Teacher, Friend, Son of Artists

Xiao Xiao's mother's art

Xiao Xiao’s mother’s art

Kenny art vincents mother2art vincents motherhad a wonderful “tutor” in Qingdao who took care of him while I was teaching, a part of the university compensation (which was also room & board and a lot of lovely perks like trips, and kindnesses like dinners); you could say it that way. Or it was a part of Chinese hospitality. Or it was part of an authoritarian system we saw in Beijing, where students are ‘volunteered’ time-consuming institutional duties that are anything but voluntary.

Upshot, this magnificent young man, a grad student (they say “post-graduate”) in translation specializing in the petroleum industries, and his fiancee, same field, were our companions and especially, Xiao Xiao and Kenny were often together. He kicked Kenny’s ass in badmitton, and recruited guys to play basketball at all hours of the day and night. They ate in Sichuan, Dongbei, and local restaurants around campus. They made silly movies using an iPad app.

And we learned Xiao Xiao’s parents are both noted artists: his father has a studio at Beijing’s 798 and runs an art complex there. His mother’s work (above) is traditional style, and she’s a calligrapher.

And his father’s work is below. His grandmother in Fujian was a village teacher. His grandfather hid the village’s “cultural relics”–treasures from the temple — during the Cultural Revolution, and suffered terribly as a result. Now the relics are in temples and museums.

art vincent's father

Hero Worship: Chiang Kai Shek

Sycamores of Nanjing

Sycamores of Nanjing

If you have a civil war and it is still raw enough that foreigners aren’t allowed (in public or with officials) to even mention Taiwan (one of the taboo Ts along with Tibet and Tiananmen), imagine my surprise that the father of Taiwan, the one who led the retreat there, who in my feeble mind at least embodies that split, is revered in China as father of the nation. On par, my student just said, with Mao.

But only in Nanjing, where he sat as leader of the Nationalist government after the death of Sun Yat-Sen, is Chiang, or Jiang Zhongzheng (蔣中正) in Mandarin, venerated on tshirts, on notepads, in airport souvenir shops.You can buy a pen with his head on it. A bobblehead, a paperweight.

Our young Chinese friend there said, first of all, they love all the sycamores that line every street — giant, shading green trees on every boulevard of Nanjing, which he planted because his wife loved them.

He was a nationalist leader, of course, in liberation and then against the Japanese. And as for the Taiwan split, she said, “It’s just politics.” Inotherwords, it’s fairly meaningless to her.

Second theory: a radical who will remain nameless said it’s because the folks venerating him wish he had (not the Communists) taken over mainland.

My personal thought is, it’s like a nostalgia after divorce– remembering when we were all together.

IMG_0592

Nanjing’s (great) City Wall

Nanjing’s city wall inspired the Ming sections of the Great Wall.

The great mystery: Why are these magnificent, 50’-high walls still standing? Ransacked and demolished, bombed and attacked … yet in such good condition?
jill on nanjing city wall
(On UNESCO’s “tentative list” of world treasures http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5324/ ) “It is witness to the brilliant achievements of ancient China in the planning of urban defence facilities, craftsmanship of city wall construction, and overall development of feudal capitals,” UNESCO says.

Gate, Nanjing City wall

Gate, Nanjing City wall

I think it was the Nationalists, who made it their capital. They improved it — adding some 6 new gates, for more efficient traffic flow. I think the modernization — workign the walls into the evolving city grid — may be the reason. The city was integrally already growing around and through the walls. This is my guess.

Alice, a Chinese grad student working in American literature (thank you to fellow former Fulbrighter of 2011-12 Jim Ryan, who taught at Nanjing University), told us at dinner that Nanjing people never wanted to be politically powerful, like Beijing, never wanted riches, like Shanghai. But were content being more laid back, neither north nor south, neither rich nor poor, neither powerful nor powerless. So with the city’s walls: why take them down?

The walls’s era is early-Ming Dynasty era.(1300s). Yet even to the end of the Ming (1600s), and its move to Beijing, Nanjing’s remained the world’s longest city wall, surrounding the world’s largest city.
nanjing historic photo japanese enter wall
Nearly all the gates, and the Ming wall, were there at the time of the Japanese invasion in fateful (‘Rape of Nanking’) December 1937. The massacre museum shows the army’s entry through the Guanhua Men.

Today, Guanhua Men is the top tourist spot for Wall viewing. It’s less “gate” (men) than fortress of several layers, laying up against the wall.
keny on nanjing city wall
After the Communist Revolution, 1/3 of the wall was torn down, around ’54. But not more. From ’81, Nanjing local government began to restore, reconstruct, maintain. Unlike Xi’an’s walls — square / rectagunlar – Nanjing’s zigzag, conforming to surrounding topography of mountains and rivers, lakes. It’s other distinction: most bricks are marked with Chinese characters, noting the brick’s origin, the official in charge of its manufacture, and the name of the individual brickmaker. It’s the only record of its kind.

Writing in English, Wishing for Reform

My students, writing.

My students, writing.

 

Last time I taught liberal arts types in Beijing at a famously liberal university. Here we are in a province (Shandong, central coastal China) in an engineering school and my students are in either public administration or one of many busines majors (accounting, finance, international trade, management). Lest we think only the urbane Beijingers are reform-minded, here is a bit of one student’s first paper for me:

“I want to be a government leader, wher I can take powers to reform our political system. As we all know, there are many problems in our country politic area, such as democracy deficit, freedom restricted, civil rights violtions. Our Chinese democracy is not complete.”

PS We have very sporadic internet and VPN. LIkely to blog less than we would wish.

 

 

Revealing Student Journalism

Final papers, read aloud over pizza, for appreciation, not critique. “Spoken-word performance”-style, over 4 hours with food & drink (my normal U.S. seminar length, unheard of here). Some students needed help projecting their voices. Great work again, some ‘Reporter’s Journey’-type experience stories, and interrogations/explorations of trends and youth countercultures that reveal some of the fissures in China today.

Betty lived in tight quarters for a story

A graduate degree from a top Beijing university won’t get you your own flat. Betty’s final showed life in bunkbeds, 7 to a small apartment (1 bathroom) after grad school.

Li Xueman explored troubling junkets for journalism students

Alina’s story shows Christianity’s pull for youths, being spread by Korean missionaries at “house churches” with singing and guitar, and cozy potluck dinners. Other hot trends: becoming a body guard at Israeli-run training camps; hating doctors (doctors have begun to bear the brunt of patients’ anger at a sick healthcare system–some doctors have even been violently attacked in hospitals). Another Israeli motif came up in Lei Hou’s story on the chutzpah of an instructor who’s brought Krav Maga, a technique born in an Eastern European Jewish ghetto, to china, home of martial arts. China maybe didn’t need another martial art! But Krav Maga is simpler, quick to learn, effective, and requires no meditation.

Patients are venting anger on doctors, already hard pressed by the same troubled system, Tracy writes.

One student went in search of where her e-waste goes. But a neighborhood once was home to recyclers (peddlers whose kids climbed on old electronics leaking poison) is gone…Is e-waste is down thanks to buy-back programs? It’s not clear.

Wang Fei looks at the allure of becoming a mogul’s body guard

A piece on MayDay, the Taiwanese pop sensation with 10 million online fans, shows how even after 2 decades, they’re still inspiring China’s young people with ballads about “nobodies who overcome obstacles.”
And one student describes a series of luxurious junkets she took, organized by the Propaganda Ministry for j-school students. It’s a clear-eyed look inside a media system where “only the rich and powerful have a say.” She concludes: “This will cripple our nation.”

Chongqing Narratives, Up Close

Night, Chongqing’s Yangtze river shoreline


Chongqing, mid-May, 2 weeks after popular, charismatic governor Bo Xilai (Chongqing city is considered a province) disappeared into some secret jail somewhere, his wife charged with the suspected murder of a British family friend. A month earlier he’d been sacked from his job, with Prime Minister Wen Jiaobo’s ominously announcing that a danger was brewing of a “return to the [chaos of the] Cultural Revolution.” Bo was a “high-flying princeling, a son of one of Chairman Mao’s revolutionary comrades, who hoped to become one of the top nine figures at the Communist Party Congress to be held this autumn” but his pedigree offered no protection. We were jazzed about walking into the scene of this LeCarre novel, excited to see war-time capital Chungking, and the river featured in a 1956 children’s book we read, The House of 6o Fathers, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, about a little Chinese boy swept away in a sampan during the Sino-Japanese war (who befriends a downed U.S. airman from the Flying Tigers, in nearby Hunan).

Narrow old streets by the river


Home of Bo, famed for steep mountainous gorges beside the giant Yantze, capital of the West, Chicago-like, overnight expansion (well, over 10 years) into a hilly wonder of high-rise steel. Sichuan hotpot where even ‘medium’ is a challenge, featuring those great brain-altering peppercorns (we received 5 packages as a gift). It was a chance to think about the politics of the place–about the narratives that have taken hold around Bo, and whether (and how) ours differ from our hosts’, who lived it all up close.

With Fulbrighters Jan & Pat Munday, Montana eco historian

I’ll add that a lecture trip with kids in tow was distracting and cost me focus. But I want them to see China. I wish I could say they’d behaved better. Earlier bedtimes would have helped. Still, they were loved (so people claimed); 4-6 student volunteers minded them over pingpong while I spoke to the largest groups ever, a nice way to finish, at Southwest and Sichuan Foreign Studies U, and having given these talks for 7 months, I have my message down. Laser focus or no, advocating for a watchdog media is as good a message as I could hope to deliver!

The boys and my lecture poster.

The first Bo narrative came from our host, a public health and contagious disease professor who cooperates with UMDNJ, a man so avid about educational exchange, he invited a journalist to talk to his lab! (-and arranged lectures in journalism departments). Each day he assigned 5 different students to accompany us, and be exposed to our crazy Western ways. He described a friend, a higher-up in Bo’s office, who said his boss would phone to rant angrily at 3 or 4 a.m. The words the friend used to describe his boss: bizarre, eccentric, cruel.

Speaking at Sichuan Foreign Affairs U


But our host cared less about that than Bo’s budget. He was glad to see him gone because he considered his public spending fiscally unsound. Did the sacking simply reflect internal Party politicking without wider resonance, or did it embody a shift in course of the giant ship called China? A shift, for sure, he said, for the better.

Banquet; that better not be a beer.

Another Bo narrative you won’t hear, at least we didn’t, in Chongqing: The “FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS” one. I’m wary myself when the insight on China begins that way, as in this FT analysis: “For thousands of years Chinese politics has been punctuated by violent internecine struggles played out behind palace walls but almost never have they spilled out into the public arena in such a spectacular way.”

Audience for my talk. How many U.S. news organizations have shut down?


Then there is “the Chongqing Model is Over” storyline. This is popular in investment bank notes. It suggests the neo-Maoism Bo at least mouthed (who knows what he really believed…) is done for. Like his ‘Sing Red’ campaign (folks in big groups singing old Party hymns outdoors)…we’ve seen that. Like his public investment in low-income housing, perhaps with funds confiscated from capitalist businesses, including 2 expropriated Hilton hotels. (The developer was charged with bribery and prostitution).

Rooves of old Chongqing


I don’t actually buy the “Robin Hood Is Dead” storyline. China’s growing wealth gap is a huge problem, on everyone’s lips. Keeping the lid on discontent will require more, not less, public investment, maybe in housing. And staving off much-feared economic slowdown will require continuing priming of the pump, call it neoWhatever. Third and most importantly, while Chinese President Hu Jintao, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, are on the record opposed to subsidized low-income housing, and all sorts of state-owned-enterprise monopolies (esp in banking, where they’ve strangled small-biz development, for one), SOEs are entrenched power blocs, grown larger and more powerful through mergers, run by supermen. Those vested interests remain a powerful force in favor of more of the same. Bo or no Bo. The students and profs I spoke to in Chongqing agree, particularly about the vested interests part.

Georgie, a partner of UMDNJ.


There’s widespread agreement around the narrative that Bo’s fall Highlights China’s Growing Wealth Gap. Sacking him – whatever micro-secret-faction ultimately triumphs–helps the Party overall save face. Bloomberg reported recently the Bo clan is worth at least $136 million. That “fuels perceptions of corruption in the Communist Party and deepens social tensions over China’s widening wealth gap.” So he had to go. Even if that Ferrari his Harvard son drove only once was borrowed.

Temple, elevated highway, Yangtze


Finally there’s the Bo narrative as the story of The Horrors of Succession Struggles in Secrecy–a storyline where we and the Chinese differ, because for so many here (except the rare out-and-out democracy activist), it’s hard to imagine anything else. For months, from when Bo’s deputy sought asylum at the U.S. embassy in February, till the Bo scandal itself broke in mid-March, Party leaders were utterly silent. Did this mean they were divided? Or is it just how things work when there’s no forum for political debate, no consistent operation where things proceed predictably, according to known laws? Where there’s no public method for hashing out differences in the ‘town square’ (offensive as that dialogue often becomes, in today’s America)? That absence, that silence, is perhaps the most bizarre difference from America you notice and feel here. What’s going on? Who knows. Try checking out the Weibou gossip, which may be true, but who knows? Who’s up and who’s down and why? It’s anybody’s guess. You share links, scan scholarly journals, browse (translated) perhaps-reliable Twitter feeds, for a glimpse of “truth.” Is it? Maybe! Leading up to the October Congress in which 70% of those in power will be replaced here, the stakes are high and good information—reliable, vetted, factual, accurate–is hard as ever to come by, Weibou notwithstanding. And it’s more than weird, it’s scary. As The Economist points out, authoritarian rule through backroom secret deals always carries the scent, the possible edge, of violence. “As recently as 1989, a succession struggle was waged in blood on the streets of Beijing.”

And we were singin’ ‘Bye, bye Bo Xilai. His son don’t drive a Ferrari, he’s a really nice guy.’ And all the Party members were drinking Moutai singing, ‘This’ll be the day my career dies. This will be the day my career dies’…”

Ai WeiWei & Protest Art

As you enter 3 Shadows

Off Beijing’s airport road yesterday, we found the digs of China’s leading dissident and artist, Ai Wei Wei’s Three Shadows. Library, galleries, cafe, studio, his home in there somewhere, repurposed industrial landscaping surrounding a space for outdoor movies. The New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos likened 3 Shadows to a monastery-meets-crime-family-hideaway. We exulted in breathing its free air there, like nowhere else we’ve been.

…Free air for us. Ai himself is in and out of detention and, of late, forbidden from videotaping himself (though the police have many cameras trained on the place). These now-banned video feeds were for friends & fans. He appears to live a blend of life & conceptual protest art.

My students mainly find Ai too confrontational, one-sided (those giving-the-finger photos, I guess), too in-your-face. I felt generationally connected (standing in the bookstore, Beijing 2012, leafing through his E. Village photos — we, too, hung out there in the ’80s). But most powerful was the Chinese art exhibited (others’), including a group show of award-winning new work. I see in blogging I’ve chosen the documentarians; many others were ethereal, meditations in sepia on Chinese medicine ingredients or dried up bodies of water, far more abstract. As a newsperson, I guess, gravitated to these:

Fan Shisan’s “2 of Us” a series takes on China’s 30-year-old One-Child Policy, which the artist dubs “tragic,” adding the generation of 100 million only-children is “the loneliest generation in history” and “besides the Rusticated Youth and the Cultural Revolutionaries,  the most turbulent generation in post-Mao China – though the turmoil is more personal and internal.” Only children “won’t know what they’ve lost.” Double exposures pair the children — with themselves.

A series on animal rights featured mostly black-and-white pictures including many landscapes with large (wild) and small (domestic) cats + text.

A series by Zuo Feng called “Shanghai Zero Degree” : Insanely optimistic urban real-estate ads (which plaster the streets, on construction fences, everywhere) juxtaposed with the reality surrounding them. The artist says they give China’s cities “a strange, hard-to-understand vitality.”

A series on displaced Uigurs, the Turkic people of the far northwest, who have lost land to development. Like Palestinians, unlike the war displaced, they’re homeless while at home. The artist Jia Xicheng did them in brazen colors, printed with inhjet.

Geng Xi does a series called “Embroidered Bodies,” a social survey of Chinese tattoos.

Was also impressed there with the work of Mo Yi, whose hand-sewn book 1989 was an oblique memorial to Tiananmen, with street scenes washed in red light, faux-mug shots and crowds.

I pay honor to Ai as China (& the U.S., on the eve of Secretary Clinton’s visit) are in the throes of a dissident drama — what VOA called “The dramatic nighttime escape of a blind rights lawyer from extralegal house arrest in his village” which was “a major embarrassment to the Chinese government and left the United States, which may be sheltering him, with a new diplomatic quandary.”

Now it appears the friends and activist network and even family members of the dissident, Chen Guangcheng, are being jailed. In the past Chen has suffered beatings (as has his wife). Tied to the first photos of only children — one of Chen’s ‘crimes’ was defending women who had been involuntarily sterilized.

Sometimes I wonder how the art can be so feisty here, why this space for it has been left open (as a steam valve, most likely, and for the tourist/collector dollars it draws). What’s certain is the tight, vital relationship here between art & politics. Art’s fierce urgency, and the role (greater, I think, than journalists’) it plays today as a force of conscience in China.

Jews Built NE China?


Who knew?

Harbin, in northernmost China, was once a mini-Zion up in the snow, as if Michael Chabon’s imagined Alaska homeland in The Jewish Policemen’s Union had come to life. Harbin: the frozen chosen, indeed. A city rich in Jewish history, characters, gorgeous Jewish-built European architecture. Chinese Jewish life flowered gloriously, 1900-1950.

They arrived first in 1899 to present-day Heilongjiang Province, bordered on 3 sides by Russia, fleeing (like our ancestors) the Czar and pogroms. They took a rail line to Harbin from Vladivostok to the East. They called themselves Harbintsi.

1 of Harbin's synagogues

China welcomed them, so it seems; especially Israel Epstein (b. Poland, 1915) a‘40s revolutionary; he’s pictured in the museum here (housed in a former synagogue–the other synagogue is now a youth hostel!) with Mao, and in other shots with Hu Jintao, Deng Xiaopeng, etc. He married a Chinese woman and sat on China’s national legislative assembly. Who knew? Austrian-born Jacob Rosendal (also called in the museum, variously, Rosenfeld and Rosenfield) had a similar history; he fought with the People’s Liberation Army in ’41 and is pictured with legendary Liu Shaoqi, who signs the photo, “Beloved comrade.”

Jewish music teacher, Chinese pupils

Jews formed about 10% of Harbin (then-pop. 300,000 – now it’s 4 million) at their peak, 1920, having fled the Bolsheviks. (Numbers swelled again with Hitler’s rise.) They were mostly Russian; also Lithuanian, Polish, Swedish (a big Harbin Jew named Spiro was a Swede). Harbin Jews built a theater, cinema, printer, an art school called Lotus and several music schools (A leading musician was named Traktenberg) which trained Chinese as well as Jewish students and fed two local Jewish symphonies. Unlike Shanghai, a very quick refuge, this was a long-term affair. Jews built the electric company (1902) and oil refinery and involved themselves in governing (oilman S.H. Soskin sat on Harbin’s Legislative Assembly). They (can I say “we”?) managed the horse race track and operated a Jewish-Chinese Friendship Association. Jewish-owned factories made cigarettes, textiles, flour … and Harbin Beer! (Harbin Joint Beer & Beverages, founded 1905).


They created banks, department stores, insurance companies, hotels. On streets with Russian names you could find the Jewish bakery, watch shop, clothing shop, optics shop, musical instrument shop and pharmacy. E.A. Katz ran the restaurant. In the 1920s the museum says, they were Harbin leaders in education, engineering, law, newspapering and medicine; “They were the founders of Harbin’s industry.” (Harbin remains a prosperous town reliant on heavy industry.) Tycoons included the owners of Muling Coal, and of Songhuajiang Flour (founders: Kagan & Ginsberg). Jewish businesses exported sugar, wood & soybean oil. The largest exporter, Skidelski (Schidelsky), a soybean specialist, today has a descendant in the House of Lords; their company kept offices in Harbin, London & Vladivostok.

A few other Harbin Chinese Jewish institutions:
Harbin Siberian Jewish Culture Library
The Far East Jewish Commercial Bank, Harbin Jewish People’s Bank and the Harbin-American Bank (founded by Osibov).
The Old Synagogue (1918) and the New Synagogue (1931), the biggest in China.
Harbin Betar
Harbin Jewish Hospital

The Women’s Charitable Relief Organization (1906); chairwomen Grossman, Kaufman and Schwartz.
An art school (the museum was full of old oil paintings; Harbin Jews, it said, “were very choosy about displays [décor] and paid great attention to social manners and their children’s art education.”)

Jewish Middle School


Many of the beautiful, Jewish-built old buildings recall Paris. They’ve been renovated and form a lovely old pedestrian quarter near the River, which is like nothing we’ve seen anywhere in China. (As in all big Chinese cities, you pass MaxMara, Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Ferragamo, MontBlanc…and McDonald’s.)



One original macher, Kaufman, had a son who was a Harbin doctor. His wife gave birth in 1961 to the last Jew born in Harbin. “They brought Western culture and advanced science and technology to Harbin,” the museum says. Then they wandered onward — Israel (Ehud Olmert’s family were Harbintsi), England, the U.S. In a bit of overstatement, the museum calls Harbin “a foundation for [Jews’] economic life in Europe and America.”

One part of the museum acquaints visitors more generally with this little-known people known as “Jews.” Pictured on an eclectic “wall of fame,” amusingly in no particular order, hundreds of portraits including:

Leonard Bernstein, Jonas Salk, Yascha Heifetz, Marc Chagall, Steven Speilberg, Modigliani, Brandeis, Martha Graham (Jewish?), Martin Buber, Adolf Ochs, Disraeli, Kafka (perhaps in a uniquely Chinese Freudian slip — twice), Freud, Claude Levi-Strauss, Walter Benjamin (pictured), several Israelis (Ben Gurion, Weitzman, Jabotinsky, Hertzl) and – not to be forgotten – Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Marx. Einstein gets his own corridor. And last but not least, holding his own: Mark Spitz.

In Harbin, China, Jews took shelter, survived. Flourished.

More than Keifeng’s Silk Road Jews or the brief refuge found in Shanghai — Harbin makes you see China in a really different way.

Beijing, Destroyed

Beijing Central Busn. District


In the aftermath of Xi’s visit to the U.S., some thoughts on China–trying to understand its exercise of power, self-reinvention through destruction … the meaning of all this new-ness all around in this rising superpower. From my vantage point in Beijing, on my 6-month anniversary here.

Take the Marais, the Latin Quarter, Montmartre in Paris, so many parts of London, Rome, NY’s W. Village or the Meatpacking District, Copenhagen’s Medieval quarter — great cities, alive, conjuring a sense, an experience, of history. You walk it, see it, feel it. Same with the Middle East’s walled medinas — Jerusalem and Cairo, Aleppo and Damascus, Fez and Marrakesh.

Old City Wall of Fez, Morocco

Not so Beijing.

You’ll look hard to find China’s ancient majesty. It’s tucked away, almost an amusement park. Beijing has cool new buildings (the Olympics’ Bird’s Nest and Water Cube; CCTV “Big Underpants”) but what most characterizes Beijing is…miles and miles of already-cracking nondescript newness. Ugly flyovers across 8-lane mid-city highways. It seems contradictory yet Beijing is overpopulated yet barren. Beijing, despite China’s amazing excitement and energy, the humor and art, vitality, great food, is largely depressing if you love cities. Just try to find a pedestrian route through this seemingly improvised sprawl.

“Beijing is defined by congestion, lack of public spaces, discontinuous neighborhoods,” writes Michael Meyer, author of the excellent The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (2008). Which this post is all about.

Beijing from the Jing Guang Bldg

Meyers explains why it’s so bad, while chronicling the razing of Beijing’s few, precious, surviving old neighborhood alleys (or hutong). (It must be said that original hutong homes have no plumbing; residents use public bathrooms. I don’t ever idealize that kind of poverty and hardship. They needed to be renovated–not demolished.)

Chinese for "Destroy," painted by authorities


Why has Beijing been destroyed? Meyer’s research found, for starters, there was (& remains) comparatively little professional capacity, relative to the need: No Chinese architecture department until about 1930. “Building” long considered a lowly trade. Few decision-makers even now understand preservation, sustainable development and planning (re: resource use — god let’s hope that’s changing fast), nor architectural heritage. Some important advocates raised loud voices here; big-name Western foundations offered expertise, to no avail. Or too little, too late. China, built of wood, rotted away.

From Meyer. Why Old Beijing was destroyed:


1. It reminded people of feudalism, which they hated.

European architecture carries you to different eras. (A cathedral is “a portal back to a specific time and its politics, arts, ethics, economy.”) In China, materials and design remained largely unchanged for 2,000 years. It’s all about one hated period: feudalism.


2. The city had a celestial function. Once obsolete, no reason to save it.

Beijing for millennia had a cosmic raison d’etre. “European cities grew organically [around] food production, transportation, and governance.” Not so Chinese cities, Meyer explains. Planned from scratch as administrative centers, great cities simply were home to a high-ranking official. A capital “existed as a medium for the emperor to communicate with the universe through rites, balancing the harmony between the celestial and the earthly.” Harmonizing yin and yang forces, feng shui, the Earth’s five elements. Confucian hierarchy, Taoist balance, determined layout and location. When beliefs died, there was no reason to save the infrastructure, preserve the history, salvage the urban grid or revisit traditional design.

Old Beijing



3. A century (the 20th) of self-hating envy of the West

In the early 1900s, many Chinese studied in America (including Sun Yat-Sen’s son, Sun Ke, who went to UCLA and Columbia) and came home to modernize the southern port, Guangzhou (Canton), with deputies likewise trained in America, “where the nation’s wide, paved roads designed for cars made a lasting impression. On their return, they ordered the pulling down of Guangzhou’s 800-year-old wall…[even as Canadian and American architects] urged an adaptive architecture [melding] modern engineering with traditional Chinese building traits.”

Chaoyang, Beijing (CCTV Bldg)



4. Embarrassment at China’s poverty.

Rich Americans seek out high-priced old Amish barn siding: it’s a precious decorative accent. Here old wood = slum. “You must understand the terrible inferiority complex that comes with poverty. The only desire is to look modern.”

CCTV Building, "Big Underpants"



5. Successive Chinese empires wiped out what they conquered.

The tradition of razing goes back to the emperors. Conquer-and-raze was a millenia-old tradition.

Wall remnant; Beijing


6. War


7. The Cultural Revolution


Of course. “Destroy the old world; Forge the new world.” Along with torture, murder, and public humiliation, Red Guards vandalized or burned down an astonishingly large fraction of China’s heritage. Many temples have been (are being) rebuilt and restored. I lack data but they’re a small bit of what was lost. We look hard to find and visit them, as do many Chinese tourists and pilgrims.


8. Communist (sometimes Soviet) ideology.

Beijing had two rings of walls: the inner surrounding the imperial palace, the outer around the city. A 1953 city government declaration said the Old City walls “serve feudalism and the imperial era.” Soon the outer was gone. (A crusading architect at the time, Liang Sicheng, said it felt “like having my skin torn off my bones.” He was in the papers this week when his own home was razed, despite its status as “an irreplaceable cultural relic.” [See under: “Rule of Law, problems with”.])

Beijing City Wall Museum

In 1953, under the CCP slogan, “Learn everything from the Soviet Union” a cadre declared (per Meyer), “The major danger is an extreme respect for old architecture.” So went not just wall but gate towers, ceremonial arches. He quotes a People’s Daily (CCP party organ) editorial of 1957: “The people all want to use their hands to destroy! You destroy a gray brick, I’ll pull down a piece of stone. Citizens of every district help pull down the wall.” Today, instead of gates, gargantuan intersections. Meyer found that Soviet advisers actually urged preservation of parts of the wall, to no avail.

A few years ago, about a kilometer was reconstructed — between a highway and a housing block.

Beijing City Wall remnant


9. ‘Urban renewal’ (quote-unquote) — hastened by the Olympics.

With Beijing’s Old and Dilapidated Housing Renewal program, “Neighborhoods that had survived the fall of imperial rule, the Republican era’s modernizations, Japanese occupation, and Mao’s industrialization fell to a faceless foe. The Hand moved through the hutong after dark, surreptitiously marking courtyard homes ‘Destroy.’ ”

A typical hutong (alley)


10. And why does it happens so fast? Party politics. Bureaucrats’ ambition..

Meyer explains: “Rapid clear-cutting [is] the preferred method over selective thinning of buildings. “It’s about time… Speed. For the officials in charge, the faster they demolish old structures and begin new projects, the faster they can declare to those above them, ‘Look what I’ve accomplished.’ There are no paths to career advancement for ‘Look what I saved.’ ”

Consumerism in mod malls, says a famous, gifted Chinese architect (hutong-raised, trained at Berkeley, who hated the dead suburbs he saw in America, and now is head of architecture at MIT) — isn’t just a priority. Newness, consuming, is a way of life. Not of the opiate, brainwashing, shallow sort. Though it may devour 7 earths (that don’t exist), Chinese postmodern self-expression through consumerism is about choice where none existed before. It’s about experiencing freedom, exploring a new world. Life for once as a series of open possibilities.

The world’s robust new superpower, embodied in Beijing destroyed, is managing its own fate.

Another City, Old & New (Xiamen)

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Top 10 Lessons, Midway Through Year

Sort of lost, as usual

At the Fulbright Mid-Year Conference in Xiamen–five days with the great full-year lecturers and getting to know the Spring-only group, I’ll be presenting…along the lines of this very condensed…

Ten Lessons Learned, Midway Through a Year in China

Mu Mansion, Yunnan


1. To understand anything, rely on Chinese journalism in translation.

Kuilan Liu, translator, scholar, friend


2. Banks are the object of protest. But life without them here (can you say “disintermediated”) isn’t great. In emergencies, there is no such thing as check, credit card, ATM. Find a place to hide a humongous wad on your person.

Calligrapher, Xi'an


3. Shame a student and you will never see his or her face again. (Suppose that’s why they call it “Losing face.”)

Mao Statue, Lijiang


4. Zithromax, Zithromax, Zithromax. Don’t leave town without a year’s supply x the number in your party.

Tagong cook, Sichuan


5. No matter how fab my lectures and exercises, students prefer field trips to places they’ve only heard about: global media and international NGOs.

6. When ad libbing a public speech (or–with any luck–delivering a prepared one), you might get away with a lighthearted opener but ultimately, weighty and formal are expected.

McDonald's, Old Beijing


7. Related: Give thanks, give tribute, give recognition.

Temple lamps, Chengdu


8. What the young feel and believe most deeply–everything you most want to know–they can’t articulate. Fish can’t explain water.

Guest speaker banquet


9. Gradual (imperceptible?) change is praiseworthy; upheaval is scary.

10. A little repression is always to be expected.

798 Art District, Beijing 2011

China, Building…

Highway over farms


Our weeks of ‘ethnic-‘ or ‘eco-‘ tourism have me thinking about China’s build-out. Beyond our treasure hunts for un-razed old Beijing, I mean something much bigger. We seem to exclusively pursue the preciously pre-industrial. As if that’s all “Chinese” means–in a human sense, and re: the built environment.

Ethan spit a phrase back at me during our 2 weeks in Yunnan and Guanxi (provinces bordering Vietnam and Burma), a wake-up to how much we chase the quaintly scenic, the un-“spoiled.” In China, the building is happening so fast and all at once, I think it’s part of the knee-jerk anti-China senftiment prevalent now. I think the build-out scares Americans far more than our own (slower, older) devastation of nature.

One day, on mountain bikes, after a long hard climb escaping Lijiang’s city limits, on reaching dirt paths around Lashi Lake–and even there, after crossing giant highway construction–we reached peace, lake, horses, corn fields, big birds (could it be the rare white-necked Tibetan crane?!?).

And Ethan asked, “Are we off the beaten track now?”

Lashi Lake, near LIjiang

Mr. Livingstone, I presume?

Bai village family


I think many Chinese tourists regard, and experience, ethnic minority areas the way many Americans do the Amish. We wrap our fears about modernity, our sense of loss and helplessness, up in a sort of ‘love’ for their ‘natural,’ ‘noble savagery.’ I don’t mean to insult. These narratives are bigger than we are, unconscious.

China is building, everywhere. Yet until now we have hardly posted pictures of this. Our photos are, to some extent, lies. Wish fulfillment. (Fear, idealization, ‘love,’ big narratives, as above.)

Zongdian (Shangri-La) Yak Crossing

In Ariel Dorfman & Armand Mattelart’s classic How to Read Donald Duck , two Chilean radicals’ scathing, landmark 1971 booklet (now a collectors’ item) on imperial relations, framed as an attack on Disney comics, it’s a bullseye when they describe “the historical nostalgia of the bourgeoisie…[for] lost paradise”:

“A Wigwam Motel and a souvenir shop are opened, excursions are arranged. The Indians are immobilized against their national background and served up for tourist consumption. …Stereotypes become a channel of distorted knowledge. …[The] principle [is] … sensationalism, which conceals reality by means of novelty, which not incidentally, also serves to promote sales…”

Corn dries, Baisha restaurant.

So here we are ‘consuming’ China–not ours, actually, but someone else’s empire. Ostensibly looking for “reality,” “authenticity,” yet taking so few pictures of the changes underway, the infrastructure rising everywhere. Favoring instead quaint (powerless minorities), color, sensation.

Overpasses cross lakes and soar above villages. Towering dams cement cliffsides. Massive bridges span the Yangtze and tunnels bore through (near Lijiang in Yunnan) mountains. (Same deal in Western Sichuan, now sealed off due to more Tibetan self-immolations and unrest).

In one minority area we visited, near Dali, a fresh village mural educated people about electrification (how not to get electrocuted).

Near Dali, electrification mural

The building is part Keynesian stimulation, keeping the economy percolating (so we read) to avoid a slowdown that could provoke big social unrest. (Vs. the ‘small’ and medium-sized unrest, already occurring, involving hundreds rather than, say, millions.)

Ganden Sumtseling, Shangri-La, Yunnan

Maybe it looked like this in the Eisenhower era when America built out infrastructure.

Elevated highway construction, Yunnan

Kids can study at night in electrified homes. Educated kids won’t need to wade knee-deep all day in cold rice paddies. At that level there’s no righteousness in chasing the “lost paradise.” Hats off to China’s retiring technocratic generation, soon to be replaced.

Yet. What if the build-out is truly ill-conceived? If Party leaders (central and provincial) are so close to the elites who run the state-owned conglomerates, they’ve got hands in eachother’s pockets. If the governing elite simply hired the enterprise-running elite — the state owns the biggest engineering firms, cement manufacturers, transport and energy conglomerates. If they’re investing the nation’s wealth not in education or healthcare, but roads to nowhere, tunnels through mountains, out of nepotism, favoritism, intra-elite self-dealing?

Shangri La Tibetan women

If ethnic tourism is inherently suspect, so is the despoilation we ecotourists are trying to escape, if it’s without checks or balances. So is one-party rule without media watchdogs. All sides of the equation are troubling.

FINALLY The British Curriculum

Crossing Yulong River, New Years


By 肯尼 Kenny

Ni hao.

Guess who? The British Curriclum is finally back!

So at school we are part of an Asian school league, FOBISSEA: Federation of British International Schools in South East Asia. And this year there will be a sports day for this. Not sports day, but sports week.

You will have to compete in All sports and here are the sports: soccer, basketball, swimming, track & field. But the thing is, they were selecting 12 boys from years 7 & 8. And the best part is, I made it!!!!!!!!!! In 2 months I will fly to Shanghai to compete aganst schools from Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei and Seoul. Wow that sure beats town soccer!

So anyhow, can you please comment to this: What do think when you hear the word China?

This is what I thought before I came to China: The Great Wall, bad air, corrupt government, over populated, Communist, and tough schools. but now I think of China a whole lot differently: has deserts, destroying lots of old arcitexture, beaches, eco tourism, capitalist, severe loss of forests, farming in Ghana, has 150 cities with over 1 million people, good cheap food.

But what I want to know is, what do you think of when you hear ‘China’?

A house from the Qing Dynasty time

Chinese Santa

We know Santa Claus is 中国 (Chinese). We met him in a hotel, hunting for food in the Olympic Park ghost town. (I blew a week’s food budget on bar snacks. At least Santa gave out dessert). We were in the area for a big charity concert at the Indoor National Stadium celebrating Chinese-American educational exchange, with Black Eyed Peas Will i am and ap.l.de.app — didn’t know he was Filippino. Also soul singer John Legend, Chinese pop stars Coco Lee (who intriguingly stood in for Fergie) and pop chanteusse Shunze. It benefitted APSA, Americans Promoting Study Abroad.

And because America cares about minority rights noncontroversially, Chinese ethnic/folk minority artist Sa DingDing opened. A stunning Mongolian who sings in Tibetan and Sanskrit while banging huge drums and whirling like a dervish — I loved her.

Fulbrighters got tix, to treat our students. Between acts, videos about young Americans who’d studied in China — all African-Americans from either projects or poorest rural America, transformed by the experience. Clearly Obama/Hillary’s “100,000 Strong” initiative, to send that many Americans to learn in China, means to take a new sort of student overseas.

Along with Motorola, Jackie Chan sponsored, but didn’t show.

Another cultural celebrations: my school’s journalism department awards ceremony. My incredible student Yilei performed a 20th century composition on violin. We love him, on and off the stage. With his roommate Vince, the boys’ tutor.

A few other Chinese cultural moments this week, now that the boys are done & I”m playing hookey a bit. Dancers on a winter’s day, with live musicians, in Beihai Park in the heart of Imperial Beijing. The Party is the new emperor and the Party elite’s ultra-exclusive housing, beside the Forbidden City, is the new palace, my kids reminded me, but I also need to remind them: remember China in recent years lifted 600 million people out of poverty.

Dancing at a Beihai Park pavillion on lake

The same winter’s day, taich’i practitioners nearby; Ethan tried joining. He knows a couple dozen characers now and using them, read enough of a restaurant receipt to figure out what was missing from our order. I almost fell over.

This picture is in every Beijing tourist’s photo album; the large white Tibetan temple in the middle of Behai Park’s lake is covered in ceramic Buddhas. I hope more American exchange students, and teachers, of all races, come here and get to take this picture.

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Rescued by the CCP

Big in Changchun!

I was crying in public (2nd time), sick, at an airline counter with a feverish kid. Needing to leave a frigid northern city, & they F -ed up our reservation. No one spoke English. SOS call to student and the line was busy. No plane seats for us, sick kid or no.

Suddenly, concerned and gentle eyes. Square face, black v-neck sweater, a guardian angel of a G-man in his 50s–and somehow I knew he was, from the first instant, but how??! the 6 guys identically dressed behind him with similar briefcases?? what do Party bigs carry??–loomed above us at the counter: “Is there some way I can help you?” he asks, in perfect kindest English.

More tears, soothing v-neck interventions, a lucky flight delay (smog in Beijing) and $600 later (refunded today), we were saved. Homeward bound.

Talking at the departure gate, the boys’ old-style People’s Liberation Army winter hats (the current weird China-tourist-souvenir fad) spur him to recall that those were the hats they wore when he was 11 in 1966, the year the Cultural Revolution began. (I feel vaguely panicked at the semiotics, the potential ideological echo, the kids may be broadcasting wearing these hats.)

His father was a poor farmer, “so I was a poor farmer.” I shush the boys to listen, hoping for a long recollection, but the G-man’s not a talker. All he’ll say is the universities were closed. “When they opened them again, I took the test and entered university.” He’d rather talk about America — New Jersey! He’s been to 25 U.S. states. His sister lives in South Carolina. How do the boys pursue their education here? he asks. Why was I in Changchun? (Motor City, home to China’s automotive plants, and several gigantic universities.)

“You’re a businessman?” the kids say.

“What makes you think so?” he answers, bemused. “I’m a servant of the public. I’m with the government.”

And not that a t-shirt would show, because we’re layered up, as if for skiing. But Kenny recognizes, in a whisper to me, it’s a good thing he’s not wearing his kitschy-wry-making-fun-of-Mao t-shirt that I have, against his opposition, banned within China as inappropriate.

Students arriving for one lecture

It was my first lecture tour that took us to Changchun, up in Jilin province where it’s 10 degrees F, near Korea, and they eat this delicious soup made with meat and sour fermented cabbage. I experienced my 15 minutes of fame, as students rushed the stage for photos, and to cop my PowerPoints off the PC. When I gave prizes to a few volunteers who helped during a writing exercise–journalism textbooks donated at home, shipped here by Fulbright–others in the audience swarmed, fought to handle & admire them. English books aren’t only costly, they’re almost impossible to find.

Our (kind, generous) hosts, professors of media, were surprised to learn we don’t have (aside from CSPAN, I suppose–I tried to explain that!!) an official, state media. Surprised at how deep the newspaper crisis is, as China’s print readership (like India’s) is still growing, with new readers rising in waves of rising income, education & literacy.

Student questions: “What do you think of our lack of youth freedom?” “How can I get real information for my stories?” “Do you believe in advertorials masquerading as news?” (not quite in those words)

Our host, professor Bao


Pu Yi, the last emperor, born in unimaginable continent-sucking wealth in the Forbidden City, lived here, too, in his 30s and 40. After the Japanese invasion during WW2, Changchun was a war-time capital of Japan’s Manchukuo state. Pu Yi lived here much lower on the foodchain, as a Japanese ‘puppet’ ruler.

The last emperor


After Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Pu Yi tried fleeing to Russia, but was captured & imprisoned.

Pu Yi's prison uniform


Quite a book-end to the Imperial dynasties’ glories. The Chinese eventually pardonned his treason; he ended his life as a Beijing gardener, happy, at least in a few pictures. Here’s his bike.

Muckrackers & Party Hacks: Dancing with Chains

Tsinghua Univ.'s Grand Auditorium

“Chains” are, of course, the censors. I learned about this dance yesterday, at a “dialogue” panel at a prominent J-school with 3 visiting U.S. columnists, including delightful Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, he of booming baritone and Pulitzer prize. (Yesterday’s column: first impressions of Beijing…familiar brands, like Starbucks, in the posh district, and the observation that we’re so interdependent now, China-bashing campaign rhetoric is “unrealistic, dishonest or just dumb.”)

The dialogue was sponsored by Tsinghua University (sort of China’s Harvard–nextdoor was the building where Hu Jintao studied hydraulics). Its School of Journalism and Communications includes a Global Business Journalism program underwritten by Bloomberg, where my new friend Joseph Weber, BusinessWeek‘s former Chief of Correspondents, is teaching this fall. (Tonight I’m hosting a pizza party for Joe & my students, a sort of journalism salon/Q&A, with coconut drinks.)

We know SO LITTLE about China’s media. China has 67 sophisticated business publications, the dean said. China has established 800 j-schools in the past 15 years, and has in total 930 journalism schools or departments. Yet many of China’s elderly rely on handwriting on community blackboards, for the day’s most important news, said the dean. What is a Chinese journalist? “A mainstream journalists defines himself as a Party worker,” he said. “Culture,” media & entertainment, “is not an industry but a mission–a Party task force.”

Journalism school must instruct in “how the CCP built its governing logic” so reporters can watch, record, and help local & international readers understand: “If you don’t understand our ruling logic, how our leaders think, you can’t cover China.” J-schools ALSO offer courses in Western-style reporting–another tool, as China undergoes “experiemnts,” he said. “We want America’s philosophy and professionalism, exposure to different practices, to influence our students.”

The dean said he’s training the government’s spokesman, a good illustration of the Party-Jschool-media relationship. (Thanks to this training, the spokesman now tweets with China’s Twitter, Weibou.) “Journalists should care for the downtrodden, the working class, the regional poor,” he added, and said China had far more public-service writing, such as coverage of East Africa’s famine, than the U.S. media. (I’m not so sure about this claim, but it’s possible.) “You have press freedom, yet neglect this important phenomenon,” [famine], he said.

The American visitors (Des Moine Reigster, LA Times), while cordial, seemed nonplussed. They asked about access to information (question dodged), about censorship and self-censorship. Slightly awkward. Gifts were given, hands were shaken. Dialogue, maybe; mutual understanding, mmmmmm….

And yet. There are muckrakers here, whose work would make any reporter proud. Hong Kong University’s brilliant China Media Project (HK functions under different rules), which monitors the mainland press, in 2010 collected the best of this work–done by Party organs, mostly, in Investigative Journalism in China: Eight Cases in Chinese Watchdog Journalism. These official-Party-newspaper stories expose corruption (regional rather than central), legal fraud, commercial and manufacturing wrongdoing. AIDS, charities, disaster reporting, the taxi industry, even media corruption.

Kicker courtesy of a Tsinghua journalism professor at the dialogue: “We have an expression: ‘Dancing with a chain.’ You should dance. You need to dance. But, of course, we have chains.”

For the First Time, I Hear the “T” Word

“Why were students afraid to keep volunteering for the independent candidates?” — one a political scientist and colleague in my department, Qiao Mu, who teaches political communication. I was talking to a young person, discussing the recent district elections here for People’s Congress, and the intimidation Qiao Mu’s volunteers said they experienced–like being videotaped, asked their name by plainclothes police, and warned by their school counselors. (All that may have led to the upstarts’ defeat; I blogged about it earlier ). “I understand they were told to stop working on the campaigns, but why did they listen? What exactly were they afraid of?” I’m just trying to understand, best I can.

“Have you ever heard,” the young person answered, “of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations?”–earnestly, like I may not have. This is the first time anyone has used the “T” word.

Of course, I’m nodding, Uh, yeah.

“Do you know what happened to those students after?”

No.

The young person says that they (China’s brightest, since Beijing undergrads beat out tens of millions for these coveted spots) were sent to rural areas, never to work anywhere else again.

I’ve given up trying to make the image appear here–it won’t–of an Occupy Wall Street poster graphic where 2011’s Wall Street occupiers face 1999’s Chinese tanks in Tiananman. But please click for a stirring, complex (if contentious at like a million levels) graphic kicker. The Tiananman tank man in Foley Square. ows poster

PS: If you’re one of the 4,000 or so visits we’ve had here, THANK YOU!! Yet we only have 20ish actual followers. Stay in touch by cursoring to the right & clicking “Sign me up.”
PPS: The New York Times’ Sharon LaFraniere devoted a whole story to Qaio Mu’s brave run as an independent, and the suppression he endured.

Qiao himself also wrote an op-ed about it in the Wall Street Journal Online. He also catalogs the wrongs he suffered on ChinaElectionsBlog.net.

And I helped my friend Vincent Fang, a senior majoring in journalism (not actually my student, but my kids’ Chinese tutor and xbox FIFA football companion), write about it as well. Vince’s first-person piece (he was a campaign volunteer), “Democratic Election in China Through One Student’s Eyes,” got picked up all over the Web, & even translated into Chinese.

Election Day (Yeah: Elections)

Voting place, the gym-auditorium.


It’s election day for the local People’s Congress, which comes every five years. It’s my students’ first time voting. The university and its parts (like publishing houses) get a single seat. The Party preselects two candidates to run, one of whom will win. These appointees ‘ran’ (both of them university administrators), as usual. But remarkably, two BFSU English department professors (one retired), ran as upstart independents!

The younger of the two used social media heavily. These radical and daring campaigns thrilled and inspired students and (more quietly) faculty. Their campaigns held a sense of potential, challenge, daring and promise. For a few weeks, campus email inboxes filled with pledges to do right by voters, and the braver students stepped up to volunteer.

The upstarts also angered the Party powers at school, a sort of shadow administration that controls things. Some students were quietly advised to stop their involvement.

Election Day arrived, coinciding with America’s. Police were everywhere today, including outside the English department (!!) checking IDs, setting up barriers and funneling pedestrians away from the gym/theater where voting was only permitted at each person’s preappointed time.

Security guards were in the dorms listening to students’ convesations, my class told me. At this, they were incredulous. Anonymously attack emails circulated against the upstarts, they told me, as did attack Tweets and Facebook posts. The man running as an independent (an apparently rascally and charismatic political scientist I’ve never met), was called, variously, a dangerous gossip, a prop of foreign activists, a perpetrator of sexual harrassment. One student read a post that warned, ominously, ‘If you care about him, don’t vote for him.’

Guards at the School of English and International Studies, where both independents teach or taught


The other upstart candidate, a retiree (forced out, I was told) nearing 80, daughter of a nationally known writer of the 1920s, is beloved by many of my students. Her supporters were a bit upset the younger challenger was trying to upstage her. (Some of them also said they suspect those sexual harrassment accusations might be true.)

The whole experience, no question, upset my students today, because — I believe — they are convinced they deserve better. They were upset at the possibility fraud might steal victory from one or the other. They were upset infighting had divided the ‘democratic opposition,’ if that’s what you call them. They were upset the two were poised to split the opposition vote, and lose. They were upset thinking the younger candidate would be fired in the end, and maybe flee to Hong Kong. One kid shook his head at how much it was like “1984,” and how absurd–to be living, for a moment, a dystopic fiction. Yet what choice was there, he said morosely. If the upstarts won, it would open a floodgate that couldn’t be held back elsewhere.

Had they really believed that was possible?

Yes. The old lady had won once before, years ago, slipped between the cracks. Young people admired the quixotic political scientist, testing China, demonstrating what a real election could look like. Before today, these two inspired at least a bit of hope. But Election Day wasn’t upbeat at all.

They don’t just want an exercise in which they vote, for naught, for their chosen candidate. Against the odds, contrary to the expectations we have in the U.S. of how China does things, they expect to be able to select their representative.

The police presence, impossible to ignore, suggests what they’re up against.

After class, & the gauntlet of guards, I walked home. A campus laundry was using the clothesline outside our apartment building to dry rows and rows of uniforms.

What My Students Wrote About This Week

Shared office for foreign faculty. School of English and Int'l Studies.

Some of the stories my undergrads, in opinion-writing, wrote about this week:

A Communist Youth League project the writer is involved in, sending fresh college grads to the poorest mountain villages to teach elementary school, where the unlicensed teachers were all fired.

The popularity, and importance in China, of free, online U.S. college-course videos (humanities, social sciences, engineering and technology).

A love letter to the university’s British parliamentary debate club, which “promote[s] democracy globally by supporting discussion and active citizenship.”

China’s fast urbanization required importing 600 million tons of iron ore. You got a problem with that? The writer knows a Chinese raw-materials importer; it’s a small family company, not an ‘evil extractor’ or pillager.

A plan to prevent racist violence from erupting when Poland and Ukraine host the 2012 European Football Championship, by a writer who’s a member of FIFA, the sport’s governing body.

How unfair it is that small online merchants are being screwed by unfairly high fees by Taobao, the eBay of China.

That China must spend more money to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa.

No heat...until Nov. 15.

(Random selections, what was handy)

4 Notes on Communism

1. At a lovely party in the expat suburbs, I chatted with a Taiwan-born mom interested in venturing out of the expat bubble, maybe by taking a class at my (or one of the neighboring) universities in this district. All that’s on offer, though, seems to be English, and she’s totally fluent. I also mentioned that people attend Communist political education classes.

“They still do that?” she asked.

2. Chinese Communism’s impact on a family is the subject of a new hit play in Beijing, according to one of my student’s recent asisgnments, a theater review: ” ‘This is the Last Fight’ is a clash between values in the past, and written or unwritten rules at present, the war between the haves and have-nots, and the debate between believers and people who refuse to believe.

…”Disguised by the festive atmopshere of New Year’s Eve, a family’s conflicts are quietly underway. Mr. and Mrs. He are an old Communist couple. …Their second son had serious problems with Communism and always pissed the old man off. Their youngest son planned to abscond with public money. As for the old Commie himself, Mr. He had been through wars and revolutions, and suffers from haunted memories.”

3. From another student, I learned that one of the most downloaded e-books in China in October was by a writer posthumously becoming a cult figure among young people (he died at just 45). He seems best known for his critiques of Chinese Communism. She wrote: “[Novelist and essayist] Wang Xiaobo, a sharp and unique critic of society, is now being heatedly discussed again fourteen years after his death. … When the Cultural Revolution began to sweep the mainland of China in 1966, he was only 14. As a child born in an intellectual family, he was sent to Yunnan, a border province of China, to be trained as a laborer and receive Communism education. At that time, people were deprived of their basic rights—-the freedom of speech, to write and publish, and even the freedom of independent thinking. Everybody was fighting in the dark… But Wang was not tamed …”

4. Ethan, in his 8-year-old way, has some emerging views about Communism. I had a pen on hand and took this down the other day.

“Communism’s good, in a way. I think everyone should get healthcare. They should have a place to live. But they shouldn’t be all the same. There needs to be a better balance. There should be the good parts of Communism, and the bad parts separated out.”

Occupy Wall St…& Other Educational Fun

Poster in my department.

My School of English & International Studies is talking about Occupy Wall Street. I didn’t attend this lecture last week (the potential impact on China/Chinese-U.S. relations). But in class discussions, my students commented:
(1) The demonstration has a message for Chinese youth: ‘Exercise your free-speech rights, too!’ (Not that they could organize online — thanks, Bill for pointing out “Occupy _____” with any Chinese city name has been banned by censors here.)
(2) Chaos may be looming; demonstrators must remain peaceful.
(3) The blatant alliance between U.S. politicians and big business is surprisingly shameless.
(4) The demonstrators could use some advice. Turn to us! We comrades are experienced at organizing disciplined political rallies!


More serious educational fun in China: Friday’s all-Beijing, intercollegiate Movie Dubbing Competition. This is a popular (& educational!) event for university Engish majors–like karaoke, but with movies. I’m on the judging panel! They’ll live-dub excerpts, in 2 events: With scripts, and total improv without. Don’t know which movies yet. Last year “Garfield” was among them.

Recess equipment for Ethan's grade.


Other seriously great educational news: Ethan has an all-day international school soccer tournament…on a Wednesday! Kenny’s class, 7th year, is a 4-hour flight away this week, on the tropical island of Sanya, sailing and camping! And one of my top students, a senior, just learned his father’s employer, a mineral company, will 100% sponsor his graduate studies in the U.S.!

In other politico-educational news, a colleague in the School of English and International Studies, who did his graduate work in Chicago, is in the last, heated week of his upstart election campaign to represent this area in the local/district People’s Congress. He’s something almost unknown: an independent. He’s a cult figure to students, his sharp Weibou (Twitter) feeds have been banned. When the new American Ambassador Gary Locke came here to speak, during the question-and-answer session he asked, “Have you visited the Great Wall — and have you been to the Great Firewall?”

There’s a shoo-in appointee/candidate the area’s powers-that-be have named, to run and win. So this bold campaign has angered the university entities concerned with such matters (control mechanisms the workings of which I don’t really understand). His campaign has ignited electric excitement among my students, and those few colleagues I’ve gotten to know wish him well! My inbox is flooded with his earnest and positive campaign messages (in Mandarin).

Good luck, Xiao Mu!

Chinese Politics = “The Glee Project”

Vying contestants...

On “The Glee Project,” 12 finalists (whittled down from 40,000) compete to be on “Glee.” In the coming leadership turnover in China, 70% of the ruling cabinet will be replaced. OK: the kids worry mostly about sore throats and catty remarks, while China’s future leaders confront brutal income inequality, rampant corruption, energy scarcity and environmental destruction. But I see similarities. And not just that Party members get purged and these kids get cut.

As it’s not just about singing on “Glee” (though you’d think at first it would be), rising to power isn’t just about leadership ability. Nor is it dancing on “Glee”–which is to say, ability to jockey politically. Personality matters, “It”-ness. You need (as the “Glee Project” producer explains) to be “someone viewers will want to watch and love every week.” China’s next leaders must project an appealing life story–with charisma, the common touch (as Wen Jiabao is said to do).

Ethnic issues come into play. “Glee” fans know the show covers its bases (Jewish, gay, African-American, Asian-American, Latina, overweight, handicapped–we saw the Irish-accent guy’s advantage early on). Likewise with China’s emerging leadership–though there’s more tokenism with just a couple of rising leaders’ gender & ethnic diversity.

Also consider:

–Leaders must survive intra-Party elections : Contestants survive being pitted against one another.

–China’s emerging leaders must be distributed among the leading factions, elitist and populist : “Glee” contestants must likewise bring balance (classically-trained NYC sopranos, self-taught street toughs).

–Being a protege confers advantages in a system built partly on patron-client ties : Being the producer, choreographer or singing coach’s favorite helps (though in neither case offers a guarantee).

–Chinese politics favors so-called “princelings,” sons of Party powerful : “Glee Project” featured LA show biz veterans.

–In a financally integrated world, trade experience is valuable : In a licensing-driven world, contestants’ crossover appeal is valuable (Broadway, branded merchandise, stadium events, Christmas specials).

Playing the ukelele isn’t running the world’s second biggest military and financial powerhouse. Hitting a high-B flat isn’t like facing down natural disasters, coal mine fiascos, counterfeiting, a real-estate bubble. But being a star in a 24/7, Twitter-fed, market-driven, always-close-up world possesses multifaceted dynamics of a sort Barbra Streisand never knew. China’s profound challenges are 360-degree and ever-emerging and will demand so much more of its rising generation than would have been required just a few years ago.