Fans, netizens and publics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How China and Russia are reshaping the world

Just as I was settling down to read Power Politics: How China and Russia Reshape the World, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the UN-appointed tribunal that passes judgement on international maritime disputes, released its report on a case brought by the Philippines against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. In a meticulous adjudication under the aegis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (to which China is a signatory), the Hague ruling effectively found no historical or legal basis for Chinese claims to maritime territories within its own “nine-dash line”.

China has been busily reclaiming land and building up reefs to support its claims and install docking and landing facilities that could be used for military purposes. Immediately following the unequivocal ruling handed down by the international tribunal, which Beijing refused to participate in, Chinese President Xi Jinping dismissed its legitimacy and pledged that China and the Chinese people would not accept it. In more dramatic terms, Chinese media and Chinese netizens fulminated against the latest example of western mistreatment. China’s reaction to the Hague ruling came too recently to be included in the book, but its author would not be surprised by it. China, along with Russia, are singled out as two major threats to the existing “western way” of managing global affairs.

An accessible primer from the Realist perspective on international relations, the book is explicitly a study in power: rising power, declining power, power vacuums, power politics. The spectre of tragic great power politics looms large, while western “soft power”, it is argued, has run out of steam. Wijk argues that the west needs to face up to some uncomfortable truths. Among them, the realization that the “western way” is no longer as attractive or “powerful” as it once was; that “a diminished west will no longer be able to shape the world order in line with its own preferences” (p. 185). For the past 50 years that order has been defined by ostensibly global institutions like the UN, IMF and ICJ and the promotion of “universal values” like human rights and democracy. Financial crises, the failure of democracies to address long-term problems like climate change, and the loss of the moral high ground through military interventions have dented the west’s ability to co-opt, just as economic power has shifted to Asia.

Powers like Russia and China feel that they have been left out and marginalised by the “western way” and are questioning their place in it. In some cases they are actively challenging western norms and institutions—most obviously Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but also manifest in China’s AIIB, internet sovereignty, territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and the exertion of influence through economic engagement across the globe. Wijk argues that China and Russia are different from the west, with their notions of exceptionalism, memories of historical wrongs and the psychological need to restore injured national pride and status—to rediscover great power lost. Drawing, not always convincingly on Samuel Huntington (“in the East, the east Asian, Japanese and western civilizations are clashing” p. 37), Wijk argues that the use of power is conditioned by political and strategic cultures, and that Russian and Chinese strategic cultures are dangerous, manifest in a worrying combination of “assertiveness” and nationalism. If you fear these developments will lead to conflict, Wijk would concur: Conflict occurs along geopolitical “fault lines”, where, it is implied, ‘cultures clash’, and the fault lines between the EU, NATO and Russia, and between the US, its allies and China in the South China Sea are among the most dangerous.

The relationship between China and Russia is not much interrogated, and readers are left wondering whether it is collaborative or conflictual. Sino-Russian relations are complicated by historical legacies and mutual suspicion, and it may only be, in Bobo Lo’s memorable phrase, an “axis of convenience”, but surely the relationship between two powers each described as challenging the “western way” is of interest? Is Central Asia, where the former Soviet states are rapidly been drawn into China’s economic orbit, a fault line? Or should China and Russia be conceived as partners in their shared insistence on non-interference, apparent rejection of some “universal values” and shared sense of western ambivalence if not hostility towards them?

This book is nominally about Russia and China, but its message is squarely aimed at a western readership. Westerners, it is implied, have grown complacent with the dominance of the “western way”. But, as good Realists know, power politics may lie dormant, but it is always there. With the relative decline of western power creating a vacuum filled by the rising power of nations that do not necessarily buy into the “western way”, the conditions are ripe for a return to 19th Century behaviours to come back to the fore. Where others, certainly China, see a more equitable world resulting from a diversity of nations participating more energetically in global affairs, for Realists multi-polarity means instability. With this in mind, Wijk has some sensible, albeit common, recommendations for western governments. The west needs a more pragmatic and less normative foreign policy, and to seek appropriate compromises and overlapping interests when dealing with China and Russia. Ultimately, however, the message is a predictably Realist one: the west must not stint on compiling hard power as a bulwark against challenges to the “western way”.

As a contemporary, introductory text on the Realist world view, this is a brief and breezy read, with the pros and cons that entails. Chapters on the sources and uses of national power are straightforward where other texts get bogged down in theoretical expositions. There is some interesting speculation about space, the polar regions and cyberspace, fields where power politics may soon start to play out. It is, however, a partial and pessimistic world view. The “western way” has a huge reservoir of “soft power”, and the potential for outright conflict in the South China Sea is, in my view, exaggerated. Despite troubling signs, China has not withdrawn from global institutions or world trade, it is integrated in regional fora and involved in tackling major global issues like climate change. In the Chinese case, “assertiveness” is not the precursor to the outright rejection or challenge to the world order. However, its “national rejuvenation” has changed the calculus for its neighbours and other countries that must acknowledge (even if they don’t like them) China’s interests and formulate a sensible response.

“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.

Some additional thoughts on Ma’s nixed HK trip

Former President Ma Ying-jeou’s application to travel to Hong Kong for a brief speaking engagement has been turned down by the new Tsai administration. It was a decision based on consultation with government security agencies and wasn’t Tsai’s unilateral decision. Technically Ma’s application did not meet the rules regarding the 20 day advance notice for former presidents within 3 years of leaving office. Lee Teng-hui was allowed to travel to the UK one month after stepping down in 2000 (by a DPP government); but the UK does not have the symbolism that HK does (it was where the meeting between KMT-CCP took place in 1992 that gives its name to the ‘1992 consensus’), and after all, HK is quasi governed by China. Ma is in possession of huge amounts of “classified knowledge” and the potential for either purposeful or accidental disclosure of information is much higher in HK than almost anywhere else in the world. This is not to imply that Ma has or had any intention whatsoever of disclosing classified information, but given that for 8 years Ma has espoused pro-China preferences it is no surprise that most Taiwanese are suspicious of a visit so soon after he stepped down to a location that has been used as a (often clandestine) meeting place for ROC/KMT PRC/CCP officials.

A further aspect is that the KMT has demonstrated before that it is happy to bypass the duly elected government to conduct “diplomacy” with China. Then KMT Honorary Chairman Lien Chan’s “peace mission” to China in 2005, completely bypassing the DPP government, is something that the DPP wants to avoid repeating. At a time when Tsai’s government has yet to really establish its modus operandi for cross-Strait relations, it is not tactically wise to let Ma visit HK and potentially take a step in that direction. I don’t think the decision is retribution for Ma’s treatment of Chen. There may be an element of throwing a bone to deep green supporters who have already been somewhat disappointed by Tsai’s conservative, centrist manoeuvres. But overall, there are genuine security issues and particular sensitivities with Hong Kong–and Ma would presumably have been aware of this when putting in his application. I have commented on this issue for the NYT here.

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 demise of “guardian democracy”

When erstwhile Kuomintang presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, 67, was asked to comment on the suicide of a troubled young man protesting at the national curriculum last summer, her response was sympathetic and in character. “It’s a terrible shame,” she said, adding that “kids don’t know any better” (小孩子不懂事 ).

The phrase, implying that younger generations don’t understand worldly affairs, is commonly used in Taiwan as a platitude by the supposedly older and wiser to comment on upsets and misguided life choices. It is usually a benign, sometimes indulgent, dismissal of the naive or uninformed opinions of younger people, the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head. In Taiwan, it is also an attitude that has long been deeply embedded in the political culture. But it is no longer sustainable, with significant implications for the forthcoming presidential and legislative elections and the future shape of Taiwanese politics and cross-strait relations.

The notion that wise elders should take care of decision-making, in the family and in politics, has a long history across many cultures. In various guises, it is manifest in “Confucian heritage” societies, in Lee Kuan Yew’s “Asian values” and in the Chinese Communist Party’s longstanding paternalism. It underpinned KMT one-party rule, a time when Taiwanese, like their contemporary mainland counterparts, were upbraided for lacking “quality” (素質) and “civilisation” (文明), and thus not to be trusted with democratic responsibilities. Taiwan’s transition to a flourishing democracy is a constant rebuttal to the self-serving narratives of conservative, change-resistant elites: Taiwanese have proven there is nothing inherent in Chinese or Confucian cultural heritage that disqualifies them from having a fully functioning, vibrant democracy. Continue reading at SCMP.

Taiwan 2016 elections are not about China

It is not news that, in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is heading for victory on January 16. She has enjoyed a double-digit lead across all polls throughout the year, and recently crossed the psychological 50-point mark, ahead of her rivals, Eric Chu of the Kuomintang and James Soong of the People First Party. Seasoned Taiwan watchers know to take media polls with a pinch of salt. But the consensus across the political spectrum is that Tsai is a lock, barring something unforeseen.

Unexpected things do happen in Taiwanese elections. In 2000, the then independent Soong was ahead in the polls until the KMT broke a corruption scandal about him. Chen Shui-bian sustained gunshot wounds while campaigning on the eve of his re-election in 2004, which might have swung the vote in his favour. More recently, no one foresaw that Ma Ying-jeou would have a face-to-face meeting with President Xi Jinping (習近平).

If the latter surprise was intended to give the KMT’s election chances a boost, it didn’t work, despite the appealing optics of “the handshake” for the world’s media and the boost it might provide for perceptions outside Taiwan of Ma’s “legacy”. (In Taiwan, the meeting was greeted with anger or apathy.)

The 2016 presidential election is all about Ma and the KMT; Tsai’s big lead does not necessarily reflect huge enthusiasm for the DPP. The KMT’s expected loss in the coming election would reflect widespread discontent with Ma and his party, particularly the outcomes and trajectory of his economic policies. In the past 7½ years that Ma has been in power, the cost of living in Taiwan has steadily risen while wages have barely moved. House prices have increased by 45 per cent, and the price of a Taipei home is now about 16 times the average annual income (it is 7.5 times in Taiwan as a whole). Full article at SCMP

Assessing Ma’s presidency

Six weeks out from Election Day in Taiwan, the DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen has an unassailable lead in the polls, and the only uncertainty is whether her party, the DPP, will win a legislative majority, and if so, by how large a margin. The ruling KMT is reeling; damaged by an unpopular outgoing president, rifts in the party, an indecisive last minute candidate and a series of policy flops and scandals. Whatever the intention behind last month’s hastily arranged meeting in Singapore between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou, it has failed to invigorate the KMT or change its fortunes in the polls. For readers with a passing interest in Taiwan, this may come as a surprise. After all, Ma has overseen a period of unprecedented calm and productive relations with Taiwan’s biggest existential threat, China.

Upon entering office in 2008, Ma had four overarching aims. First, to stabilize cross-strait relations that effectively came to a halt at the (semi-)official level during his predecessor Chen Shui-bian’s tenure. Second, to revive Taiwan’s economic fortunes through closer integration with the Chinese economy. Third, to balance the imperative of economic incentives with the maintenance of “national dignity.” Fourth, to roll back the “de-Sinicization” elements of Chen Shui-bian’s “Taiwanization” program by emphasizing Taiwan’s Chinese cultural heritage and situating Taiwan within the framework of the greater Chinese nation. Read the full piece at The National Interest.

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 KMT’s China Policy: Gains and Failures

The KMT’s China policy under President Ma Ying-jeou has been based on four overarching aims. First, to stabilize cross-Strait relations that effectively came to a halt at the semi-official level during his predecessor Chen Shui-bian’s tenure. Second, to revive Taiwan’s economic fortunes through closer integration with the Chinese economy. Third, to balance the imperative of economic incentives with the maintenance of “national dignity”. Fourth, to roll back the “de-Sinicization” elements of Chen Shui-bian’s “Taiwanization” program by emphasizing elements of Taiwan’s Chinese cultural heritage and situating Taiwan within the framework of the greater Chinese nation. The underlying device used to pursue these aims has been the “1992 Consensus”, a rhetorical position regarding Taiwan’s status vis-à-vis China characterized by “One China, separate interpretations”. The “1992 Consensus” is controversial in Taiwan, but its ambiguities have created space for the two sides to develop a workable platform and a new level of momentum. During Ma’s tenure, this platform has yielded a number of practical agreements across several socio-economic sectors, including a limited free trade agreement, the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). When he stands down at the end of his second term in 2016, Ma Ying-jeou will leave cross-Strait relations in significantly better shape than when he began his presidency in 2008. In that sense, his China policy can be considered a success. However, such is the complicated and multifaceted nature of Taiwan’s engagement with China that Ma’s China policy cannot be measured by the tone of cross-Strait relations alone, or by the tenor of particular leaders’ personal interactions or KMT-CCP relations. Taiwan’s China policy has implications for its economy, society, foreign relations and many other policy sectors, and it remains one of the most contested arenas for domestic political competition, often, but not exclusively, refracted through the prism of national identity. Expanding our analytical lens to include these other arenas will demonstrate that the KMT’s China policy under Ma has produced mixed results that can be interpreted as successes or failures depending on one’s point of view. In this paper, we aim to provide a balanced assessment of Ma’s China policy, incorporating multiple perspectives and covering multiple policy sectors. 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.

Hung makes way for Chu

The New York Times has an excellent journalist, Austin Ramzy, covering developments in Taiwan. I shared some thoughts on the recent nomination snafu:

“With incredible lack of foresight, and I suspect a generous dose of ignorance and arrogance, neither Ma nor Chu appear to have sensed that choosing Hung would exacerbate an already fraught situation for the party,” Jonathan Sullivan, associate professor and director of research at the University of Nottingham’s School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, said in an email. “And for months they blithely carried on. Having made the decision to nix Hung, Chu had no choice but to run.”

“Tsai has staked out the center ground where most voters are by sticking steadfastly to ‘maintaining the status quo,’ ” Mr. Sullivan said. “It is ambiguous enough and palatable enough for most players that China policy will not be an obvious Achilles’ heel for the D.P.P. this time.”

Read the entire article here

The KMT nomination nightmare

The Kuomintang is expected to confirm Hung Hsiu-chu as its first female presidential candidate, ahead of the 2016 election, at its party congress next month. Hung, currently the deputy speaker in Taiwan’s legislature, has already passed the first step to nomination: a combined party and public vote. If, as expected, Hung’s nomination is confirmed, it will pit her head-to-head with Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party.

For an East Asian polity with a significant “Confucian heritage” still manifest in patriarchal social norms, an all-female contest for the presidency is no small matter. Many Taiwanese are rightly proud of improvements in gender equality. But the gender of the two candidates is not the real issue here.

When Tsai stood for president for the first time in 2012, gender was a conspicuous non-issue. Tsai lost, not because of her gender but because voters did not trust her hastily assembled China policy. Tsai has since sharpened her thinking on China, and has adopted a position that appeals to the moderate middle. The same cannot be said for Hung, whose views on China are not shared by the majority of Taiwanese.

Hung is an advocate of faster economic integration leading to unification. In a long and undistinguished political career, she is best known for her strident ideological views. Until now a marginal character in the KMT, Hung has a reputation for pugnacity and a sketchy electoral record. She secured the deputy speaker position as a balance to the “local wing” speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, who prizes pragmatism in terms of future political solutions. Although her father was a victim of the KMT’s White Terror, a political purge during the martial law era, Hung has shown strong commitment to the party. In a polity where pragmatism is the norm, at least at election time, Hung’s commitment to old ideals and pursuit of unification with China is unusually steadfast.

This would not be a story if Hung’s nomination were consistent with the trajectory of Taiwanese public opinion. But the attitude of the majority of the electorate is moving firmly in the opposite direction, both on China and “traditional” attitudes. Continue reading at SCMP.

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.

Political culture and social movements

Substantial academic interest in Taiwan has coalesced around the diverse set of norms and behaviours captured by the rubric political culture. The role of patronage, personal networks and guanxi represent a perennial scholarly preoccupation. There is no better starting point for investigating the effects of these phenomena than Bosco 1992, a pioneering study on local factions. This classic article provides a compelling analysis of the workings and connections between the central institutions of state and agents at the local level, with a particular focus on the centrality of personal relationships in facilitating political behaviours. Another ground-breaking study on the importance of personal connections and feelings, based on ethnographic fieldwork, is Jacobs 1979, which made a substantial contribution to our understanding of the contours and dynamics of political relationships in Taiwan. These dynamics and relationships are openly manifest in the campaign practices of local campaigns, as shown by Mattlin 2004, a fine grained study based on extensive fieldwork of party organization and mobilization structures and behaviours during election campaigns.

As Gobel 2012 shows, alliances and factions are also moulded by exogenous conditions, such as changes in the way that resources can be accessed via electoral competition. “Political” relationships are not restricted to alliances between politicians or between candidates and voters. Indeed, as the classic work represented in Chin 2003 shows, Taiwanese politics throughout the democratization period, particularly under Lee Teng-hui, were shaped by a complex interdependence between the KMT, business and organized crime. Indeed the “politics, business and crime nexus”, established under KMT one party rule as a means of propagating its control over society, became even more salient as the KMT prepared itself to face democratic competition. Refocusing the analytic lens, Ling and Shi 1998 examine the effects of Taiwan’s Confucian cultural heritage on democratic attitudes. The collection presented in Paolino and Meernik 2008 focuses on support for democracy, public trust and other attitudes at the individual level using large-scale survey data. This edited volume is also a useful introduction to the kind of empirical work being done with the aid of national data collection projects like the Taiwan Election and Democratization Survey (TEDS) which allow the contributors to probe voting behaviour, democratic attitudes and national identity.

A different dimension of political culture, Taiwanese cultural nationalism, is comprehensively dissected by Hsiau 2000, the classic study of Taiwanese identity and nationalism from the Japanese colonial period through one party rule to the democratization era, with a focus on the roles of language, literature and history in constructions of Taiwanese and Chineseness. Hsiau 2010 examines the cultural transformation of Taiwanese society, which exerted a powerful influence on the nascent opposition movement, tracing it back to intellectuals in the 1970s who themselves looked back in time to the Japanese colonial period to seek understandings of Taiwaneseness.

With the gradual opening of civil society space, activists and ordinary citizens had the opportunity to get their voices heard and fight for their interests. In the early stages of democratization, much of this energy went into the fight for democratic reform and other issues relating to national identity, as Tu 1996 demonstrates. There is also a long history of social movements in various other sectors, which is described in Ho 2010, a careful analysis of the different phases that social movement organization went through in the previous two decades, up to and including the recent resurgence of civic protest movements under Ma Ying-jeou. The earlier work of Hsiao 1990 focuses on the emergence of the conditions that allowed social movements to emerge in the 1980s. In later work, Hsiao 2002 focuses on the political and cultural “paradigm shifts” that transformed values, attitudes and expectations of Taiwanese citizens.

Among the more important social movements are the ones pertaining to the environment and the anti-nuclear movement and described by Ho 2003. The close connections between democratization and environmentalism (the ambiguities of the environmental movement long being tied to the DPP), and the challenge that both presented to the ruling KMT, are analysed in Tang and Tang 1997. The article focuses on the response of the KMT, as the sponsor of polluting industries, to the local politicians and civic groups that coalesced around the environmental movement and provides a convincing explanation of the success and failure of co-optation at various locales in Taiwan. Perhaps no other sector so aptly symbolizes the local effects of globalization, which is encapsulated in the analysis of environmental activism in Kaohsiung presented in Lee 2007. During Taiwan’s rapid economic growth phase, Kaohsiung, one of the world’s busiest ports, was a byword for environmental pollution and degradation. Now it is routinely held up as a success story for placing the environment at the centre of urban politics. Tang 2003 is a study of urban politics in the context of the northern wetlands, examining the relationship between local political actors, pressures from civil society actors and policies that tend towards promoting growth or environmental protection. Bibliography here.