April 2012

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By Duncan Hewitt

It was just like old times—in many of China’s major newspapers, a prominently displayed half-page story headlined: “Officials and citizens all across the country express unwavering support for central party leadership’s decision.” It followed hot on the heels of the previous day’s People’s Daily headline: “Resolutely support the party’s correct decision,” which appeared on many front pages. In the wake of the stunning news that Bo Xilai, one of China’s most prominent politicians, had been suspended from the ruling Politburo, and his wife arrested on suspicion of being involved in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, the Chinese Communist Party was in full damage limitation mode. And as so often in a time of crisis, it reverted to tried and trusted methods—in this case wheeling out headlines and slogans straight out of the Mao-era propaganda lexicon. Even the well-known liberal Guangzhou newspaper the Southern Weekend had obviously been ordered to fill its front page with them—though it did manage to squeeze in a recent quote from Premier Wen Jiabao calling for continuing reforms. And by the end of the week, state media had begun pushing other default buttons, with an editorial in the often nationalistic Global Times newspaper accusing the western media of trying to use the affair to split the Communist Party.

But of course times have, in fact, changed. “These headlines are like something out of the Cultural Revolution,” said one very modern urban intellectual, shaking his head in disbelief. And while newspaper editors have apparently been summoned to meetings to ensure they follow the correct line, the authorities have had to work hard policing the Internet against critical comment in recent days. Even before the latest news broke, they had already felt they had no option but to close down the comment function on China’s two biggest microblogging sites for several days, claiming that this was to prevent the spread of rumors, following online speculation about a possible coup attempt by people sympathetic to Mr. Bo. Last week they again blocked the use of (and searches for) the names of Bo Xilai, Neil Heywood, and Wang Lijun, Mr. Bo’s former police chief in the city he ran, Chongqing, whose flight to the US consulate in nearby Chengdu in February was the first hint of the affair.

Yet many people have sought ways to get around the blockade, using abbreviations and homonyms. And opinions are clearly less unified than the official media would seek to have the nation believe. For all that newspapers like the Global Times ran headlines suggesting that the detention of a member of the party’s inner circle, apparently in connection with a murder investigation, was a stirring symbol of the party’s commitment to the rule of law, cynics on the Internet were busy suggesting that it was, in fact, a sign of just how rotten the upper echelons of the party appear to have become. Others, even some who did not necessarily sympathize with the campaigns to promote traditional socialist culture which Mr. Bo ran in Chongqing—which seemed to alarm some people in the central leadership—were suspicious, rightly or wrongly, that his ouster should have come just as he was apparently getting close to an even more powerful post in China’s leadership transition later this year.

In a nation where the media has, despite ongoing official controls on the most sensitive political issues, continued to diversify over recent years, and where the Internet and in particular microblogs have revolutionized the flow of information, it’s now much harder to control public opinion. In Shanghai, for example, where the city’s former Communist Party secretary Chen Liangyu was ousted in 2006, and later convicted on charges of corruption relating to misuse of the city’s pension funds, it’s not hard to find people who argue that Mr. Chen was in fact a good man who put the city’s population first, and claim that his dismissal had more to do with political clashes with the central leadership than any unusual degree of corruption. (And these contrarian attitudes relate to a case which occurred several years before there were microblogs to send such views shooting around cyberspace.)

Some people are undoubtedly glad to see the removal of Mr. Bo, whose populist approach sat awkwardly with the cautious, consensual style of China’s top leadership over recent years. And many liberals in China certainly welcomed Premier Wen Jiabao’s warning, at his press conference in March, that the country had to be on guard to prevent a return to the days of the Cultural Revolution—an apparent reference to Mr. Bo’s Maoist-inspired mass campaigns in Chongqing. It was one of the first times in many years that a top leader had mentioned the Cultural Revolution, serious debate about which still remains almost taboo in China.

Nevertheless, the government’s heavy-handed, traditional-style management of the media—and Internet—during this crisis has made some wonder just how far the Communist Party has moved from its Mao-era traditions. Well-known liberal scholar Liu Junning last week wrote a post (which was quickly deleted, according to Hong Kong University’s China Media Project) warning that the greatest threat to social stability was in fact autocratic rule—an apparent reference to the Party itself.

It’s all added to the sense that, for all its talk of embracing “public scrutiny” via the Internet, the Party is struggling to keep up with the pace of social change in China. It recently revived a campaign to promote the example of Lei Feng, an early 1960s’ soldier promoted by Chairman Mao as a model of altruism—and a throwback to the days when people in China really did “express unwavering support” for the decisions of the party central committee.

But even in the same Shanghai newspapers that hailed public enthusiasm for the government’s handling of the latest events last week, there was a reminder of just how much times have changed. Several papers reported how twenty airline passengers, furious at having been delayed overnight at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport when a flight was cancelled—and at receiving no compensation for their troubles—burst past security guards and blocked a runway near the plane they were eventually due to leave on, forcing one international flight that had just landed to change its course on the taxi way. The protesters were soon removed from the runway, but to the anger of some local media, the authorities were apparently initially unwilling to take any further action against them (though after much media criticism, they were later reported to have been given unspecified “administrative punishment.”)

It’s perhaps not surprising: with Chinese people increasingly aware of their rights as consumers—and, perhaps, as citizens too—these days, protests by passengers angry at shoddy treatment by state-run airlines (many of which still seem to hanker for the unaccountable days of old) have become commonplace, and the police are often very wary of intervening for fear of provoking a violent reaction. (I saw such a case myself at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport a couple of weeks ago, when a passenger furious at the cancellation of his flight due to fog leapt onto the counter of an airline desk and began screaming at the top of his voice. Two young policemen hovered nervously nearby, watching but taking no action.) These days, it seems, achieving total unity of opinion among people who feel increasingly empowered as individuals may not be quite as easy as it was in the days when the People’s Daily first wrote such headlines.

Duncan Hewitt is a former BBC China correspondent who now writes for Newsweek and other publications from Shanghai, and is the author of Getting Rich First—Life in a Changing China (Vintage UK, 2008).

By Anne Henochowicz

The last two years have seen much talk about the explosion of social media as a tool of real change, most notably during the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s and Egypt’s revolutions were powered by Twitter and Facebook. Though these sites are blocked in China, Sina’s microblogging platform Weibo has also changed the political game in that country, forcing government accountability after last summer’s high-speed train crash in Wenzhou and contributing to the very public downfall of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. Weibo’s power may also lead to its demise. After rumors of a coup attempt spread recently, the comment function on posts was disabled from March 31 through April 3.

The rise of Weibo, concurrent with a tightening of restrictions on activists, has focused the world’s attention on Chinese social media. The cat-and-mouse game Chinese “netizens” play with the censors has made it onto the pages of the New York Times, The Economist, and the International Herald Tribune. What is so often missing, though, from the discussion of Internet freedom in China, as in the Middle East, is the role that “free world” business and politics plays in the mechanisms of censorship.

Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked is a synthesis of the global debate over Internet freedom. MacKinnon has extensive journalistic experience in China, but her book encompasses the breadth of Internet issues worldwide. The CNN Beijing bureau chief from 1998-2001, MacKinnon went on to become a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and later the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She is the co-founder of Global Voices, an international citizen journalist blog. She is currently a fellow at the New America Foundation and on the Global Network Initiative’s board of directors.

MacKinnon argues that Internet freedom depends on the “consent of the networked.” Like John Locke’s consent of the governed, the denizens of the Internet, its “netizens,” relinquish a certain amount of personal freedom in exchange for security. In the physical world, we accept that we need the police to protect us from harm. If the police are too weak, we don’t feel safe in public. But if the police have too much power, they bring a new kind of danger into our lives. Like real-world institutions, our virtual hegemons should guarantee our freedoms, not encroach on them.

The trouble with the Internet is that the kingdoms governing it—Facebook, Google, Yahoo—make their own rules. They are not accountable to netizens. They may apply their laws arbitrarily or change them without warning. Facebook, for example, has a loosely-enforced real-name policy. Zhao Jing, the Beijing blogger and journalist who goes by the pen name Michael Anti, found his Facebook account shuttered in 2011 for violation of the company’s real-name policy. But the same policy has not been applied to Beast, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s dog.

Zuckerberg argues that netizens should have nothing to hide online. But control over how much personal information exists about us online is vital to our real-world safety, whether we inhabit democracies or authoritarian regimes. Under South Korea’s short-lived real-identification registration requirement, netizens’ identities on the blogging platform Daum, YouTube, and other sites were tied to real names, ID numbers, and addresses. This allowed for the 2009 arrest of Park Dae-sung for “spreading false information to harm the public interest,” even though he blogged under a pseudonym. The real-name regulations remained until July 2011, when the national ID numbers of of about 35 million people were stolen from a popular Korean Web portal.

China’s four biggest microblogging platforms, including Sina Weibo, are phasing in real-ID requirements as of March 16. Users can keep their unregistered accounts, but eventually will not be able to post without giving their real names and mobile phone numbers. This not only threatens Weibo’s freewheeling atmosphere, but also leaves users vulnerable to identity theft.

It is easy to pin all of the on blame the Chinese government. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google all had their time in China, before some “mass incident” or conflict between the company and the government threw it on the other side of the Great Firewall. But we should not forget that American Internet and technology companies have also played a role in online censorship. Perhaps the most egregious example is the case of journalist Shi Tao, arrested in 2004 after sending an email from his Yahoo account to the organization Democracy Forum about directives for reporters leading up to June 4. At the Beijing state security bureau’s request, Yahoo turned in all of Shi’s “login times, corresponding IP addresses, and relevant email content.” Shi is still serving his jail sentence.

In the wake of Shi’s conviction, Yahoo made significant changes to its corporate policy to keep similar human rights violations from happening again. MacKinnon is not anti-corporation or anti-regulation, and makes a point of talking about the efforts some governments and Internet companies have made to protect netizens. She also emphasizes the role netizens in the free world can play in promoting a global open Internet. While circumvention software to “climb the wall,” anonymizers, and other tools made in the Western world for people living with a less-than-free Internet have their place, we can do the most good for netizens worldwide by making Internet companies at home accountable to us.

American netizens rose to the task earlier this year in their petition against the House’s SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and the Senate’s PIPA (Protect IP Act), bills which would punish Web platforms allowing copyrighted material to be shared and force Internet service providers and search engines to block access to “rogue websites.” On January 18, Wikipedia and other websites coordinated a blackout in protest. The blackouts, petitions, and rallies influenced the postponement of hearings on both bills.

There is plenty of talk about what is censored online, but not nearly enough about how. To understand why online conversations evolve as they do in China—or Iran, or the US—we need to understand the mechanisms that support those conversations. And to make the Internet free for everyone, we need to start at home.

Anne Henochowicz is the translation coordinator for China Digital Times. She earned her masters in Chinese literature and folklore from The Ohio State University. She lives in Washington, D.C. You can reach her on Twitter @murasakint.

Vukovich, Daniel F. China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the P.R.C. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012. xviii, 185 pp. $130.00 (cloth).

By Fabio Lanza

This slim, sharply-argued volume should be a mandatory reading for all of us who work on post-1949 China. China and Orientalism is a refreshing and often eye-opening analysis on how knowledge of the object called “China” has been constructed in the West since the end of Maoism. That knowledge, as Vukovich cogently demonstrates, is fundamentally flawed.

Writing as a “barbarian” outside the disciplinary gates— i.e. a self-declared non-sinologist (pp. xii-xiii) —Vukovich argues that, since the late 1970s, Western knowledge production about the PRC has been dominated and defined by a new form of Orientalism. But while for Edward Said the East was the irreducible “other,” the location of the absolute difference, the new Sinological-Orientalism construes China as the place of “becoming sameness” (p. 2). By this he means that China remains the other—it is still not normal—but is now placed within a scale of hierarchical difference, one in which it is always in the process of becoming like the West: liberal, open, modern, and free. In Vukovich’s essential re-formulation, this China is always the realm of the “not yet” (p. 3). In this sense, Sinological-Orientalism, as embodied by the scholarship of the China studies field, continues on the well-worn path of Cold War discourse, which was in turn displacing and subsuming the language of colonialism. With this novel incarnation of Orientalism, the domination of modernization theory and anti-communism is even more total and unopposed, Vukovich argues, because the actual existence of Maoist China briefly allowed for the possibility of an alternative to this domination, and that possibility is now irreparably gone. Also gone, one may add, is the radical scholarship that China inspired in the West throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Without that counterpart, the dominance of the Sinological-Orientalist gaze is seemingly absolute and irrefutable.

Written with spunk and with attention to theoretical details, China and Orientalism relies on an impressive array of examples and Vukovich’s solid analysis. Vukovich is keen to show how the object “China” has not been produced only or specifically in the hallowed halls of Western academia; rather, the colonial discourse of Sinological-Orientalism is part of a larger knowledge/power articulation. In fact, one added bonus of the work is that it illustrates how this perception of China is manufactured through the repetition, across different fields, of the same colonial discourse. Vukovich moves with dexterity among literature, scholarship, film, and journalism, from Don DeLillo’s MAO II to the documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace, from Slavoj Žižek to the pages of the New York Times.

To take just one example, looking at the Tiananmen protests of 1989, Vukovich singles out how the event has been recoded in Western interpretations as the narrative of an always-emerging civil society. His criticism is particularly biting when he illustrates how the statements of the workers in the Square were twisted and re-interpreted because of their criticism of the socio-economic effects of the reforms and their overtly Maoist vocabulary. The latter can only be ignored or ascribed to nostalgia, so that the workers can be incorporated under the civil society model. No matter what they actually say or do, Vukovich argues, the people of China are perceived by foreign observers as ultimately wanting to become the same with the West—and thus they are always doomed to fail.

Vukovich’s examination of the recent outpouring of literature on the Great Leap Forward and the ensuing famine is also particularly timely and subtle. By scrutinizing the claims and the narrative strategies of works such as Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts and Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, Vukovich invites us to look at the meaning of the very act of counting, behind the race towards generating the always-increasing death toll accounts. He suggests that the drive to produce knowledge on the Great Leap disproportionately in the form of numbers—rather than analyses of its economy and the causes for its failure, as Jack Gray and Carl Riskin have provided—might have a more profound significance, masked behind the professed anti-theoretical empiricism of this scholarship. By reducing the experiments of the Maoist period to a statistical set of “excess deaths,” it becomes much easier to dismiss collectivism or socialism in their entirety, and with that any residual challenge they may still pose today to the neoliberal model. Moreover, as Vukovich illustrates by referencing Bernard Cohn’s theory on British knowledge production in India, this “enumerative modality” is essentially colonial. It is also, and this is another crucial point of the book, essentially anti-political. A fundamental aspect of Sinological-Orientalism in all its manifestations is the denial of any political value to the Maoist and post-Maoist periods, as though politics ceased to exist in China after 1949, or could exist only as failed mimicry of the liberal West (as in 1989).

Reading Vukovich’s book leads me to wonder what a volume about knowledge production of the PRC within China would look like. Anecdotally, one could cite examples of the penetration and absorption of Sinological-Orientalist discourse in the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan; self-orientalizing is nothing new, and Vukovich hints at it in his critique of Chen Xiomei’s Occidentalism, but a more systematic analysis is needed. This obviously exceeds the scope of China and Orientalism, but I hope that Vukovich might take it up in a future project.

China and Orientalism is an essential contribution to our self-awareness as producers of knowledge and offers a welcome and indispensable criticism of the field. But Vukovich also provides examples throughout the volume of how a non-orientalist approach can be formulated, be it in the analysis of student protests or in film criticism, as in his appraisal of the movie Breaking With Old Ideas (Jue Lie). As for the prospects for a post-orientalist practice in the field of knowledge production, I tend to be more hopeful—or maybe I am simply more naïve: the very existence of a book such as China and Orientalism demonstrates the fact that there are scholars striving to construe, with the tools of theory and empirical research, a different approach to the study of China.

Fabio Lanza is Associate Professor of Modern Chinese History at The University of Arizona.

© 2012 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Whenever I take a trip that includes stops in Shanghai and Beijing, two people I make sure to meet up with are Jeremy Friedlein and David Moser, the Academic Directors of the CET study abroad programs in those cities. I do this for several reasons. One is that CET has deep ties to China Beat, since the blog’s founding editor Kate Merkel-Hess and current editor Maura Cunningham are both alums. Another reason is that, for almost two years now, CET has been sponsoring a series of literary events at M on the Bund (in Shanghai) and now also Capital M (in Beijing) that put me in dialogue with local journalists and freelance writers. Last but by no means least, Jeremy and David know a lot of interesting people, so getting together with them always leads to my meeting at least one new person worth knowing. In the case of my most recent visit to Shanghai, this meant being introduced to Mary Bergstrom, who has been working on the topic of Chinese youth. Wearing her business professional’s hat, she runs a firm, The Bergstrom Group, that provides expert information on the subject to various international businesses, and wearing her writer’s one, she’s the author of the new book All Eyes East: Lessons from the Front Line of Marketing to China’s Youth. I recently sent her a series of questions about her work, as well as a couple that ask her to respond to recent youth-related pieces of writing by Evan Osnos and Pallavi Aiyar, authors well known to readers of this blog. Here are the things I asked her and her responses:

JW: You’ve been tracking trends relating to Chinese youth for years now, so what do you think are three things readers outside of China might not know about young people in the PRC that they should? Or tend to get wrong about this population?

MB: 1. Chinese youth are not “just like” or “on the way” to becoming Japanese or American (or any other population).

Of course they exhibit in some ways like other international cohorts, but in terms of motivations and expectations, they are on their own path that allows them to assign fresh meaning. Without siblings or parents who can really help them navigate modern China, young Chinese are in a unique situation.

2. Consumption is an important social value.

While the word “consumerism” has almost become a dirty word in many places, having the ability to consume has positive meaning in China. It means that you are able to participate in a modern lifestyle; you are not being left out. Unable to participate politically or rebel openly against authority, youth can take their work as consumer pioneers very seriously. Sharing their experiences and expertise helps them build important social capital and get recognition for providing value to their social circles.

3. The future is up for grabs.

Youth in China are doing more than just buying brands and downloading free entertainment, they are quietly and irreverently changing the future of the world we all live in. Youth’s ideas about intellectual property (a product’s value to a consumer is more important than its value to a company), constant digital connectivity (a 24/7 lifeline and best friend), and flexibility about subcultures (valuing personalized mash ups over paying homage to past conventions) are a few areas where youth are leading.

JW: I often stress the impossibility of generalizing about “the Chinese,” due to the enormous variability within the population of the PRC, due to factors ranging from class to region to generation. I assume you would agree about the generation gap idea, which I argue is far more extreme than in, say, the United States due to the rapidity of change in China during the last couple of decades. I wonder, though, if you think regional divides are as crucial among young Chinese as they are among members of other generations. To put this another way, is popular culture and mass media making young Chinese in Shanghai less different than young Chinese in Sichuan than older Chinese in those two places might be in terms of the way they spend their time and think about the world?

MB: Many differences in attitude and behavior in China can be related to access. Because of the Internet, there is a certain amount of common culture that has no physical boundaries. The combination of this connectivity and increased time spent outside communities they are born into (for work, travel, study) allows people to explore specific interests and bring that knowledge back to their own communities.

Regional differences are important and migration patterns complicate matters further but the big and unavoidable difference is that someone from a larger city has more role models and outlets to broaden their ideas about what is possible—and acceptable. Youth in areas with less access are confined to the norms of their immediate communities.

JW: One piece on Chinese youth I’ve come across recently that interested me is this blog post by Evan Osnos. Does it fit in with your feelings about the topic?

MB: An image of an individual figure holding up a sign to communicate a personal feeling is popular online and in magazines. I am glad to see that someone is taking the time to collect and share the style thoughtfully. Hopefully getting a wider audience for the real lives of young Chinese (not just the numbers) will inspire more investigation.

JW: Here’s a second, very different piece on young Chinese I’ve read lately that I liked a lot. Any reactions to this one, which was written by Pallavi Aiyar?

MB: It’s funny. I am reading this article in Paris actually and have just finished an errand for my ayi who just happens to be from Chongqing—buying a gift for her husband who is doing construction work in Inner Mongolia. I was tasked with finding a Swiss watch for him that would cost her more than a month’s salary (but would cost around 5000 RMB). Unlike these young travelers, she is not rich but she does share the same aspiration to show that her family is part of the tide of change, they are not being left behind. This need to broadcast as a modern consumer drives the stories of young Chinese saving months of salary for a luxury branded handbag or newly released mobile phone.

When it comes to paving the way for the next generation, Chinese parents are experts. Even though the article is about privileged families, middle class parents will gladly scrimp for months to help their child access tools that can help them get ahead in the future (extracurricular activities, tutoring, travel abroad, etc.). This article highlights two uniquely Chinese points of view: consumption is an important part of modern life and it is parents’ role to pave the way for youth (with the understanding that youth will then reciprocate when parents age).

The last point in the article that I agree with that may shock readers is a pride in country, even after being exposed to the outside. Chinese are proud of their country’s path and in terms of opportunity, flexibility, and pace of development, they understand that there is no place like home.

JW: Last but not least, about your book that I mentioned in the lead-in to this interview. When does it come out? What sort of audience or audiences did you have in mind when writing it? And what do you think it does that none of the other books on China—and there have been a flood of them lately—do?

MB: I wrote All Eyes East to serve as a testimonial to a truly unique population set adrift into the future without siblings or parents to guide them. When I first began researching youth in China, I wanted a book like this for myself. In all these years working with companies who depend on youth as workers and consumers, I wanted a book like this for them. It is built for those who are considering the market and also for those who have been here for decades.

First of all, it is a true honor and privilege to be able to share this. I wanted to make it a truly fundamental and worthy piece so I planned an outline that would help readers understand young Chinese as people and how their environment guides them as consumers. I gathered years of our own research and hand-picked the most interesting youth phenomena and marketing campaigns that would allow the audience to truly grasp the past and glimpse the future. Interviews with marketing icons, dedicated academics, and brand leaders were also carefully selected to help readers benefit from lessons earned.

I hope that the end result helps get people to feel like they know and understand the biggest game changing population of our time and maybe even inspire them to make better choices because of it. The book is out now in the US, the end of April in Europe and end of May in Asia.