“Leftover” and less empowered women

Back in April, a documentary-style cosmetics advertisement centred on China’s “leftover women” went viral, inspiring a fierce online debate around single women and gender equality. The video, titled Marriage Market Makeover, highlighted the social pressures faced by so-called leftover women, or shengnu 剩女, a disparaging term widely used to describe women who remain unmarried in their late 20s.

Produced by P&G-owned Japanese cosmetics company SK-II, the four-minute film, which concludes with the hashtag for the brand’s “change destiny” global campaign, is an emotional appeal to young women stigmatized for being single.

While the issue of leftover women has generated much public debate in China, it has also enjoyed a high profile in the West, primarily due to the pioneering research of Leta Hong Fincher, a visiting sociology professor at Columbia University.

The “leftover” discourse is designed to pressure women into marrying to mitigate the effects of an ageing population and gender imbalance – there were 116 boys born for every 100 girls in China in 2014. Unmarried men are often viewed as a potentially destabilizing force in Chinese society.

China’s quest for modernity is increasingly tied to the development of a middle class society and much is expected of the middle classes as a force for stability and the engine for upgrading the Chinese economic model.

The family unit is an integral part of this narrative, as the ubiquity of happy middle class families in television shows and advertising demonstrates. Single women who choose not to marry are a challenge to this norm, transgressing traditional Confucian-derived ideas about continuing the family line and contemporary narratives about family life as the binding agent of aspirational modernity and national progress.

The impassioned reaction to the SK-II advert showed the real value in highlighting what is an increasingly pernicious narrative in contemporary society, even if it does come wrapped up in an attempt to sell more beauty products.

However, we need to recognize that this is just one of many ways in which the lives of many Chinese women continue to be conditioned by traditional values.

Indeed, deplorable as the “leftover” description is, the urban, educated, independent women that it refers to are relatively empowered. Many such women are professional, networked and confident in their life choices, and have used these qualities to reclaim or subvert the label.

Many women wear their single status with pride and positive representations of single life are slowly beginning to appear in commercial media and online. Ultimately, the reason a purveyor of beauty products that a small proportion of China’s population can actually afford is targeting “leftover women” is because they have disposable income. But for all the buzz around issues of gender equality the SK-II advert created, it is important to acknowledge that it centres on a subset of women, primarily urban, middle class, heterosexual and Han.

Less amenable for appropriation into feel-good marketing campaigns, well intentioned or not, is the female suicide rate in the countryside, endemic domestic violence or the unprecedented gender imbalance caused by many instances of decades-long female infanticide and sex-selective abortions.

Lacking disposable income and chastised for being “uncivilized”, female migrant workers face precarious working conditions and widespread abuse. The disabled, lesbian and transwomen, and the large number of women living with HIV, face discrimination and extreme vulnerabilities.

The most marginal women in Chinese society are virtually invisible in mainstream online debates and media representations. Their stories tend not to go viral on social media. More amenable to viral success is the recent proliferation of “body challenges” focusing on the female form as an object of desire and aesthetic pleasure and supporting a culture of body policing and body shaming.

This year has seen Chinese women posing online for the “A4 challenge”, in which they prove their waists are narrower than the width of a sheet of A4 paper. This was quickly followed by the “iPhone 6 knee challenge”, in which young women had to hide their legs behind the six-inch screen and then by the “100 yuan challenge”, for which women photographed themselves wrapping the note around their wrist.

The preoccupation with female looks focuses attention on women’s bodies as an object for male consumption, pleasure and control. It is no coincidence that SK-II is a beauty product. Good intentions aside, what is it really saying? “It’s OK to be single, but you should look good while you’re at it?”

Another, deeply cynical and misogynist view that is pervasive in Chinese society sees women’s physical attractiveness as an economic instrument – for work, sexual or otherwise, finding a husband or becoming a mistress.

While market forces in the form of media and advertising play a crucial role in propagating ideal types that women are expected to adhere to, this “soft control” is less physically cruel than controls imposed on women’s reproductive rights.

The pressure to continue the male family line, a pervasive obligation in the countryside, falls to women who must give birth to a male heir, and are ostracized by their in-laws if they don’t, or have to endure successive pregnancies and terminations until a boy is born.

The recent relaxation of population controls is a welcome development for gender equality. It is one of a number of recent steps forward for women’s rights.

A law on domestic violence has been strengthened; women have thrived as entrepreneurs; and feminist social media, blogs and reporting have led to growing awareness of gender inequality and discrimination, with champions from blogger Han Han to comedian and internet sensation Papi Jiang.

Women’s rights activists are tackling gender discrimination in employment recruitment as well as gender-based admission policies across universities in China. These groups have also initiated campaigns against sexual harassment in public places, with slogans like: “What I wear has nothing to do with you.”

Chinese women are not passive victims whose lives are a succession of unspeakable horrors visited upon them. Millions of Chinese women have seized educational, economic and social opportunities and are thriving in different ways, including many “leftover women”.

However, it will take more than a hashtag to “change the destiny” of women deprived of equality, fair treatment and dignity. The feel-good narrative is incomplete without the women who are striving to achieve these goals rather than sell more beauty products.

UK-China relations after Brexit

Brexit is a mixed blessing for China. On one hand it loses the UK as a relatively China-friendly influencer within the EU and a weakened EU is less of an effective balance against the US and Russia (the Chinese-Russian friendship is one of convenience and riven with suspicion). On the other hand, China’s leverage over the UK is likely to increase, as the latter is forced to step up its economic relationships with non-EU nations, (notably, or optimistically, the US, China and India). In terms of trade, the UK will have to negotiate a new deal with China, and given the UK’s weaker position, it is likely to be an improvement for China. With the significantly falling value of sterling, there will be attractive opportunities for Chinese investors; in addition to importers, students and tourists. The medium to long term (5-10 years) outlook for the UK economy is not as dire as short term instability suggests, and thus there is good value for investors. While it may find Brexit a perplexing act of self-harm, China continues to value its economic relationship with UK; but it will be able to demand a better deal.

The Brexit nightmare bolsters the CCP narrative about democracy’s flaws and “the people” cannot be trusted to make decisions that serve the nation’s best interest. There isn’t much sympathy for the U.K. government on that score. However, China has benefitted from global stability and it does not welcome the uncertainties brought by Brexit, not for the UK but the Eurozone and global markets. Nor is Beijing a fan of “secession” movements and the potential break-up of the UK, hitherto a strong Union, reminds China of its own would-be breakaway regions. As a “close friend in the west” China does not want to see the UK marginalised. The leaders who oversaw the nascence of a “golden relationship” (former Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne) are no longer driving UK policy (Osborne’s status in a Theresa May government remains in question) and it remains to be seen whether the new government’s position on China will be as enthusiastic.

In sum, the UK Government is hastily re-assembling behind a new leader, and is preoccupied with how to handle Brexit. It is in no position to formulate major strategic plans, and it is hard to say what UK-China relations will look like in the future. However, the relationship with China is very important to the UK and will probably become even more so, if more asymmetrical than previously planned.


China suspends comms with Taiwan

The Taiwan Affairs Office, the body nominally responsible for orchestrating and executing China’s Taiwan policy, recently announced the suspension of the cross-strait communication mechanism. It was established during President Ma’s tenure to help manage increasingly complex and multifaceted interactions between the two sides. A TAO spokesperson linked the suspension to Tsai’s failure to signal her recognition of the “1992 Consensus”.

Tsai’s acceptance of the “1992 Consensus” as a historical fact (without agreeing to its contents) and pledge to uphold the status quo in accordance with the ROC Constitution, has been insufficient to meet Beijing’s demands for her to demonstrate “sincerity”. Yet, while Tsai does not accept the “1992 Consensus”, neither does Beijing: It has never agreed to the “respective interpretations” qualifier to “one China”. However, Taiwanese leaders’, specifically President Ma, propensity to acknowledge “1992” has become Beijing’s bottom line proxy for acknowledging “One China”.

I would not go so far to say that Beijing has hereby declared a refusal to work with Taiwan under a DPP government, but it shows what Beijing’s tactic is going to be: A gradual turning of the screw, making it more difficult for Taiwan to manage the complex interactions between the two sides and perform its obligations of state. In recent days and months this has been exemplified by suspected Taiwanese criminals being deported to China from Kenya and most recently Cambodia, when the representations of the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs were simply ignored.

The timing of the decision is not accidental, coming during Tsai Ing-wen’s first overseas trip as President. While her visit to Central American allies is not out of the ordinary, she has been granted stopovers in the US on both outward and return journeys. And having previously made a good impression in the US, she has been granted a warm (though not ostentatious) welcome. It is typical of tit-for-tat Chinese tactics that a (moderate) opportunity for Tsai to appear on the international stage as a stateswoman would be accompanied by some kind of sanction.

This is not about “escalating tensions”; it is a tactical punishment and part of a drip by drip approach to circumscribing and complicating Tsai’s capacity to manage practical interactions between Taiwan and China. It is an inconvenience, but more symbolic than coup de grace at this point. But it is also a sign of things to come.

I have also commented on this issue for the NYT.

Celebrity in China

A visit to a Chinese city of any size—looking up at downtown billboards, flicking through a magazine, riding public transport, shopping at a mall, or even a convenience store—is to be in the presence of a Chinese celebrity endorsing a product, lifestyle or other symbols of “the good life”. In contemporary urban China, the image of a Chinese actor, singer, athlete or TV personality is never far away. Celebrity in China is big business, feeding off and nourishing the advertising-led business model that underpins the commercialized media system and large sections of the internet. It is also a powerful instrument in the Party-State’s discursive and symbolic repertoire, used to promote regime goals and solidify new governmentalities through signalling accepted modes of behaviour for mass emulation (Jeffreys, 2009). The instrumentalization of celebrity by Party, state and business actors is strategic, motivated and sustained by the “spiritual vacuum” created by the transition to a market socialist system and its associated societal dislocations and aspirations (Kipnis, 2001). Despite its ubiquity, there is an aura of frivolousness around celebrity culture that perhaps explains why “Chinese stars and stardom rarely receive sustained academic attention” (Farquhar and Zhang, 2010: 2). While the professional milieux that celebrities inhabit have long been recognized as sites of political and cultural power, negotiation and contestation, the contours and implications of celebrity in contemporary China have received little recognition within the broader China Studies field. However, as demonstrated by recent pioneering work, on which this article aims to build (Edmonds and Jeffreys, 2010; Farquhar and Zhang, 2010; Hood, 2016), in combination with related studies on popular culture and the media (Berry and Farquhar, 2006; Chow 2007; Curtin, 2007; Keane 2013; Latham, 2007; Link et al., 2002; Wang, 2008; Zhang, 2004; Zhu and Berry, 2009), celebrity in China plays an important signalling role with implications for regime stability, social integration and the pursuit of the “Chinese Dream” of national strength and prosperity.

China has a long history of literary, musical and folk celebrity in the Imperial and Modern eras (McDermott, 2006), in addition to concerted efforts at creating “socialist stars” during the Mao era (Cheek, 1997). But the contemporary celebrity scene is a product of processes associated with the emergence of “market socialism”. Economic reforms and urbanization, increasingly widespread prosperity and the associated rise of consumerism, commercialization of the media and technological change, the growth of individualism and decline of collectivist ways of life have all contributed to the emergence of a celebrity culture that has imbued individuals with great wealth, visibility and influence within large fan bases. In addition to advancing a range of commercial interests, notably via advertising and endorsements (Hung, 2014; Wang, 2008), celebrities are increasingly involved in supporting social causes through philanthropy (Hood, 2015; Jeffreys, 2015a), advocacy and representation in formal political institutions (Jeffreys, 2015b), as activists and social critics (Strafella and Berg, 2015a; 2015b) and as leaders of online public opinion (Fu et al., 2015). With increasing internet penetration and the popularization of social media, celebrities have the capacity to connect directly, unfiltered and unmediated, with substantial audiences; the hundred or so entertainers we identify in this article as “major celebrities” (a sub sample of the celebrity population) have a combined following of around 2.5 billion people on Sina Weibo (新浪微博) alone. The ability to step outside their respective professional milieux is one factor that distinguishes celebrities from simply being well known figures such as members of the Politburo. Celebrity is a multidimensional quality, the sum of an individual’s product and packaging, personal attributes and life beyond the professional realm. We understand celebrity as analogous with the concepts of “brand identity” or “brand image” employed in marketing studies. A further feature that separates celebrity from well-knowness is the celebrity persona, i.e. “a crafted and consolidated public projection of the real person, built in part out of film roles and other public appearances” (Shingler 2012: 125). A review of the literature on “stars”, the sub-group at the apex of the celebrity hierarchy, highlights numerous attributes associated with this persona including glamour, beauty, sexuality, theatricality, charm, confidence, wealth and sophistication. The closest China has come to a celebrity politician to date was Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing Party Secretary now in jail.  The multi-dimensional celebrity persona, and the public interest it stimulates in off-stage lives, requires an academic focus on the workings of celebrity itself as a supplement to analysing the products (zuopin 作品) that celebrities create in their professional roles. The potential to connect with large numbers of ordinary people also marks the special status that celebrities have within China’s constrained socio-political ecology. The motivation for this paper is to further scholarly understanding of how celebrity operates in China and to bring this expression of popular culture into the broader conversation about contemporary Chinese politics and society. Full paper here.

Class in China

In the reform era the class structure of Chinese society and the nature of class politics have changed as the source of Party legitimacy has moved from socialist ideology to economic performance under conditions of “market socialism” (the CCP is nowadays a ‘party in power’ rather than a ‘revolutionary party’). A new class of private entrepreneurs unknown under Mao emerged, empowered by their riches and gradually embraced by the Party. Workers and farmers, formerly the bedrock of the CCP regime, have been marginalised by the restructuring of agriculture and industry. Millions have lost their jobs, their access to social welfare and their sense of place in a society that increasingly values a nakedly neoliberal vision of modernization rooted in urbanization and consumption. Economic opportunities have enabled the re-emergence of the middle classes (or ‘middle income stratum’; 中产阶层 rather than 阶级). They have also created a floating population of migrant workers: a new urban underclass with a corresponding cohort of those ‘left behind’ in the hollowed out countryside.

Class politics were one of the defining characteristics of PRC history in the 20th Century. In the transition to market socialism ushered in by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms many class based terms have disappeared from the official lexicon, but class remains an analytically and substantively important way of approaching Chinese society. New types of class relations between the party and the people and horizontally between different groups are having a fundamental effect on Chinese society. Classification of the population was one of the first steps taken to establish the new regime, and by the early 1950s everyone in China was assigned a class from a granular list of 62 descriptors. People were assigned a class origin (阶级成分) determined by their activities in the three years immediately prior to 1949, and class background (家庭出生) based on their father’s occupation at time of birth. These two pieces of information, a socio-economic position and a political inclination implied by behaviour, were included on peoples’ household registration documents and went a long way to determining one’s fate during successive campaigns against landlords, industrialists, intellectuals, the bourgeoisie, rightists, capitalists and the like, which came to head in the Cultural Revolution. Class consciousness was ideological, political and operationalized through designations that for very large numbers of Chinese people and their offspring were a matter of life and death. People identified as ‘reds’ (peasants, workers, revolutionary soldiers) could do well (to the extent that anyone prospered under Mao), whereas coming from a ‘black’ background (capitalists, landlords, nationalists) was an invitation to be ‘criticized’ and worse during recurrent bouts of ‘class struggle’. By the end of 1956, the means of production were largely socialized. The countryside was arranged in collectives, urban enterprises were under state control and the effective negation of private property culminated during the Great Leap Forward. But that didn’t mean the end of class struggle.

When Mao appealed to the “bourgeoisie” within the Party, ostensibly soliciting feedback from academics, journalists and other intellectuals, he was shocked by the level of criticism and quickly launched the Anti-Rightist campaign to purge them. The pernicious threat of the “bourgeoisie” coloured much of Mao’s subsequent rule. When he identified four major classes (two exploiting, two labouring), he set the quota for class enemies (imperialists, bureaucrat capitalists, Rightists et al) at 5% of the population. Class struggle was central to Mao’s modus operandi, and was often underpinned by strategic thinking to further his own goals vis-à-vis political opponents in the top echelon of the Party leadership. The abandonment of Mao’s Great Leap and Deng Xiaoping’s role in re-introducing the material incentives that led to increases in production and recovery in the devastated countryside planted the seed for his subsequent purge (having been identified as a Capitalist Roader). Party leaders who did not accept Mao’s vision or otherwise incurred the Chairman’s displeasure were labelled class enemies. By the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao’s power struggles led him to directly appeal to the masses to attack those in the Party supposedly taking the ‘capitalist road’.

After Mao’s death, ‘black’ class labels were removed and the judgement on Mao contained in the 1981 “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China” came with an attempt to smooth class relations. To wit, workers and intellectuals were said to belong to the same heterogeneous class; the possibility of class conflict under socialism was denied; and it was claimed that ‘the bourgeoisie’ couldn’t possibly exist within the Party. But as Deng’s reforms started to deliver results, and some sectors ‘got rich before others’, these simplifications came under stress, from the obvious advantages that Party cadres (and later their children, the despised富二代) were beginning to enjoy and the exclusion of the large number of private and would-be entrepreneurs. The Party’s response (with a blip around 1989 and accelerating after 1992) was to encourage the development of the middle classes (or strata)—and to embrace private entrepreneurs. This was the major symbol of the changing emphasis of economic activity over class relations, finessed post-hoc by Jiang Zemin’s notion of the Three Represents (the Party represents advanced social and productive forces, advanced culture and the interests of the overwhelming majority).

A middle class society is an aspiration for China. China’s modernization, the major pre-occupation for successive regimes since the mid-19th Century, has come to be tied to the development of a certain conception of the “middle class lifestyle” embodied by people who possess certain characteristics, behaviours and norms, many of them tied up with consumption and urbanization. Those who don’t fit the norm—typically migrants—are cajoled to become “civilized” (文明) or ostracized for their inferior “quality” (素质). The modernizing narrative is ubiquitous and to “be modern” is tied to the other pillar propping up the CCP regime, nationalism, via the “Chinese Dream” of prosperity and power. Certain types of economic behaviour—notably consumption—have been reified as acts of patriotism (notwithstanding the recent anti-corruption campaign against excessive consumption among party officials). Much is expected of the Chinese middle classes (by the Party as much as Chinese businesses and multinationals), and much is being provided for their benefit. The middle classes are seen as a force for “stability” (the regime’s major pre-occupation in the reform era), and the engine for upgrading China’s economic model, particularly via consumption (viz the expansion of higher education, tourism, online shopping, home buying, the automobile market etc.) When the middle classes are unhappy, governments listen: compare the fate of urban home-owner’s protests and demonstrations against chemical factory construction in well-off urban areas with those of dispossessed farmers or unpaid workers.

A New History of Laughter in China

In the popular western imagination China has long been represented as a mirthless place. This was a reasonable position during the Mao years when catastrophic famines and political mass-campaigns took place against a backdrop of ideological purity where class struggle and the construction of a socialist utopia was no laughing matter. Humour was dangerous: a misplaced snigger or ill-conceived joke could lead to struggle sessions, self-criticisms, education through labour or worse. But even today, four decades since Mao’s death and with China having reclaimed its position as a major world power, China retains a dour image among westerners, with nothing much to laugh about except for the sneering fun to be had from mistranslations of signs and headlines in “Chinglish”.

Is it something about the grey uniformity of the Politburo, the formality of the Chinese banquet or the crush and clamour of China’s uber-competitive urban jungles? Even among China watchers Chinese comedy does not rank very highly. Ask a China-based expat to name a Chinese comic and, if anyone, the majority will say Mark Roswell, aka Dashan, a Canadian expat and virtuoso of the traditional northern Chinese art of “crosstalk” (xiangsheng). Summing up this year’s CCTV Spring Gala, the 5 hour variety show that ushers in Lunar New Year for hundreds of millions of Chinese people (Chinese TV’s “superbowl”), New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley described it as “a mash-up of a Politburo report, Pee Wee’s Playhouse and a PLA parade”.

The Chinese reputation for humourless drudgery is, as one might suspect, a negative and undeserved stereotype. From the Zhuangzi, a foundational Daoist text from the Warring States period more than two thousand years ago, which overflows with irreverent anecdotes, through the Ming Dynasty classic Journey to the West, to the modern fiction of Lu Xun and Lao She and the reform-era writers Mo Yan (Nobel Prize laureate in 2012) and Wang Shuo (whose postmodern satirical stylings have been described as “hooligan literature”), Chinese literature and philosophical texts of all stripes have diverse comedic elements. Chinese internet users, partly due to the necessity of evading the censors, are masters of satire as demonstrated in the parodic mash-ups of egao and the language play of the Grass-Mud-Horse lexicon (Caonima). Dealing with the exigencies of continuing Communist Party rule and dog-eat-dog capitalist competition, many Chinese are past masters at laughing in the midst of pain (kuzhong zuole).

Befitting a long comedic tradition, Christopher Rea’s The Age of Irreverence: A new history of laughter in China, is the latest in a long line of anthologies, studies and collections by Chinese scholars going back hundreds of years. A China historian of the highest regard at the University of British Columbia, Professor Rea has produced an indispensable history of Chinese comedy during the tumultuous, formative period from the end of the Qing Dynasty to the Civil War (approximately 1890-1930). During this period of forced reckoning with western modernity, Chinese intellectuals debated, adopted and modified every conceivable ideology, form, genre, etc. Combined with the affordances of modern printing methods for Chinese characters, there was a huge outpouring of writings in politics, economics, history, cultural studies, and comedy. The abundance of Chinese tabloids in the 1920s and 30s, particularly in Shanghai, were full of satire and ribald jokes to rival our current day red tops.

Rea’s study is beautifully written and meticulously researched; it comes with 65 pages of endnotes and a hugely useful list of humour collections and a glossary of Chinese terms. The book is divided into an investigation of five comedic forms: jokes (xiaohua), play (youxi), mockery (maren), farce (huaji) and humour (youmo). The latter was a contemporaneous import from the west, a device and springboard for the work of the writer and editor Lin Yutang. Lin’s 1934 essay “On Humour”, and the journal he had founded in 1932 “Analects Fortnightly”, were major sites for the investigation and contemplation of the tradition and future of Chinese comedy. But this fertile period for the production of Chinese comedy did not last beyond the civil war and Japanese occupation. Lin emigrated to Taiwan via the US and then Mao began the serious task of building socialism (when humour was restricted to the nasty fingering of landlords and evil capitalists). The fate of Lao She, a humorous writer and dramatist styled as a “peoples’ artist”, was symptomatic; he was humiliated and abused during the nascent Cultural Revolution and committed suicide in 1966.

This wonderful book reminds us of the importance of the Republican Era, in many ways the intellectual basis of China’s (ongoing) quest for modernity, and the centrality of various forms of comedy in Chinese literature and life. At a time when western interest in and access to Chinese “cultural products” have never been greater, books like this are essential for challenging entrenched stereotypes and fostering greater appreciation of the country.

The Cultural Logic of Politics in China & Taiwan

When Duke political scientist, Professor Tianjian Shi sadly passed away late in 2010, he left behind a manuscript already accepted by Cambridge University Press. Through the efforts of the series editor, Andy Nathan, with help from reviewers Dorothy Solinger and Doh Chull Shin, that manuscript has been finalized and brought to publication. It is a fittingly ambitious and accomplished bequest to the fields of comparative politics and China Studies, to which Professor Shi contributed so much. Theoretically sophisticated and empirically rigorous (there are 32 pages of appendices), this book will provoke great interest—and, as all ambitious books should—much contention and avenues for further research.

Shi argues that since many social scientists assume that people are instrumentally rational to varying degrees, when they find that similar social-structures in different cultural contexts produce different outcomes, they tend to explain it in terms of variance in access to information, for instance through censorship and control of the media. Thus when people in China are observed to have a relatively high degree of trust in government, particularly central government, this finding has often been attributed to the effects of an authoritarian information regime that reduces access to the information needed to make ‘rational’ decisions. Shi rejects this interpretation and instead advances a sophisticated yet forceful case for ‘bringing culture back in’. Specifically, he argues that rationality is culturally embedded, and that a culturally defined normative rationality shapes people’s choices in social and political life.

The crux of Shi’s thesis is that rather than a universal, materialist concept of reality, individual interest calculations are based on ‘socially shared ideas about acceptable and expected behaviour’ (p.2). To counter the charge that culture is not an independent cause of behaviours but rather an effect or proxy for structural or institutional factors, Shi invokes the case of China and Taiwan, two societies that share elements of Confucian cultural heritage, but which have developed very different political structures and institutions. Shi argues that the momentous processes of modernization in China and democratization in Taiwan did not cause significant cultural shifts in these societies. Indeed he cites survey data to the effect that these changes reinforced peoples’ commitment to traditional cultural norms, which in turn are associated with greater trust in government, a lower likelihood of confronting the regime and an inclination to define democracy as government by benevolent guardians. Given the resilience, flourishing even, of the CCP and KMT under these changing conditions, it is an interesting argument. Full review in China Quarterly here.

Western Perspectives on the PRC

In the western imagination China has long been something ‘exotic’, a tendency that preceded the earliest contact and was reinforced by the (usually tall) tales of early travellers. This exoticism takes many forms and has given rise to many stereotypes, sometimes ‘positive’ (for instance in the recurring European taste for Chinoiserie) but mostly ‘negative’, such as the racist ‘Yellow Peril’ discourse (see my review of Fu Manchu and Sinophobia). Sometimes the ‘exotic’ construction encompasses admiration for ‘China’s difference’ (notably China’s, mainly imagined, ‘mysticism’), but more often than not it has signified contempt, with difference equating to ‘inferiority’.

With Jonathan Spence, Colin Mackerras is a leading western authority on China’s place in the western imagination. His Western Images of China (Oxford University Press, 1989) is a classic in the field and among other contributions, convincingly demonstrate how ‘our’ image of China says as much about ‘us’ as it does about ‘them’.

Mackerras’ latest book is concerned with western (predominantly American) ‘perceptions’ of China since 1949. How does the west (again mainly the US) ‘perceive China’ on a variety of issues (politics, foreign relations, economics, human rights, democratization, Tibet etc.) over time? Or more accurately given the book’s approach, how do some ‘representative’ western media (like Time magazine) and various western political and intellectual ‘elites’ frame China? This is a big question, requiring the systematic study of a wide corpus of empirical material, which is available in increasingly massive abundance. It is also an important question. On one level, the priming of mass attitudes toward China can have a significant effect on the experience of individual Chinese (often for the worse). At the other end of the spectrum, popular attitudes toward China can also influence foreign policy. For instance, all else being equal, a public that has been primed by years of negative and hostile coverage of China would be more likely to vote for a candidate who takes a hard-line on the country. Chinese leaders clearly care about how China is perceived around the world—otherwise they wouldn’t have launched their concerted effort (‘soft power push’, ‘charm offensive’) to try to balance critical western media narratives about China’s rise. Full review in China Quarterly here.

Elections and the Electoral System in Taiwan

Elections are important symbolic events that have acted as milestones, points of contestation and concession throughout the course of Taiwan’s political development in the last three decades. Since democratization processes began in earnest in the mid-1980s, and even before that in limited local elections during one party rule, most elections have been strongly contested by political parties and candidates, with the campaigns and results keenly felt by their supporters. Elections, and the campaigns that precede them, are an impressive and inescapable feature of Taiwanese democracy at the national and local level. Following reforms in the 2000s to simplify an unnecessarily complicated system, all elected officials now serve four-year terms. Since 2012 elections for national office (President/Vice President and the Legislative Yuan) are held concurrently. Reflecting further streamlining, multiple local elections (mayors and councilors at the municipal, county, and township levels) are also now held concurrently at the midpoint between national elections. Local elections were held in late November 2014, with national elections to be held in 2016. Direct national level elections for the entire Legislative Yuan and the presidency were held for the first time in 1992 and 1996 respectively, and constitute major milestones in Taiwan’s democratization journey. Contemporary Taiwan has a competitive, multi-party political system in which two major parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), are preeminent. The media environment is highly developed, relatively liberal and provides a substantial amount of political coverage. Taiwan enjoys a dynamic election culture sometimes resembling “democratic festivals” (Fell 2011: 56). This chapter will first provide an overview of elections as Taiwan progressed from one party rule to liberal democracy. Second, it will review the voluminous literature on various aspects of elections in Taiwan. Then it will provide a summary of the issues and results of presidential, legislative and local elections. The chapter will next address the issue of vote buying, before concluding with an assessment of the freedom and fairness of Taiwan’s elections. Read full paper here.

The strategy behind the Xi-Ma meeting

When Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou shake hands on Saturday in Singapore, it will be the first time in history that sitting presidents from the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China will have met each other face to face, even if they will not address each other as such. The symbolism is rich, particularly on the PRC side, where the image of a Taiwan returning to the fold is more powerful than scenes of Xi rubbing shoulders with US President Barack Obama or being received in state by the queen in Britain. The meeting is obviously a coup for Ma, a man driven by a keen sense of the Chinese nation and his personal role in its preservation. It is also great news for Beijing to serve up at home, with the Global Times pronouncing that “the Taiwan problem is no longer a problem”.

Beyond the warm and fuzzy state media coverage, the timing of the meeting reveals a lot about the intentions behind it. We are just two months away from elections in Taiwan that will almost certainly see the Democratic Progressive Party win the presidency and a legislative majority for the first time. For Beijing, which suspects DPP president Tsai Ing-wen’s “true intentions” and her capacity to keep the “secessionist tendencies” of her party’s factions in check, it is an unnerving prospect.

The last time the DPP controlled the presidency, despite facing an obstructive Kuomintang/People First Party majority in parliament, Chen Shui-bian was able to widely cement the idea of Taiwan’s distinctness and separation from the rest of China. Now, after eight years under a president who is unusually well disposed to the mainland and, in his first term at least, powerful enough to push through significant moves towards economic integration, the trends in Taiwanese public opinion are unpropitious for advocates of closer ties. Decades-long opinion polls show the Taiwanese have never been surer about their identity, and identification with Taiwan is unequivocal among the young. At this point, Beijing has decided to intervene.

In the short term, the prospect of Beijing’s intervention rescuing the KMT, which has for months been sleepwalking towards catastrophic electoral defeat, is slim. Although the KMT recently acted to remove its duly elected presidential nominee, the unificationist Hung Hsiu-chu, the machinations needed to replace her with chairman Eric Chu appear to have been a wasted effort. Tarnished by his ties to Ma and the protracted drama over his decision to run, Chu’s poll numbers are little better than Hung’s. Building on historic gains in last November’s local elections, the national campaigns have thus far been plain sailing for the DPP. Tsai has staked out popular positions on China and the economy, and gave an accomplished performance on her trip to the US. She currently enjoys a double-digit lead. Given that Ma’s unpopularity is mainly a product of a rush to embrace China, combined with his opaque decision-making – the sunflower movement was first and foremost about transparency in politics – it is difficult to see how a clandestinely arranged surprise meeting with the Chinese president will help the KMT at the polls. Full article at South China Morning Post.

First take on Xi-Ma meeting

In a surprising—indeed, extraordinary—development in cross-Strait relations, Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet with his counterpart from Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, in Singapore on Saturday. According to an announcement by the Presidential Office in Taiwan, the two leaders will not sign any agreements, issue any joint statements or hold a joint press conference. The statement adds that the agenda and purpose of the meeting is yet to be settled. Although Singapore is acting as middleman, as it has in the past, it was surely initiated by the Chinese side—which has plenty of motivation these days to seek Taiwan’s attention.

President Ma has made no secret of his longstanding desire to meet with his PRC counterpart, but he does not have the power to call President Xi to an ad hoc meeting. The delay in releasing the agenda suggests that it was hastily arranged. Presumably, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council and Ministry of Foreign Affairs are scrambling to find the best way to finesse the issue of Ma’s status: since the PRC does not countenance any actions that could be construed as endorsing the existence of “two Chinas,” Ma will not be attending as the eleventh President of the Republic of China, his official title. Any diminution or perceived acceptance of slight will not go down well with a Taiwanese public that has long since turned against the outgoing Ma’s two-term embrace of China, a stance many say was to Taiwan’s detriment. Continue reading at The National Interest.

Environmental Protests

Mass environmental protests continue to gain strength in China. Within the last couple of months thousands of people in different parts of the country have vocally, and in some cases violently, railed against polluting chemical plants, waste incinerator projects and coal-fired power plant expansions.

New incidents are reported every week through Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. The most recent large-scale incident saw more than a thousand people take to the streets in the suburbs of the northern industrial city of Tianjin claiming that pollution from a nearby steel plant was carcinogenic. Just days earlier thousands of residents in Wuchuan, a city in southern Guangdong, marched on government offices to oppose plans to build a waste incinerator near their homes.

These waves of protest are unique in that they are uniting China’s working and middle classes under a common grievance. Party leaders fret about political stability and potential challenges to the regime; pollution is one of their greatest concerns. But the Chinese government is failing to address the underlying cause of this discontent – an entrenched public distrust of officialdom – and, in the long term, is risking the possible ‘joining up’ of environmental protests into a widespread movement.

The government’s search for a solution is likely to prove fruitless; its only option appears to be maintaining social unrest at a manageable and local level. For these environmental protests are striking at the heart of the Chinese governance model of ‘adaptive authoritarianism’ and exposing its limitations. The Party’s strategy in dealing with major environmental disputes that bring together local communities across all ages and classes has often been one of short-term appeasement. But when governments are known to make ad-hoc concessions to quell disorder it encourages further episodes of contention.

The anger of protestors, each fighting their own local causes, was vindicated in April when an explosion at a chemical factory producing paraxylene (commonly called PX, and used to produce polyester and plastics) in Zhangzhou, Fujian province, required the attention of the Chinese army’s anti-chemical warfare unit and the evacuation of 30,000 people. Continue reading at Forbes Asia here.

Comparative perspectives on Taiwanese democracy

Taiwan is one of a number of democracies that began their transition around the same time; sometimes referred to in Huntington’s terminology as ‘Third Wave’ democracies. Taiwan’s experience of democracy has rendered it an increasingly common subject of comparative research, further aided by participation in a number of cross national data collection projects. One of the most popular areas of comparative research is popular attitudes towards democracy. Chu et al 2008 compares attitudes in Taiwan to seven other East Asian countries, not all of them democracies, using the East Asian Barometer survey collections which are based in Taiwan. South Korea and Taiwan share a number of features in common; Confucian cultural heritage, a former developmental state, similarly timed economic miracles and transitions to democracy etc. As such they are frequently compared. Diamond and Shin 2014 (my review) is the most recent example of comparative research on various aspects of the two cases’ experience of democracy, now entering the “maturing” phase, in terms of the economy, foreign relations and politics.

Kim 2000 provides a comparison of Taiwan and Korea’s experience of democratization and environmentalism. Although environmentalism and democratization co-evolved in both cases, the environmental movements developed in very distinct ways. Tsai 2009 examines the two polities’ political development and the relationship between democratization and corruption. Political cultural and institutional arrangements in Taiwan and Korea have produced substantially different levels of corruption. Wong 2004 compares the connections between the two democratization paths on social policymaking and outcomes in the area of health and welfare. Another common topic of comparison is the KMT as a “dominant party”. Like the KMT in Taiwan, former hegemonic parties in Mexico and Japan also survived the transition to democratic competition only to weaken later on, as Solinger 2001 examines. But written just after the KMT lost the presidency in 2000, it does not prefigure the KMT’s resurgence since 2008. As a former Japanese colony with numerous aspects of the political system inherited from the former colonizers, comparisons between Taiwan and Japan are also common. Lin 2006 examines the two polities’ reform trajectories, while Grofman et al 1999 compare the nature and effects of the SNTV electoral system on party and voting behaviour.

Taiwan is a predominantly Chinese cultural context where the political and developmental trajectories are distinct from those in China. As such, there has been much interest in what Taiwan’s democratization might mean for China. Tsang and Tien 1999 collects a number of perspectives on the implications of Taiwan’s successful transition to democracy for mainland China, where economic reform and remarkable economic growth has not, as yet, been accompanied by political liberalization. Gilley and Diamond 2008 approach the issue from a slightly different starting point, looking first at developments in China and comparing them to what has previously gone on in Taiwan. Dickson 1997 presents a detailed comparative analysis of the authoritarian KMT and CCP with a view to identifying similarities and differences in the reform trajectories of each.

Scholars are not alone in their interest in Taiwanese elections, which have been closely monitored by various interested parties in China. Han 2007 investigates how Chinese media report on “presidential” elections in Taiwan. Authorities in China have long been keen observers of political developments in Taiwan; this article provides an empirical study of how Taiwan’s experience is framed in state and commercial media in China. Diamond and Myers 2001 present a range of different assessments on the prospects for political reform in China, with reference to developments in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Focusing on individual attitudes, rather than the KMT and CCP, Shi 2001 compares a range of cultural values and political attitudes among Taiwanese and mainland Chinese citizens. Shi’s empirical investigation based on survey data collected in the early 1990s, compares the effects and implications of culture on political trust in two polities with cultural similarities but different political systems. Full bibliography here.

National identity & Taiwanese nationalism

Throughout democratization and into the democratic era, questions around national identity, Taiwan’s current and future status, and relations with China have been an inescapable and highly contested feature of the political landscape. Indeed, as the sophisticated study by Wachman 1994 shows, national identity and nationalist themes evolved or co-evolved as the major cleavage in Taiwanese society as democratization processes expanded and deepened with democratization. Another good starting point for investigating the complexities of national identity, particularly in terms of individual understandings, is the collection of Corcuff 2002. This edited volume provides some very strong contributions primarily employing an historical and sociological approach.

Brown 2004 demonstrates the fluidity and constructed nature of identity, even when it is built on supposedly more “solid” foundations such as ethnicity. The study is based on meticulous ethnographic case studies and historical data analysis focusing on the place of indigenous peoples and the competing constructions of their identity in various time periods. Like Brown, Philips 2003 demonstrates how contemporary conflicts over identity are rooted in processes that began much earlier, in Philips’ case during the five year period between the end of Japanese colonialism and the establishment of the KMT regime on Taiwan. This is an important historical study covering the crucial, and often overlooked, period between the end of the Pacific war and the relocation of the KMT regime in Taiwan. China’s claim to Taiwan is rooted in historical arguments, but as Hughes 1997 demonstrates, it is also fluid and subject to interpretations and constructions that are mutable across time.

Jacobs and Liu 2007 is a close study of Lee Teng-hui’s thinking on Taiwanese subjectivity and expressions of Taiwan consciousness. It focuses on the significant role of the former President in the emergence of Taiwanese nationalism and provides a careful account of the complexities of Lee’s legacy as President. In many ways, Lee established the possibility for Chen Shui-bian to pursue his Taiwan nationalism project, which is well covered by Cabestan 2005. The sophisticated analysis developed in Lynch 2004 suggests that Chen had embarked on an attempt to effectively re-imagine the Taiwanese nation.

While Chen’s “nation-building” effort was often interpreted as indicating “Taiwan independence”, the empirical analysis of thousands of Chen’s speeches by Sullivan and Lowe 2010 shows that Chen frequently avoided references to sovereignty in favour of “non-threatening” expressions of Taiwan identity. This article provides a systematic analysis of Chen’s presidential discourse on various themes of Taiwanese nationalism, and argues that interpretations of Chen’s independence seeking were overblown. Furthermore, Chen’s position on Taiwan’s status was actually less far removed from his opponents in the KMT than one might imagine. Indeed, Schubert 2004 argues that the DPP and KMT positions on sovereignty and national status converged through the 1990s essentially coalescing around Lee Teng-hui’s notions about ROC sovereignty. The KMT’s tilt towards China is picked up by some of the chapters in Cabestan and DeLisle 2014.

While much of the literature on national identity in Taiwan reasonably focuses on the national level, local politics have a significant influence on governance and political culture in particular. Chao 1992 looks at the continuities and evolution in local politics before and after democratization began. One of things that Chao notes is the tension between the local and national level. This tension is examined explicitly in an earlier paper, Lerman 1977, which compares the central government elites with their notions of upholding ‘true’ Chinese culture and reminiscence to Confucian gentry, and their earthier local government counterparts. This pioneering article on the conflicting political cultures of KMT elites and local politicians sets the scene for further work on the emergence of the local, i.e. Taiwanese, opposition movement.

The interactions between and among local and national factions are further analysed in Chen 1995, a dense study of the role of political factions in the post-war, authoritarian and democratization periods. Interest, class and sub-ethnic based divisions at the local level, which would emerge with greater force during the later democratization period, were also manifest in the limited elections that were held almost continuously since the 1950s. Chao and Myers 2000 examine the role of these electoral contests as a ‘pressure valve’ that allowed people with grievances against the ruling party to let off steam. They also helped the KMT channel resources to supporters, a key element of local elections. Bibliography here.

China’s 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 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. The family escapes, but this is just the start of the state’s pursuit of domination over Meili’s body.

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 the pressure of his obligation to continue the illustrious family line. 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. Unsurprisingly, Meili feels the pressure to produce an heir even more keenly 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 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’ 天道. 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 and Kongzi flee Kong village for a life in exile. They seek 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 knockdown 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 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 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 carries on 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 an extreme gender imbalance, or a prevalence of female suicide, or why women are useless and “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.

Chinese cyber policy

With the launch of a twenty year National Informatization Plan in 2000, progress towards an information society became an official aspiration for the Chinese Party-state. With the goal of increasing social productivity, the ambition to move beyond a barely nascent information economy was a bold one. For one thing, it would require the Party-state to relinquish its monopoly on information, a hypothetical move that would transform Chinese society. The formidable obstacles in the way of this goal were quickly thrown into harsh relief by the SARS cover-up in 2003, when the Party-State saw fit to withhold and actively cover up information that was literally of life and death importance from its people. The ambition for transparency was shown up for what it was—rhetoric that would not survive the political imperative of maintaining the authoritarian information order. At the same time that informatization was being discussed as an aspiration for a modernizing society, the idea of the “sovereignty of information” and the internet as an ideological battleground took precedence.

Despite the Party-state’s deep mistrust of information, the allure, in some quarters of government more than others, of informatization (信息化), would not go away. In 2006 a comprehensive e-government strategy was launched along with the gov.cn portal. A 2010 White Paper discussed online idea exchange, supervision of government, and the right to know. A Chinese Academy of Science report in 2011, Information Science and Technology China: A Roadmap to 2050, argued that a new set of political values was needed in order to make the transition to an information society. The report advocated for national information systems to be user-oriented, to promote convenient access to information, and, more radically, to operate free from monopoly. The report implied that informatization could only succeed with transparency and free flow of information. This radical notion was tempered by the caveat that it should also foster the construction of a “harmonious society”, a byword for many things (not least netizens’ understanding of “being harmonized” 被和谐, to be censored). It should also be noted that cybersecurity has been a preoccupation since at least 2003, when the Coordinating Small Group for Cyber and Information Security was established and issued its famous Document 27 set of recommendations.

The Party-state’s relationship with information abounds with contradictions. On one level, there is an acknowledgement that openness is a defining characteristic of information society, but while information continues to be treated with suspicion as a potential enemy eroding the Party-State’s hold on power, it is hard to see how genuine progress can be made. The principles of transparency and access do not go far before running into the roadblock of vested political and bureaucratic interests. What hope for an information society when the Party-state is willing to go to extraordinary efforts to impose total information blackouts on tragedies like the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 or unpleasant reminders of its treatment of dissenting voices like Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize? It doesn’t help that the cyber decision-making terrain is so crowded, with party leaders, technocrats, the armed forces, internal security, numerous different ministries and departments and business leaders squeezing out the few scholars and even fewer civil society actors who have a voice. Ultimately the public security and armed forces need only to invoke national security to intervene in any aspect of cyber policymaking, from technological choices to education programs and online censorship.

In 2014 the State Information Leading Group gave way to the National Leading Group for Cyber and Information Security headed for the first time by the Party General Secretary himself, in close cooperation with the renamed Cyberspace Administration of China. With President Xi taking a leading role, cyber policy has taken on a much greater security and political complexion. The rhetoric around informatization had consistently cast it as a driver of economic prosperity and social organization. But since Xi came in these goals have been downgraded or side-lined for a focus on control and cybersecurity. Stories in the western media on Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping’s family wealth culled from public records led to a tightening of the rules on internet privacy. A crackdown on social media followed, with new rules on spreading rumours and punishments for online influencers having the intended chilling effect on unruly cyberspace. The main thrust of cyber policy in the last year appears to be on the threat of foreign software and the development of Chinese systems to avoid this threat. Although informatization has been linked to the en vogue catchwords corruption, rule of law and better governance, the “supervision” and “consultation” that have appeared in discourse on informatization appear to have stopped at ad hoc adjustments and interventions made on the back of online outrage. And now even the tolerance for websites that outed officials for showing off gold watches and expensive cigarettes appear to have evaporated.

Although Xi said in 2014 that “no informatization means no modernization”, what the Party-state wants falls short of the transformative information society. It wants a secure and trusted (and Chinese developed) environment for non-political information, to foster business and commerce, which includes reigning in cyber-crime, putting a curb on the “wildness” we saw at the apotheosis of ‘weibo power’, establishing itself as an internet power (网路大国), and getting prepared for the growing challenges of cybersecurity and information warfare. Soon after launching the new Leadin gGroup Xi also said that there could be “no national security without cyber security”. What this means for the rest of the world remains to be seen, but in a week when Github, a popular repository for open-source code, appeared to be have been attacked via Chinese government organs allegedly for hosting mirrors of websites the Chinese government doesn’t like, prompting Barack Obama to upgrade American cybersecurity to a “national emergency”, there is little cause for optimism. To make real progress on its informatization goals a new political vision is needed and there is scant evidence that the Party-state has the confidence in itself to move beyond its normal playbook. This is not to say that issues around informatization are no longer relevant. In particular for individual Chinese (whose rights are subservient to the Party-state’s interests) questions of privacy, surveillance and the uses to which ‘big data’ may be put are even more salient than they are in the post-Snowden west. On this point too, there is little cause for optimism.

China’s Silent Army

In the official realm, the PRC’s omnilateral diplomacy has produced a hyperactive collection of initiatives from FOCAC to the SCO. On the ground, Chinese companies and Chinese migrants are active and increasingly visible on every continent, often in locales that their western counterparts have given up on or wouldn’t consider in the first place. China’s Silent Army, written by two Spanish China correspondents, provides a taste of this new wave of Chinese outward migration.

The authors’ self-funded fieldwork takes them around the world on an impressive odyssey; to the casino resort of Boten on the China-Lao border where the Chinese Golden Boten City Co. runs an entertainment resort for Chinese that is reminiscent of the treaty ports of another era; the nightmarish Hpakant jade mine in Burma where impoverished miners endure frightening conditions to dig for “Blood Jade”; the Dragon Mart in Dubai, the massive market and warehouse for Chinese goods, a desert Yiwu where traders from across the region come to buy goods; to Sudan’s Merowe Dam (described byInternational Rivers as “one of the world’s most destructive hydropower projects”), reminiscent in ambition and disruption of the Three Gorges dam; to San Juan de Marcona in Peru home to the Shougang Hierro iron ore mine.

Along the way, the authors come into the orbit of numerous Chinese companies; Sinohydro building dams in Africa; the China Investment Fund, a shady Hong Kong-based institution that is disowned by Beijing but is apparently used for channelling and processing money for overseas projects; Beidahuang the state owned farming conglomerate, and world’s biggest soya producer, which is buying up agricultural land in Australia, South America and Africa to irrigate and grow crops on; and Anhui Waijing, one of the state owned construction companies laying down infrastructure across the developing world. Back in China, the authors also run across a labour export company, whose agents go around the countryside recruiting workers for projects overseas, reminiscent of the “immigrant hunters” a century earlier.

If Chinese companies are generally given short shrift, the authors appear sympathetic to the Chinese individuals they meet along the way: From the Shanti-sini, the Chinese rag traders who roam Cairo selling clothing from big bags on their backs to dorm-dwelling miners, groundsheet traders and even sweating, uncomfortable diplomats struggling to stick to the official line, the authors recognize the difficulties, the sacrifices and the straightforward intentions of most Chinese migrants. These “labourers, engineers, tailors, traders, cooks and entrepreneurs” are praised for their courage; but the authors ruin the compliment by calling them the “human face of China’s conquest of the planet” (p. 253). Continues here

China Scholars Twitterati 100

Welcome to the China Scholars Twitterati 100, 2014 edition. The following annotated list is an expanded and all-new version of the inaugural list published here last year. My goal with the list this year is to bring attention to some of the scholarly experts active on Twitter who may be less well-known than superstars like @jwassers, @fravel and @LetaHong. Therefore the 2014 edition does not include anyone from last year. It’s nothing personal—and if you haven’t seen last year’s selection please do so.

To be included on the list, people had to be currently employed at a University in a research and/or teaching role (this excludes recovering academics, policy analysts at think tanks, and collectives) and to have academic publications on China (and/or Taiwan). Tweeting activity had to reach a certain threshold in terms of number of tweets and consistency/recency. Following me was NOT a criterion for inclusion on this list. This edition includes an expanded section for PhD students working on China—some of whom are extremely impressive intellectually, and active tweeters.

The list is not exhaustive, due to the fallibility of my search methods and obscure/missing/untraceable bios. The gender split is around 60:40 male/female. This might just be a reflection of who is on Twitter, but if you know of more women China scholars on Twitter (who have an academic position, are not employed primarily in a think tank, were not included on the list last year, have more than 100 tweets with ‘recent’ activity) let me know @jonlsullivan.

Stephen McDowall @TheRealMcDowall is a Chancellor’s Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh, and a cultural historian of late-imperial China

Rya Butterfield @RyaButterfield is Assistant Professor at Nicholls State University, working on Chinese and western rhetoric and political theory.

Gerald Roche @GJosephRoche is an anthropologist at Uppsala University working on endangered languages in Tibet. He is the Editor of Asian Highlands Perspectives.

Mark Elliott @Mark_C_Elliott is Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History and Director of the Fairbank Center, at Harvard University. Expert on the Qing,

Sara Hsu @SaraHsuChina is Assistant Professor of Economics at SUNY, New Paltz and an expert on Chinese economic development.

Brian DeMare @BrianDeMare is an historian of modern China at Tulane University. His new book on Mao’s Cultural Army is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press

Winnie King  @DrWinnieKing is currently a teaching fellow at the University of Bristol, and specializes in Chinese political economy.

Bryan W. Van Norden  @BryanVanNorden is a Professor at Vassar College, specialising in Chinese religions and author of Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy

Ellen Wu @ellendwu is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University. Expert on experience and identity of Chinese/Asian Americans

Ryan Dunch @DunchinYEG is Professor of Chinese history at University of Alberta (more tweets focused on higher ed than China)

Peter Dutton @peter_dutton is Director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, tweets on Chinese and Asian security.

Yanzhong Huang @YanzhongHuang is Associate Professor in the School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall. Expertise and tweets on Chinese health

Paula S. Harrell @psharrell3 is an historian specialising in China and Japan at Georgetown University

Willy Sier @WillySier is a researcher at the Institute for Social Science, University of Amsterdam. She specializes in contemporary migration issues in China.

Jocelyn Chatterton @Chatt236 is a Lecturer in Chinese history at SOAS specializing in Ming/Qing textiles and eunuchs.

David Brophy @Dave_Brophy is a Lecturer in History at Sydney University specialising in the social and political history of China’s northwest, especially Xinjiang

Ira Belkin @IraBelkin is Executive Director of the US-Asia Law Institute at NYU Law School. Expertise and tweets on rule of law & criminal justice in China

Karla Simon @KarlaWSimon is affiliated with the NYU US-Asia Law Institute and author of Civil Society in China (OUP)

Mike Gow @mikeygow is a postdoc at NYU Shanghai, researching and tweeting on the role of Higher Education in the Chinese development model

Dan Chen @dorischen is Assistant Professor at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania. Expertise in Chinese media and politics

Pär Cassel @ParCassel is Associate Professor in Chinese History at the University of Michigan. Expert on late imperial and modern China.

Anita Huang @HLaoshi is Assistant professor of Chinese & linguistics at Birmingham-Southern College, Alabama.

John Wagner Givens @JWagnerGivens is a Postdoc at the University of Louisville Center for Asian Democracy. Tweets on Chinese law, politics and society

Carla Nappi @CarlaNappi is Associate Professor of History at the University of British Columbia, and an expert on the history of science and medicine in the Ming-Qing

Enze Han @EnzeHan is Senior Lecturer  at SOAS and an expert on ethnic politics in China and China’s relations with Southeast Asia

Malcolm Davis @Dr_M_Davis is Assistant Professor at Bond University in Queensland. Research and tweets on China’s major power relations and military.

Hilde De Weerdt @hild_de is Professor of Chinese History at the University of Leiden, and a specialist in Chinese and comparative history and digital research methods

Amy Jane Barnes @AmyJaneBarnes is currently based at the School of Management, University of Leicester, with expertise in Chinese history and museum studies.

Carl Minzner @CarlMinzner is Professor of Chinese law and politics at Fordham Law School and an expert on law and governance in China

Xiaoyu Pu @pu_xiaoyu is Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, specializing in China’s foreign relations and rising powers in IR

Anne Sytske Keijser @KeijserA is a Lecturer in the Chinese Studies Programme at Leiden University. Expertise in Chinese film & literature

Scott Kennedy @ScottIU is Director of the Research Center for Chinese Politics & Business at Indiana University.

Chen Dingding @ChenDingding is Assistant Professor of Government at the University of Macau, with interests in Chinese foreign policy and security

Keith Dede @KeithDede is Associate Professor of Chinese at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon

John McNeil Scott @McNeilScott is Chaplain and researcher with the Taiwan Studies Programme at the LSE

Amy King @amysarahking is Lecturer in the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre at ANU. Expert on China-Japan relations and Asia-Pacific security

David Tobin @ReasonablyRagin Lecturer in Politics at the University of Glasgow with expertise and tweets on China and Japan relations and Asian security

Andrew Quintman @AndrewQuintman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, and an authority on Buddhism in Tibet and the Himalayan region

Gary Rawnsley @GDRaber is Professor of Public Diplomacy in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University and an expert on China and Taiwan’s public diplomacy

Matt Ferchen @MattFerchen is Associate Professor in IR at Tsinghua University, Beijing. Research on Chinese development & China-Latin America relations

Jennifer Hsu @jennifer_hsu Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta and an expert on Chinese development

Thomas Jansen @Jansen_Lampeter is Associate Professor in Chinese Studies at Trinity St David, University of Wales, specialising in early medieval China and Chinese religions

Zachary Scarlett @TheCrimsonEarth is Assistant professor of Chinese history at Butler University, Indiana, specialising in politics and culture and radical political movements

Robert Barnett @RobbieBarnett is Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. Expert on Tibet

Lily Wong @lilyw0817 is Assistant professor of Literature at American University, with interests in East Asian Cultural Studies film and media

Scott Simon @ssimon_chelsea is an anthropologist at the University of Ottawa specializing in the political ecology of Taiwan

Alison Marshall @Marshallalisonr is an historian at Brandon University, Canada. Researching Chinese Canadian history, gender and religion

Joanna Lewis @JoannaILewis is Associate Professor of Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University. Expert on climate change and clean energy in China.

Stephen Morgan @SimaHui1 is Professor and Dean of Social Sciences at University of Nottingham, Ningbo campus. Business historian of China

Stéphane Corcuff @stephanecorcuff is Professor at Sciences-Po Lyon and Director of the Centre d’Etudes Français sur la Chine Contemporaine, based in Taiwan. Expert on Taiwanese politics and society.

Jack Qiu @jacklqiu is Associate Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, working on the Chinese internet.

Jon Taylor @USTPoliSciProf is Professor of political science at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Expertise in Chinese and U.S. public administration and policy

Miwa Hirono @MiwaYang is Lecturer in Politics and IR at the University of Nottingham researching China’s foreign relations and foreign policy behaviour.

Mark Feldman @MFeldman97 is Associate Professor in the School of Transnational Law at Peking University. Expertise in Chinese and Asian law

Hyun Shin @urbancommune is Associate Professor in Geography at the LSE, specialising in comparative urban studies and urbanization in China

Tong Lam @tong_lam is Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto and an expert on Chinese visual culture and technology

Maggie Greene @mcgreenesd is Assistant Professor of History at Montana State with interests in modern Chinese history

Sam van Schaik @sam_vanschaik researches the history of Buddhism, Tibet and the Silk Road, and is a member of the British Library’s International Dunhuang Project

Markus Eberhardt @MEDevEcon is Assistant Professor in Economics at the University of Nottingham. Expertise and tweets in empirical development economics

Silvia Lindtner @yunnia is Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan researching cultures of technology production and use in China

Pradeep Taneja @kyakarraheho is based in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, with interests in the politics and international relations of China and India.

Fan Yang @FanfanYang is Assistant Professor of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Maryland. She has particular interests in the media and visual culture in contemporary China

Marcella Szablewicz @MSzabs is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Pace University, New York, working on the Chinese Internet and Digital Media

Eric Shepherd @erictshepherd is Associate Professor of Chinese  and storyteller   at the University of South Florida.

Cameron Campbell @campbell_kang is Professor at UCLA currently based at HKUST. Expertise in population and the family in China

James Leibold @jleibold is Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University, where he researches ethnic relations and ethnic policy in China, with particular interest in Xinjiang

Aynne Kokas @shotinshanghai is a Fellow in Chinese Media at the Baker Institute at Rice University

Carole McGranahan @CMcGranahan is Professor of Anthropology and historian of Tibet at the University of Colorado. Expert on Tibet and the Tibetan Diaspora

Paul Gillis @ProfGillis is Professor of Practice at the Guanghua School of Management, Peking University. He also runs the China Accounting Blog

Maggie Clinton @maggieclinton is Assistant Professor of History at Middlebury College with expertise on modern china

Kingsley Edney @KingsleyEdney is Lecturer in the Politics and International Relations of China at the University of Leeds.

Christian Schmidkonz @ChinaFFWD is Professor at Munich Business School, with interests in the economy of China and Taiwan

Christopher Twomey @ctwomey68 is Associate Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, researching Sino-US relations and Asian security

Scott Galer @scottgaler is Associate Professor of Chinese at Brigham Young University, Idaho.

Randy Kluver @rkluver is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M. Media, digital and international communications with a China focus.

Cara Wallis @carawallis is Assistant Professor at Texas A&M, researching the social and cultural implications of new media technologies in China.

Corey Wallace @CoreyJWallace is a Lecturer at the University of Auckland, specialising in China- Japan relations and East Asian IR/security

Natasha Heller @nheller is Assistant Professor of Chinese Religions at UCLA. Expert in Chinese Buddhism and its interaction with the intellectual history of the Song, Yuan and Ming

John Ross @JohnRoss43 is Senior Fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University. Interests in China’s economy and

Scott Gregory @ScottGreg is currently a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore, working on late imperial Chinese literature

Katrien Jacobs @katrien_jacobs is Associate Professor in Cultural Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Interests in media and sexual politics.

Eileen Chengyin Chow @chowleen is Visiting Associate Professor in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at Duke, with interests in film, literature and Chinatowns

Vincent Leung @vshleung is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh and historian of Early China

Walter Hutchens @prof_hutchens  is Global Business Chair at the University of Redlands in California, with interests in China’s legal and financial systems

China Studies Grad Students

Nicole Talmacs @nikitalmacs  is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney, with a focus on Chinese cinema

Kacie Miura @kaciemiura  is a PhD student in Political Science at MIT studying China’s foreign policy

Chelsea Zi Wang @chelseazw is a PhD student at Columbia University researching information management in pre-modern China

Christian Straube @touminghua is a PhD student in Anthropology working on China in the African Copperbelt

Devin Fitzgerald @DevinFitzger is a Doctoral Student in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard University

Polis Lo @thinkingpolis is a PhD Student at the University of Melbourne focusing on China and international affairs

Josepha Richard @GardensOfChina  is a PhD Student in the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield researching gardens in China

Eric T. Schluessel @EricTSchluessel is a Doctoral student in Chinese and Inner Asian history at Harvard University.

Robert W. Cole @RobtWCole is a PhD candidate in 20th century Chinese cultural-intellectual history at New York University

Pete Millwood @petemillwood is a PhD student in History at the LSE.

Greg Fenton @thegregfenton is a PhD student at University of Guelph working on Asian North American literary and cultural studies.

Jennifer Pan @jenjpan is a PhD student at Harvard and author with Gary King and Molly Roberts of papers in Science and the APSR on censorship on the Chinese internet.

Alessandro Rippa @AlessandroRippa is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Aberdeen University. Research on China, Xinjiang and Pakistan.

Michael Turton @michaelturton is a PhD candidate and teaches at Chang Gung University in Taiwan. He also runs the best English language blog on Taiwan, The View from Taiwan

Benjamin Coulson @benjcoulson is a PhD student at Newcastle Univeristy working on genealogies of China in the US imagination

Verity Robins @verity_robins is PhD Candidate at Oxford University working on Chinese politics & IR.

J B Bird @JBBird33 is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney. Working on North-West China, human rights and ethnic minorities

Julia Famularo @Julia_Famularo is ABD in History at Georgetown University. Researching Xinjiang, Tibet and human rights, Taiwan and identity

Geoffrey C. Chen @geoffreycchen is a PhD Candidate at the University of Bath working on Chinese politics and environmental governance

Eric Hundman @ehundman is a PhD Candidate in political science at the University of Chicago, with interests in China and Taiwan.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On China (Penguin, 2012) by Henry Kissinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Han Han: This Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts on Ai Weiwei

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labor unrest in China

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

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

Continue reading here

Chinese politics in 2000 words?

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

Is there anything for China to learn from the protests in Taiwan?

I wrote a little piece with Deng Yuwen for the SCMP, in which we look at how events in Taiwan have been received by Chinese intellectuals. While the state media framing has been predictable, there has been some intense debate on Chinese social media, raising “democratic consciousness” and evincing no little respect for the students and envy for Taiwan’s democratic polity. Piece is here.