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China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

Archive for October 2007

In the Spirit of Zhao Ziyang

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Friends keep telling me to stay out of politics.  They’re depressing.  Focus on something else, they say.  Don’t get too worked up.  You’re young.  Don’t worry about it.

I try to find other interests.  Hell, I spend countless hours frolicking in the revelry of being a New England fan these days.  Sometimes I find myself just gazing affectionately at ESPN.com’s homepage, like a love-struck teen entranced by a yearbook photo.   It wastes time, the meaningless drivel of sports.  But they aren’t enough.  A Superbowl party only lasts until the hangover kicks in.

It’s not so much a hangover I suffer from, it’s the hang-ups.  China is the 21st’s century “riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma.”  At least it feels like it.  It seems like no one can really get a grasp on it, the sways of progress, the aims, the inner thoughts of those nine minds on the secretive inner committee of the politburo.  China is China.  When you live here, you know.  I constantly walk the street witnessing actions that make me stop and wonder, “What in the world could that person be thinking?”  But this isn’t the world.  This is China.  It’s different.  It’s culture, they tell you.  It’s bullshit, I say.

Bao Tong, one of the most hated/admired dissenters of the CCP recently spoke out about the events of the 17th Meeting of the CCP.  Needless to say, he voiced his complaints.  This man has nothing left to fear.  Death will come not as a surprise, but as a late dinner-guest.  He served his years in prison, his years under house arrest, his years of belittlement and character defamation.  He has endured the CCP erasing his name from the books.  He knows it well, like his friend and former colleague Zhao Ziyang.

Zhao Ziyang was an established and well-respected politician.  His upbringing as a relatively poor country citizen and his wartime alliance to the Communist party earned him respect and the type of friends necessary to rise within the CCP.  Zhao was the Chinese Premier from 1980-1987 and later elected the prestigious, nearly omnipotent post of General Secretary of the CCP from 1987-1989.  He played a prominent role in the economic reforms “opening up” China, and is most fondly remembered for his devotion to the improvement of economic production in the countryside of Sichuan province.  His former speechwriter would later say Zhao represented an unheard of paradox, “a leader staunchly committed to dismantling the very system that supported his power.”

If that had been the end of the story, one would see his name on posters and posthumous awards.  He would be buried under a heap of the respectful titles Chinese laud upon former leader, such as most honorable comrade, etc.  But that isn’t his legacy.  In fact, if it were up to the CCP, he would have to legacy at all.  It is trying to ensure that, as we speak.  The more I tried to find articles about Zhao, the less my internet worked.  It began with sites being blocked.  Then all searches were futile.  Then my entire browser froze.  I am typing this on Microsoft word, hoping to cut and paste it in once my proxy server connects.

Zhao is most famous for his defection– or “serious mistakes” as China claims– from the CCP.  It was the morning of May 19, 1989.   After three proposed resolutions for dealing with the more than one million protestors in Tiananmen Square failed to gain a majority consensus among the political elite, the struggle for power between hardliners and moderates had never been more clear or more broad.  Marital law was imminent.  And Zhao, when he could have turned against his own people, when he could have protected his clutch on power, let his true allegiance be known.

He left the confines of the government offices.  He grabbed a bullhorn and rushed to the Square to warn the students and protestors to disperse.  His first words:  “I am sorry, I have come too late.”  He pleaded, he urged, he rationalized, empathized; he cried.  As John Gittings writes, “Honesty was only possible when it was irrelevant.”

Zhao was then purged.  He was lucky, sentenced to “silent death,” in other words lifelong house arrest.  He was spared dying tortured and untreated on a prison cell floor like Liu Shaoqi.  He is no longer considered one of the “revolutionaries” of Chinese history, a title bestowed on any notable political elite.  And this is not to say he deserves to be honored as a bellowing voice for democracy.  He was a rational man, in many ways a centrist.  Yet, too often “at times of crisis, the centre cannot hold.”  The Tiananmen students wrongly believed the internal division within the CCP could work to their benefit, when “in reality [it] had strengthened the powers of the diehards.”  The students unwittingly brought on a backlash to conservative policies rendered out of fear and an inveterate career protection mechanism intrinsic to Chinese politics.  As Gittings wrote, “The student democracy movement ‘sharpened the contradictions’ until Zhao was impaled on them.”

Zhao’s story goes beyond my personal apprehensions with Chinese government, development, and the suppression of free speech and citizen’s rights.  It speaks to the current situation in the States, the collapse of the center as government party survival hinges on appeasing the radical elements of its platform.  Where are our leaders who march with the citizens?  Where are our leaders who say, “Fuck it! I might not get elected next term, but I believe in this!”  When will it be “too late”?

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Written by Miles

October 26, 2007 at 5:39 pm

Same old same

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The 17th Meeting of the Chinese Communist Party is in the books.  Peak propaganda month has come and gone.  The spells have been cast.  A hefty dose of political platitudes, a touch of shibboleth, and a pinch of frivolity sit stewing in the magic Chinese cauldron.

It was captivating.  A lot of pageantry.  Day-long speeches.  Red.  Red everywhere.  Token representatives being awarded token gestures.  Grande, no doubt; it was grand with an e.  The motto, a la Hu Jintao, was something along the lines of: “Continued growth with social justice and social equality.”  Pundits beamed smiles of approval, nodded like bobbleheads, then waxed poetic on the success of the alternative development model provided by China.

It reminded me of when every American slapped an American flag bumper sticker on their SUV on 9/12.

In a rare moment of objective journalism, one commentator pointed out foreign politicians ought to hesitate before emulating the Middle Kingdom.  This was a particular model, he said,  only capable of taking root in China, for Chinese.  By that, he meant, only in a country whose culture has been beat into submission, one prone to follow rules without examination, one vengefully on a course to reclaim centuries old glory, or one willing to sacrifice hundreds of millions for the sake of a few thousand, only in this type of country does the China Model apply.  The host stopped asking him questions.

I like a lot of things China is proposing.  They sound great.  They give you that warm and fuzzy feeling.  Like a back rub before you go to sleep; but then the bitch steals you’re wallet and flees the scene.  I cannot help feeling social equality is IMPOSSIBLE here.  The “experiment”– the word chosen to describe China’s rabid bite into capitalism– that let very few grow very wealthy in a very short period of time has created the worst enemy to social justice and equality:  the Haves.

The Haves are not prone to lofty ideals like justice and equality.  Rendering the Haves marginally equal to the Havenots would be an injustice to the Haves.  Take their money, take their power, and you are talking about taking what they feel is their just claim.  No political party creates an uber-elite and gently erodes it into submission.  So the CPC buried its largest problems– the environment, sustainable growth, access to education/healthcare/jobs– under blanket prosaism.

China is capable.  While I fear others taking the same drastic measures to achieve growth, I am in awe bearing witness to the potential of China.  It don’t speak about it, it be about it, as Mos Def would say.  If China wants to improve something, it happens.  I saw that firsthand in my trip to the Shaoxing International Textile Expo this weekend.  Within a decade, China created an international center for a robust, thriving industry out of a measly country town.  It is the byproducts of growth, the fineprint, the collateral damage that worries me.

I am rooting for China.  Because I have to; I want to.  Because the world has to.  Because America is so full of shit nowadays that it no longer provides the necessary contributions to global world order.  This is the direction this ship is headed.  And if there is one thing China has shown itself capable of doing, it is riding out the storms.

Written by Miles

October 24, 2007 at 8:45 am

38 Snaps from around SH

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If you have the 5 minutes, here are a couple things I felt worthy of pointing out:

In and Around Shanghai 

Written by Miles

October 19, 2007 at 8:56 am

Response to BTG on Chinese Development

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This is a response to my buddy BTG’s comment on a previous post:

My post on the relationship between the Vick article and China’s development problems bore a very flimsy, finite correlation. In the Vick case, I found the justifications people sought in defending their opinions noteworthy. These “excuses,” in a sense, were necessary to come to terms with hypercritical expressions of the American psyche– the relationship of black and white, past and present.

For the past 6 months or more, I have been a part of an ongoing email forum centering on the crisis in Zimbabwe, which has extrapolated into international issues where ideas like leadership, development, and (classic/neo) colonialism come to the fore. Some of it is a discussion of policies, history, and nationalism; but most of it stems from an honest discussion about the relationships of one human being to another. It deals with the common bonds History shackles around the ankles of people trying to move forward. Like a three-legged race on field day in elementary school, success requires communication and cooperation, a positive relationship.

BTG, I agree with you that China bears responsibility for its actions, that its government must meet the requirements of solid leadership by drafting progressive, efficient policies. I agree that Mao played a tremendous role in the development of a cultural psychosis, really, tilted towards economic success at all costs. Paranoia, pride, and an intractable nationalist ideology drove China many miles down the wrong road (i.e. the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution). While everyone talks about how much money it is making today, China is paying dearly for those past actions now.I am not discrediting the self-inflicted wounds of Chinese development. And I am not here to bemoan history. I am here because I cannot escape thinking that we have choices. We have the possibility of a future. We are the generation of global citizenry. For the first time in history, it is solely our responsibility to begin seeing the world as one. World histories have always been interconnected. But now, we can use current knowledge to build positive outcomes. We can cooperate, communicate, and build effective relationships producing progressive policies.

China has bolstered America’s rise to the top by becoming the world’s factory. We have a responsibility to understand our impacts on the world beyond our borders. For our administration to hesitate on radical environmental reform and hide behind the excuse that China will not yield its growth is unacceptable. This is finger pointing. This is bickering and meaningless. We are a world getting divorced rather than getting married. We are wasting time. And our time left on this rock is counting down exponentially.

Written by Miles

October 12, 2007 at 10:01 am

On Being Odysseus

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Two days ago, as I sat nursing my last few beers in Hangzhou, my friend and I began a conversation. It is a conversation, a dialogue, we both internalize. We smother it under blankets of busy behavior. We go to school. We keep moving, one foot in front of the other. But here we were, on vacation, on our last night, as the misty drizzle buffering the approaching typhoon crept closer overhead.

It was one of those vacations, one where the time fit the activity perfectly. We had seen all the sights, met people, partied, slept, read, eaten too much Chinese food and squatted over toilet-holes. The little boxes had been checked. And here we were, in the down time, killing time. One last night. A few more beers. Nothing left to do and nothing left to say.

Except to externalize that discussion, those lingering notions of doubt. Doubt generally carries a negative connotation. It clings to us, to people, to me. It seeps into my marrow, and I can’t burn it out with a million days in the sun. It isn’t half bad, though. Sometimes, doubt propels you forward. It leaves you asking questions. It pushes you toward answers. So, we brought up our doubts. They went something like this: “Man, what the fuck are we doing in China?”

My friend and I agree. There is nothing I would trade this experience for. I made the right move proceeding down this particular path. It was for me; I needed it. I have friends at home working hard and excelling in their respective jobs. But I wouldn’t trade my life for their’s. And neither would my friend for his friends’.

A lot of it is personal. A lot of it is interests, character, personality. Whatever it is, my friend and I are quite different, yet find each other to be quite the same. We’re here, doing this, because it feels right. Even with the doubt. Even with the world back home spinning away as if it were on a secondary axis. Our home isn’t that place anymore. Going back, yes, perhaps it is in the cards, but it will never remotely be the same.

Old friends will be long gone, the memory of our times shared just shadows in our past. Family will be there, but what about the time we have missed between? I will never know what my sister looked like from 14-16 years old. That pains me to say it. My grandparents are getting older, and each day passes is one day less I have with them. With all of “them,” with anyone.

But I can’t stop this now. I can worry about the future, sure. But in doing so, I must not forget what it was that brought me here. The million footsteps before, the thousand roads diverged in a wood. I cannot forget the places I have seen and the ridiculous/dangerous/hysterical/tragic experiences I have embraced along my way. The “reality” of my perception has shifted; its subtlety belies its affirmation. Within me, I have been reborn time and again, shattering the shells of my own perceived identity, my doubts and my beliefs. And I need this. Others need other means. I need this. This is my Odyssey.

The New York Times, October 9, 2007:
“The Odyssey Years,” by DAVID BROOKS
There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.

During this decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.

Their parents grow increasingly anxious. These parents understand that there’s bound to be a transition phase between student life and adult life. But when they look at their own grown children, they see the transition stretching five years, seven and beyond. The parents don’t even detect a clear sense of direction in their children’s lives. They look at them and see the things that are being delayed.

They see that people in this age bracket are delaying marriage. They’re delaying having children. They’re delaying permanent employment. People who were born before 1964 tend to define adulthood by certain accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family.

In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.

Yet with a little imagination it’s possible even for baby boomers to understand what it’s like to be in the middle of the odyssey years. It’s possible to see that this period of improvisation is a sensible response to modern conditions.

Two of the country’s best social scientists have been trying to understand this new life phase. William Galston of the Brookings Institution has recently completed a research project for the Hewlett Foundation. Robert Wuthnow of Princeton has just published a tremendously valuable book, “After the Baby Boomers” that looks at young adulthood through the prism of religious practice.

Through their work, you can see the spirit of fluidity that now characterizes this stage. Young people grow up in tightly structured childhoods, Wuthnow observes, but then graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.

Dating gives way to Facebook and hooking up. Marriage gives way to cohabitation. Church attendance gives way to spiritual longing. Newspaper reading gives way to blogging. (In 1970, 49 percent of adults in their 20s read a daily paper; now it’s at 21 percent.)

The job market is fluid. Graduating seniors don’t find corporations offering them jobs that will guide them all the way to retirement. Instead they find a vast menu of information economy options, few of which they have heard of or prepared for.

Social life is fluid. There’s been a shift in the balance of power between the genders. Thirty-six percent of female workers in their 20s now have a college degree, compared with 23 percent of male workers. Male wages have stagnated over the past decades, while female wages have risen.

This has fundamentally scrambled the courtship rituals and decreased the pressure to get married. Educated women can get many of the things they want (income, status, identity) without marriage, while they find it harder (or, if they’re working-class, next to impossible) to find a suitably accomplished mate.

The odyssey years are not about slacking off. There are intense competitive pressures as a result of the vast numbers of people chasing relatively few opportunities. Moreover, surveys show that people living through these years have highly traditional aspirations (they rate parenthood more highly than their own parents did) even as they lead improvising lives.

Rather, what we’re seeing is the creation of a new life phase, just as adolescence came into being a century ago. It’s a phase in which some social institutions flourish — knitting circles, Teach for America — while others — churches, political parties — have trouble establishing ties.

But there is every reason to think this phase will grow more pronounced in the coming years. European nations are traveling this route ahead of us, Galston notes. Europeans delay marriage even longer than we do and spend even more years shifting between the job market and higher education.

And as the new generational structure solidifies, social and economic entrepreneurs will create new rites and institutions. Someday people will look back and wonder at the vast social changes wrought by the emerging social group that saw their situations first captured by “Friends” and later by “Knocked Up.”

Written by Miles

October 9, 2007 at 8:39 am

Getting Bashed By Typhoon Krosa

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I ditched class today.  Shameful, yes, I know.  But, Typhoon Krosa is beating on Shanghai and China’s eastern provinces like early Tyson.  My friend and I arrived home from vacation yesterday, just as the storm had finished washing out Taipei and just before it breached the mainland.   We had been enjoying three straight days of 90+degree sunshine and blue skies in Hangzhou.  Here is what Hangzhou looked like 24 hours after we left:

http://www.hangzhou.com.cn/20071008/ca1384585.htm

Written by Miles

October 8, 2007 at 12:12 pm