’s opening of the Enlightenment exhibit, without any successful retort. The German Foreign Minister must indeed have leaned back in his Lufthansa chair, looked out into the murky skies, and returned home, leaving his country’s treasures, and the muzzled provocateur, behind in Beijing.

Adam Cathcart teaches Chinese history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. In addition to his published work on Sino-Japanese and Sino-North Korean relations in the Cold War, he blogs at Sinologistical Violoncellist. Paul Manfredi [], German blogger Just Recently [], Kuroda Chiaki, and D.W. Feldman provided comments on earlier versions of this essay.

By Denise Ho

My Thursday afternoon flight from Shanghai to Chicago exhibited a curious phenomenon. United Airlines Flight 836, which went from China to Midwestern America on August 19, 2010, had the most homogenous set of passengers I had ever seen. They were all in their late teens and early twenties, Chinese youth dressed in the trendiest fashions and carrying the latest electronics. I was so impressed that I broke my rule about photographing people, popped up in my seat in the corner of economy class, and took their picture:

Whether United knew it or not, my flight was a modern school bus, ferrying Chinese students to (or back to) school at American colleges and universities, in search of what Vanessa Fong has called “flexible citizenship.”1 Arriving in Chicago, the Chinese students scattered, many boarding transfers elsewhere and a few following me on my flight back to Lexington, Kentucky, where I am an assistant professor. Their photo I kept with me, and used it in my orientation lecture for new M.A. candidates in the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of International Commerce and Diplomacy. These students, I argued, were (or would be) totally bilingual, globally educated, and locally connected. And they would be the wave of the future.

One year later, the topic of Chinese students at American universities has become both popular and contentious. Universities like the University of Kentucky, a public land-grant university, are aggressively recruiting Chinese nationals both to internationalize the campus and to seek much-needed tuition dollars in an era of stagnant state funding. According to UK’s Office of International Affairs, active recruitment in China began in 2008, and since then the number of new Chinese undergraduates has grown from 19 in fall term 2007 to 191 in the fall of 2011. Recruitment is facilitated through agreements with Chinese universities that allow students to transfer, and through a program of conditional acceptance; in the latter students enroll in English as a Second Language in a series of 8-week sessions, and may matriculate as regular students upon testing out via the TOEFL exam. As of 2010, the University of Kentucky had a total of 685 Chinese students, of whom 45 were ESL students. As a percentage, Chinese students make up 2.44% of total UK enrollment, 41.6% of international students, and 23.2% of the ESL students.2 Though these numbers are impressive and reflect national trends, an article published jointly in November by The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education sounded a note of caution: many students struggle with language and daily life when they arrive at American universities, and teachers and administrators alike report that they also have yet to adapt their classrooms and programs to the influx.3

As part of the University of Kentucky’s “Year of China,” the College of Arts and Sciences invited Vanessa Fong to speak to our students, and a summary and link to a podcast with undergraduate Jared Flanery are below. To learn about Chinese students at UK, I observed two ESL classes and talked with both instructors and students. The motivations of the students I met mirrored the experiences of the students in Fong’s study. The students gave a variety of reasons for going abroad: parental ambitions, a desire to learn a new culture and expand one’s horizons, a wish to learn independence, and a perception that American education is better. They are well-networked; they keep in touch with family and friends through Skype and cell phones, and have an idea of what to expect from friends who had come before them. Lu Mingyue, 22, from Hebei Province, explained that her experience was as she had expected, “because I knew more customs from my friends who study abroad.” Most of the students I met plan to return to China eventually, citing both their responsibility to take care of their parents and a belief that studying abroad would help them find a better job in China.

While the Chinese students spoke of their individual aspirations, their ESL teachers gave me sense of the students as a group. Lina Crocker, an ESL teacher for over thirty years, was hesitant to generalize. Crocker, who has also travelled to China to recruit for UK, was positive about many of her students, and in particular about one Chinese student whose leadership provided an example for his peers. At the same time, however, she expressed many concerns that reflected the Times/Chronicle study; some students have little interaction with non-Chinese students, some struggle in the absence of parental pressure, and many are ill-prepared for the style and content of the American classroom. Tina Durbin, who has been teaching ESL at UK for two years, warns her students that passing the TOEFL is only the beginning, with the real challenge being actual matriculation in UK classes. Both Crocker and Durbin suggested that some of the challenges of these students are generational, and not unique to students from China. For example, American students also have difficulty adapting to college, and American students studying abroad may only socialize with American students or eat at McDonald’s.

Asked whether UK has tracked Chinese students who have graduated out of ESL, Durbin commented that data gathering has only just begun, so it is still too soon to assess their trajectories. When asked whether it was worth it to study abroad, a 23-year-old from Shanxi admitted that he gave up time with his family but concluded it was worth it, “because I could learn and improve myself here, and that is my parents’ desire.” His classmate Claire, a 22-year-old from Beijing, was less sanguine. Having given up the chance of job to come to UK, she replied, “Now I cannot judge whether it was worth it or not.”

By Jared Flanery

Neoliberalism may be viewed as the latest form of capitalism, with a shift in emphasis from physical to cultural capital. Neoliberal individuals expect to garner enough education, credentials, and social contacts ultimately transferrable as elite status and increased freedoms. As Dr. Vanessa Fong has documented, the problem is that the imagined global neoliberal community is more Janus-headed than its discourses suggest.

Since 1997, Dr. Fong, currently teaching in the Harvard School of Education, has followed nearly 3,000 members of a generational Chinese cohort. Readers may recall Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy, her 2004 book tracing the early lives of children born immediately after the imposition of the 1979 One Child Policy. Her research initially arose from the question of whether female singletons (by definition) without brothers competing for the family’s resources experienced increased gender equality. Her hypothesis—yes—was quickly confirmed, and her longitudinal study broadened to include male members of the cohort born between 1979 and 1986. Clearly the members of this cohort are no longer children. Yet as her survey participants approached the horizon of adulthood, she found that an unexpected portion of that group ended up extending its youth by studying abroad.

Dr. Fong visited the University of Kentucky under the banner of the China Initiative, a year-long thematic focus featuring lecture and art series, all as part of the “Passport to the World Program.” Her new book employs Aihwua Ong’s concept of flexible citizenship. Paradise Redefined defines the primary motivation of Chinese students studying abroad as the achievement of social and cultural (if not legal) citizenship in the developed world. This sort of cultural capital transcends the boundaries of the nation-state, while staying safely within the de-territorialized space of the global neoliberal order.

Not every country, though, can be paradise. Just as UK has yet to inaugurate a “Year of Haiti” or “Year of Belarus,” Chinese students seeking to study abroad rarely venture outside the developed world. In fact, Dr. Fong found that 42% of the Chinese students traveled to Japan, a further 15% to Ireland and the remaining relevant destinations split up into around 8% each (Australia, Great Britain, the United States). Rarely did Chinese students even consider countries outside the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development). As Financial Times writer Richard McGregor stated in a previous China Beat interview, “They [Chinese people in general] have a chip on their shoulder about the developed world.” Several of these newly neoliberalized individuals set off for abroad with about enough money to pay for room and board, maybe a semester of tuition and the plane ticket.

As Dr. Fong learned, however, many Chinese transnationals began to reconsider their decision once they arrived at their destinations. She continued her participant observation in the “paradise” countries, boarding Oneworld Alliance flights across the world and reflecting the travel freedoms embedded in developed world citizenship. Chinese students, many of whom ended up in state universities like Kentucky, expressed various reactions one might expect: financial difficulty in language and college education, cultural obstacles and exclusion, and an exigent desire to provide for their parents and even grandparents. She also outlines a phenomenon perhaps unique to Chinese transnationals: filial nationalism. Although they did not view themselves as “China” writ large, many students were essentially expected to represent their country to foreigners (waiguoren). Filial nationalism refers to a reflexive reaction toward defending their country as they would their parents, despite any imperfections. Still, Dr. Fong’s work details the unavoidable ambivalence Chinese transnational students feel, their subjectivity transformed. As one Chinese transnational confessed, “I’m not used to anywhere anymore.”

1 Vanessa L. Fong, Paradise Redefined: Transnational Chinese Students and the Quest for Flexible Citizenship in the Developed World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

2 Data provided by Audra Cryder and Ann Livingstone, University of Kentucky Office of International Affairs.

3 Tom Bartlett and Karin Fischer, “The China Conundrum: American Colleges Find the Chinese-Student Boom a Tricky Fit,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 3, 2011.

Denise Ho is assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky. Jared Flanery is a junior at the University of Kentucky. This article is the second of a four-part series on teaching and learning about China at the University of Kentucky, a public land-grant institution founded in 1865. More information about the “Year of China,” including Jared’s podcast with Vanessa Fong, can be found here.

Our readers in the Bay Area who enjoyed learning about the new Kang Youwei docu-drama Datong: The Great Society earlier this week have an upcoming opportunity to see the movie, which will be screened at UC Berkeley on December 13. Filmmaker Evans Chan will be on hand for a Q&A after the film.

We’d also like to call readers’ attention to another interview Chan did about the film, which was posted at China Heritage Quarterly. Trailer, as well as a couple of still photos Chan provided to us, available below.

By Peter Zarrow

I would like to alert China Beat readers to a new film, Datong: The Great Society [Chinese title: 大同:康有為在瑞典]. This docu-drama tells the story of Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and to a great extent that of his second daughter Kang Tongbi (aka Kang Tung Pih, 1887-1969).

I found the film a powerful and affecting evocation of a philosopher’s life, and found myself challenged to consider what we make of the past and what it makes of us. The film-maker, Evans Chan, calls Datong: The Great Society a “docu-drama,” since it is based on verifiable records, period photos, and vintage footage—as well as interviews with scholars—all woven into a tapestry of theatricalization involving dance and re-enacted scenes by the Hong Kong actors Liu Kai Chi (as Kang) and Lindzay Chan (as Tongbi). The film also features the well-known and very-much-living actress/choreographer Chiang Ching as the narrator who “plays” herself (more on which below).

The Hong Kong-New York filmmaker Evans Chan 陳耀成 here tackles themes central to modern China, ranging from reform/revolution to sexuality, gender and ethnic relations, and he also tells a transnational story with Kang’s exile in Sweden at the center. Evans Chan is also a cultural critic, playwright and the translator/editor of three books by Susan Sontag in Chinese.

Datong: The Great Society, currently playing in the former British colony, will become the inaugural film to receive the Movie of the Year Award to be presented by Southern Metropolitan Daily (南方都市報) as part of its Humane Life Awards (生活大獎).

After seeing a preview of The Great Society in Taipei, I asked Evans Chan if he would answer some of my questions, and this is an edited version of our email dialogue. The complete version of this interview along with other information about the film may be found at Evans’ website:

*  *  *

PZ: How did you come to think of working on Kang—and his time in Sweden in particular?

EC: The immediate—Swedish—angle of this film was a result of my stumbling upon the newly published Chinese edition of Kang Youwei’s Swedish Journals in Hong Kong in 2007, eighty years after his death. Annotated and edited by Goran Malmqvist, Sinologist and member of the Swedish Academy, this edition came out almost 40 years after its Swedish edition. But it rang a bell, since I had come across a quirky reference to Kang’s owning a Swedish isle in Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China (1991).

However, I’d been unwittingly approaching Kang, and aware of a film project possibility. Before encountering the Swedish Journals, I’d been researching a book about ethno (Han-centric) nationalism and Chinese cinema—about what I called Han Chinese cinema’s “trans-ethnic/-racial” representation of minorities, including Tibetans and Manchus—which led me to Zhu Shilin’s Sorrows of the Forbidden City (清宮秘史, aka The Secret History of the Qing Court, 1948), the first important film made by a Han Chinese director about the Qing/Manchu court set during the Hundred Days’ Reform. Kang was, of course, a key player in that momentous event. However, Zhu Shilin’s film recasts the conflict as a familial melodrama involving the Empress Dowager and Emperor Guangxu’s favorite consort, Zhen Fei. In The Great Society, I’ve excerpted Sorrows extensively, at times having Liu Kai Chi, who plays Kang, acting against the projected film. You can say it’s my way of “remaking” Sorrows of the Forbidden City.

I also feel quite strongly that Kang’s historical role deserves a reconsideration in light of contemporary scholarship and postmodern politics. Kang isn’t as accessible as other modern figures mainly because he stood at the tipping point of Chinese modernity. If both Kang and Liang Qichao are considered the inaugurators of Chinese modernity, Kang was the last major intellectual of the classical millennia, while Liang was the first one blazing his way into the vernacular present. Since the shift turned out to be almost as major a shift as from Latin to the vernacular in Europe, Liang and the notable figures who followed him are more of a presence in Chinese modernity than Kang. Liang has been considered a figure who has “outshone” his master, no doubt partly due to this significant cultural/linguistic shift, even though Liang, “the ultimate fox” in your words, once lamented that he was not as an original thinker as his master.

Read the rest of this entry »

Financial Times journalist Richard McGregor is this year’s recipient of the Asia Society’s Bernard Schwartz Book Award for his 2010 investigation into Chinese leadership, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers. If you haven’t caught up with McGregor’s book yet, here are a few links about it to whet your appetite:

• At China Beat, we’ve previously featured an interview with McGregor, conducted by site editor Maura Cunningham, as well as a review of The Party by Thomas Kellogg of the Open Society Institute.

• Jeff Wasserstrom reviewed the book at The Daily Beast and also interviewed McGregor for the Asia Society blog.

• The Washington Post also ran a review of The Party, this one by Andrew Higgins:

At first glance, a book about the Communist Party seems curiously old-fashioned, a throwback to a time when scholars and journalists scoured the People’s Daily for hints of who was up or down in the Politburo and competed to decipher party gobbledygook. The red flags, the portrait of Mao overlooking Tiananmen Square and the occasional retro-slogan about “workers of the world” can sometimes seem as quaintly removed from present-day reality as the portraits of Queen Elizabeth that grace the offices of British civil servants working for what is, in name at least, “Her Majesty’s government.” However, it is a measure of how much China has changed that McGregor has been able to write such a lively and penetrating account of a party that, since its founding in Shanghai as a clandestine organization in 1921, has clung to secrecy as an inviolable principle.

• Subscribers to the New York Review of Books can read a review essay by Ian Johnson that deals with The Party, in addition to a number of other China-focused titles.

• Watch McGregor discuss his work in a talk at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations:

• And don’t forget that The Party, in addition to being an Economist best book of 2010, also made another “top China books” list—Donald Trump’s.

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