30 (more) new books on my Contemporary China reading list


Its that time of year again: Crisp mornings, football on TV and a growing buzz on campus as more and more students return for class. Preparing syllabi, reading lists and otherwise getting geared up for a new semester’s classes is one of my favorite recurring tasks. In the autumn semester I teach a freshman module (c. 200 students), entitled Introduction to Contemporary China. It is a wonderful and challenging class: For one thing about half the students have rudimentary to zero previous exposure to teaching on China, while another half were born and raised in the country. The quest to get the pitch right, and to keep up with all the fantastic work being done in China Studies, requires a lot reading over the summer. My extended reading list this semester comprises about 350 titles, split evenly between books and journal articles. Online sources form a separate (long) list. Last year I listed 30 recent books. Those books are still very much in the rotation, indeed some are core assigned texts. Below I list a further 30 that I have newly added for this semester with links to Amazon and author Twitter handles where applicable. Most were published in the last year or two, with a couple of recently remembered golden oldies thrown in. The challenge with this freshman module, which covers a huge amount of ground from the economy and domestic politics to foreign relations and civil society, was to choose texts on the basis of excellence, accessibility, balance, recency and ‘pep’. Thoughts via Twitter @jonlsullivan.

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2013) by @jwassers with @mauracunningham

Intimate Politics: Marriage, the Market, and State Power in Southeastern China (Harvard 2006) by Sara Friedman

The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China (Tauris, 2014) by @Bkerrychina

Contagious Capitalism: Globalization and the Politics of Labor in China (Princeton 2007) by Mary Gallagher

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa (Knopf, 2014) by @hofrench. My review is here

China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy (Harvard 2008) by Minxin Pei

The People’s Republic of Amnesia (Oxford, 2014) by @limlouisa

Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine (Penguin, 2013) by Yang Jisheng

Gifts, Favours, and Banquets: The Art of Social Relationships in China (Cornell 1994) by Mayfair Yang

Collective Resistance in China: Why Popular Protests Succeed or Fail (Stanford, 2009) by Cai Yongshun

Remaking the Chinese Leviathan: Market Transition and Governance (Stanford 2006) by @Dali_Yang

From Mao to Market: Rent Seeking, Local Protectionism, and Marketization in China (Cambridge 2009) by Andrew Wedeman

The Industrialization of Rural China (Oxford 2007) by Chris Bramall (Editor of @chinaquarterly)

Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China (Cambridge, 2013) by Daniela Stockmann

On China (Penguin, 2012) by Henry Kissinger

Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations (Oxford, 2014) by @jessicacweiss

The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century (Routledge 2011) by Dennis Blasko

A War Like No Other: The Truth About China’s Challenge to America (Wiley 2007) by @RichardBushIII 

Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse (Rowman Littlefield, 2013) by Shelley Rigger

Northeast Asia’s Stunted Regionalism: Bilateral Distrust in the Shadow of Globalization (Cambridge 2004) by Gilbert Rozman

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (Zed, 2014) by @LetaHong

Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China (Oxford, 2014) by @jerometenk

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China (Random House, 2014) by @eosnos

Demystifying the Chinese Economy (Cambridge, 2011) by Justin Yifan Lin

The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land (Columbia, 2010) by Gardner Bovingdon

Tibet: A History (Yale, 2013) by @sam_vanschaik

This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Blogger (Simon & Schuster, 2012) by Han Han. My review here

Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones (NYU, 2013) by @carawallis. My review here

By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World (Oxford, 2014) by @LizEconomy and @levi_m

Shadow of the Silk Road (Vintage, 2007) by Colin Thubron

Taiwan’s Identity Crisis

I have an essay in The National Interest today on the “disappearance” of Taiwan identity. In fact Taiwan identity hasn’t disappeared at all: it is a powerful latent force in Taiwanese politics that to some extent has been superseded by an economic cleavage into which it also feeds. It is a complicated situation, particularly for the DPP, and how the parties attend to it will have a big effect on their electoral chances and the extent to which the coming period will break from the Ma era. Michael Turton and Ben Goren have some thoughtful immediate reactions (including pointing out lacuna) to the piece.   

Han Han: This Generation

It is somewhat disconcerting to read a blogger’s work, post after post, covering a span of several years. Blog posts are usually written in response to something that has just happened and it is the immediacy that gives them a sense of urgency and purpose. It is unfair to hold a blogger, whose currency is on-the-spot reaction, to the test of time, where the perspective of hindsight often trumps timeliness. To Han’s credit, the posts collected in This Generation (a small proportion of the hundreds of posts Han made in the period) hold up remarkably well. Some of this is down to editorial and authorial selection—most of the pieces have been drawn from a collection published in Chinese (in Taipei) in 2010 (Qingchun). Although some famous pieces are absent (for instance critiques of Chen Kaige, Bai Ye and Robin Li), as a representation of Han’s blogging oeuvre, This Generation is a useful collection for readers in English, especially for those coming to Han for the first time. Organized chronologically, the collection gives a strong sense of Han’s preoccupations and his changing personality over time. Notably, as he discusses in Talking About Democracy (Dec 24 2011) it is a period in which he has become increasingly “realistic”, losing much of his previous idealism and refocusing his expectations and exhortations on the Chinese people as well as criticizing the Party-State.

Thanks to a generous helping of international media curiosity, Han’s story is fairly well-known in the west. Born to lower middle class parents in the-then semi-rural outskirts of Shanghai, he left school at 17 after winning a national essay competition with a piece on the Chinese character (杯中窥人). The paradox of a high school dropout with a precocious literary talent (and a chip on his shoulder) generated controversy and the all-important “buzz.” The decision to focus his efforts on writing paid spectacular dividends, with his first novel (三重门), a tale of teenage romance amid the pressures of Chinese high school life, becoming a bestseller. Born in 1982, Han has, according to the blurb and foreword, come to represent China’s post-80s reform era generation. His brand of individualism certainly struck a nerve as the only-child/economic boom generation came of age, both among those attracted by his urban iconoclasm and the discomfort of their parents’ generation who had known a vastly different China of political upheaval and economic hardship. The scolding didacticism of some of Han’s critics (famously including the literary critic Bai Ye (白烨)), was a very visible manifestation of China’s growing generation gap. The post-80s generation suffered sustained attacks in the Chinese media for much of the last decade, criticised for the rebelliousness, cynicism and self-centredness manifest in Han’s trenchant writings and impatience with older norms. The literary establishment snootily said that Han and his ilk were hooligans writing worthless pop-fiction—Han responded that the literary establishment was a piece of shit, and watched his popularity soar.

Han’s novels and since 2006 his blog, have generated an extraordinarily large audience, by most accounts in the hundreds of millions, leading to the international recognition that concretized his reputation still further. His blog writings are critical, sarcastic, straightforward, observant, patriotic, detached, self-deprecating and often funny. They generally take current events and observations as their stimuli and focus, which acts as a springboard for broader social commentary, including much critique of the party and state. Via his blog, Han has evolved from a popular author with the trappings of the young pop star or movie idol (偶像), to become a serious critical social commentator. Han has been able to sustain his open critique of the party-state because he plays the give-and-take game more adroitly than Ai Weiwei, for instance, whose criticism and mobilization efforts leave little room for manoeuvre. Han is candid about this. In the post Talking Freely Wine in Hand (May 7 2010), he compares the interview styles of Chinese and foreign journalists. Noting that foreign reporters’ questions are more direct he writes “to answer that question would exact too high a price, one that’s not worth paying, at least not now.” Ironically, he continues “I tend to be more expansive with Chinese journalists because they will self-censor and nothing that gets into the paper will be problematic”. From the vantage point of a western democracy where freedom of speech is taken for granted it is facile to criticize the compromises needed to work within the prevailing information order and dismiss it as self-censorship.

Although Han has had some posts taken down by the censors, what remains can be highly critical, even on what one would imagine to be ‘sensitive’ topics. In Letters from Strangers (April 4 2010) for instance, he writes: “the letters and visits office is the only resource for most people who have been treated unjustly [but] in a country where the judiciary has no independence how can you expect another branch of government to come to your defence? Petitioning for redress not only gets [people] nowhere, but actually amounts to putting their own names on the blacklist.” In Youth (May 28 2010), Han asks “why have our politicians been able to pump up their chests ion the world political stage? It is because of you, China’s cheap labour: you are China’s gambling chips, hostages to GDP.” In Just Testing (15 Jan 2000) he reports tongue-in-cheek that “Shanghai’s bulldozers are pressing forward with urban construction at the rate of practically one crushed person a day”.

Han often wraps his criticism in ‘rational patriotism’—a fundamental desire to improve the country—while frequently lampooning the ironies of Chinese nationalism. Throughout This Generation there are references to the paradox of nationalism in the context of China’s rise: the curious mixture of arrogance and insecurity, simultaneous complexes of superiority and inferiority. He writes in Market Day for Patriots (April 20 2008), just a few months before the spectacular Beijing Olympics would wow a global audience: “Why is our national self-respect so fragile and superficial?” He was writing on the occasion of protests against French supermarket chain, Carrefour, the unfortunate scapegoat for the patriotic fury that erupted when pro-Tibet activists disrupted the progress of the Olympic Torch as it passed through Paris. Why should the world’s great rising power, with a much vaunted 5000 year civilization, feel so defamed as to seek to punish the blameless purveyor of (mainly Chinese) food and goods? In Insults to China (Aug 11 2007) he identifies another symptom: “We Chinese people have very thin skins. We respond very poorly to any kind of unfavourable opinion.” The causes of popular nationalism are not deeply probed, but the irony of patriotic protests (specifically the anti-Japan feeling with which patriotism is worryingly becoming synonymous) is neatly encapsulated in the post Should We or Shouldn’t We? (Sept 19 2010). Around the anniversary of the Mukden Incident, the pretext Imperial Japan concocted to invade Manchuria, Han recounts how he and his friends discussed whether or not to go onto the streets seeing that the government had allowed people to join the anti-Japan protests without consequence. In fact Han and his friends had no desire to protest against Japan, but simply felt: “Finally, in a nation where in many chat rooms it is impossible even to type the word demonstrate, we are free to demonstrate.”

Although Han has been a trenchant critic of the party-state, over time—dare I say, as he ages?—some of his arguments have become more ‘conventional’. The post Speaking of Revolution (Dec 23 2011) provides one such example. Here Han argues that the best time for a revolution in China is “when everyone knows to dim their headlights when they pass another car on the road. But a country like that doesn’t actually need a revolution at all. When the people’s personal calibre and education level reaches that point, everything will just happen automatically.” Wittingly or not, this argument invokes several tropes supporting the continuation of the status quo—Putting the onus on Chinese people to change (with the promise that everything will be ok if they do), rather than prompting the Party to reform. The need for the Chinese people to raise the level of their civilization (文明), suggesting that they are as yet insufficiently civilized to enjoy anything other than authoritarian rule, is an argument that stakeholders of the status quo including the Chinese Communist Party and the proponents of Asian Values and the alleged incompatibility of Confucian heritage and democracy, might put forward. This interpretation may be unfair, but Han’s pessimism towards the Chinese people has certainly increased over time. Instead of prompting questions about political change, he argues, “villagers’ resentment of authoritarian government and corruption [merely makes them ask] why can’t I or my family have what officials have?” Writing toward the end of the excessive Hu era, Han argued that narrow self-interest had come to define both the Party and the people, noting that “once a party reaches a certain scale it takes on the character of the people […] it can’t be thought of simply as a political party or a ruling elite. A lot of the time the Party’s shortcomings are the people’s shortcomings”.

Han’s fame and fortune have brought the curse of excessive adulation, envy and hatred. His activities have earned him a passionate and loyal following, and a comfortable lifestyle in a desirable city. He has also been attacked from various sides; conservatives affronted by his liberalism and ‘hot’ nationalists unwilling to listen to reason. Controversies follow him; rumours about ghost-written works refuse to go away. Han is an important figure in the study of contemporary Chinese society and the Chinese internet, but to sum up his views as manifest in This Generation, I would call it an ideology of reasonableness. It does not denigrate Han—not in a country that routinely jails people for their views—to say that his position on many issues is to advocate careful open-mindedness. This may sound like a recipe for platitudinizing, but it says much about the state of politics, society and public discourse in China that Han’s musings have gained such a following.

New trends in Taiwan politics research

Under the guidance of Professor Gunter Schubert and his team, in the space of six years or so the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan at the University of Tubingen has become one of the major centres of excellence for Taiwan Studies in Europe (disclaimer: I am an ERCCT Fellow). The ERCCT recently celebrated the solidification of its relationship with the Taiwan-based Chiang Ching Kuo Foundation, officially becoming the CCKF’s fourth overseas centre. This development provides a strong foundation for the ERCCT to continue developing the scope and scale of its activities and to solidify its status as a centre of excellence.

On July 14, the day after Germany became football world champions bathing the country in euphoria, the great and good of European Taiwan Studies (plus several scholars from the US and Taiwan) congregated in Tubingen to celebrate the signing of the new ERCCT-CCKF agreement. The celebration took the form of a symposium on the state of various aspects of the Taiwan Studies field. So, for instance, UC Berkeley’s Tom Gold presented an overview of the sociology field, Francoise Mengin of Sciences Po looked at cross-Strait relations, Gudrun Wacker of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs looked at European perspectives on Taiwan, Gary Rawnsley of Aberyswyth covered Taiwan’s public diplomacy etc. I was asked to present on the topic of “New trends in Taiwan’s domestic politics research.”

The health of the Taiwan studies field is something that I have been interested in for several years. As a PhD student I attended the European Association of Taiwan Studies conference in Madrid in 2009, where the eminent Taiwan scholar Murray Rubinstein from NYU gave a keynote entitled “Taiwan Studies is Dead”. For someone like me, desirous of an academic career and coming to the end of writing a thesis about Taiwan, Murray’s talk and the discussion afterwards were an enlightening experience, suggesting that Taiwan’s marginal position in international society was also mirrored in academia. However, for all its problems of political recognition, Taiwan is a powerhouse global economy, liberal democracy and globally respected for its achievements in technology. Similarly, despite the alleged reluctance of editors, funders, journals and universities to publish, fund and hire people working on Taiwan, the amount and range of academic research being done on Taiwan is hugely and increasingly abundant. In 2011 I published a paper in The China Quarterlyentitled “Is Taiwan Studies in Decline?” The answer to my own question, using a diverse range of metrics, was a resounding “No”. Despite facing a number of issues, some of them shared by all disciplines and thee Higher Education sector generally, Taiwan Studies (at least in the Anglophone west which I analysed) is buoyant and generating greater academic interest than ever before.

Asked to talk specifically about “new trends in political research”, I took Shelley Rigger’s 2002/3 paper published in Issues and Studies as my reference point. Excluding TJ Cheng and Andrew Marble’s 2004 piece in the same journal on Taiwan Studies and the broader social sciences, Shelley’s is the last state of the field survey of Taiwan politics research. Additionally, given the slow pace of the academic research and publishing processes, a decade is just about enough time for “new trends” to become apparent. The empirical basis for my talk is all academic journal articles published on the subject of Taiwan (the “superset”) and Taiwanese politics in the last decade (2004-14). My research assistant and I collected, read and coded hundreds of articles published in English language disciplinary and area specific journals. At this point I should acknowledge and thank the Taiwan Studies Program (administered by the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham) for financial assistance for this ongoing research. (In passing I should also note how excited I am that the ERCCT and the TSP/CPI have agreed to increase the scope and scale of our existing collaboration).

In her earlier paper, Shelley Rigger described Taiwan studies as “marginal but healthy,” and several data sources suggest this still pertains. Consider for instance that across 17 China/East Asia studies journals in the last decade close to 12% of all papers dealt with Taiwan. In some journals, notably (Taiwan-based) Issues and Studies and the American Journal of Chinese Studies, Taiwan research papers accounted for almost half of all published output. Yet the publication outlets where Taiwan research most frequently appears (the two noted above plus East Asia: An International Quarterly and Taiwan Journal of Democracy), are, in terms of impact factor and reputation, relatively marginal within the field. In the higher impact journals (The China Quarterly and China Journal for instance), the proportion of Taiwan articles decreases to around 5%. Another feature that Shelley identified was that the venues for publishing on Taiwanese politics were “sprawling and diverse”. That observation remains an accurate reflection of the field. But while research on Taiwanese politics has been published in an astonishing range of journals covering many cognate (and seemingly far distant) disciplines, these journals tend to be lower impact ones within the respective field.

One area where Taiwan is increasing its visibility is in the presence of Taiwan politics research in the top political science and IR journals. In the top 50 political science and IR journals (as measured by 5 year impact factor) over the past three decades, Taiwan is increasingly represented; from 35 articles in the 1980s, to 87 in the nineties and 117 in the noughties. Although there are periodic spikes of interest coinciding with presidential election years, there is consistently greater interest post-2000, the year that Chen Shui-bian won the presidency. I believe that this interest can be explained by the fact that many observers identified this juncture as the moment that Taiwan became a consolidated democracy, and thus became integrated into cross-national and comparative work on various features of democracy (parties, voting, institutions). Fairly or not, Chen Shui-bian’s rule was also characterized as being pro-independence and the cause of tensions with China (My China Quarterly paper with Will Lowe, “Chen Shui-bian: On Independence” disputes this claim), demanding greater attention from the American security crowd. As a result, the greater representation of Taiwan politics research in top disciplinary journals is driven by journals focusing on democracy (Journal of Democracy, Electoral Studies) and security/foreign policy (Foreign Affairs, International Affairs, International Security, Washington Quarterly, Survival). In the top generalist (APSR, AJPS, JOP, BJPS) and comparative (CPS, CP, WP) journals, Taiwan is as seldom featured as always (although it is increasingly likely to be included as a case in large-n comparative studies).

Within Taiwan Studies, certainly as judged by research output published in area studies journals, politics is the dominant discipline. In the last decade around one third of papers were on politics, increasing to around two thirds if we include IR and security in our definition of politics. Within that, the major focus of interest is institutions (including political parties), followed by public opinion/ elections/voting and public policy. Coding the content of Taiwan politics research papers published in disciplinary journals in the past decade, I found that institutions were the central focus of one third of articles and the subsidiary concern for a further 26%.  Public opinion/ elections/voting was the main focus of 21% of articles and secondary focus in a further 20%. Contrary to the period covered by Shelley in her earlier survey, national identity and democratization are no longer the most salient focal points of research on Taiwanese politics, combining for the focal point of around one fifth of papers.

In terms of “new trends”, research on Taiwanese politics is becoming more plural. First, as intimated above, there is huge diversity in disciplinary approaches applied to Taiwan’s politics, not just from cognate fields like economics and sociology, but anthropology, geography, linguistics and other fields further away from political science. The application, borrowing and modification of concepts and methods from these diverse fields is a positive development, and may help to explain the opening up of research interests away from the previous hegemonic national identity and democratization. The field is also more pluralistic in terms of the subjects that are now acknowledged to be sites of political expression or competition, e.g. baseball, dramas, use of language, religious pilgrimage, urban planning, curriculum, waste plants, migration, economic agreements etc.  Similarly, there is greater inclusivity in ‘who does politics’, and the dramatis personae in politics research now includes Taishang, guest-workers, mainland brides, housewives, disabled people, gravel extractors, ngos etc. This move beyond traditional elites, particularly party politicians, is especially visible in last few years as social movements have expanded both on the ground in the pages of academic journals.

It is nearly two decades since Lee Teng-hui became the first directly elected President in ROC history. This longer time frame has enabled researchers to take a longer-term view on political developments, manifest in a move away from “crisis studies” and stronger historical contextualization of the Lee and Chen Shui-bian presidencies. Most studies have now moved on from “this is uniquely crisis-like” to “This is how Taiwanese politics is”. Because Taiwan has now enjoyed most features of a liberal democracy for almost 20 years, these additional “data points” have encouraged longitudinal studies on a wide range of institutional and individual behaviours. The Chen administrations’ commitment to e-government and other moves designed to increase transparency have created huge amounts of data (which I report on in my China Quarterly paper “Electronic resources in the study of elite political behaviour in Taiwan”). In particular, there have been advances at the sub-national level which have encouraged researchers to look within-case to expand their studies on a variety of different types of political behaviour from budgets to divided government to election campaigning. As a result, we know more about politics at the local level, and these insights have fed into analyses at the national level.

Research on Taiwanese politics is now more comparative than it was when Shelley wrote her piece. One of the calls that Shelley made in that paper was for greater use of Taiwan as a case study and greater connections between Taiwan specialists and comparative scholars. Both of these have happened. Having become a fully-fledged democracy has gained Taiwan entry into long term cross-national studies such as the World Values Survey, Asia Barometer and various Comparative Election studies. Taiwan has also become an attractive case for scholars interested in “Confucian heritage” democracies (Korea, Japan), “small advanced economies” (Ireland, Israel) and Chinese societies (PRC, Hong Kong, Singapore). The developmental trajectories and experiences of Taiwan and Korea share many features in common, and comparison with Korea has emerged as a major research area, with particular focus on political institutions, voting behaviour, political attitudes and foreign policy behaviour under strong constraints.

Shelley commented in 2002/3 that several areas that dominated in the study of Taiwan (the developmental state, democratization, national identity) were losing their attractiveness, or even coming to the end of their life cycles. Good news for the Taiwanese politics field is that there has been renewal and the emergence of new areas of interest. Moving away from democratization processes, much research is now concerned with the “quality” and performance of Taiwan’s democracy (and looks much like studies of the US and other advanced democratic polities). However, while the data and methods have increased in reliability and sophistication, the over-exploitation of opinion data like the Taiwan Election and Democratization Study, especially by Taiwan-based scholars, has led to incremental progress at best, and transparent “fishing expeditions” and pointless modelling at worst. Increasing sophistication has been accompanied by a lack of innovation, and opportunities afforded by excellent quality data have not been fully leveraged (e.g. in terms of data linking). In consequence, there is a distinct lack of conceptual progress, especially among quantitative researchers. Much work involves theory testing (i.e. choosing some theory from another context, usually the US, and applying it to the Taiwan case without much thought to what such studies actually tell us) rather than theory building, and yet more work stays away from theory altogether. In general, compared to the previous decade, contributions in the noughties have been less impressive, despite better and more abundant data.

While a segment of the field remains fixated on national identity, the saturation of this area and the apparent emergence of inequality as an overriding economic cleavage have dampened enthusiasm and opened up the field to investigations in a greater variety of areas. Gender, migration, social movements have greatly increased in visibility. Research on the latter, for instance by Ho Ming-sho at National Taiwan University, accounts for, in my opinion, some of the most significant research in the past decade. The emergence and popularization of the social web during the past decade as a potential influence on a variety of political behaviours at the elite and mass levels is well represented, as are approaches rooted in queer theory, post-colonialism, post-structuralism and multiculturalism.

Yet, the more things change the more they stay the same. China of course continues to loom large in research on Taiwan, and on Taiwanese politics. Distinct from the preoccupation of many scholars on cross-Strait relations, many analyses of Taiwanese domestic politics appear motivated by a concern for how the behaviour and attitudes of elites and masses in Taiwan will affect relations between Taiwan and China, China and the US and the broader security environment in the Asia-Pacific. I remain ambivalent about this: on one hand, it ensures that Taiwan will not disappear from sight despite the intellectual and professional attractions of China. On the other hand, analysing Taiwanese domestic politics through the lens of cross- or international relations can be counterproductive and lead to distortions. Finally, today as in the nineties, the field remains riven by multiple divisions. Collaboration between scholars based in Taiwan and those outside of Taiwan remains low (as measured by co-authored publications). This is a curious, since Taiwanese scholars are welcoming and many of them trained in the US. And my survey of Taiwan scholars published in Issues and Studies in 2011 suggests that professional goals are shared across continents (manifest for example in reading and targeting the same journals).  There are also synergies that could usefully underpin collaboration—which for some reason are not being exploited. Perhaps the division is explained by academic upbringing: many Taiwanese scholars trained in American political science programs and tend to the quantitative, while western scholars are more likely to have entered Taiwan Studies through Chinese language and area studies departments).

Some thoughts on Ai Weiwei

I published some thoughts here on the artist/activist Ai Weiwei and the circus that surrounds him.

…one of the problems with Ai’s garrulousness (and the insatiable demand of western media and assorted intellectuals and hangers on to get their moment of reflected glory), is that everything merges together—Ai’s different sayings, the same sayings at different times, your memory of the same sayings in a different context or different sayings in the same context…

… I’m no art critic, but a lot of what I’ve seen of Ai’s strikes me as clever and interesting. I don’t always agree with his confrontational and crude modus operandi, but there is no doubting his pugnacity or the strength of his convictions. A lot of what he says about the Party and the country’s political system is undeniably accurate. He is a very important intellectual and activist.

However, the Ai brand, the marketing machine, the construction of Ai as a uniquely heroic individual in the midst of unrelenting Communist beastliness is a source of ambivalence. This is a story about western intellectuals and western projections, but Ai is naturally complicit in it, and with good reason: to a great extent his freedom depends on his celebrity and influence outside of China. At this point it is impossible to separate Ai from the western filmmakers, journalists, critics, curators and collectors, academics and general intellectual flotsam and jetsam that turn up at his studio compound in Caochangdi. Ai has many worthwhile things to say and it isn’t his fault that devotees and dandies relay his every word. But it does dilute his message.

Weiwei-isms is a good example. Presumably the editor had free rein to choose whatever he liked from Ai’s substantial oeuvre (even when limited to 2008-2012), but the book is full of tired  banalities (“everything is art, everything is politics”, “a small act is worth a million thoughts”), recycled moral platitudes (“the world won’t change if you don’t shoulder the burden of responsibility”) and complex issues reduced to truisms (“China has not established the rule of law and thus there is no justice”, “the internet is uncontrollable [and thus] freedom will win”).

Perhaps it is my own Ai-fatigue (I remember when reading his old Sina blog was a thrilling, almost illicit, experience). Or maybe Ai himself has run out of steam: his underlying message, though pursued with more courage and conviction than I could ever muster, is a simple endorsement of individual freedoms in the face of a controlling regime, and there is a finite number of ways to express that. When you’re asked the same question time and time again, you naturally risk repeating yourself. Understandably, Ai has developed habits of expression. But the interviews and films and feature stories don’t let up…

Labor unrest in China

Samantha Hoffman, a PhD student at the CPI, and I, have a piece in the SCMP today reflecting on the recent strike at Yue Yuen factories in southern China.

One of the world’s largest footwear manufacturers, Yue Yuen, is in many ways typical. A Taiwanese firm listed in Hong Kong, it has numerous factories based in the southern China manufacturing belt, making shoes emblazoned with stripes and swooshes for sale around the world. In recent weeks, it has also faced an increasingly typical problem for companies located in China – an aggrieved and angry workforce… 

Continue reading here

Chinese politics in 2000 words?

I was asked to write a piece for Political Insight magazine, published by the Political Studies Association (the UK’s version of APSA). The remit was to write about recent Chinese political developments in less than 2000 words for an audience that I should assume knew nothing much about China. That remit necessitated some pretty hard thinking over the Christmas break (publishing stuff is a long process folks), and then some fine tuning when the Editor got back in the new year (whatever and wherever you publish, reviewers and editors will require mods or adds). It was a surprisingly tricky assignment; but at least I nailed the word count! Read the piece here.