The Chinese government has managed to overreact to Charter 08 by making one author an international martyr for free speech by jailing him, requiring Beijing law students to renounce the document in meetings, and perhaps shutting down Chinese blog provider Bullog.cn, or at least that’s what many believe is behind the current anti-vulgarity campaign, as well deleting the new blogs by Bullog refugees like Persian Xiaozhao. There are some, such as Han Han or Ai Weiwei, who seem to be considered “too big to censor”, but that’s only so far.
The other day I was telling a friend that one of the reasons I continue to live in China and find it interesting is that growing up I was a scifi geek. I always loved the idea of visiting other planets, and living abroad is the closest I’ll ever get. The common wisdom in both countries about the other is a bit like descriptions of Jupiter: massive (China in people, America in power), enormous gravitational pull (markets, culture), and full of dangerous gases (pollution from China, political hot air from the U.S.). What makes China so much like another planet isn’t that China is actually so alien, but rather the distance between them perceived by both sides. China is, for so many Americans, so far away as to be an abstract concept, and vice versa for Chinese peoples perceptions of America. To illustrate, check out these surveys (disclaimer: never believe surveys):
The outlines of the Obama Administration’s China policies are starting to come into focus. First was the mention of China on the new Whitehouse.gov:
Seek New Partnerships in Asia: Obama and Biden will forge a more effective framework in Asia that goes beyond bilateral agreements, occasional summits, and ad hoc arrangements, such as the six-party talks on North Korea. They will maintain strong ties with allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia; work to build an infrastructure with countries in East Asia that can promote stability and prosperity; and work to ensure that China plays by international rules.
That was a bit more forceful than “responsible stakeholder”. Now incoming Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has mentioned in his confirmation hearings that China is “manipulating” its currency. To be clear, Geithner was quoting Obama’s campaign rhetoric and did not state policy.
“President Obama — backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists — believes that China is manipulating its currency,” Mr. Geithner wrote. He stopped short of charging that China is manipulating its currency intentionally to gain an unfair trade advantage, as the 1988 law requires for an official citation of currency “manipulation.”
The statement was in response to a question from Chuck Schumer – everyone in China ought to understand how he rolls. Little noticed so far, however, has been Hillary Clinton’s choice of Kurt M Campbell for assistant secretary of East Asian Affairs. A former assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and the Pacific during the Clinton Administration, Campbell has been fairly visible in the media, writing about the schism between sinologists, a semi-regular column in the Taipei Times, and frequent appearances on NPR. He appears to be a defense-oriented centrist, supporting multilateral talks in Korea and maintaining the American strategic position in the Pacific. He’ll be worth watching in the future.
Photo by January20th2009 @ Flickr.
Since everybody is talking about it, I have a question: if the Chinese state media are supposed to be such masters of message control, how come they didn’t think to use a 10 second delay? Or a full minute? It’s not like there’s much competition on the airwaves. And how prepped are their messengers? The anchor is panicky and I swear the analyst gulps. They’re spending 45 billion RMB to extend this around the world?
Less than 24 hours ago, George W. Bush became a Former President and for a while now there’s been the traditional tenure evaluation and the search for whether anything will positively contribute to his legacy. AIDS in Africa has been bandied around, and so has the U.S. – China relationship. January 1 was the 30th anniversary of formal bilateral ties between the two nations, and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said the “relationship has never been better”, particularly holding out anti-terrorism as an example. Under Bush, the U.S. and China have certainly had good relations, surprisingly so considering the Hainan Incident and Bush’s stance towards China in the “Pre-9/11 world”, particularly involving missiles and Taiwan.
But Americans, particularly of certain political bents, might want to consider other ways Bush has moved the U.S. closer to China. Under Bush, the United States has detained Xinjiang Uighurs as enemies of the State, and then subjected them to interrogation procedures (insert personal definition of the word ‘torture’ here) derived from Chinese manuals in order to prepare them for interrogation by Chinese officials. As China Matters puts it, “In summary: we used Chinese torture techniques to soften up Chinese prisoners for Chinese interrogators.”As if that wasn’t enough, it appears that at least one released Uighur detainee has been listed by the Pentagon as “returning to the fight” against America for writing an op-ed to the New York Times.
How very close to China that feels. I can’t help but wonder if those dissidents and activists who lobby the U.S. president and Congress to bring change to China, many of whom personally know what Chinese detention is like, ever express concern in private that their adopted country was slipping into the same behavior as the country they seek to reform. They didn’t out in protest publicly, either.
There are other ways that the Bush administration has inched the United States closer to some of the policies of the PRC. Although American critics of China can be unbearably shrill and self-righteous at times, it seems to be true that China has 50 Cent gangs and other “CONTROL 2.0” schemes for “public opinion guidance”. So then, what are we to make of U.S. Air Force “counterblogging” tactics? If China’s alleged “grains of sand” strategy is so nefarious and dastardly, what of the Pentagon’s Minerva Initiative, which was inaugurated with Defense Secretary Gates asking academics to gather documents in other countries that could help intelligence services? What about the bribed newspaper columnists, the media military analysts briefed by the Pentagon on talking points, and Barry McCaffrey’s One Man Military-Industrial-Media Complex? And I nearly forgot the ongoing campaign to listen to all our phone calls. [UPDATE: and I did forget that the NSA and the Chinese government both want new UN measures to enable easier tracing of anonymous users on the Internet.]
Of course the U.S. and China have vastly different political structures. Of course there is a fundamental difference between a system where a current officeholder conducts himself this way, and a system where the office itself functions this way. And yet, if you are going to oppose such things on principle, then the U.S. has violated those principles, just as any country must be said to have done when it behaves that way.
It will be easy for many, should the Obama Administration live up to their expectations, to dismiss these events as an aberration, and focus only on the structural differences between the U.S. and Chinese governments. Those differences are real, and worthy of attention. But there is a lesson here that the U.S. and China are not on separate planes of political existence. Neither is uniquely exceptional, but rather both are susceptible to the same petty tyranny and insanity that can befall any nation. It would be helpful to remember that.
Photo via amatern @Flickr.
via China Digital Times, news that the premier museums of China and Taiwan may be getting back together. The National Palace Museum in Taipei is essentially the worlds longest touring exhibition, since its collection is pretty much everything Chiang Kai-Shek could fit on the boat with him when he left. That raises the question of whether any similar activities might take place at the Fujian – Taiwan Kinship Museum (闽台缘博物馆) in Quanzhou, Fujian. Southern Fujian is where the “native” Taiwanese (本省人) are predominantly from – “native” meaning Chinese whose ancestors migrated pre-1949, not the far smaller population of indigenous peoples. It’s the Southern Fujian dialect, Minnan, that is known as “Taiwanese”. Culturally there are vast similarities – Southern Fujian culture shares far more in common with Taiwan than with Northern Fujian (last night Quanzhou police were in full force against drunk drivers for the year-end employee dinner Wei Ya (尾牙), a Taiwanese mainstay as well – and the museum celebrates this, along with extremely blunt language about the political implications. Above is a slide show of some of the museum, including hometown art sensation (he of the Olympics fireworks) Cai Guo-Qiang’s firecracker painting and the historical narrative text throughout the museum.
ESWN links to an article at Ulaan Batar Post about Mongolian Nazis, whose members espouse “The Chinese are our main enemies as they contaminate Mongolian blood by getting married to Mongolian women, and intend to assimilate Mongolians to Chinese” and “It is for their own good […] A small nation can only survive by keeping its blood pure.” In Xinijang, I did meet a few Uighurs who eventually struck up conversations with me beginning with “What do you think about Hitler?” and had similar views about what was necessary to preserve their people. One Uighur YouTube user has a special place for one of Hitler’s speeches on his account, and I suspect that while a minority viewpoint, the sorts of views I heard in 2004 and Justin Rudelson wrote about in his book Oasis Identities, where he points out that Hitler supported pan-Turkic nationalism to undermine the Soviets in Central Asia, and Xinjiang explorer and scholar Sven Hedin had Nazi sympathies. Turkey has had its share of Hitler idolizing as well, such as when a translation of Mein Kampf flew off the shelves in 2005. It’s not strange that there are people in Inner and Central Asia who are racial nationalists, but it always seems like unintended irony to me that people who would have been fairly low on the Nazi racial totem pole would hold up Hitler as a role model. They’re like Asian versions of Clayton Bigsby, the blind black white supremacist from the Chappelle Show.
Artist Liu Jianhua’s (刘建华) latest gallery showing in Italy at Galleria Continua. “Unreal Scene” (2008) is a model of Shanghai made out of poker chips and dice. Photo by Cinghialino, Flickr Creative Commons. More from this and previous Liu works below. He’s currently a professor of sculpture at Shanghai University.
Rebecca Mackinnon has started a public wiki for predictions about China in ’09. The first entry is a post by Daniel Drezner whose blog just migrated to Foreign Policy. Drezner cites the recent Charter ’08 manifesto signed by hundreds of Chinese intellectuals and thousands of netizens, which calls for a new constitution, democratic reform and other extraordinarily ambitious changes. Drezner poses the question:
Question to readers: is 2009 the year that China’s government collapses? Or is it just another year in which there will be a crackdown of a mass uprising? Because those may be the only two options.
I agree with Matthew Stinson who points out in the comments to Drezner:
“The main problem with your thesis is the degree to which Chinese intellectuals can shape the discourse, rouse the public, and force policymakers to engage their ideas, and that degree is almost zero.”
Charter ’08 arguably has had a more significant impact on readers of the New York Review of Books than it has on China. Drezner’s position illustrates pretty well American conventional wisdom on China:
1) That for 20 years the Chinese government has been on its “last chance” with the Chinese people, and if it disappoints them, they will rise up and throw the bums out.
2) That the thousands of “mass incidents” reported around the country are warnings that they will carry out this ultimatum.
3) That it’s not a question of if the government will collapse but when, and that everything revolves around the idea of collapse either being imminent or delayed, but always present.
These assumptions ignore complications such as:
1) That the protests of 1989 were not nationwide, nor were they solely composed of students or calls for democracy. Jeffrey Wasserstrom has explicitly pointed out that the protestors were not the same as those in Eastern Europe which Charter ’08 takes its inspiration.
2) That the “mass incidents” around the country are not connected to any intellectual calls to reform, or directed at wholesale change of the national government. In fact, they are commonly directed at local officials and calls for the national government to come to the rescue.
3) The past twenty years, from a Chinese citizens perspective, were in fact revolutionary, and in general China has had quite a bit of revolution and its not exactly something desired.
Here, then, are my predictions for China in 2009 (or 2010, depending how the financial crisis plays out) in no particular order:
- As U.S. and UK retailers, as well as European ones, continue to cut back and even fail, China’s export model will come under increasing strain. The looming credit card crisis will reduce consumption even further, exacerbating the problem. While China has cash to lend on hand, there are no mechanisms by which it can use it to rescue thousands of small and medium sized manufacturers who operate with little spare cash. The government is attempting to use trade policy to buoy exporters, but this can only go so far if Americans have no money to spend.
- It will be extremely difficult for China to increase domestic consumption, not only as thousands lose jobs and unemployment increases, but also because problems with quality assurance in local brands will intensify as manufacturers cut corners even more to increase their shrinking margins and enforcement and regulation mechanisms are ineffective, or in many cases simply don’t exist. There are also bureaucratic hurdles such as permits and fees for imported equipment currently used solely for exports, though the government could waive this in a pinch.
- There will be increasing dissatisfaction and confrontation, but it will focus on education and healthcare, which have long been regarded as the biggest failures of Opening Up and Reform. Like many protests in the past, these will not call for the overthrow of the government but demand the government take action. Its been two years since President Hu Jintao acknowledged the collapse of the healthcare system, particularly in rural areas, but both healthcare and education have suffered similar problems in urban areas as well. First, there is the problem of rampant petty corruption. Second, and overlapping with the first, is that both have been driven purely by how much an individual can pay, either in bribes or by going to more expensive private schools and hospitals (which were mostly built with taxpayers money by public counterparts). It’s “One Country, Two Systems”, based on how wealthy you are.
The Chinese government seems to be aware of all of this, and has been trying to get a healthcare reform package together along with a social security number system. The last one is a mirror image of the U.S. social security number, which began only for tracking government benefits and later became the de facto ID number for legal and financial purposes. In China, its happened almost precisely the other way around. I expect to see the government making some very big noises about healthcare this year, but I’m not so sure education is being given as much priority. Nevertheless, during these past several golden years, Chinese citizens may have been more likely to grudgingly accept the costs of healthcare and education because they could afford them, or at least saw the promise of one day having enough money to afford them. In lean times, when the prospect of future earnings is dim, people may be less likely to accept the status quo and demand the government fix it. It will be interesting to see if this is linked to criticism of the Chinese government’s investment of foreign currency reserves.