Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chinese Political Reform: A Question of Hu, Wen and How

Last week, I argued at considerable length (sorry) about my belief that China's fundamental underpinnings have not really changed that much, but rather, that it has adopted a Confucianist type of reverence for the “old white men” of Western science and economics.  Reading the Western experience as a road map, China's been able to develop rapidly, in part because the majority of its population has not adopted the pesky democratic habit of publicly questioning the wisdom of each particular action.  I believe this makes sense, it's much harder to blaze a trail than to follow it, and requires very different institutional capacities -- China's long tradition just happens to be one of the best at following the precepts of its venerated classes.

The problem for China, though, is just how far to go on this second journey West?  Wen Jiabao and a group of party liberals have recently made their case for universal values, made manifest in political reform and increases in the rights of speech and the press.  These leaders seem to hold to the notion, (surprisingly?) prevalent in China, that democracy is inevitable -- a striking imbibing of 19th century Europe's belief in the inevitability of “progress."  The star of last week's blog, Mao Yushi, has more to say about the necessity of political reform, and does so again in a forthright, hilarious way here: “nobody trusts the government.”

So, one group of China's patriarchs has spoken, but many have been wondering the following: where's Hu Jintao in all of this? I think to many of us in the West -- perhaps because we were reared on bianary conceptions of good and evil in popular movies and literature -- assume that for Wen's “Luke Skywalker” there must be a “Darth Vader,” and Hu seems the most likely choice (or rather, the default choice, because really, how many other members of the Politburo can you name?). Of course, Darth Vader wasn't a simple character by any means, and neither is Hu.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Your Old Men Will Dream Dreams: Wen Jia Bao's “Political Reform” and "Universal Values," Party Elders Calling for Free Speech, and the Addition of Old White Men into the Chinese Canon

There's an old, apparantely mis-attributed, quote by Winston Churchill that reads, “Show me a young conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains.”  Whoever said it, I'd like to suggest that this is a kind of Western common knowledge.  We expect our children to feel, question, and explore – to make something new.  We expect that, through the process of maturation, accumulation, and procreation, those older than us will naturally become more conservative, as they have very important things – their children, choices, and dignity, among others – to protect.

Of course there are myriad exceptions to this rule, but I'd like to argue that this “common knowledge” is what makes dramatic actions, admissions, and changes of course by our elders so moving, and so persuasive.   Our fathers say things like this.  After twenty years of fly fishing with me and my two brothers, and after we'd just finished yet another day of scaring trout upstream with nothing to show for it, none of us expected my dad to sit down, sigh, and then laugh hysterically, saying, “We really don't know what we're doing, do we?”  We didn't, but never thought that he'd say that.  When the formally pro-death penalty Supreme Court Justice Blackmun stated, after twenty years of trying to formulate a just death penalty process, “I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death,” it caused even the most pro-death penalty law students to pause, and even the least wonder-prone to wonder.

I believe that in China, this “common knowledge” is exactly the opposite.  Tradition, pragmatism, and political necessity require that the young use their brains conservatively, nodding their way up professional and social ladders that don't want their opinions but only their obedience.  Only once one is at the top of the ladder can one be explicit about what her heart is telling her.   This, in some ways, is the essence of a Confucian, conservative society: learn everything that's been learned, experience everything that can be experienced, have children, wallow in life's complexity and contradictions, learn about hypocrisy, submit your will to the mass of greatness that has come before you, and if you still have something to say at 70, maybe we'll listen to you.

So while the common knowledge may be different here in the Middle Kingdom, the power of such admissions of elders may be even greater because their audience is better prepared to accept them (or, at least, less prepared to disagree).  Our elders here have said quite a lot of late.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Liu Xiaobo, Weibo, Beethoven, the Nobel Prize and Whether to Feel Happy or Sad


“There's a Chinese man named Liu, who has for a long time devoted himself to the non-violent human rights movement. Today he received an award.” -- Posted today on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-type site.

I cannot read this phrase without emotion, and keep returning to it like one might return again and again to the notice of a death of a loved one.  The only difference being, perhaps, that I'm uncertain of whether I'm happy or sad.

It reminds me of when I was younger and would play Beethoven's simple piece for children, Lustig, Traurig (Cheerful, Sorrowful), a two-page song that had two themes -- one major, one minor, one happy, and one sad -- both beautiful.  Beethoven had you play Lustig first, then Traurig, and then finish with Lustig, intimating, at least to me, the romantic view that we can (and maybe, should) pass through difficulty to find an even greater, enlightened happiness.  And it's true, Lustig has another layer of meaning once you've played Traurig. I was less convinced though, in high school, and would keep playing through the coda, from Lustig to Traurig, over and over, in a kind of musical Russian roulette, daring myself to stop after Traurig, to ignore Beethoven's notation, but perhaps also his admonition, that finding joy amidst sadness is something we must do to stay sane.  It's why Dostoyevsky could write entire novels that depressed you, but would finish with two pages of exuberant (desperate) hope.  I still don't know if I'm convinced, but tonight I'd certainly like to be.


The man in the above quote, Liu, is of course, Liu Xiaobo, who was just announced to be this year's recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.  He is most likely not aware of this fact, however, as he has taken up an eleven-year residency in a Liaoning prison, sent there for subversive activities.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Something Forgotten in the State of Denmark? Crowding out the Mermaid at the Shanghai Expo

I went to the World Expo yesterday, to add my scalp to that of the 70-odd million others Shanghai plans to have notched to its belt when this whole thing is over.  Despite the fact that I have had many opportunities to go in the past and that I only live ten miles away, this was my first visit.   It had taken all of five months for me to overcome my cynicism; my childish urge to dislike anything too many other people like; and my fear of four, five, and even eight-hour waits to see single exhibits.  But China doesn't need you to approve or disapprove of anything it does, and it is this Taoist (?) desirelessness that assures that it wins most battles of wills.

So I went, holding firm to my mantra that it's better to have had mixed emotions and lost than to have never had your emotions mixed at all.

And mixed they were.  There's plenty of great things to see, and eat.  It was a lot of fun introducing the Chinese I was with to authentic Belgian fries, Thai food, and Turkish ice cream.  The architecture of many of the exhibits is really outstanding, breathtaking even.  However, the insides were often a different story. Or, rather, many different stories.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

China vs. Japan, Out of the Mouths of Babes

A few days ago I was walking along the road, weaving in and out of what must have been a kindergarten class coming back from a field trip. Chinese kids are cute. Not just in the way that all little versions of people-not-your-own are cute, but they've also got another quality that makes them even more endearing: Unlike children in (most parts of) the world, Chinese go to school to learn not just how to read and write but also how to speak.

Mandarin, while it's spoken by an increasing number of Chinese, is often not the language spoken in the home—especially here in Shanghai. This means that elementary school language classes are packed with pronunciation and oral Chinese classes. You even have to pass pronunciation tests to graduate from high school and college, which is why foreign teachers here are constantly asked if their English pronunciation is the “standard” pronunciation (and obviously, unless you're from Wisconsin, it's not). So, if you listen carefully to a young Chinese speaking Mandarin, they speak with a broken, self-consciously exaggerated enunciation, as if whatever they were saying was still part of the rote exercises they did in class, and also as if they're taking the first greedy bite of a candied apple. It's cute, trust me.

On the day in question, I happened to be eavesdropping on this phalanx of hyper-enunciators. From behind me I heard, “If I were a Chinese official...” followed by a dramatic pause. I knew this pause. This was a kid who wasn't talking to anyone, but rather, to some imaginary everyone. He was a transcendentalist, who had made up his mind about something and was going to proclaim it to the world, regardless of who was listening or how out of context it was.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Festival for Longing

Yesterday was Mid-Autumn Festival, the Chinese celebration of the fall equinox. Because it's one of those holidays related to the seasons and the harvest, it's very old, and potentially quite meaningful. I say potentially, because, in many ways, Mid-Autumn Festival could have all of the blissful simplicity of Thanksgiving, but the traditional holiday killers of modernization and commercialization haven't left Mid-Autumn Festival unscathed.

For starters, like Thanksgiving, Mid-Autumn festival is about reunions: all you really have to do for Mid-Autumn festival is get together with your family for a great meal, perhaps light some lanterns, and recite one of the seemingly hundreds of Chinese poems to the moon. The first problem is that a lot of people don't go home (talked about here), for a variety of reasons, big and small: My girlfriend's sister-in-law missed our meal because she was attending a class on how to dress fashionably. (Presumably for occasions of more import to her than 3000-year-old holidays.) The rest of us watched the Chinese version of Dick Clark's New Year's extravaganza. Which is fine, but for the fact that every Chinese holiday ends up nearly the same way, with a variety show that stultifies most meaningful familial conversation. (Come to think of it, it's just like Thanksgiving.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Answer to Societal Corruption? A Liberal Arts Education: The Chinese Stanley Fish Speaks

Today, browsing Professor Liu Cheng's blog, I came across a fascinating interview with the dean of Fudan University, the top university in Shanghai and one of the top universities in China.  Of course, while I'm always thrilled to read every dean interview I can get my hands on, it was the title of this interview that particularly intrigued me: "The Collapse of the Chinese University Consciousness."

It seems fair to ask what consciousness existed that could have collapsed, as it was only thirty years ago that many of China's universities re-opened after being shut down for years during the Cultural Revolution.  Well, Dean Yang answers that:

“If there's corruption, bribery, and sex-power transactions even within the universities, then is there any point in talking about social trust at large? Universities are getting carried away with following the trends, and have become employment services. ...."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What'll it be World...Cup or Expo?

If you haven't heard, the World Expo's taking place right now in Shanghai, the same time that South Africa's hosting the World Cup.  Assuming you had to pick one to visit, to which would you go?

I'm a fan of an educated decision, so let's look at the stats:

Stats de Excess
  • Shanghai's spent forty-five billion US dollars on the event, more than was spent on the Beijing Olympics.
  • South Africa's spent over five billion US dollars, nearly 2% of its GDP.

Stats de Exasperation
Factor de la Determination

So, as far as excess and exasperation indicators go, they're running neck and neck. What to do? Please allow me to offer the determining factor: their official songs.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Tennis and Implicit Quality

I'm no good at writing home about my day. Sometimes I'll write home – paragraphs, pages – and I'll still get this reply from my mom, “That's nice Seth, but what have you been doing?” So here goes. I'm going to try and stick to a narrative.

Yesterday my girlfriend and I went to play tennis. It's the first time she's ever played, which I felt gave me good odds. Thus far, we've only played sports that were geared to her strengths (coordination, focus, poise, general motor skills) and not to mine (the fact that I'm twice her size). Of the racquet/paddle sports, then, tennis was the natural choice, especially because she's had a plastic dry cleaning bag stuffed with over one hundred brand new tennis balls sitting on her balcony for over five years -- a present from a friend at an athletic club who never bothered to ask her if she owns a tennis racquet, plays tennis, or puts much stock into gift presentation.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wen and Wenceslas

Here's the title of a recent article I saw on, “We have to show care and concern for the new generation of peasant [migrant] workers just like we would for our own children.”

“On June 14th, on the approach of the Chinese people's joyful celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival [Duan Wu Jie], Premier Wen Jia Bao successively visited a number of child welfare institutions, the 'Modernize/Enrich One's Country' Community, and the construction site at the Line Six 'Peace' subway stop; [he went] to call on orphaned and disabled children and those receiving little social aid, to understand the current vegetable supply and price situations at the farmers' market, and to convene a 'new generation of migrant workers' symposium.”

I have great respect for Premier Wen Jia Bao (see my earlier posts on his “dignity” comments), and it was with equally great interest that I opened the link to this article about Wen's recent day with the people. As I've mentioned earlier, “Grandpa Wen” is the human side of the central government, a side that has been increasingly shown in the news media. Proving again that no one can compete with China in either photo op quality or quantity, Wen managed to visit poor and disabled children, poor pensioners, the poor pensioners' market, and the new generation of poor migrant workers all in one morning. (Showing care and concern for one dispossessed group is good. Showing care and concern for every dispossessed group is better.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Building Up and Tearing Down? Educating Workers on the Labor Law

Just today, I got my hands on a workers' pocket guide to the Labor Contract Law, China's new labor law that's been hailed as (or hoped to be) a panacea for many of China's labor problems, as well as for the recent, worrisome, social unrest and growing economic inequality. I had lots of other materials to choose from, some far more erudite and enlightening no doubt, but this one had diagrams, cartoons, and middle-school-level Chinese, so naturally I started with it.

It's a small, passport-sized book, limited to a few dozen pages, but it does an excellent job of introducing the law to any worker who's lucky enough to receive a copy. The law's taught in a Q & A format, with the questions pertaining to real-life problems at the beginning of each chapter: “Little Ming's factory didn't have money to pay her this month, so they gave her a box of pants off the assembly line and told her to go sell them on the street in order to get her monthly wage.  Is this legal or not?  Answer: No. It is not.”

I learned quite a bit, but wouldn't have thought it worth mentioning here until I got to the last chapter, which has the laconic title, “Life.” There's no labor law talk here, but simply a chapter that seeks to help the readers –most likely “peasant” migrant workers―to adjust to life in China's cities. “Life” is kind of a cross between the State Department Travel Warnings and Miss Manners, and it had me laughing on the subway (something it strictly forbids).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Dignity, Always Dignity?" -- Wen Jia Bao Does His Own Singing in the Reign

"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, meet Wen Jia Bao, “Everything we do we do to ensure that the people live a happier life with more dignity.”


"Grandpa Wen," as he is (mostly) affectionately named, said this in his "state of the nation" address at the opening session of the National People's Congress, a three thousand member assembly which has no problems with super-majorities.  That little word, "dignity," piqued quite a bit of interest. 

My girlfriend mentioned his dignity-dropping immediately, claiming that his use of "that word, in this situation," was something big.  At first, I thought she'd just mentioned it since it's been a recurring theme of mine over the past year.  I feel strongly that China's going to have to produce a robust theory of an "Eastern" conception of dignity if it wants to continue claiming that many of the rights mentioned in the above-cited UDHR are really just Western cultural norms masquerading as universal rights. But she could've cared less about what I said.  She meant that this was actually important.

Later that week, Wen, doing his best Obama impersonation, engaged Chinese netizens in an internet chat, and answered one blogger's question, "...[W]hat does it mean that people need to live with more dignity?"  

[Side note: I really do feel that he is impersonating Obama.  As hard as the Western press was on Obama for not taking a tougher stance with China in his last visit, Obama's internet town hall meeting in Shanghai had a dramatic effect on many of the people here.  Chinese leaders are rarely willing to engage private citizens directly, especially broadcast in real time.  Since Obama's speech, I don't think I'm wrong in noticing an uptick in Wen's "regular guy" appearances, this internet chat being just one example.]

Back to the question. Here's Wen's response. 

"...My speech was only 800 characters, but those two words ["dig" "nity"] have elicited the attention of the whole country.  I've seen quite a lot of opinions on it.  When I said I 'want all people to live with more dignity,' I meant mainly three aspects: first, every citizen should enjoy the freedom and rights they are entitled to under the constitution and the law. Regardless of who it is, in the eyes of the law, everyone should enjoy equality. Second, the ultimate goal of Chinese development is to satisfy the increasing material demands of the people, there is no [goal] other than this. Third, society’s complete development must be based on people’s individual development. We want to give people freedom and complete development to create profitable conditions, let their wisdom and skills compete to burst forth. That was what I meant by dignity."  

If you haven't lived over here, it's hard to exaggerate the amount of scrutiny the words of high-ranking officials undergo, especially those made in formal situations.  More than that, it's even harder to exaggerate the social, political, even legal effects that can spring from such statements.  Of course, since I have to play my own devil's advocate here, it's also difficult to exaggerate the amount of beautiful, idealistic language that fills the Chinese constitution.  (Or, I should say,"has filled, fills, was redacted and refilled, and will fill.")

It's been a tough last year: tough for US-China relations, labor relations, China-Google-internet-at-large relations, minority relations, etc.  I was just reflecting on my last few entries, and I realized that they've all smacked of a growing pessimism, or at least frustration, with things here in China.  There's a reason for that, I have become a bit more pessimistic in this past year.  But it's not just me, I'd like to believe that I'm channeling a collective consciousness of my Chinese friends and colleagues, many of whom go to sleep with these troubled relations on their minds. 

I think that's why Wen's words "elicited the attention of the whole country."  While a lot of this "attention" was sarcastic, disillusioned, and even downright mean, I still saw something in my girlfriend's eyes that I haven't seen for a while: hope.  You don't forget hope when you see it in someone's eyes.  You might mistake it for love, but then you realize that you haven't done anything to deserve it that day.  

Thanks Wen. 

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chinese Justice, The Internet, and Chinese Internet Justice

If it were possible to summarize my overarching purpose in coming to China, I suppose it might be this: to understand the Chinese sense of justice.  This of course, is impossible, and one of those silly pursuits I should have abandoned in my youth.  But like McDonald's double cheeseburgers, bad television, and trying to make people like you, there are just some silly pursuits that never leave you; nor, perhaps, on second thought, should they.

Since I have yet to figure out what Chinese justice is, any time I try to explain it to someone else, I just end up telling stories.  Until I read the article on "human flesh searches" linked below, "justice" boiled down to two recent news stories -- one that made you laugh, and one that terrified.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Moral Dilemmas Solved While You Wait, Subway Art in Shanghai

A few weeks ago I was waiting for my subway transfer and was struck by the art that lay across the tracks. Subway ads are normally filled with carefully manicured models or slick public service messages about forming lines, being polite to others, and other "civilizing" behavior.  You can imagine my surprise then, when I saw the two pictures posted here staring me in the face.  They're abrasive, messy, and dark, with cryptic messages to match their aesthetic: impassioned admonitions to avoid giving money to child beggars, an alarming and increasing phenomenon on the Shanghai subways.  I'll do my best to translate this Guggenheimaganda.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Debating Rules and Standards with Cab Drivers

Law school classes are filled with heavy, pedantic concepts, but even more than that, they're overflowing with explanatory analogies and metaphors describing those concepts. ("Law is a is a tool.. no, is a toolbox.") Perhaps it's just the nature of law, or of lawyers, to take a concept and explain it in five different ways. I think the variety stems -- in large part -- from the awareness that the "successful" analogy (in the meme sense of the word) carries a lot of interpretive power, and can result in the liberal or conservative use of a particular law or set of laws.  Whatever the reason, legal concepts, like hailstones, pick up layers of understood meaning as they descend through the troubled minds of legal thinkers and into the (unfortunately?) not-so-troubled minds of the public.

Some analogies do work, though. One analogy that has always made sense to me has been to think of the differences between legal rules and legal standards as stop signs and yield signs. This connection isn't metaphorical -- the commands to "stop" and "yield," are, in fact, respectively, a real legal rule and a real legal standard.  Here in Shanghai,  I'm reminded of how important those two concepts are every time I cross the street.


More on that later.  What I really want to talk about today is red right turns.

While out running a few weeks ago, I was nearly hit by a taxi driver who ignored me and the ten other people walking with me in the crosswalk.  We were huddled together in the traditional, flounder-like, strength-in-numbers phalanx -- one of us might not make it across, but at least most would.  As the cab passed by us, narrowly missing our group's outliers, my emotions got the better of me and I slapped the trunk.  No damage was done to the car (or my hand), but it was enough to get him to stop, get out, and challenge me to a heated, extemporaneous battle of rhetoric and wit.  He spoke on a sort of "Madlibs for Adults" script.

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