Classical allusions in Chinese hip hop

What happens when a subculture crosses over into politically circumscribed mainstream culture? How do artists strive for authenticity and make a meaningful cultural contribution when their music is decried as being at odds with local norms and tastes? These questions are prompted by the recent popularization of rap music in China via the hit reality TV talent show The Rap of China (Zhongguo you xiha中国有嘻哈). Funded and produced by the Chinese video platform iQiyi (爱奇艺), this repackaging of the South Korean tastemaker and talent incubator Show Me The Money represented significant exposure for a genre that had existed for many years as an urban subculture with little mainstream impact. In commercial terms the show was a success, and it is now into its third season. However, it is the inaugural season that represents the more revealing case study on creative strategies in the Chinese context because at the time there was little guidance on what was permissible. Since the state’s censorship regime encourages circumspection by sketching deliberately vague guidelines enforced post-hoc, everything about the show’s inaugural season was a “calculated risk”. After the first season the state responded with clear guidance on acceptable content, and numerous changes in produc- tion were made: the word “rap” was removed from the Chinese show title; performers were forced to cover up their tattoos and to adopt lyrics more actively supportive of the state. In short, much of the experimentation and boundary testing that was possible during the first season has been replaced with familiar modes of circumscription that prevail across the Chinese entertainment industry. Full paper here

China’s football dream

The transformation of Chinese football under the aegis of Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Football Dream” (中国足球梦) illuminates the party-state’s domestic aspirations and modus operandi. The latest iteration in a long line of football reform plans is being used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a tool to serve broad economic and socio-political ends, including promoting public health, well-being, and active lifestyles; generating feelings of national unity and pride; stimulating middle-class consumption; inculcating social cohesion; encouraging patriotic citizenship; and forging a shared national identity. The utility of the sport as a vehicle explains why the Chinese leadership has invested significant financial and reputational capital in the top-down direction of football development. Yet, the competing motives of diverse organizations, institutions, and private commercial actors involved in the execution of a transformative reform program, and the agency of individual citizens, whether football fans, players, or consumers, mean the state cannot simply be a successful football industry and culture into existence. There is an articulation between the needs of the state and the public and private institutions that respond and contribute to state projects to advance their own interests. Studying this articulation, through the specific case of football reform, reveals the complexities of policymaking and politics in contemporary China. In their application of Appadurai’s (1996) work on cultural economy, Yu, Newman, Xue, and Pu (2017) examine how the coalescing of people, finance, images, and ideology create “football-scapes” imbued with “new systems of meaning, power, capital, and consumer identities from which the state, and sport therein, are articulated” (p. 4). Yu et al. (2017) is a compelling study of the role of football in China’s engagement with cultural globalization, and seeking to extend this pioneering work, we explore a more explicitly political dimension implicated in Chinese sport, namely the relationship between football and state-building, national identity, and citizenship. China’s engagement with football is complicated by its evolving status, first as a Communist country and subsequently as a reforming socialist economy, a rapidly modernizing country, and an authoritarian regime. There are similarities (and legacies) between China’s organization of sport during the Mao era and other Communist countries, notably the Soviet Union (Edelman, 1993; Riordan, 2007), and patriotism and propaganda are a feature of numerous Communist regimes’ treatment of sport, like North Korea (Lee & Bairner, 2009). However, reform-era developments in Chinese football have relatively little in common with post-Soviet states, where chaotic professionalization led to endemic corruption and the emasculation of domestic football structures (Molnar, 2007). Football in China is not an incubator of violent nationalism or ethnic conflict as it has been in other reforming socialist nations (Mills, 2009). Neither has football become a site for anti-state mobilization as it has in other developing nations like Brazil, despite sharing similar social conditions such as inequality and corruption (Goldblatt, 2014). Other authoritarian regimes have sought “soft power” gains through association with football, particularly countries in the Gulf (Thani & Heenan, 2017), and many countries have adopted policies to promote sport to tackle health issues and deliver elite sporting success (Grix & Carmichael, 2012). Other nations, notably Japan and the United States, have launched new football leagues and invested heavily in the recruitment of foreign expertise (Collins, 2006; Horne, 1999). Football in Europe and elsewhere is similarly no stranger to the involvement of political figures and a business–football–politics nexus embodied by individuals like Silvio Sullivan et al. 3 Berlusconi and Roman Abramovich (Doidge, 2015). While individual aspects of China’s football experience have corollaries elsewhere, taken as a whole, its experience is distinct from other nations. To anchor our analysis, therefore, we use the concept of symbolic power, a lens that helps us make sense of the totality of the Chinese approach to football by treating it as a “field-spanning” socio-cultural and politicoeconomic sphere. This article proceeds in three stages. We first present an overview of the role of football and sport through the history of the PRC, before analyzing current practices manifest in multiple policy documents and accompanying discourses and praxis that underpin China’s hybrid state-corporatist approach to football.

Read the full paper here.

Quick take on Fan Bingbing

Fan Bingbing is a bona fide A-list actress in China. She hasn’t made a public appearance in months amid speculation about detention on tax evasion. The case has captured the world’s attention, not least because the equivalent ‘disappearance’ of an equivalent Hollywood star is unimaginable (the disappearance, not the tax charges, if that is indeed what is Fan is facing). Having studied the way that the entertainment industry works in China, it is somewhat less mindblowing.

The celebrity industry is embedded in a dense layer of formal and informal regulations, subject to overlapping government ministries and frequently articulated ‘guidance’ on how to operate and manage its stars. The state has lots of sticks and carrots at its disposal, and has successfully ‘coopted’ the entertainment industry, adding another layer of (self-)regulation. The Chinese entertainment industry is extremely lucrative for companies and individuals, and the threat of being denied access to this market looms all the time, because the state can decide on a whim to ban a certain performer or show.

The Party is keenly aware that celebrities have large audiences and believes in stars power to exert influence over their fans. Thus it is crucial for the Party that stars use their influence in a way that promotes what the Party wants it to. The emphasis changes from time to time, but almost always includes things like promoting “core values” and patriotism, and never challenging the Party line. Celebrities are encouraged to demonstrate their ‘political correctness’ and bring ‘positive energy’ to their roles and public behaviours, whether its demonstrating filial piety, marital faithfulness, love for the nation, extolling the virtues of hard work and perseverance, or embodying the “Chinese dream” (of a moderately prosperous country) etc. Celebrities’ reach is so great that if they promote the ‘correct’ message they can be very powerful (‘soft’) weapons for the state; but the reverse is also true, which is why they are so carefully managed.

This case is interesting because Celebrity performers have long been known to sign dual contracts (so they can declare lower earnings to the tax bureau), but have very rarely faced sanction for it. The fact that Fan is an A-lister may be deliberate – sending the message to the industry that no one is above the law. The fact that information about Fan’s alleged dual contracts became public (via a malevolent whistleblower) may have encouraged the state to intervene when it did – but it fits the broader campaign under Xi to crack down on various sectors. Certainly the massive riches and extravagant consumption of celebrities have exercise state media for a long time, worried as they are about rising inequality in the country and the potential for super-conspicuous super-wealth to create negative reactions in society.

My paper “Truth, good and beauty” forthcoming this month in The China Quarterly takes its title from Fan’s speech at the launch of an ethics pledge launched by the authorities in 2015 taken by 50 organizations in the entertainment sector. Fan was once the poster child for the state’s harnessing of celebrities – it now looks like she is an exemplar in a different way.

Fu Manchu, Yellow Peril and Sinophobia

Sax Rohmer, penname of the journeyman British writer Arthur Henry Ward, wrote music hall routines, serial fiction and popular novels to make money. From a working class background and unblessed with great talent or connections, Rohmer was forced to develop an eye for what would sell. He struck gold with a creation that tapped into a rich seam of anti-Chinese racism, and exploited the prevailing Anglo-Saxon sense of racial superiority combined with a growing feeling of vulnerability vis-à-vis “the Chinese”.

By the time Rohmer’s Chinese supervillain Dr Fu Manchu emerged on the scene in London in 1912, the “Yellow Peril” idea had been around for several decades. Gina Marchetti’s classic study of romance and race in Hollywood film traces the popularization of the narrative to late 19th Century America. A dialectic characterized the “Chinese masses” as a threat to the lives of morally superior and yet physically vulnerable (by dint of their smaller numbers) whites. Yellow Peril discourse typically advanced a “semantics of spread”, with images of expansion, takeover and appropriation. Fears of an influx of Chinese labour to West Coast America, following major migrations during the gold rush of the 1850s, led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a ban on Chinese immigration that was not repealed until the 1940s.

Such narratives have recurred over time and are not limited to the Chinese (consider fearful projections in some quarters about “Hispanicization”). Unsurprisingly, when it was later exported to the US, Rohmer’s work found a receptive audience, particularly in the screen version where Fu Manchu was played by Warner Oland (later reincarnated as Charlie Chan) and Boris Karloff in the 1930s. Christopher Lee reprised the role in a series of five films as late as the 1960s. In the early 20th Century Yellow Peril discourses resonated powerfully with British audiences too, although for a more nuanced reason than American fears of impending or imagined Chinese migration alone (despite British historical sensitivities about invasion). For the British, it was the alleged malevolence of the Chinese, reflected and reinforced by the Fu Manchu character, rather than sheer numbers, which triggered feelings of vulnerability heightened by a sense of decline, if not impending loss, of the Empire.

The character of Fu Manchu is spectacularly stylized, to the extent that he is the Yellow Peril incarnate. At one point in The Mask of Fu Manchu, the detective Nyland Smith comments in awe of his nemesis that “the spread of the thing is phenomenal”. As Ruth Mayer puts it in her investigation of the ideology behind the Yellow Peril, Fu Manchu’s “volatility and intangibility, his expertise at masquerade, infiltration and impersonation render him at the same time impossible to locate and ubiquitous”. Racial stereotypes were an important feature of colonialism, strategies to cultivate the self-image of the colonizers while Othering their subjects. Constructing “the heathen Chinee”, to quote Bret Harte’s poem of 1870, was to justify acts of subjugation in the name of “civilizing missions” to force open trade, expropriate land or secure converts to Christianity. Chinese men, if they were considered as individuals rather than a mass of coolie labour (from the Chinese苦力meaning hard or bitter work), were portrayed as despicable, disgusting and physically, mentally and morally inferior. They could also be devious, villainous and inscrutable, as with Fu Manchu. Asian women were sexualised, available and in need of being rescued, a fantasy embodied by Fu Manchu’s Eurasian slave-girl Karamaneh.

Sax Rohmer’s own fantasies were served by a passing familiarity (which according to Christopher Frayling he greatly exaggerated) with the goings on and the characters of Limehouse, a riverside district in London where Chinese sailors, labourers and sundry merchants and associates resided. Known as ‘the Asiatic colony’, in the popular imagination (fed by Rohmer and others) Limehouse became synonymous with opium, crime and squalor, a microcosm of the “Far East” by the Thames. Rohmer, like many of his compatriots at the time, was fascinated with the “mysterious” Chinese underworld, secret societies, and the violence, drugs and prostitution that surrounded them. Movies like Big Trouble in Little China (1986) show the longevity of such fantasies. Edward Said argued that Orientalist fantasies were the externalized fictions of Europeans, essentially a made-up view of the world. Said didn’t study China (a regret expressed to Frayling which inspired the latter’s recent book), but the China scholar Colin Mackerras has shown how western images of China are consistent with Orientalist projections and the Orientalist schema. As Frayling says of the Fu Manchu series, “the stories were about us—they were not really about China at all”.

Racist stereotypes like Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril are repugnant and utterly anachronistic. And yet they underpin racist discourses, which serve as the basis of world views that are extraordinarily resilient and hard to budge. For instance, Emma Mawdsley’s analysis of UK broadsheets’ contemporary coverage of China’s engagment in Africa invokes striking stereotypes about “the Chinese”. Ono and Pham’s book on Asian Americans and contemporary US media speaks of the “structured embeddedness of the Yellow Peril”, which they find is deeply “entrenched within the cultural fabric of the US”. Frayling notes that “some of the most indelible visual images from popular culture were of ‘Chinamen’”. Unfortunately they were mostly Yellow Peril stereotypes like Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless, of the subservient Charlie Chan variety or played by white actors like David Carradine (who was cast ahead of Bruce Lee in the TV series Kung Fu). Another genre is the mocking “yellowface” impersonation of Asians by white actors, like Mickey Rooney’s lamentable Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

It remains to be seen how the PRC’s recent rise to economic and political prominence, and increasing competition with the US, affects depictions of Chineseness. Racism doesn’t require or attract creative genius, as reflected by the limited repertoire of Fu Manchu’s fiendishness, and one wonders if the Yellow Peril will simply find another target without China’s economic clout (North Korea for instance, which appears to have replaced China as a source of Hollywood baddy). The Yellow Peril has changed little over time. Consider a complaint by Rd. EJ Hardy, Chaplain to the Forces in Hong Kong and published in the periodical Tit-Bits in 1896: “the peril is that China will manufacture things cheaper than Europeans can and dismiss us from trade in the Far East” (quoted by Frayling). This could easily come from the lips of any contemporary American or European politician. The target for Yellow Peril can change over time (it is hard to imagine, now that it has become a diplomatic and military bulwark against China’s rise, the fear and loathing Japan inspired in the US merely thirty years ago), but it won’t go away.

The Dark Road

The Dark Road, by the exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian, is a dystopian road movie following family planning fugitives Meili, Kongzi and their One Child Policy-compliant daughter Nannan down the Yangtse. The plot begins with Meili pregnant for a second time just as the family planning militia descends on rural Kong village. These shock troops are here to collect fines for violations of the state’s population policy, and to force abortions and sterilizations on women whose husbands can’t pay up. They manage to escape, but the state’s pursuit of domination over Meili’s body won’t stop there.

Kongzi is a 76th generation heir of Confucius, and his raison d’être is to produce a 77th. Kongzi (a nickname that literally means Confucius) feels very keenly the pressure of his obligation to continue the illustrious family line, and he pursues his mission to sire a son relentlessly throughout the families’ travels and travails. A village girl with traditional values, Meili accepts her part in this quest and despite the grubbiness and general peril of their surroundings there are moments of genuine shared intimacy. Not surprisingly, Meili feels the pressure more than Kongzi; agonizing about the gender of her unborn babies (girls won’t do) and the consequences of getting caught with an out of plan child falls solely to her. Little wonder Meili feels her body isn’t her own, musing that a woman’s genitals belong to men and her womb to the state.

The Chinese title 陰之道gives a sense of the book’s complexities. The character yin 陰is the yin in “yin and yang” 陰陽, the contrasting but complementary sides of nature so fundamental to Chinese conceptions of the world. Yin is the side representing darkness, hence the English title. Darkness can be sinister, but it also represents the feminine side of nature (to yang’s male), so the book could equally be titled ‘a woman’s road’. 之is a particle with no substantive meaning here, but Dao 道is another word with complex potentialities. It can mean a literal or figurative road or path. It can also indicate a doctrine. Dao is the character that forms the word Daoism or Taoism 道教, a philosophical system where the focus is on the ‘way of nature’ 道之天. Dao is also the central component of Confucianism, where it is usually translated as ‘the Way’, and focuses on the ‘way of man’人道. Much of the Analects is about extolling the virtues and prescribing how to attain the Way. Thus Ma’s Chinese title is full of potential meanings; invoking the perniciousness of Confucianism; the sinister one child doctrine; a literally dark pathway in the form of the polluted Yangtse; a figurative dark path to the margins of society symbolising the families’ exile; the trauma of a woman’s path in China confined and compelled by the twin demands of Confucianism and Communist (family) planning; the path of China’s development that has mutilated the land and people’s values. Removing the 之particle produces the noun vagina陰道the part of Meili’s body that is contested throughout.

Determined to give birth in hope it’ll be the anticipated male heir, Meili, Kongzi and Nannan flee Kong village for a life on the road. They seek temporary refuge on the Yangtse, living on boats with other family planning fugitives. It is a squalid and precarious existence, but left alone the family manages a homely tenderness. Kongzi is a teacher turned demolition worker (Jia Zhangke’s Still Life provides a perfect visualization for this part of the story). He affirms his intellectual status and noble lineage by quoting pompously from the classics, and providing a pious rationale for his libido. The family make do raising ducks, growing vegetables and repurposing bits and pieces. Their daily lives are a mix of shivering cold, duck shit and river stench, but they get by. But one day, with her baby almost at full term, Meili is captured by a family planning squad. The male foetus they named Happiness, is forcibly aborted in an indelible scene of shocking brutality juxtaposed with shocking transactional nonchalance (the physician calmly offers a knock down price for the operation). Meili and Kongzi take Happiness away in a plastic bag and give him a water burial in the Yangtse.

The family continues on its way again downriver, slowly making towards a town called Heaven, where rumour has it you can have as many kids as you like. Despite the horrors inflicted on his wife, Kongzi doesn’t take long to resume his mission, and soon enough Meili is pregnant again. It is a period where Meili finds some minor economic success selling vegetables in a small market, and she starts to dream of a materially better future and vows that this will be her last child. But when the baby is born, it’s a girl. The tenderness that Meili lavishes on her second daughter, who is appears to suffer from a mental disability, is to no avail, and one day she returns to the family’s boat to find that Kongzi has gone off to sell her to a mutilated child begging racket. So much for Kongzi’s moral piety. Setting off in anger into the nearby town, Meili is detained and sent to an ad hoc labour camp for not having the proper documents. At the labour camp she shares a dormitory with an urban sex worker, who provides another view of the woman’s body, as an economic instrument. Meili rejects such a possibility, only to be let out of the camp into forced labour in a brothel. A nasty rape scene with the brothel owner ensues, but Meili escapes by burning the place down (an improbable twist, but at this point the reader is so desperate for a respite that it doesn’t matter), and is soon reunited with Kongzi.

The family finally reaches Heaven, which turns out to be a Guangdong cancer village recycling electronic waste. The melancholy cycle repeats again: the indefatigable Kongzi continues his mission and sure enough Meili becomes pregnant again. Traumatized by her experiences she is determined to protect her baby inside her womb. Meili refuses to relinquish the baby until many months beyond the usual gestation period. Finally she gives birth to a green alien-like thing mutated by the poisonous e-waste—Heaven’s kicker is that you can have as many kids as you like but none will be healthy. Finally released from her duty Meili lets herself sink into the river to reunite with the spirits of her babies. Her passage down the ‘dark road’ is over.

Set amid the uncomfortable realism that characterises Ma’s narrative, this surreal last twist is disconcerting, until you realise that the entire reality that Ma has constructed is an inversion or perversion of the ‘natural order’, that it is all “unreal”; Happiness is a murdered baby; Heaven is a cancer village; pregnant women are criminals; aborted foetuses are sold to restaurants; babies are produced for mutilation and the begging trade. This is a very grim book, an unrelentingly negative portrait of contemporary China. If you only read this book you would imagine that the fate of Chinese women is unimaginably horrific. This is an exaggeration—there are positives about China’s development and there is a more balanced tale to tell about the opportunities and challenges for Chinese women. But if it makes people think more carefully about why China has such a gender imbalance, or the prevalence of female suicide, or can label them “leftover” if they don’t marry in their 20s, then it is worth the discomfort. It is therefore all the more regrettable that Ma’s books are banned in China.

Teaching Chinese students

The first time I encountered a Chinese student in a university classroom was a harrowing experience. As a first year PhD student working on a thesis about Taiwan I was invited to give a guest lecture for comparative social policy Master’s class. My lecture about Taiwan was one of six case studies introducing students to social policy in different societies. I had taught a lab-based stats class, but this was my first experience in a lecture theatre. I struggled with anxiety and low self-confidence throughout my PhD and I was nervous. Within the first few minutes of the lecture, still in the grip of nerves, one of the only Chinese students in the theatre raised her hand. I wasn’t expecting or inviting questions at this point. “Hi, you have a question?” She didn’t have a question, it was more of a statement: “Taiwan is not a country”.

I was at a loss for words. The lecture was about social policy, and I had no idea why this student felt the need to intervene with such a statement. As she didn’t offer further comment, I continued the lecture. Halfway through the lecture the student raised her hand again. “Taiwan is not a country”. This time, I was a little less patient. “I’m talking about healthcare why are you telling me this?” It seems that I’d compared Taiwan’s health insurance system to that of “other countries,” thereby implying that Taiwan was also a country. I was astonished, annoyed and embarrassed. But it was a useful lesson. More than a decade has passed and I’ve taught hundreds of Chinese students since, and I have never been interrupted like this again.

I confess after that first lecture, decompressing with a beer on campus by myself, my thoughts were rather uncharitable to the Chinese student. Later, I was better able to empathize. Imagine if everything in your environment since childhood had instilled in you “incontrovertible facts”, and then an outsider, who you’ve also been primed to believe is biased against you and hell bent on denying what you “know” is right, does exactly that. It isn’t the fault of the Chinese students who turn up in your classes that they have grown up in an authoritarian information environment where the Party is highly motivated and capable through control of the media and education systems to instil a particular worldview.

Does that mean we should avoid talking about certain issues, or modify the way we talk about them, for fear of upsetting our Chinese students? Absolutely not. To do so would be a disservice to the profession, the discipline, and all of the students in the class, including the Chinese ones. For any HE professional, avoiding or sugar-coating a legitimate and necessary topic (like Tiananmen or Taiwan), is anathema. But, we also know that cognitive dissonance is one of the biggest impediments to positive learning outcomes, so we do need a strategy. For colleagues in most disciplines this is not a huge issue – it is for me because I teach Chinese politics and society, often to Chinese students.

At the outset of my classes I explain and exemplify how there are usually two sides to any story, and seemingly “incontrovertible facts” have their own distinct provenance and meanings. I then explain that we will be discussing and interrogating western and Chinese understandings of China. I explain that there is instrumentality on all sides in the construction of these understandings and I always ensure that different views are provided and critically assessed. I require all students to ask why different actors evince the views that they do.

This is the broad context in which my classes are taught and it is the approach I take to all issues, including ones that might elicit “emotional” or “unquestioning” responses. I assure students that any viewpoint is valid, and encourage them to voice “unpopular” or uncomfortable ones; but they must agree to make a reasoned argument and to respect and engage with others who do so. We don’t shy away from interrogating the education system and information environment in China that Chinese students have grown up in.

In all cases I treat students respectfully, tactfully and non-confrontationally. Deliberately making students uncomfortable or attempting to negate their prior knowledge is a recipe for disengagement and potential conflict, none of which improves learning outcomes. We can address any issue in class, but we do so in an atmosphere that encourages exchange and learning. That may sound idealistic – but it has allowed me to deliver on my duty as a teacher.

I am there to provide my students with all the relevant knowledge I have at my disposal, some of which will certainly challenge that made available in Chinese curricula and media. I want students to learn how to critically evaluate information, critically engage with different viewpoints and to compose reasoned arguments. In the process of implementing these techniques, some Chinese students will come to question some of their assumptions, go beyond and challenge previously acquired knowledge. Others won’t, and that’s fine.

I have had many Chinese students thank me for illuminating their own understanding about China. As I commented for a recent piece, many Chinese students understand that the worldview they receive in China is partial and are receptive to different perspectives. As a teacher, it is extremely gratifying to see students learn and develop. But it isn’t my job to try to change their worldviews.

If Chinese students are going to have a more profound experience studying overseas, I believe it will come from their experience outside the classroom, from their interactions with host populations and local cultures. Chinese students are often critiqued for hanging out together to the exclusion of others. But in their defence, little thought has been put into how to create and manage a more holistic overseas study experience that enables them to go beyond the comfort zone created by associating with their compatriots. For instance, we organize lubricated “socials” for freshman students to get to know one another – but what about Chinese students who don’t drink, or have insufficient confidence or language skills to engage socially in this context? In some schools, cohorts of Chinese students are taking degrees and classes in which their classmates are also mostly Chinese. Few opportunities exist for facilitated exposure to local communities.

In the UK, “student experience” has become a buzzword, mainly because of the National Student Survey and other League Tables that can affect recruitment. As domestic student fees have risen and students have been framed as “customers”, universities have made huge investments in fancy gyms, dorms and catering facilities. But as a sector we need to think more specifically about the “Chinese student experience”, inside and outside the classroom.

Taiwan and rejuvenation of the Chinese nation

China’s core leader, Xi Jinping, believes the time has come for the country to grasp a “strategic opportunity” to advance the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. He intimated as much in his work report to the 19th Party Congress. And this week the Communist Party paper the People’s Daily published a “manifesto” in the People’s Daily, explicitly stating that China stands on the cusp of writing a new chapter in the history of the nation.

The “manifesto” is an extraordinary document, part cheer-leader for the Party’s achievements, part call for a newly robust Chinese posture. It reflects the Chinese leadership’s belief that China has a historical opportunity to stake out a global leadership role. Enumerating the numerous ills facing western societies, which have accelerated the long-held feeling that the west is in decline, it is a statement that China is ready to seize the moment and restore China’s rightful position in the world. “Rejuvenation” is no longer a distant aspiration.

This isn’t a surprise for anyone with an understanding of the CCP’s “historical determinist” worldview. The Chinese leadership has watched its economic, diplomatic and military power grow, and “bided its time” as the west’s fortunes have waned. The election of Donald Trump has hastened the feeling that American hegemony has begun its inexorable decline. Trump’s abdication of American global leadership combined with a global system that was already in flux, has accelerated the feeling that China’s time has come.

Chinese leaders remind us that China does not seek hegemony and does not have a history of imperial expansion. Indeed, China has not invaded and occupied other sovereign nations, engaged in covert security operations, enforced regime change, or any number of other foreign interventions carried out in the name of American national interests.

But, a newly robust Chinese world view informing its foreign policy behaviour has important implications, not least for Taiwan, a mere hundred miles away and the locus of contemporary Chinese nationalism. After the violent denouement of the Democracy Spring movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the CCP has staked its legitimacy on economic growth and nationalism. As growth has slowed, the balance between these two pillars has shifted.

For Chinese nationalists, the “manifesto” is a long-yearned for assertion that under the Party’s leadership China’s rise necessitates a recalibration of the world order – one in which China will play a much more prominent role. Symbolic Centennials of the founding of the CCP (2021) and the PRC (2049) are no longer on the distant horizon. Xi has risen to unassailable power, but a paramount leader needs to deliver more than tub-thumping rhetoric.

The CCP has found nationalist causes, especially Taiwan, useful for entrenching popular support. It has also primed the Chinese people to believe that the CCP leadership is the only means to restoring China to greatness. But on one part of the “national rejuvenation” puzzle, it has failed to deliver. The desire to “recover” a Taiwan “lost” during the “hundred years of national humiliation” has been so relentlessly affirmed through the education and media systems that it is the sina qua non for patriotic Chinese.

Separated by vastly different socio-economic development experiences, most Taiwanese identify with Taiwan as a discrete, democratic society that is manifestly not-China. The desire for unification in Taiwan is virtually non-existent. Decades of Chinese carrots in the form of economic opportunities and sticks in the form of enforced international isolation and underlying military threat have removed “Taiwan independence” from the political agenda, but failed to move opinion towards China. The CCP’s favoured political partner in Taiwan, the KMT, was unable to change opinion in a meaningful way and alienated voters in trying to do so.

And so China continues to exert pressure on Taiwan, each turn of the screw designed to undermine, isolate and incapacitate Taiwan and the Tsai administration. A symbol of the new world order, it does so with impunity. PLA Air Force planes can circumnavigate Taiwan and the Civil Aviation Administration of China can unilaterally establish new routes in the Taiwan Strait because no-one bar the Taiwanese object. It can jail Taiwanese activists or bar Taiwan from WHA meetings. When it requires Taiwanese criminals are repatriated to China, countries from Spain to Kenya oblige. All are demonstrations that Taiwan is subordinate, that the privileges of “functional autonomy” extend only so far.

While western countries like Australia are newly discovering a sting in the tail to their ‘win-win’ engagements with China, Taiwan is used to dealing with Chinese pressures. The question is how much pressure China will dial up. Courting Taiwan’s small number of diplomatic allies, barring Taiwanese representation from international meetings and enforcing the political correctness of multinational companies’ drop-down menus is pressure at a much lower level than China is capable of exerting. And it is unlikely to deliver results commensurate with the aspirations of a new era of national rejuvenation.

Indubitably nested within the relationship between the US and China, it is easy to forget that Taiwan was, until relatively recently, a geopolitical hotspot. In the mid-1990s, Chinese missile exercises prior to the first direct election of the president in Taiwan, necessitated President Clinton’s dispatch of the Pacific Fleet to the Taiwan Strait. In the mid-2000’s Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian’s rhetoric threatened to cross Chinese “red lines”, and the PRC passed legislation requiring a military response to prevent “Taiwan independence”.

In the past decade, cross-Strait relations have receded from the global stage. While not resolving the underlying militarization of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s entente cordiale added a veneer of stability. Underpinned by the diplomatic fudge of the “1992 Consensus”, economic cooperation reduced tensions between Taiwan and China to an unprecedented extent. The partial detente was good timing for a hands-off Obama administration preoccupied with the Middle East and Afghanistan, and the first Xi administration dealing with monumental domestic challenges.

Donald Trump has an uncertain China policy that veers between extreme deference and spiky rhetoric: No one really knows what his intentions are towards China, possibly least of all, Trump himself. His preferences, unstable as they are, may become clearer if and when a House Foreign Affairs Committee bill that would authorize high level official visits between the US and Taiwan and an act of Congress encouraging consideration of US Navy port calls in Taiwan progress. These would likely be seen as unacceptable provocations by a country no longer shy about its aspirations.

Dr Jonathan Sullivan is Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham

Sage’s position on censorship in China

I have had some correspondence with Sage today regarding their position on the censorship of academic publications in China. The publisher provided a clarification of the company’s position in response to this piece I wrote for D&C, which included the line “Sage meanwhile suggested that it would [remove content] if asked”. The line was referencing this report in the Financial Times, written by Ben Bland who has become the leading chronicler of academic censorship in China.

Sage’s clarification of its position is as follows:

As a matter of general principle, SAGE does not block or remove content in response to such a request. It is possible that the Chinese importers or authorities could themselves block access to content. In that case, our preference would be that the entire product is withdrawn as far as that is possible in order to preserve its intellectual integrity. However, in all cases we would first consult with the content owner, society or journal editor as appropriate to ascertain their preferences in the situation.

To also clarify, we have not received a request from the Chinese authorities or other entity to remove or block access to certain documents or content within China. We have however, as have other publishers, been warned that there is a risk that this may happen. If you have become aware of any SAGE content that appears to be blocked in China, we would very much like to receive details of this so that we can investigate the situation.

It is important that publishers are called out for any acts of censorship, but it is equally important to note where they are resisting such pressures. I hope that this clarification is noted therefore, and invite colleagues who do notice any Sage material that appears unavailable in China to contact the publisher as requested.

The slippery slope of western academic censorship

Every sector of Chinese society has become more constrained under Xi Jinping. The Communist Party, private business, the media and internet, civil society and academia have all been affected by moves to reign in their “degrees of freedom”. For better or worse, this is the prerogative of the Chinese leadership. What I am about to write is thus not about imposing my “western values” on China or dictating how China should be run. Instead, it is about “us”, western societies, institutions, businesses and individuals, and how we conduct ourselves in our interactions with China.

Given the tightening parameters of China’s authoritarian information order, it was only a matter of time until western publishers became a target for exerting greater control. The first target, Cambridge University Press, initially acceded to demands from Chinese authorities to remove content from its website in China, only to reverse track when the backlash from academics threatened lasting reputational damage. Other publishers have followed. Some, like MIT, Oxford and Chicago University Press have said they will not self-censor. Sage meanwhile suggested that it would if asked.

Springer Nature stands out, not only because of its status as one of the world’s largest academic trade presses, but because it actively barred access to some of its content to Chinese internet users. Moreover, Springer Nature has been admirably forthright in defending its decision to do so. Its rationale is that removing a small portion of its catalogue (albeit over 1,000 articles) was a small price to pay for continuing to provide access to material deemed agreeable to the Chinese state.
As an economic argument, it is unassailable. The offending materials come exclusively from journals publishing work on Chinese politics and related fields – a negligible part of Springer Nature’s output. The economic impact is especially minimal when compared to consumption in China itself, where medical, engineering, business and language-learning texts are in high and lucrative demand.

It is when we go beyond purely economic cost-benefit analysis that Springer Nature’s decision raises serious issues. By allowing the Chinese government to decide what is legitimate knowledge the publisher undermines the ethos (freedom of thought and dissemination) and the process (review by peers not political officials) on which academic research is predicated. If that is so, we might question the legitimacy of Springer Nature’s role in the academic sector. How can we trust the integrity of an academic institution (which is what presses are whether they are also commercial enterprises or not) if the ultimate arbiter of academic research is outsourced to an unrelated body whose primary criteria is not academic but political?

When I submit my work to an academic publisher (based on my labour that is paid for by the British taxpayer), I enter an informal contract based on trust that the submission will be stringently but fairly reviewed by academically competent persons who are picked by the publisher and whose identity I do not know. If my work is deemed by blind peer review to make a contribution to knowledge, I trust that the press will publish it in accordance with the sector’s standards in a timely fashion and make it available to all subscribers.

If this process is not adhered to, that betrays not just my trust but that of all academic colleagues. The decision whether an essay is a contribution to knowledge must not be outsourced to a government whose primary concern is political correctness.

This may sound overly abstract given the “negligible” practical impact. The readership of the blocked content in China is likely very small. However, there are practical implications. In some cases, for example where Chinese academics have had their articles removed, it could affect professional advancement. The years of dedication and hard work required to publish academic research could, in theory, be negated as authors are denied promotions or tenure due to the idiosyncrasies of a crude keyword search (the method Springer Nature appears to have employed).

At the present time, the likelihood of such extreme hypothetical scenarios is low. But, my major concern is that we are at the beginning of a long downward spiral. A precedent has been set. What can Springer Nature do but accede to the Chinese authorities’ wishes next time it decides to demand content removed? Today it is “highly sensitive” topics like Tibet and the Cultural Revolution that have been removed; tomorrow it may be slightly less sensitive topics and so on. This is a slippery slope, the end point of which is conforming with the Chinese definition of legitimate knowledge.

As I said, I am not here to tell the Chinese authorities what they should do. But I must state that for academics outside China it is an intolerable intrusion on our fundamental freedoms to have the merits of one’s professional output dictated by a foreign government.

Which brings me to my final point. As China’s global engagement intensifies, as Chinese interests and confidence to assert and protect them increases, it is inevitable that they will come into contact with our own. It is therefore essential that in western academia, and in western societies more generally, we consider our own interests and values. We need to decide what we value and what we are willing to do to protect it. Do we value the freedoms of academic inquiry and expression? Or are those values that we are willing to compromise?

This piece was originally published in Development and Cooperation. 

Dude, where’s my paper?

Back in 2011, weibo was enjoying a moment. Competing platforms were at the height of their popularity and had brought several scandals to light, including attempts to cover up the Wenzhou high speed rail crash. I was fascinated by the potential for weibo to disrupt the authoritarian information order, and wrote about it for the journals New Media & Society and Media, Culture & Society. For the former, in a piece entitled “China’s Weibo: Is faster different?”, I concluded that despite the potential for democratizing information, the state was already proving adept at controlling and harnessing weibo for its own agenda. It doesn’t please me that this proved to be right, as the subsequent crackdown, which neutered weibo’s effectiveness, demonstrated.

In 2011 I was also studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE), and needed to write a teaching-related report. Surveying the literature in China Studies I was struck by the paucity of reflections on teaching practice in our field, and decided to write about incorporating weibo into classes on Chinese politics. This was something I was experimenting with in the classroom at the time, and I imagined that it would stimulate thoughts among academic colleagues about how we might enhance our teaching and increase the knowledge and understanding of students learning about contemporary China. The Editor of the Journal of Chinese Political Science, published by Springer Nature, agreed, using my paper as the stimulus for a special issue dedicated to teaching methods in the China Studies field.

I never imagined that the paper I wrote would end up on a list of articles pulled from publication in China by Springer Nature. When another of my articles, “Chen Suibian: On independence” featured on the list of China Quarterlypublications that the Chinese authorities required Cambridge University Press to remove from their website in China, I could at least perceive the logic to it. Although the paper was a statistical analysis of presidential speeches that sought to contextualise and explain (not endorse!) then-President Chen’s sometimes inflammatory rhetoric, Taiwanese independence is about as sensitive an issue as there is in the PRC.

But what was it about “Teaching Chinese politics: Microblogging and student engagement” that prompted Springer Nature to pull it? Was it the technical discussion of the “pedagogical imperatives [that] increasingly impel university teachers to consider the effectiveness of their teaching methods”? Or the aim to construct a “supportive and collaborative learning environment and demystify China for non-Chinese majors”? I remain mystified myself.

For me personally, removing access to this paper in China is no more than a minor irritation. The paper itself has had negligible impact (a mere 7 cites in the 5 years since publication), and the subsequent decimation of weibo’s popularity and the associated rise of a totally different platform, WeChat, has rendered the practical advice for teachers moot.

However, as I commented in the Financial Times today (FT China correspondent Ben Bland broke the story), there are bigger issues involved. I said, and believe, that it is “a symbol of how unprepared we are in the west for China’s influence expanding outwards.” China sets the rules for what goes on in its territory, and whether we agree with them or not we have to respect that. Censorship by western academic institutions, including trade and university presses, is thus a story about us and our values. China is set on pursuing its own model and it is evident at this point that the west is not going to have much impact on the contours of Chinese norms. The question is whether Chinese norms will start to impact our own behaviours. In fact, there is sufficient evidence that the question is not “whether” but rather “to what extent”.

As China’s global engagement (an unequivocal net positive for the world in my view) broadens and intensifies, and the promise of access to its market exerts an ever greater pull, actions like Springer Nature’s are bound to increase in frequency. Commercial actors of course, from Facebook to Norwegian salmon farmers, work to economic, cost-benefit calculi that do not leave much room for consideration of values. Except, as exemplified by Cambridge University Press’ u-turn, where reputational damage prompts (let’s give benefit of the doubt) a reconsideration of principles. It remains to be seen how Springer Nature will respond, although trade presses have somewhat different considerations than university presses.

Academics are already aware of the inequities of the publishing model in the sector, where companies like Springer Nature and Elsevier have amassed substantial economic gains on the back of free labour. For the weeks of labour I put into writing my banned paper (indeed any paper), and the years of study and training that enabled me to be in position to write it, I didn’t receive a single penny from publishers. Neither have I received any compensation for the time (hundreds of hours at this point) dedicated to peer reviewing submissions to journals, the imprimatur of quality assurance on which academic publications are predicated. Acceptance of this predatory and parasitic relationship is being eroded across the sector, but it, like Chinese censorship, won’t go away any time soon.

And so, in a small token act of resistance against the worst instincts of western capitalism and the Chinese authoritarian information regime, I make all of my published papers freely available to anyone to download at the tabs above.

Xi Jinping Thought – implications

It is a very significant, and staggeringly rapid, achievement for Xi to have his Thought elevated to the Party charter. The comparisons with Mao are becoming harder to resist, simply because he has accumulated such incredible power in such a short space of time. We should resist the temptation though, because there is no indication that Xi has any Mao-like proclivities or intentions. And, the one caveat to Xi Thought is that it is an add-on to Deng’s, rather than a unique stand alone – which suggests that behind the scenes there is resistance to giving Xi an even stronger mandate.

What he does have though, is the basis for shaping China in his image almost without obstacle in the near term, and the foundation for continuing to influence the country for a long time, far exceeding the next 5 years. With Xi Thought ensconced as guiding ideology, it is unlikely that China will diverge from Xi’s vision in the short-medium term and, potentially, for decades to come.

In one way this is good news for the rest of the world: at least we know what we are dealing with. In another, it represents a very real challenge, because Xi’s vision includes, for the first time in contemporary Chinese history, staking out a global leadership role. This will inevitably bring China’s interests up against those of other powers, and a strategy for managing relations and expectations of a more “robust” Chinese global engagement policy is crucial.

America’s foreign policy disarray and leadership vacuum represents a “strategic opportunity” for China as Xi noted in his work report and I expect taking advantage of this opportunity to be a major feature of Xi’s second term.

Meanwhile, the issue of succession has been rendered much less significant by the elevation of Xi Thought, which will tie the hands of anyone who follows. Xi is looking more and more like a “paramount leader” a la Deng and Mao, albeit one who still has a lot to prove.

CUP reverses pledge to remove CQ content in China

Cambridge University Press (CUP) has announced that it is reversing its decision to comply with demands from the Chinese authorities to remove more than 300 articles appearing in the China Quarterly (CQ), the field leading China Studies journal that CUP publishes. CUP apparently took the decision following a weekend of intense criticism from the academic community and other China professionals after the news broke on Friday. In a statement, CUP pledged its support for freedom of expression and argued that it had agreed to the authorities demands in order to protect the accessibility of its other published material in China.

It goes without saying that from the point of view of the integrity of the academic endeavour CUP has made the right decision. While we wait to see how CUP’s business in China may be affected, we can also say it was a necessary decision to control the damage that was being done to the CUP brand, especially among academics who supply much of the labour, a lot of it free of charge, for CUP’s product. Despite receiving praise for reversing course, the esteemed press has suffered a blow to its prestige and diminished trust among many academics.

Questions remain about CUP’s prior handling of Chinese demands and the fate of around 1000 e-books removed from its catalogue in China. CUP’s statement notably falls short of pledging to reject any future ‘requests’ to remove content. Indeed it states that it will consider removing work “when asked to do so” if it endangers “the wider availability of content”. Is that not what has just occurred? The line may be a sop to the Chinese authorities, or on advice of the lawyers, but it leaves an opening for similar episodes to arise in the future.

The prospect of future interventions by the Chinese authorities is high. China is in the midst of a concerted program to enforce ‘discipline’ across diverse sectors, including the media and internet, NGOs and lawyers, business and the Communist Party itself. Chinese academia is under substantial pressure to adopt ‘politically correct’ attitudes in research and teaching. Under these broader conditions, the application of a more systematic means of control of western academic material in China would not be surprising. I suspect that CUP’s volte face, on the heels of a crowing Global Times editorial before the reversal, will lead to an escalation upwards and repercussions for western presses in China. Needless to say, the constrained conditions prevailing in Chinese academia will continue.

The parameters of the China Studies community’s “victory” are thus circumscribed, which is not to diminish the extraordinary efforts of colleagues to push back against CUP’s original decision. CUP has been compelled to stop abetting the censorship efforts of the Chinese state. If the Chinese authorities want to censor material, they have the right and the means to do so, but a western academic institution (in this case a world-renowned press associated with one of the world’s great universities) should not be helping them. The activism of the past 72 hours is a demonstration of the integrity of our field and our willingness to stand up for the values of our profession.

CUP’s reputation has been damaged, but it remains an influential and prestigious press. A CUP book or articles in CUP journals like Journal of Asian Studies or American Political Science Review, remain extremely valuable currency in the profession. The larger question is how the press will fare having crossed the authorities. If the Chinese authorities’ original demand was an exercise in power, the reaction to the reversal demands a robust response. Things could get unpleasant yet.

Xi Jinping’s Soccer Dream MO

Recent manifestations of Xi Jinping’s “Soccer Dream” (中國足球夢) have generated substantial attention outside of China. One might even get the impression that China and the Chinese government have only just discovered the game. Yet Xi’s efforts are merely the latest attempt to reform the organization and infrastructure of the sport. In fact, the Chinese government has been trying to reform Chinese soccer since the early 1950s. And the ambition has always been the same: to have a national team to make the country proud.

That ambition unequivocally underpins the latest iteration of China’s football reforms. What has changed is that the government now has multiple ambitions for football, and different mechanisms for pursuing them. In addition to a strong national team the Chinese government is seeking influence in global governance of the game, overseas acquisitions with strategic value, and a strong Chinese Super League as a symbol of modernity and as a lifestyle product.

For a country with a long history of investing in football, the futility of the men’s national team appears to be a rebuke to earlier reform efforts. Elite sport did not escape the devastation and chaos of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and the football architecture was decimated like many sectors of the economy and society. But 40 years into the reform era (a decade longer than Mao’s rule), the dream of a men’s national team to make the country proud is as far away as ever. (The women’s team meanwhile is a regional and sometimes world power).

Clearly a different reform strategy was needed. There are two distinguishing components of Xi’s reform effort: the coalescing of the bureaucratic apparatus, and the marshalling of private investment.

The current reforms are a “team effort”, involving not just the Chinese Football Association (CFA) and the General Administration of Sport, but also the Ministries of Education and Finance, the National Development and Reform Commission, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, and the Communist Youth League. The State Council (the equivalent of China’s Cabinet) has assumed responsibility for the coordination of relevant departments as they try to flesh out and implement the government’s ambitious development plans.

Xi set out his intentions and modus operandi in 2008, when the Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Committee of National Football Leagues was founded under his direction to address the match fixing, bribing, gambling and organized crime involvement in elite soccer that caused the former Jia-A League to be wound up and threatened the young Chinese Super League that replaced it. The Committee was led by the General Administration of Sport and composed of the Ministries of Public Security, Civil Affairs, and Justice, People’s Bank of China, and the State Administrations of Taxation and Industry and Commerce. In short, an institutional team effort signalling the gravity of the problems then facing Chinese football and Xi’s determination to mobilize institutional capital (financial, political and human) to fix them.

The work of the different organizational parts of Xi’s reform are overseen by the Leading Small Group for Soccer Reform (足球改革领导小组) led by Liu Yandong (刘延东). Liu is a long-time member of the Politburo and she is a convenient conduit for channelling Xi Jinping’s wishes to the CFA. Liu, who holds the health portfolio, set out her own position on football in 2009, stated that ‘raising the profile of the Chinese football is a significant part of the construction of a global sports power.’ The goals of Xi’s then-nascent reforms she said were to ‘boost the healthy development of the sports industry, satisfy the spiritual and cultural demands of the people, and enhance China’s soft power’.

A second distinguishing component is the enlistment of private investors and the extent to which they have responded to encouragement from the top. Elite football development and investment in the grassroots requires substantial sums of money, and there has been a concerted effort to share the financial burden with private business (in addition to state owned enterprises, provincial and local governments). In 2011 the State Council convened a conference on how to attract private investors into football. Dalian Wanda Group president, and one of China’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, Wang Jian-Lin subsequently agreed to a strategic partnership with the CFA and a RMB 500 million investment. Wanda Plaza, the commercial property development arm of Wanda Group, paid RMB 200 million for the title sponsorship of the CSL from 2011-13. Resurrecting an earlier CFA policy of sending talented young Chinese players overseas to train, Wanda funded the studies of “Chinese Football Stars of Hope”, having signed a deal to use the facilities and expertise of La Liga clubs Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Villarreal.

Wang has subsequently been invited to consult for the CFA and has used his wealth and connections to increase Chinese influence in global football governance. In 2016 Wanda Group became a FIFA commercial partner, and Wang facilitated a meeting between FIFA boss Gianni Infantino and Xi Jinping, at which they discussed Xi’s ambition for China to host the FIFA World Cup.

Although Wanda has signalled a substantial sell-off of assets in recent days to reduce debt, Wang’s participation in Xi’s football reforms is important financially and symbolically. Wang had previously been closely involved in Chinese football a decade earlier, to the extent that he financed the Dalian Wanda club that won five Jia-A titles between 1994 and 2000. Wang famously pulled out in 2000 because of the corruption afflicting the sport, from referees to CFA officials, and did not return until 2011. Wang said his return was due to ‘Xi’s direction, social demand and my passion’.

Wang is far from the only entrepreneur to be enticed into the football revolution. Evergrande Real Estate Group president Xu Jiaying bought the Guangzhou club in 2010 following its relegation for match-fixing. Xu’s investment quickly paid off on the pitch: the team was promoted in 2011 and has gone on to win six consecutive CSL titles. It paid off financially too; Xu sold a 40% stake to Alibaba for many times his original investment. Evergrande is the most successful and lucrative club in the CSL. Evergrande signed a deal with Real Madrid to help establish the world’s biggest football academy, and pledged RMB 100 million to youth development over ten years. Alibaba, Suning, Fosun, Sina and many other private companies heavily involved in different aspects of the football industry.

In Wang, Xu and other entrepreneurs’ enthusiastic embrace of the “soccer dream” there is a suspicion of courting favour with Xi Jinping. But there are also more prosaically strategic incentives, such as facilitating the acquisition of land for development and integrating football into existing entertainment, real estate and other commercial businesses.

But whereas the Chinese government ultimately prioritizes development of the national team, investors and owner have their own ambitions. One of the unforeseen consequences is that clubs’ spending on transfer fees and wages has rapidly spiralled out of control, to the extent of outspending the English Premier League in the last transfer window. It is not just privately owned clubs that have been on a spending spree: the two most expensive imports in CSL history, the Brazil internationals Hulk and Oscar, play for a team owned by Shanghai International Port Group which in turn is majority owned by the Shanghai government.

As I discussed here, the government has recently issued drastic new rules to curb spending during the current transfer window. There are good reasons for doing so.

While China is experiencing an economic slowdown and an ongoing anti-corruption campaign, the astonishing sums paid for foreign players could easily become a cause of social discontent (as it was in the 1990s albeit with much smaller amounts), especially when players perform poorly or behave badly. The potential for ‘social contradictions’ to arise and manifest in riots or protests (which the government is mindful could turn into anti-government protests) is good reason to care about the optics. The Argentinian Carlos Tevez for instance, earns £600000 a week while underwhelming for Shanghai Shenhua (China’s per capita GDP is around $8000).

More sensitive still is the suspicion that football acquisitions, including player purchases, were being used to move capital offshore, avoid currency exchange restrictions and other potentially problematic financial manoeuvres. The margin between marquee foreign players’ nominal market value and the actual transfer fees that have been paid look less like a “China premium” (the extra funds needed to attract top players to the less illustrious CSL) than a potential financial manoeuvre.

For teams in the top half of the CSL the end of big money foreign player transfers (in the short term) doesn’t really matter because they already have their quota of marquee foreigners (new rules limit teams to fielding 3 foreigners in a match). But it may consolidate the differences between teams like SIPG and Evergrande that have their foreign stars in place already and others like Tianjin Quanjian that would like to sign a star foreigner but are now effectively unable to do so. That may not be positive for the league over the longer term, but policy in the reform era has always been flexible and there will be further changes to the regulations. Striking a balance among all the competing ambitions and interests is not easy, but there is no doubt that emphasis on Xi’s “football dream” will continue into his second term.

No more superstars for Chinese Super League: That’s a good thing

The Chinese Super League summer transfer window opened on June 19, but there is none of the excited speculation that surrounded the previous few iterations. In the past two seasons, news of a disgruntled Cristiano Ronaldo, a Wayne Rooney ready to leave Man Utd for a retirement home, or a Diego Costa rendered superfluous by the Chelsea manager’s text message, would cause hyperactivity in CSL club boardrooms and frenzied speculation in the press.

Eager to attract foreign stars, CSL clubs have paid well over market price transfer fees and provided astonishing remuneration packages to a range of aging talents (Tevez, Lavezzi, Ba, Pato), one-time prospects who didn’t quite make it to the very top (Witsel, Guarin, Hernanes, Teixeira) and Premier League journeymen (Ighalo, Pelle, Jelavic, Mikel). The spending spree has also delivered some top players at the peak of their powers (Oscar, Hulk, Jackson Martinez), but it is unlikely they will be joined by any high-profile peers this summer.

The football authorities had been vaguely threatening to reign in CSL clubs’ overheated spending since the last transfer window in January, when CSL clubs outspent their counterparts in the notoriously spendthrift Premier League. Rules were adopted to encourage clubs to invest in youth development programmes, regulate the number of foreign players on squads and on the pitch, and stipulate a minimum number of Chinese Under-23 players. And earlier this month the Chinese Football Association got very specific about transfer fees.

Per the latest regulations issued by the Chinese FA on June 14 (and reiterated directly to CSL clubs by the League on June 20), the rules governing the summer 2017 CSL transfer window impose drastic restrictions. First, if a single foreign player costs under 45m RMB (~ 6 million Euros), or a Chinese player costs under 20m RMB (around 3 million Euros), the club must pay an equal amount, as an additional contribution, into the club’s existing youth development fund. Second, and more significant, if a foreign player costs over 45m RMB, or a Chinese player costs over 20m RMB, the club must pay an equal amount into the Chinese Football Development Fund. In effect, transfer fees will double overnight.

For the moment, these new regulations almost certainly end CSL clubs’ competition for “A-list” foreigners. A player like Diego Costa, a combative striker near the peak of his powers, might represent decent value for a CSL club at the rumoured valuation of £75 million. But not now the outlay would be £150 million (before taking a hypothetical remuneration package into consideration). CSL clubs are loss-making, but many of them are backed by cash-rich companies, so theoretically big money transfers could still happen in this window. And Chinese businesses are adept at finding room for manoeuvre in restrictive environments. I don’t think they will though, because more than just the regulation itself, it is the now-unequivocal message from on high that clubs need to reign in their spending.

Naturally, the government would like to see CSL clubs winning the Asian Champions League or doing well in the World Club Championship (which a hypothetical superstar signing like Diego Costa might help facilitate), but there are greater priorities. Prime among all priorities is for the Party to stay in control and avoid anything that might cause ‘social contradictions’ or other negative reactions in society.

The broader context to club’s extravagant spending is a slowing economy, growing inequality and an ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has brought down thousands of Party officials. Conspicuous spending right now is a taboo for public figures. Across Chinese society there is a huge amount of anger around inequality, injustice & corruption, and the Party (sensibly) wants to keep a lid on conspicuous manifestations thereof. One example is capital flight: Party officials and other well off Chinese are suspected of secreting billions outside the country in real estate and whatnot, which raises the uncomfortable spectre of football investments becoming a way of getting money out of China.

The government has multiple strategic goals relating to football, and the strength of the CSL (as might be advanced by the recruitment of expensive foreigners) is a relatively minor one. The government wants China to be a major player in the global soccer industry (another form of engagement and influence); it wants to develop a national team that can compete on the international stage without embarrassing the country and sometimes deliver successes like qualifying for international tournaments; it wants a strong domestic league ‘product’ for its consumption, entertainment and ‘middle class’ value; and it wants to develop grassroots infrastructure to promote soccer as a healthy activity not just for the ultimate good of the national team but to stave off the coming obesity and public health epidemic.

Policymaking in China is a process. It is flexible, experimental and reactive. The policy regulating soccer activity today will likely change in the future. But a period of consolidation, minus the distraction of another influx of foreign stars, may be a good thing for the CSL. The authorities and clubs need to figure out what regulations work best for all concerned, including fans, the development of Chinese players and the quality of the on-field product. There is a concern that the CSL is a two-speed league with some exceptional foreigner talent amid a morass of players who would struggle in the lower leagues in Europe.

Furthermore, for various reasons, high-profile, high cost “A-List” foreign players have often flopped in China (from pioneers like Nicolas Anelka to the recent travails of Carlos Tevez). On the other hand, the most successful foreign imports are relatively unknown Brazilians like Guangzhou Evergrande’s Elkeson and Ricardo Goulart, top scorers and MVPs in the last 3 years. Elkeson was bought for £4million from Botafago and Ricardo Goulart was £10 million from Cruzeiro (a record fee for CSL in 2015, but exceptional value in the grand scheme of things). This season’s revelation also fits this mould: Paulinho, another £10 million purchase for Evergrande. An underwhelming performer at Spurs, Paulinho has been such a standout figure in CSL he is rumoured to be on Barcelona’s radar.

For a growing league like CSL, the value in performance lies in the kind of foreigner players you can pick up for fees near or under the CFA’s new threshold. Under the current regulations scouting mid-level talent and keeping existing superstars happy and locked down are key. No doubt the super-agents who negotiated astronomical packages for Tevez, Pelle et al are aware of the CSL’s effective self-imposed superstar transfer ban.

Panama switches – What does it mean for Taiwan?

Beijing’s strategy towards a Tsai Ing-wen administration that refuses to accept the “1992 Consensus” (a way for Taiwan to acknowledge “one China” that enabled productive relations and a ‘diplomatic truce’ under Ma Ying-jeou) is to incrementally increase pressure. Since Tsai assumed the ROC presidency in May 2016 Beijing has broken off direct communications, reduced tourist numbers, blocked Taiwan’s WHA observership, arrested a Taiwanese rights activist etc. This is pretty low level pressure and cross-Strait economic interactions and non-governmental & p2p exchanges continue. Given the intense integration of the two economies, punishing Taiwanese businesses in Taiwan would also hurt the Chinese economy, at a time when there are already domestic economic pressures. But going after Taiwan’s allies has very little downside for China. It symbolizes Taiwan’s diplomatic marginalization and in relative terms is good value (and unlike blocking Taiwan in WHA, there’s no blowback). I expect the PRC to continue targeting Taiwan’s allies and to capitalize on any opportunity to encourage a split (the Vatican is the big prize, but also the most complicated due to the Catholic Church in China).

Panama itself is a special case for Taiwan. With the exception of the Vatican, which has extra symbolic value because it is the only European ally left, Panama was Taiwan’s most important ally. Relations were established more than 100 years ago and was Taiwan’s first FTA partner in 2003. It is also an influential country among Taiwan’s allies in Central America and the Caribbean, where half of all their allies are located. The implications are largely symbolic, but this is an arena in which symbolism is very important. The real fear is that Panama’s switch may prompt others to follow. Since half of Taiwan’s allies are in Central America and the Caribbean, this is a real concern and one that underpinned Tsai’s visit to the region almost as soon as she was inaugurated last summer.

The Tsai administration has focused on domestic issues and maintaining as stable cross-Strait relations as Beijing will allow, and although Tsai’s approval ratings have declined substantially, it hasn’t been due to her China or foreign policy. Until now, dissatisfaction with Tsai has mainly been due to her faltering domestic agenda, and the slowdown/shutdown of cross-Strait relations has not harmed her that much. Taiwanese are very conscious of their international marginalisation, and the symbolism of an important ally is a hit to ‘national dignity’ and ‘respect’ that are highly salient in political discourse. There is little sign that this will stop or reverse national identity trends though: the massive increase in Taiwanese-only identifiers has occurred in the same period that Taiwan has lost one third of its diplomatic allies.

If, however, a number of allies were to switch, it may bring pressure to bear on Tsai’s China policy. It remains to be seen how public opinion would react to a (hypothetical) succession of diplomatic switches. Tsai’s main domestic opposition (the KMT, which supports closer and friendlier relations with China) is currently weak and not in position at the moment to bring much pressure to bear on Tsai. Public opinion on Taiwan’s marginalisation is important, but Taiwanese also appear to accept that some things are out of the government’s control. The fact is, the decision to switch is up to the respective allies, who make their own cost-benefit calculations. Taiwan has invested heavily in maintaining and servicing its diplomatic relationships, but sometimes the PRC is a more attractive proposition.

Public opinion in Taiwan is pretty clear: Taiwanese want peaceful and productive economic relations with the PRC but they prefer to maintain their functional autonomy and do not want political unification. On one hand, PRC pressure and military option is necessary to keep “Taiwan independence” off the table as a realistic option. On the other, moves which appear to Taiwanese people to be unfair bullying do not play well. Given the current configuration, if Taiwan were to choose unification it would have to be at the agreement of Taiwanese voters – and moves that hurt Taiwan, diminish its ‘national dignity’ etc, are unlikely to succeed in winning these voters over.

Who can you trust?

By now most readers will have seen the horrible images of a woman hit by a car and left dying in the street ignored by dozens of passersby in Zhumadian, Henan. Most readers will also be reminded of a similar, perhaps even more shocking since it involved a toddler, incident in 2013 in Foshan, Guangdong.

Both cases prompted much soul searching among Chinese people, many of them wondering how their society could have become so heartless and inhumane (無情). Most often offered in explanation, is the fear that helping strangers in need might result in problems for passersby themselves (找自己麻煩), citing instances where good Samaritans had been wrongly accused or forced to take responsibility for treatment.

This line of argument is a sad indictment of what happens when a society loses trust in the justice system and in each other.

I want to emphasise that this is not meant as a criticism of Chinese people or China itself. It is merely a reflection on what two horrible incidents say about the current situation in China. Certainly no one should interpret either incident as reflecting the inhumanity or wickedness of “the Chinese people”. And yes, terrible, wicked things happen all over the world every day.

But if the prevailing explanation for why a woman and toddler were left to die in the street unaided is a lack of trust, then that should prompt consideration of how Chinese society got to this point. This discussion is going on in Chinese cyberspace right now, and there is excellent scholarly work too (e.g. here and here). There is much debate about what effects trust levels in China (from the political system to culture to historical legacies). In sum, we can probably say that it is not mono-causal and therefore any “solution” will also need to be multifaceted.

The lack of trust is pervasive and manifest in a multitude of mundane and potentially grave experiences. Can you trust that crossing the road on your green light a car won’t run you over? Can you trust that the milk powder or soy sauce you buy isn’t poisonous? Can you trust that the risque joke you made on Weibo today won’t come back to haunt you tomorrow? Can you trust that the soil or air in your town isn’t slowly killing you? Can you trust that the people you do business with will honour the contract? And so on.

One could choose any number of alternative examples invoking any number of different issues and sectors. The point is that there is no single solution to a condition that manifests itself in myriad ways in billions of quotidian interactions, from the top of society to the bottom, and which sometimes results in a woman dying under the gaze of passersby.

Trump, Taiwan, and the ‘One China’ Policy

From U.S. President Donald Trump’s initial conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen to his recent reaffirmation of the “one China’”policy with China President Xi Jinping, assess the impact of Trump’s volte face on Taiwan.

“One China” is a useful conceit, a nebulous concept that all sides interpret according to their own needs and giving each side space to operate. Trump’s initial indication that the U.S. might challenge or reject “one China” policy was a major shock, not just to Beijing, but to Taipei as well. At the present time, the “one China” framework is the mechanism that allows Taiwan to maintain its functional autonomy and peaceful productive relations with the PRC. Taiwan does not gain anything from disrupting the status quo. The call was an effective way for Taiwan to put itself back on the agenda in Washington (having lost salience under Obama), and a way for Trump to signal that he is going to do things differently vis-à-vis China. But the most sensible thing that the Trump administration has done to date is to reaffirm its commitment to “one China.” Doing so is welcome in Taipei.

Full interview with me at The Diplomat here.

How the media frames Taiwan

When news broke about US President-elect Donald Trump’s call with Tsai Ing-wen, the subjects that most interested the international media were: first, the United States—in the guise of the news-cycle-dominant Trump—and, second, China, and its likely reaction to Trump’s diplomatic faux pas. Pro-Trump analysts viewed the story through the lens of a newly robust US foreign policy towards China. Anti-Trump analysts fretted about the dire consequences of the neophyte leader’s ignorant approach to US-China relations. Taiwan, its government and its people, were at best a footnote; even when it transpired that the call was initiated by Taiwan, the focus remained on the wisdom of Trump accepting the call, his motivations, and how China would react. This treatment is consistent with long term Western media narratives on Taiwan.

In general terms, Taiwan’s efforts to present its own narrative have come up against entrenched framing strategies that privilege Beijing’s rhetorical position. Within a dominant focus on developments in Taiwan through the lens of cross-Strait relations and the broader regional political environment structured by Sino-US relations, these framings frequently connect Taiwan to “tensions” in the Strait. Despite enjoying functional autonomy, reports about Taiwan invariably position it within an implicit ”One- China” framework, where China’s claims to control Taiwan are juxtaposed with subtly “destabilizing” forces within and emanating out of Taiwanese domestic politics. This is evident in frequent depictions of the pursuit of “independence,” notwithstanding the almost complete marginalisation of this position in Taiwan itself. Full piece here

China and celebrity politics

Writing in the 1970s, the Italian sociologist Fransico Alberoni described celebrities as a “powerless elite”, because they did not possess authoritative or institutional power. Since then, the rise of a celebrity industry associated with expansion of the media, internet and entertainment industries, has changed celebrity culture beyond all recognition. Celebrities are still an elite, but they are no longer powerless.

As the lives and loves of celebrities have become ubiquitous in western popular culture, performers like Angelina Jolie, Bono and Beyoncé have acquired huge stores of cultural, economic and even political capital. Donald Trump, a celebrity businessman with no political experience, has shown it is even possible to ride the affordances of fame to within reach of the White House.

The American presidential election is a combination of soap opera and reality TV, covered by media enthralled by dramatic storylines, drawing on metaphors from sports and war, playing to a global audience on television and social media. As each day brings further revelations, insults and gaffes, pored over by a proliferating pundit class, the political process in the US looks increasingly like a made-for-TV production.

When the sixth plenary session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee opens in Beijing this month, the contrast could not starker. While elite politics receive abundant coverage in China’s media, we can be fairly sure there will be no intemperate tweets, personal attacks or unsavoury stories emanating from the meeting.

Unlike in the US, where electoral competition demands politicians embrace the media and entertainment industries, celebrity and elite politics have not, as yet, converged in China. It is unimaginable that any Chinese leader would play the sax on a late night chat show like Bill Clinton did, or dance with Ellen DeGeneres like Barack Obama, or hang out with the Spice Girls like Tony Blair (let alone be a frequent guest on shock jock Howard Stern’s radio show like Donald Trump).

Chinese officials prefer to follow a script that promotes the decorum and gravitas of office. They don’t do sit-down personal interviews or fraternize with performers trailing paparazzi photographers. And for all the Chinese government’s massive online presence, no one in the Politburo has a social media account.

Yet, while Chinese politics does not embrace the celebrity mechanism, China is far from immune to the seductions of fame. In a country that has long emphasized public restraint and traditional values, celebrity is big business and subtly pervasive.

Chinese and western celebrities are prominent in China, on billboards, magazines and social media. Chinese movie and pop stars are as glamourous, worshiped and wealthy as their western counterparts. But the Chinese celebrity industry’s balancing of serving popular tastes with political correctness, has resulted in a celebrity culture that is distinct from the west.

Chinese celebrities are expected to uphold certain standards of behaviour and act as positive role models for society. The triviality and excess surrounding celebrity lifestyles in the west are generally replaced with narratives of persistence, cultivation of talent and high standards of morality.

Celebrities may be akin to carnival performers, but in an orderly society the carnival is also ordered, with performers and audiences assigned distinct roles. Celebrity is conferred on people who generally conform to dominant social norms. China’s own celebrity CEO, Jack Ma, became rich and famous through hard work and perseverance, and his success acts as an example for others to emulate.

But, the commodification of individuals with talent and looks is not alien in China. From luxury cars, clothes and watches, Chinese celebrities endorse some of the world’s most glamourous brands. And many ordinary Chinese appear increasingly susceptible to the attractions of “DIY celebrity”.

Writing in their excellent 2011 book Online Society in China, scholars David Herold and Pete Marolt argued that Chinese internet users preferred anonymity, eschewing “performance” in favour of simply “living online”. Borrowing the words of Chinese media scholar, Hu Yong, the majority of people were “onlookers”, happy with their role as observers.

However, there are signs of a changing emphasis, from merely worshipping the stars to wanting to become one—or at least the truncated version of fame available to DIY celebrities.

It is a truism that anyone can become famous via the internet. Admittedly there are more examples of becoming infamous, symbolised in China by the cases of Furong Jiejie, Muzi Mei and Guo Meimei.

But nowadays there are examples of Chinese using the internet to seek fame and perhaps wealth: from the profusion of live-streaming apps like Ingkee and the crass stunts featured on video site Kuaishou, to more mundane expressions of “me-casting” manifest in public declarations of love, body challenges and China’s ongoing selfie craze.

While these trends can appear vulgar, they are mainly harmless modes of entertainment and self-expression. Banal as they are, they portend changes in the social mores of mainly younger people, challenging traditional values such as protecting face and public reticence.

The rise of individualism among the younger generation in China is well known. Among the expansion of subcultures and behaviours considered unbecoming by their parents, are changing expectations and attitudes. This includes feelings about public performance, mediatisation and celebrity.

There is little research on the social and political implications of these changes, but there are signs that the Chinese government is aware of the need to connect with younger people, including the vast expansion of e-government services and the professionalization of political communications.

Elite leaders have even taken tentative steps towards experimenting with the informalities common to politicians in the west; President Xi Jinping’s visit to a Beijing restaurant and sending a message on weibo among them. Yet, despite the fact that First Lady Peng Liyuan is a famous singer and fashion icon, it is fanciful to talk of the celebritization of Chinese politics.

As Chinese celebrity culture continues to mature and expand its reach, and positive attitudes toward fame become normalized among the young, it will become something that future governments may find it easier to adapt to rather than merely seeking to control. For now though, a Chinese version of The Donald remains agreeably far off.

China Daily piece here.

China deals with sporting failure

Legendary Italian coach Marcello Lippi was today announced as the new manager of the Chinese (men’s) national team. The second coming of now-twice former coach Gao Hongbo lasted less than a year, after a series of disappointing results in World Cup qualifying. The men’s team has not qualified for a World Cup since 2002 (its only appearance), when the squad was coached by the nomadic Serb Bora Milutinović, a specialist in wringing the most out of underperforming teams. Lippi is best known in Europe as the former Juventus and World Cup winning Italian national team coach. But in his later career, Lippi has steered Guangzhou Evergrande to three Chinese domestic titles and established the club as a major powerhouse in Asian competition (before handing over the reins to Felipe Scolari in 2014).

Lippi inherits a national team that is in the doldrums, having lost four of its last five games (three of them qualifiers). As national manager Lippi will not be able to call on the expensive foreign talent that has enlivened the Chinese Super League season just completed. As a Hall of Fame coach, and with Xi Jinping having declared his ambitions for the rejuvenation of Chinese soccer, Lippi will be expected to achieve significant improvements. The public mood after the humbling loss to Syria, a nation in the midst of terrible turmoil with a team ranked 114 at the time of the match, was one of derision and anger, which spilled onto the streets and was primarily directed at Cai Zhenhua, Head of the Chinese FA. Gao was sacrificed and Lippi ushered in.

The question of patriotic Chinese sports fans’ reaction to disappointment was raised in a different context earlier this year, when, by the standards of recent Games, the Chinese national team underwhelmed at the Rio Olympics. Team China brought home a “mere” 26 gold medals, the fewest gold medals since Atlanta in 1996 less than half the golds it secured in Beijing in 2008, despite taking its largest ever contingent of 411 competitors to Brazil. There were some inspiring performances by Chinese athletes, notably the underdog women’s volleyball team, which overcame early defeats to win the gold medal. This was an unfancied team relying on hard work and determination, led by “prodigal daughter” Coach Lang Ping, who had coached the US team to victory in Beijing in 2008, having starred as a player for the Chinese team three decades earlier. But other individual athletes and fancied teams in gymnastics and badminton under-performed. Such is the nature of elite sport, where the smallest dip in form or change in conditions or luck can make the difference between winning and losing.

Unlike the chronically feeble men’s soccer team, Chinese fans invariably have high expectations of their Olympic athletes. International sport has long been used as a vehicle for demonstrating national capabilities and spirit, and a means to generating national pride. During the Cold War, competing blocs used all means foul and fair to demonstrate the superiority of their political and economic systems. In those days a lacklustre medal tally was a matter of national shame. Instrumentally face-saving or not, the narrative that surrounded China’s Rio performance made much of the argument that nations that are confident in their sense of self do not need gold medals to externalise their worth. China’s re-emergence as an economic and world power, and global recognition of its remarkable development story, should rightly be a source of confidence vastly more important than Olympic medals.

If we take this narrative at face value, it would represent a healthy turning point in China’s relationship with sport. In grappling with the failure to meet expectations, the nation began to debate what sporting success actually means in more holistic terms, including sports as a vehicle for pushing individual boundaries, enjoying the thrill of participation and nurturing healthy lifestyles. Such an attitude would be a positive development, reducing the pressure on athletes in the academy system and at the elite level (athletes like Liu Xiang shouldn’t be expected to carry the weight of national pride in addition to the pressures of competition), boosting the attractiveness of participation and healthy lifestyles, which are crucial in a country facing increasing levels of obesity and other public health issues, and putting the focus back on the individual enjoyment of sport.

This message was powerfully delivered by swimmer Fu Yuanhui, in many ways the star of the Rio Olympics not named Phelps, Biles or Bolt. Interviewed on CCTV after a qualifying heat, Fu expressed delight and satisfaction at beating her own personal best. After all the hard training Fu expressed her pleasure at giving it her all and not worrying about her medal chances. Fu’s ebullient interview quickly went viral, with people around the world enjoying her refreshing humility, enthusiasm and pleasure in her sport. Her unfiltered demeanour stood in contrast to both tight-lipped, media-trained professional athletes and the constrained, some say robotic, image of other Chinese athletes. In terms of winning hearts and minds, Fu demonstrated how the power of attraction works best when it is organic and unplanned.

For all this, the Rio Games were not without reminders of the “thin skin” that blogger Han Han described ahead of the Beijing Games in 2008. Coverage of the opening ceremony parade was marred by CCTV cutting away from the Philippine contingent, an immature and undignified gesture prompted by a dispute that a few months later appears to have been resolved. The media and online reaction to swimmer Sun Yang’s spat with the Australian Mack Horton was similarly unedifying.

China will once again welcome the world in 2022, when Beijing and sites in neighbouring Hubei host the Winter Games. China is not a traditional Winter Olympics power (with the honourable exception of speed and figure skating) and medal winning will not be the focus. Instead, I hope it will be an opportunity to demonstrate the confidence of a great nation, manifest in Beijing’s historical gems and the scale and facilities of a 21st Century metropolis, as well as the warmth of the locals and the taste of northern cuisine. Communicating China’s openness and positivity is more important than winning medals. I reserve judgement on whether China’s attitude to its sports teams has really changed or is a reflection of greater confidence, but as Coach Lippi said, “I am optimistic, because I have to be”. Lippi’s first game in charge is a winnable home Qualifier next month against Qatar.

Is a “two child policy” enough?

The end of population control in the form of what is popularly known as China’s “one child policy”, was announced in October 2015. Although the number of permitted births always varied by geography and ethnicity, “one child policy” entered the lexicon and stuck. In the west it became a synonym for invasive and inhumane interventions by the state—which were almost entirely borne by women.

At the time the policy was adopted in 1979, China was emerging from the economic and social disaster of the Cultural Revolution. China was poor and population growth was seen as both a correlate of poverty and an obstacle to Deng’s nascent economic reforms.

In this context, population control measures were framed as a rational, indeed noble, effort to facilitate economic development. The number of births per women declined from 3 to 1.5 between 1980 and 2000, where the figure has remained, well below the required replacement rate.

Officials have said that the policy succeeded in limiting the Chinese population by over 400 million, although others argue that rising levels of education, urbanisation, and economic independence would have led to declining birth rates even without coercive policies. It is also now recognized that population controls have had unintended consequences, notably an extreme gender imbalance, a dangerous dependency ratio and the social issues faced by the “one child” generation.

The announcement in October 2015 that limitations would be relaxed and all married couples allowed two children, signalled the realisation that China’s population is ageing rapidly, the labour pool is shrinking and the current fertility rate is insufficient to support the pensions, health care, and social security needs of the dependent population.

The ratio of retirees to working-age people is 13 percent and rising quickly as boomers from the 1950s and 60s age. By 2030, China will have the largest population of old people, with the implications that has for sustained economic growth, international competitiveness and social welfare.

Population growth, rather than control, is now advanced as needed for the good of the country’s continued economic development. Encouragement of multiple births has been issued in various formats, and exhortations to have a second child can even be seen on billboards in certain locales.

Although the new policy was not made on the basis of women’s wellbeing, the relaxation of population policy has been interpreted as a positive development for women. It is, but it should be noted that it will do little to stop forced sterilisations and abortions for those who contravene the new regulations.

Population control policies became a symbol of the, often brutal, control of women’s bodies, as dramatized by the writer Ma Jian in his novel The Dark Road, a book that is well read in the west.

The novel describes the odyssey of family-planning fugitives Meili, Kongzi and their One Child Policy-compliant daughter Nannan as they escape officials with their fines, forced abortions and sterilizations.

Agonizing over the gender of her unborn babies (girls won’t do) and the consequences of getting caught with an out of plan child, Meili muses how her body belongs to her husband and her womb to the state.

With a second baby almost at full term, Meili is captured by a family planning squad. The male foetus named Happiness is forcibly aborted in an indelible scene of shocking brutality juxtaposed with the transactional nonchalance of the physician offering a knock-down price for the operation.

When another baby is born, and it turns out to be a girl, Kongzi sells her to a child begging racket. The family finally reaches Heaven, a “cancer village” recycling electronic waste, where Meili becomes pregnant again. Traumatized by her experiences she refuses to relinquish the baby until many months beyond the usual gestation period, finally giving birth to an alien-like thing mutated by poisonous e-waste.

The Dark Road is an inversion, or perversion, of the ‘natural order’, where Happiness is a murdered baby, Heaven is a cancer village, pregnant women are criminals and babies are produced for mutilation and the begging trade.

It is a dramatization, but it highlights important issues about women and their reproductive rights that are often neglected in the “rational” discussion about demographics and population growth statistics.

The economic reform era has witnessed the retreat of the state from many aspects of people’s lives. The danwei (work unit) no longer has a say in who people marry or where they can live. Freedom of movement, despite ongoing issues with hukou (household registration) reform, was one of the engines powering economic growth.

Women’s reproductive rights have been subject to state interventions since the inception of the PRC in 1949, when Mao’s exhortations led to rapid population growth. And while the current government’s “two child policy” is less restrictive, it continues to exert control over women’s bodies.

The response to the relaxation, which started in stages in 2013, has not led to a “baby boom”. A mere 13% of eligible couples took advantage of their second child rights in 2013. Like Singapore, Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong, which have the lowest total fertility rates in the world, increasing affluence, education and economic pressures in China are disincentives to raising large families. Furthermore, without state provision of better childcare, subsidies for schooling and systematic health care, many families are unwilling or unable to consider raising multiple children.

More pertinently, the response to the relaxed restrictions demonstrates that people can be trusted to take “rational” personal decisions for themselves. At what point will the state decide to retreat from the most intimate social relations of all?

Reflections on my fellowship at the BBC

I started doing “external engagement work” as a postdoc, when I set up a blog to cover the 2012 elections in Taiwan (an experience I wrote about for Issues and Studies). As a result of this experience I started to receive periodic requests for media interviews. I continued to develop my online footprint through Twitter, editing the China Policy Institute blog (which subsequently evolved into a more sophisticated product featuring analysis by some of the world’s top experts) and convening another Taiwan blog to cover the 2016 elections.

Over time the more media I did the more opportunities presented themselves, both in terms of being asked for comment and writing op-eds. I came to see engaging the media as an important part of academic life. Academics create knowledge, but then share it with a tiny number of peers at conferences and in pay-walled journals. That strikes me as a terrible result all round. In the hope of stimulating discussion about external engagement in my own field of China studies, I published two articles in the China Quarterly on working with the media and using social media (forthcoming working paper version).

Through these activities in the past 5 years I developed an understanding of how print and digital media work, at least from the perspective of an academic seeking to engage in these activities. However, I had very little exposure to working with broadcast media, which is why I applied to the British Science Association (BSA) for a Media Fellowship. Thanks to support from the BSA and the University of Nottingham, I secured a placement working with the BBC for a month during the summer. My placement was with the BBC radio science unit, headed by Deborah Cohen, a journalist with a commitment to breaking down barriers between scholars and the media to the benefit of science communication at large. Continue reading

Can China become a soccer power?

A series of audacious player signings and investments in European clubs has put China’s soccer ambitions on the map. As soccer fans around the world are now aware, China has decided to become a soccer power and, as it usually does, is putting its money where its mouth is.

At home, the Chinese Super League has been reanimated and a huge amount of money earmarked for infrastructure, training facilities and expertise that China hopes will eventually improve the fortunes of the national team. At the same time, Chinese investors have been on a shopping spree across Europe, buying controlling stakes in clubs, notably in the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga.

The approach to becoming a soccer power has some similarities with other ambitious state-sanctioned projects, notably massive, rapid investment in infrastructure. The “build it and they will come” strategy has had mixed results. It served the manufacturing boom well, but it has also led to huge overcapacity in housing, steel and other sectors.

As with other somewhat nebulous ambitions (the Belt and Road, the Chinese Dream), the leadership has sketched out a vision to become a “major soccer power”, while the planning and implementation is largely left to government bureaus, provincial governments, state-owned enterprises and private businesses. With such an ambitious project, a lack of a concrete plan and a multiplicity of actors (often with their own motivations), things can go wrong.

Full article at SCMP here.

Fans, netizens and publics

We hear a lot about Chinese “netizens” in the media. Whether it is journalists marvelling at the huge size of the internet population, reporting the latest online vox pop, or discussing whether we should actually be using the term “netizen”, Chinese internet users are a frequently referenced demographic. For all the popular interest in them, there is little systematic research on how Chinese netizens behave, what their attitudes are, how they come together and what the implications are for Chinese society, both online and IRL (“in real life”). Focusing on netizens and their online communities, The internet and new social formation in China is a welcome addition to Chinese internet studies. Furthermore, in focusing largely on “fans”, it contributes a promising angle to the growing field of Chinese celebrity studies.

The underlying argument is that online fan communities have the potential to evolve into meaningful new “social collectivities” through the “transformation of fans to publics”. Drawing on some well-grounded theoretical antecedents (Castells, Bourdieu), the book employs a network approach to understanding how online communities form, expand and mutate. A major finding is that cyberspace does not merely replicate physical world forms of fandom, rather technological affordances influence how atomistic fans can become collective publics through a combination online and offline networking. A number of case studies are presented, all fascinating.

The most fully developed case study is that of Rear Window, which started as an online discussion board for movie fans in 1998. Zhang interviewed contributors in 2003 and spent years as a participant observer before carrying out follow up interviews a decade later. Although this earlier period in the development of the Chinese internet has taken on an innocent and nostalgic hue, the profile of Zhang’s sample in 2003—99% of her respondents were aged 18-35 and 97% had a college degree—is a reminder of how unequal access was before cheap smartphones and the popularization of the mobile internet.

Rear Window’s amateur enthusiasts contributed to innumerable forum discussions on the merits of individual movies, filmmaking and the industry, contributing to a “counter discourse” distinct from state and commercial preoccupations. The film buffs also mobilized their resources to organize “Private Movie Watchings”, networking with universities, malls and bars to secure space and equipment for collective viewings of art house, classic and foreign language films on DVD. This was community building in a physical space that cemented the links made online. Growing in scale, Rear Window came to the attention of the mass media which publicised the site, repurposed their content, reported on their activities (and wrote op-eds about the legalities of Private Movie Watchings). According to Zhang, it was this networking-led entry into the public consciousness that “turned the movie fans into a subaltern public” (p. 46), an idea she has developed in several prior publications.

When Zhang revisited the Rear Window contributors ten years on, many had leveraged their knowledge and enthusiasm for film, and the relationships (should we say guanxi?) established in the community, to become critics, playwrights, movie makers and directors. The internet had undergone major changes in this time too, and these changes were also partly responsible. The popularization of blogging—symbolized by the launch of Sina’s blog platform in 2005—precipitated a shift away from unheralded contributions on discussion boards to seeking substantial audiences, perhaps even becoming a famous blogger. The connection between blogging (and later, microblogging) and fame was explicit from the start: Sina’s blog platform was built on the popularity of celebrities like Xu Jinglei, Ai Weiwei and Han Han.

Nearly all the Rear Window alumni had their own blogs (as did a third of Chinese internet users at one point in time) and some of them became minor blog stars. Blogs, and then microblogging, spelt the end of the BBS golden age, but they were instrumental in propelling many individuals into the public consciousness. In the case of Rear Window, a network that was initiated in cyberspace and concretized through the accumulation of social capital via online and offline connections, Zhang argues that they helped transform a “subaltern public” into a “regular public.” One might logically ask what the implications of this transformation might be. The answer to that question awaits further study, but Zhang is convinced that “the politics of fandom publics is not democracy” (p. 134).

One further discussion, though embryonic, looks at how new technological affordances have reduced the distance between audiences and celebrities, making it possible for Chinese fans to experience (the illusion of) personal and reciprocal “relationships” with stars, via services like Weibo, Weixin or Fenda, the “ask-a-celebrity” mobile app that was recently banned. Zhang draws the tentative inference that people are no longer just “onlookers,” but members of a network or community drawn to the same “fan object.” This requires further investigation, but how fans and celebrities use the internet to interact is a fascinating question that Chinese celebrity studies is just starting to grapple with.