Saturday, October 9, 2010

Liu Xiaobo

Ah, it took Liu Xiaobo to pull me out of my blogging hiatus. It was strange to think that, while walking through Shanghai this afternoon, most people on the street -- people who don’t have access to foreign media or unblocked Internet -- had not heard the news, or even heard of Liu Xiaobo. (Even more alarming is the fact that Liu Xiaobo himself, sitting in a jail in Liaoning province, has probably not heard that he has been awarded the prize.) In the rest of the world it’s front page news, but in China the government has scrubbed clean any mention of this humiliating slap in the face -- all the more humiliating because of the immense value Chinese tend to put on the Nobel Prize.

Almost as soon as the announcement was made, analysts began arguing that the choice of Liu as this year’s recipient will likely cause more harm than good, at least in the short term -- the Chinese government, with its fragile temperament, does not react well to being humiliated, and its response so far has borne this out. But it’s worth remembering that this momentous news comes on the heels of several smaller stirrings of change in China. There are signs of a renewed debate within the government about political reform. Judging from much of the reporting about Liu Xiaobo in the western media, one could be forgiven for thinking that Liu is a diehard anti-government activist. In fact, many Chinese elites in the public realm -- in government and in mainstream media -- subscribe to many of the same ideas. Like Liu Xiaobo, they think China’s judiciary should be stronger and more independent; that the government is ruled by special interests; that censorship stifles innovation and creativity. Even Wen Jiabao, who stood beside Zhao Ziyang in 1989 and then quieted down, has recently made some muted calls for political reform. And I continue to be amazed by some of the material in the Chinese media, especially newspaper and magazine editorials. To take but one example, the southern magazine Nan Feng Chuang recently published a cover story dedicated to criticizing the stifling of free speech in China and the lack of rule of law.

These calls for change aren't as strident as Liu Xiaobo’s. They do not directly criticize China's leaders, and they almost never indicate the underlying problem of China’s political system: that the CCP is unwilling to share power with anybody, or even tolerate any hint that it should share power. And yet, I can’t help but have the feeling that this is a new decade. In the coming years I believe the political climate in China will resemble the ferment of the 1980s more than the clampdown of the 1990s.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Who owns Chinese culture? A view from DC

The annual Chinese New Year celebration held in Washington’s Chinatown is meant to showcase Chinese culture, but, as is so often the case with celebrating a national culture, this year’s celebration had political overtones. H street, between 6th and 7th streets, was lined with American and Taiwanese flags (right under the “Friendship Archway,” erected to celebrate DC’s friendship with its sister city of Beijing). Vendors sold the ‘ol “Blue Sky, White Sun, and a Wholly Red Earth” to passing spectators. Who was this parade for? What was its purpose?

Well, it was sponsored by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, an umbrella group serving the interests of Chinese-Americans. The CCBA has strong pro-Taiwanese sympathies; on its website, it states, “Despite enticements and threats from the Chinese Communist Government, the CCBA rejected their entreaties and remained loyal to the Republic of China Government on Taiwan.”

I admit, I had no idea the group’s loyalty to Taiwan was so pronounced. Though it claims it does not discriminate against immigrants from the mainland, its political stance, so blatantly on display at the new year celebration, must alienate some mainland Chinese living in the US. At the celebration I found myself next to a smiling man wearing a large scarf with the Taiwanese flag on it. Another Chinese man came up and, in an accent that was decidedly non-Taiwanese, asked him about the scarf -- where he got it, how much it cost. “But the US and Taiwan have no relations,” he said. The scarf-clad man replied, “It’s not that there are no relations...” and that was the end of it. The man walked away, in a bit of a huff. Later, I overheard three Chinese girls, most likely from the mainland, talking about the Taiwanese flags hung along the street. “What’s up with all these Taiwanese flags?” one asked. “Oh, it’s a type of brainwashing in America,” another replied.

The highlight of the celebration involved dancing dragons, but many of the dancers were not Chinese. The vast majority of spectators were not Chinese. The vendors selling Taiwanese flags and firecrackers were not Chinese. And the streets were lined with Taiwanese flags. The event seemed more like a political rally than a celebration of the year of the tiger. The blog DCist, reporting on the celebration, said the choice of flag makes sense: “It's just as well -- it probably wouldn't do to have Communist flags strung up through the capital of the free world.” This, I think, gets at the root of the issue. Flags represent nations, and nations are supposed to have individual, discrete cultures. But for many Americans, the Chinese flag -- that is, the “Five Star Red Flag” -- does not represent “Chinese culture.” It represents the Chinese Communist Party. The separation of the two intensely frustrates the Chinese government, which seeks to associate itself with the Chinese nation and with Chinese culture.

This dilemma -- who “owns” a nation-state’s culture? -- can never really be resolved, in China or anywhere else. But in China it seems especially pronounced. China has internal conflict on many fronts, a government that is not amenable to hearing alternative points of view, and a population of overseas Chinese that is spread across the world, all with their own loyalties and their own notions about who represents China, its nation, its culture, and its history. It is difficult to imagine this issue reaching any kind of broad consensus while these divisions persist.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Thinking of Liu Xiaobo

We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.
-Charter 8

This should be repeated as often as possible.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Copenhagen and China

The aftermath of the Copenhagen talks appears to have gone through three stages in quick succession: the first was an attempt to figure out what exactly the talks accomplished; the second a sort of stunned silence as the truth set in of how far we still have to go; and the last, a sudden outpouring of recriminations. This final stage, which has largely focused on China’s role at Copenhagen, is a reflection of larger issues at play as China takes its first major steps in asserting itself on the world stage.

The Chinese government’s behavior at the talks demonstrated a level of self-confidence that, to many western observers, seemed premature. Duke professor Liu Kang, in a different but related context, made this analogy: “China is like an adolescent who took too many steroids. It has suddenly become big, but it finds it hard to coordinate and control its body. To the West, it can look like a monster.”

The backlash in American and European media against China’s behavior in Copenhagen backs up this view. A Guardian contributor accuses China of intentionally sabotaging the talks in an effort to make western countries look bad. Britain’s climate secretary, Ed Miliband, made similar accusations, and Jiang Yu, China’s frustratingly obtuse press secretary, fired back in a typically ham-handed manner.

Some Chinese commentators have observed a conspiracy among western countries to denigrate China. Zhao Haijian, writing in the Guangzhou Daily, says, “Some western media have flattered China, and to some degree have affirmed China’s sudden rise and its influence. But behind this we can often discern the hidden intentions of western countries” (一些西方媒体如此“抬举”中国,在某种程度上是对中国崛起和影响力提升的一种肯定,但在这背后,我们常常会看到一些西方国家居心叵测的动机). Zhao argues that, by falsely flattering China, western countries seek to more easily put it in a bad light. A case in point, says Zhao, is Copenhagen, where the United States tried to inflate China’s importance so that China would have to foot a bigger part of the bill to fight climate change.

A preponderance of conspiracy theories usually indicates widespread misunderstanding about a complex issue. The backlash against China’s behavior at Copenhagen in western media, and the angry denials of the Chinese government and its supporters, seem to me to be natural reactions to China’s perceived “rise” in the world. The Chinese government undoubtedly feels it is in a period of momentum. China just held a successful Olympics, it’s about to put on a massive World Expo, and it seems to have weathered the economic crisis better than just about all western countries, at least for now. The government’s ego may be a bit inflated. It may believe it can throw its weight around more freely than in the past.

The Chinese government needs to learn how to negotiate more skillfully -- it’s unacceptable that Wen Jiabao skipped a meeting with Barack Obama and other leaders -- and, of course, it needs to work hard on its public relations. And western observers must come to grips with the fact that China is here to stay, and realize that its government is not always scheming how best to increase its influence while decreasing the power of western countries. The Chinese government, and even China itself, often comes off as monolithic, but it is full of contradictions and internal debate.

In the coming years and decades I suspect we’ll see more situations like the one in Copenhagen, as the world adjusts to countries like China, India, Brazil, and others that are willing to exert newfound global influence. Coping with this shift in global power structures will require patience, flexibility, and a willingness to understand the viewpoints of others.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Red Shanghai

The 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China is upon us, with all its tanks, missiles, mass demonstrations of patriotism, closings of sensitive areas, and the general outpouring of overdone pomp and propaganda that insecure governments everywhere feel the need to display. In celebration of this glorious holiday, here is a list of the most prominent red sites in Shanghai. If you’re in the city, why not commemorate the CCP’s Diamond Jubilee by visited some of these august locations?

The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre

This museum is, blessedly, privately run, and so should perhaps not be considered a “red site” at all since it isn’t controlled by the government. But for those interested in Chinese communist culture, this memorial to the propaganda posters of the past is not to be missed. With refreshingly honest signage, the museum guides you through some truly incredible posters from 1949 to 1979. Because many of China’s propaganda posters were recycled during the chairmanship of Deng Xiaoping, the ones on display here are extremely rare. These aren’t the copies you find on the street. Be sure to check out the shop, where you can buy original posters if you’re willing to shell out the big bucks, as well as some good reproductions. Interestingly and unfortunately, the place seems to be known only to foreigners. I asked the attendant working there whether the museum gets more foreign or Chinese visitors. He replied that all of the visitors are foreign. This is a shame. As the museum itself states, “Today China’s economic path to prosperity is well defined. But with the shift toward a more modern and forward thinking China, it would be a mistake to forget our recent history.”


To get there: The museum is a little hard to find. It’s located in the basement of building 4, block B, at 868 Huashan Road, across from Wukang Road, inside a residential complex. The nearest metro stops are Changshu Road (line one), Jing’an Si (line two), and Jiangsu Road (line two). Ask the guard at the gate of the residential complex and he’ll give you a card explaining how to find the museum.

Longhua Cemetery of Martyrs

This is a must-see for those interested in how official history of the Chinese communist movement is written. The Longhua Cemetery of Martyrs memorializes those who died fighting for the cause of communism in the early 20th century. It is built on the site of a killing ground that Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party used to murder communists, students, intellectuals, members of trade unions, and others deemed to be leftist in 1927. Later it was turned into a prison. Such museums have a habit of labeling everybody who resisted the fascist tendencies of the Nationalist Party as striving for communism, though in reality the situation in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s was more complicated than that. If you can look past the historical whitewashing, however, visiting this site is still a moving experience. As I have noted before, labeling the entire memorial site “propaganda” risks dismissing too easily the deep resonance such places can have. The people commemorated here are worthy of our remembrance, regardless of who is doing the commemorating.

To get there: The memorial is located at 180 Longhua Road, by the Longhua Temple (which is also worth a visit). There isn’t an adjacent metro stop, but the closest one is the Longcao Road stop on line three. After getting off the metro, walk northeast along North Longshui Road, which turns into Longhua Road.

Mao Zedong’s former residence

This one’s a no-brainer. Any tour of Shanghai’s red sites must include homage to the place where Mao Zedong lived in the mid-1920s. As a sign makes clear, Mao’s life was highly revolutionary: “In his youth, Mao Zedong cherished a lofty revolutionary aspiration, actively seeking revolutionary truth and joined in the revolutionary practice.” The place features recreations of some of the rooms of the house, and upstairs is a little museum with, interestingly, a room devoted to Mao Anying, Mao Zedong’s son who died in the Korean War. It also includes some wonderful Chinglish, such as this caption for a photograph: “Mao Zedong gave a banquet to labor representatives and crackerjacks at technical innovation of Shanghai on March 19, 1960” (1960319月,毛泽东在锦江饭店宴请上海的工人代表,技术革新能手).


To get there: Mao’s former residence is located at 120 North Maoming Road, near the West Nanjing Road metro stop on line two.

Zhou Enlai’s former residence

Zhou Enlai was Mao’s right-hand man, and the highest-ranking official to survive the entirety of his rule. His former residence in Shanghai acted more as an office for the CCP around 1946 than as a house. It’s a beautiful place, and well worth a visit.

To get there: Zhou Enlai’s former residence is located at 73 Sinan Road, near Fuxing Park. The nearest metro stop is South Shaanxi Road on line one.

Site of the founding of the CCP

‘Nuff said. In the heart of Xintiandi, it’s easily accessible by tourists, meaning the curators were extra careful to make everything spotlessly whitewashed. A must see for red tourism, but five minutes is probably enough.

See this interesting article at the China Beat for information about the history of the building.

To get there: Head to Xintiandi, near the South Huangpi Road metro stop on line one, and follow the tour groups.

Liu Changsheng’s former residence

Liu Changsheng is a relatively minor figure in Chinese communist history. He was a leader of the underground communist movement in Shanghai from 1937 to the establishment of the People’s Republic, and was important in the formation of the Party’s labor policy in Shanghai. The small museum in his former residence focuses on underground communist activities in 1930s Shanghai, and provides a good example of how the government writes the history of this period—largely ignoring the considerable intellectual ferment of the times and emphasizing instead the central role of the Communist Party.


To get there: Liu Changsheng’s former residence is located at 81 Yiyuan Road, close to the Jing’an Si metro stop on line two.

National Anthem Memorial Hall

The history of “March of the Volunteers,” the national anthem, is indeed pretty fascinating; unfortunately, this museum is too focused on making it a tribute to the Communist Party/Chinese nation. If you can get past this kind of language (“After 70 years of trial and hardship, ‘March of the Volunteers’ has become a part of the very blood of the Chinese people and the soul of the Chinese nation”), the place has a lot of interesting tidbits. For example, “March of the Volunteers” had a broad international following during World War II, including a rendition sung by the American singer Paul Robeson, and played a role in international anti-fascist sentiment. The museum leaves the nasty historical bits out, of course—no mention, for example, how Tian Han, the lyricist of the song, died in 1968 after being persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

To get there: The National Anthem Memorial Hall is located by the Dalian Road metro stop on line four. Go out exit three; the museum is on the southeast corner of the intersection at Dalian Road and Changyang Road.

Sites appropriated into red history

The government has attempted to appropriate the figures associated with the sites below into the history of the Communist Party. In many cases that’s not far off the mark—Song Qingling, for example, certainly ingratiated herself with China’s new masters after 1949—but their lives are much more complicated than simple allegiance to the CCP.

Cai Yuanpei’s former residence: Cai Yuanpei had a prominent influence in the development of China’s educational system, and was a main figure in the May Fourth Movement. You can see his former residence inside Lane 303 on Huashan Road, across from the Hilton Hotel, near the Jing’an Si metro stop on line two.

Sun Yatsen’s former residence: Sun Yatsen is revered in both Taiwan and in mainland China. See the CCP’s version of his life at 7 Xiangshan Road, near Fuxing Park. The nearest metro stop is South Shaanxi Road on line one.

Song Qingling’s former residence: Song Qingling, the widow of Sun Yatsen, decided to stay in China after the communists won the civil war (in stark contrast to her sister). Her residence is a beautiful mansion with lots of interesting gifts from foreign dignitaries, and a backyard perfect for lawn parties. It’s located at 1843 Middle Huai’hai Road, not too far from the Hengshan Road metro stop on line one.

Lu Xun Park and former residence: Lu Xun, probably the most important cultural figure in 1920s and 1930s China, never joined the Communist Party, but he was close friends with lots of people who did, and supported many of its activities. The CCP regards him as an important figure in its history. In Lu Xun Park, by the Hongkou Stadium metro stop on line eight, you can see his tomb (with calligraphy by Mao Zedong) and visit a museum devoted to him. Near the park is his old residence, a charming place in a relatively out-of-the-way spot, where he lived at the end of his life. It’s located in Lane 132 on Shanyin Road, southeast of the park.

Duolun Road: Duolun Road is famous for being the site of the former residences of several well-known figures, such as Guo Moruo and Mao Dun, as well as the former headquarters of the League of Left-Wing Writers. Nowadays it’s touristy, but not too annoyingly so. It’s located just south of Lu Xun Park.