Book Review: Age of Ambition

It’s hard to review a book without resorting to cliches. This goes doubly true for a China book, so I will attempt to avoid the obvious arguments about Evan Osnos’ just-released Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. In brief, it is a good book, an introduction to those in the West learning about China, and a grand summation of events for those of us who experienced the Hu Jintao years as expatriates. At 416 pages, it makes for brisk reading, and Osnos’ writing is accessible and entertaining.

To begin, Osnos is a journalist and his profession lends a humanist, storytelling perspective to covering China. In Age of Ambition, Osnos hasn’t written a polemic about China, nor has he picked apart State Council statistics, nor has he engaged in Zhongnanhaiology to predict Chinese foreign policy. Osnos covered China for eight years for the Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker and continues to blog about China and other topics on his New Yorker blog. His focus in the book is the people of the People’s Republic, and what they can tell us about China.

Once again, I wish to avoid the obvious cliches and say that if Osnos’ book can be compared to anything, it’s literature. Like George R.R. Martin, Osnos gathers together a cast of point of view characters, repeated interview subjects who he uses to explore the radical changes which swept through China during the last three decades. The book is subtitled “Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith,” and is divided into three parts representing each of these themes in a loosely chronological framework. Osnos uses his interviews to explore each theme, and while much of the material should be familiar to his longtime readers, he adds enough to keep us satisfied.

The first part of the book, “Fortune,” is naturally concerned with the development of China’s economy. Osnos takes us to the 1970s, but also to the 1990s, when he first visited the country. By the time the Tribune returns Osnos to the country, he was already impressed by the rapid pace of development:

The last time I had been in China, per capita income was three thousand dollars a year—equivalent to the United States in 1872. The United States too fifty-five years to get to seven thousand dollars. China did it in ten.

As most China chroniclers are apt to do, Osnos ticks all the usual boxes when describing the new realities for the Party-State and the economy. “The government was offering its people a bargain: prosperity in exchange for loyalty.” “At the lowest levels, the Party felt like a professional network.” “Young people began to speak admiringly of the quality they called gexing, ‘individuality.’” We China hands—both amateur and professional—ought to forgive these kind of characterizations, since we often fail to appreciate how new this can all seem to people back home. Isn’t it simply true that, as Osnos writes, “In the age of ambition, life sped up”?

Not all of life’s velocity is in high speed trains and high-rise apartments, though. Since much of my time in China has been spent in education, I enjoyed Osnos’ look at “English fever” and at the Chinese quest for educational achievement, which are part and parcel of the Chinese quest for material security. Osnos meets the now-infamous entrepreneur Li Yang of “Crazy English” (and later, domestic violence) fame, whose teaching methods I came to know and loathe after I arrived in China in 2004.

(A sampling, from my own personal knowledge: Students were given passages and told to read them as loud as possible as many times as possible every day. This severely disrupted the study patterns of other students in classrooms and common areas, so they ostracized their Crazy English-loving classmates . Students were encouraged by Li and his imitators to literally stalk foreigners and demand English practice. In one incident, a student at the university I worked at followed German exchange students around on his bicycle for weeks, repeatedly asking them “Where are you from?” like an English-crazed version of the newspaper kid from the film Better Off Dead. A Canadian colleague of mine who taught at one of the Crazy English summer camps had a Russian coworker who was instructed to fend off questions about his accent by telling people he was Scottish.)

Accused by some of his critics of leading a cult, Li told Osnos in an interview that he, like Han Solo, was just in it for the money. (Osnos leaves it to his readers to draw the obvious parallel between con men and cult leaders.) Li Yang might not have been a cult leader but he had his share of true believers. Osnos befriended Michael Zhang, a Crazy English fan who ardently believed in the transformative power of English, becoming an educator and would-be entrepreneur. Osnos follows Michael’s story for the better part of a decade, with Michael’s obsessions, optimism, and harsh living conditions becoming a metaphor for the Chinese scramble for wealth every bit as significant as the experiences of others interviewed by Osnos, including media moguls like Hu Shuli and power brokers like the World Bank’s Justin Yifu Lin.

The second part of Osnos’ book, “Truth,” is unsurprisingly about freedom of the press and of expression, censorship, and dissidents. These are also the kinds of things we expect to hear about when reading about China, but again, Osnos has his own take on things. Journalists tend to be sympathetic to dissidents, partly because they are fascinated by David and Goliath narratives, but also because, as Osnos reminds us, journalists get to encounter dissidents directly: it is harder to dismiss someone when we see the effects of oppression with our own eyes.

In fact, if anyone deserves criticism in reporting on Chinese dissidents, it’s not China correspondents with firsthand knowledge of China. Instead, it’s Western media commentators who distort the nature of Chinese political dissent through third-, fourth-, and even fifth-hand accounts, much like a game of “Chinese whispers.” For instance, no journalist who got to interview dissident (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Liu Xiaobo or his wife Liu Xia came away thinking that Charter 08 would lead to the imminent collapse of the Communist Party, yet their stories were repeated again and again with subtle alterations that changed the scope and nature of the Lius’ activism to the point where many Western readers were asked to accept wishful thinking about a Chinese democratic revolution as a substitute for actual understanding.

Thankfully, Osnos does not present us with a single dissident voice, because such a thing does not exist in China. In addition to the Lius, we meet journalists like the aforementioned Hu Shuli, who “dance with shackles” while trying to report the news; Han Han, the novelist, race car driver, and social critic; Ai Weiwei, the avant-garde artist and activist; Chen Guangcheng, whose activism highlights failures in China’s rule of law rather than rejecting the Chinese government; and, most interestingly, China’s neoconservatives like Tang Jie, whose nationalist positions are often to the right of Beijing’s.

While liberal figures like Han Han, Chen Guangcheng, and Ai Weiwei are regularly featured in the Western press, China’s neoconservatives are either crudely stereotyped or not discussed at all. In part this is because patriotic thinkers have been treated, in the Leninist sense, as “useful idiots” by the Communist Party: allowed to thrive when they contribute to national unity or support the propaganda discourse against the Party’s foes, but shut down when they go off script or otherwise demonstrate their independence. Thus it becomes easy to characterize them as government-controlled rather than reflecting an actual (albeit niche) viewpoint among Chinese. (How many Straussians are there in China, exactly?) As with most of his interview subjects, Osnos treats the neoconservatives with respect, but is not above pointing out ironies:

“The mainstream of Chinese media is liberal; that is common knowledge,” Li said, and he ticked off a list of objectives he didn’t agree with: “independent legal system, market economy, small government. … These people who control the media say they are liberal, but they act like authoritarians. Alternative views are blocked.” For a second, I thought he was making a joke, but he wasn’t: the rising generation of Chinese nationalists was earnestly complaining about the lack of free expression.

When introducing us to Tang Jie and his allies, Osnos highlights the 2008 Olympic Torch protests and negative Chinese reactions to Western media coverage of Tibet as the crucible of their new nationalism. He notes the flurry of activity in April of that month, including Tang Jie’s viral Youtube video “2008 China Stand Up!” and boycotts of French products and the French supermarket chain Carrefour. (The largest of the Olympic Torch protests took place in France, and nationalists fabricated stories about French support for Tibetan independence.) Osnos places the Sichuan earthquake around roughly the same time as the nationalist protests, yet he doesn’t explicitly link the earthquake, which happened on May 12th, to the collapse of the protest movement by mid-May. At the time, however, the shock of the earthquake effectively disarmed Tang Jie and others of their biggest weapon: an audience that cared.

Of course, the Sichuan earthquake is not the only disaster which altered China’s political landscape in the last decade. Osnos revisits some of his phenomenal writing from The New Yorker on the Wenzhou high speed train crash and the subsequent trial of Liu Zhijun, China’s fantastically corrupt railroad minister. Much as disasters and famines threatened the rule of Chinese emperors, Sichuan and Wenzhou led to crises of confidence in the modern Chinese government, and also more broadly to crises of faith in society. This brings us to “Faith,” the third and final part of the book, which is also arguably the weakest section. While it’s true that parts one and two are not exclusively about economic growth and politics, those expecting “Faith” to focus at length on China’s turn to religion will be disappointed. In general, the theme of the third part is muddled—there are great stories here, but they don’t stitch together quite as well as the first two parts of the book. Osnos uses the last third of the book—plus a lengthy epilogue—to wrap up all of the stories he’s been leading us through. As I noted at the onset, the book is also loosely chronological, meaning many of the stories “finish” in part three.

Before he returns to Ai Weiwei, Chen Guangcheng, and others, Osnos briefly looks at Christianity, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Perhaps because he was based in Beijing, Islam gets no noteworthy discussion, which is unfortunate considering recent events in Xinjiang. Osnos is clearly interested in Chinese beliefs and how they address the spiritual crisis brought on by the dialectical materialism of the Communist Party and the moneyed materialism of Chinese capitalism, as reflected in consumer safety scandals, political scandals, natural disasters, and moral disasters. Osnos recounts the horrific death of little Yueyue in Guangdong, who was fatally wounded in a hit and run and left dying in the street while passersby in her neighborhood ignored her moans. He questions the comparisons between Yueyue and the famous American case of Kitty Genovese, noting that both incidents were turned into morality plays, and argues against drawing conclusions that Chinese in general have become amoral. Here Osnos quotes anthropologist Zhou Runan: “‘Young people are training to become fully rounded individuals, not selfish isolated people. That’s where the hope is: in the young.’”

While Osnos is optimistic, at the onset of the book he notes that China in the 1990s lacked the kind of social associations we would find in the West—clubs, sports teams, civic groups, and the like. The Party had just spent the better part of three decades demolishing all such organizations, of course, and viewed efforts to create independent social organizations with suspicion. According to sociologist Robert Putnam in his landmark work Bowling Alone, voluntary social organizations are key to developing social capital, and without them, societies have difficulty building trust between citizens and between citizens and government. Osnos doesn’t reference Putnam, but there are echoes of Putnam’s theories when Osnos interviews China’s most unlikely philosophical superstar, communitarian thinker and Harvard Professor Michael Sandel.

In America, Sandel first rose to prominence in the 1980s as a critic of John Rawls’ liberal Theory of Justice, which ordered society along rational lines through moral agents unencumbered by deep moral beliefs or social backgrounds. Sandel’s communitarianism in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice was a reaction to the unreality of Rawls’ moral agents. Like Putnam, communitarians believed in the necessity of fostering social capital and social trust. In China, on the other hand, Sandel’s target wasn’t Kantian liberalism but the raw utilitarian capitalism unleashed by Deng Xiaoping, which is about as far as one could get from Rawls. Still, thanks to videos of his Justice lectures and his guest lectures in China, Sandel’s message reached the hearts of many young Chinese. Osnos offers an anecdote of a woman named Shi Ye, who proclaimed during Sandel’s final lecture in Beijing, “‘Your class saved my soul.’”

If there’s an overarching theme throughout Age of Ambition, it’s that Osnos remains positive about China’s people even as he documents the country’s new inequalities and the struggles that many Chinese have with their government. With regard to that government, although there’s politics in almost every chapter of the book, Osnos walks a pragmatic line between criticizing corruption and authoritarianism on the one hand and acknowledging the Chinese government’s successes on the other. To Westerners who have come to imagine Beijing as the very picture of Hobbes’ Leviathan, this seems contradictory. Isn’t it all just the same government? Don’t the failures just add up until they become unacceptable to the people? More importantly, why don’t the Chinese people hate their government as much as I would?

Some readers may be disappointed, but Osnos isn’t offering us that kind of critique. Looking closely at his interviews with people like Michael Zhang, Hu Shuli, Han Han, Tang Jie, and even Chen Guangcheng, one can gain a sense about how Chinese people believe their society is, and how they feel it ought to be. We can’t leave out people like Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo either, since their treatment speaks to a Chinese government which has yet to mature. Osnos repeatedly compares the China of today to the Gilded Age of American history, giving us an analytical tool we can use to understand how China is developing. Implicit in that comparison is a promise that things can improve, because we, too, have been down that road. Thus, if there seems to be complacency among most Chinese about politics today, it may be because the future remains alive with possibility.

The Limits of Abolition

Let’s take Chris Hayes’ views at face value and ask the big question he fails to ask in his Nation piece calling for the abolition of the fossil fuel industry: since the whole foundation for his argument is the existential threat posed by fossil fuels, when China, its allies, and its client states say no to his scheme, are we going to go to war to enforce it? And if we’re not going to go to war, then do we double-down on our production restrictions in order to compensate for Chinese emissions?

To begin with, when Hayes draws the parallels to ending slavery he should acknowledge that one of the drivers for the political war on slavery in the Americas was the literal war on the trans-Atlantic slave trade fought by the British. If the British had not made the global commerce of slavery prohibitively expensive, then it would’ve been much more difficult to achieve the goal of abolition. What the British and the abolitionists achieved was the banishment of slavery from Western world. However, low-level forms of slavery persisted in much of Asia and Africa well into the twentieth century.

Thus, abolition wasn’t actually total; it only seemed that way. However, the use of carbon in countries not agreeing to Hayes’ scheme would be much more significant. One possible retort to this is that the oil market would price China and others out of fossil fuel dependency by raising the price of imported fuel, but that assumes that China will be subject to the same market forces as the West. Based on the current policies of the Chinese government, this rosy scenario cannot come to pass.

Hayes notes that, in the West, sovereign wealth funds may consider divesting from oil companies so as to no longer fund exploration and production. That is within their right. In China, on the other hand, it’s not private industry doing the investing, it’s government entities and state owned enterprise who are steering the captured assets of Chinese depositors–people who have no control over where their money is going. China will not rely on foreign oil companies to do at cost what CNOOC and SINOPEC can do cheaper thanks to almost unlimited money from Chinese banks.

The bottom line is that while we could lock down the carbon wealth of the Canadian tar sands and North Sea, among other places, China would happily assume the mantle of monopsony buyer of oil from Russia and the developing world. Moreover, with Russia and China already willing to make threats of war to obtain energy resources in Crimea and the South China Sea, respectively, are we to believe that they would voluntarily agree to a scheme which would deny the use of their energy resources for the foreseeable future?

The above should not be taken to mean that a do-nothing approach to renewable resources and greener vehicles makes sense. Vehicles like the Tesla Model S are too expensive at the moment, but herald the possibilities of technology. Hopefully, BYD’s new electric bus factories in the US will spur Americans to innovate and compete against Chinese industry. Moreover, a shift away from fossil fuels has obvious benefits in terms of environmental protection and national security. For instance, Western Europe’s dependence on fuels imported from Russia has given Putin a free hand in Ukraine, while the shariazation of Brunei has proceeded with little criticism from Western governments thanks to the Sultanate’s oil wealth. Oil is a shield, and behind every shield is a weapon.

But why haven’t we made more progress internationally? Hayes focuses on the domestic level, telling us a story of the capture of the Republican Party by corporate interests, of Newt Gingrich et al retreating from science towards denialism, yet that doesn’t explain why, at the global level, China, and to a lesser extent India and Brazil, have been able to successfully monkeywrench the work of European leaders and both Democratic and Republican presidents. That doesn’t explain why even Democrats refuse to vote for legislation that would hobble the American economy and give the BRICs free reign.

For their part, the BRICs have long maintained that limits on their energy consumption are unfair so long as they remain developing countries. Consider that China, despite the PPP-based hype, is approximately half the size of the US economy but already uses more energy during production because Chinese industry is more corrupt and less efficient. It’s safe to assume that China will become more energy efficient in the future, but even then, the energy demands of China’s economy will be massive. By 2030, China alone is projected to produce 15 gigatons of carbon emissions per year, which is roughly half of the safe level forecast by climate scientists. And these emissions will come despite the fact that China is the world’s largest investor in renewables. What will happen to the world’s environment by the time China is actually a developed county?

Chris Hayes’ ideas are is well-intentioned, yet ultimately dependent on liberal democratic values to promote public goods. After all, if the people of the world are going to vote to protect the planet, don’t they need to be able to vote first? Unfortunately, according to Hayes’ apocalyptic scenario, an authoritarian China dooms us all. This doesn’t mean we do nothing, just that we acknowledge that Hayes’ argument works best at the partisan level (I’m sure my Democrat-voting friends have read it approvingly) because it is free from the complications of reality. Once we talk about how Hayes’ plan would actually be implemented globally, the abolition of fossil fuels, like Piketty’s global wealth tax–that other hot progressive idea of the moment–sinks under its own utopian weight.

Understanding Chinese Revisionism in International Affairs

This recent Tweet by the always enjoyable Dr. Daniel Drezner got me to thinking: Many IR scholars and policymakers seem to misunderstand the way China accumulates and uses power in the pursuit of revisionism.

The question of whether a great power is “revisionist” hinges on its degree of satisfaction with the international system, whose rules—in the current incarnation—are largely set by your friendly neighborhood hegemon, the United States, along with its friends in Western Europe. Putin’s Russia has emerged as a revisionist force because Russian imperialism in its near abroad, not to mention its general obstructionism in international institutions, amounts to a very public rejection of the rules of the game written and enforced by the West.

Expressed geopolitically, Putinism is an unsettling echo of 19th century imperialism of the blood and soil variety, the imperialism we are most familiar with: A great power gains control of territories directly, either by placing military forces throughout the annexed territory and exerting politico-military control behind the scenes while allowing a figleaf of local governance to continue, by annexing a “slice” of territory which happens to be home to the imperialists’ ethnic group, or else by eliminating both the government and the borders of the entire annexed country, swallowing it up as a hungry amoeba swallows hapless bacteria.

Those countries we think of as imperial powers—Britain, Russia, France, Japan, Germany, Spain and (yes) the United States, among others—have all used these “19th century methods” to gain territory and carve out spheres of influence. Following World War Two and again after the Cold War, however, Western policymakers attempted to impress upon the international system the notion that imperialism, like aggressive war, is illegitimate. Neoliberal institutions at the international level—the World Bank, the IMF, and the GATT/WTO—were meant to allow for peaceful post-imperial exchange of resources, much as the European Coal and Steel Community (and later the EU itself) was meant to solve the problem of European resource warfare.

(Let us call modern imperialists “hard power revisionists,” after Dr. Joseph Nye’s oft-quoted distinctions between “hard” and “soft” power.)

One must also admit that all this focus on Western ideas and the European theater limits the explanatory power of theory. “Hard power revisionists” in Europe are easy to spot, whether they are real (Vladimir Putin) or dubious (Slobodan Milošević), but Asia presents us with a very different situation. To be sure, there are outposts of “hard power revisionism” such as North Korea, but no one thinks seriously of the Kim Dynasty’s ability to rewrite the rules of the game normatively or militarily.

And then there is China—what kind of great power is the Middle Kingdom?

China’s revisionism is clearest to Western observers in the way China prosecutes maritime claims—that is, territorial claims over the East China Sea and South China Sea. Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China has at times attempted to treat the region as a quasi-territorial sea, which would allow China to deny the right of passage, rather than an Exclusive Economic Zone, which would only allow China the exclusive right to harvest sea resources in a 200-nautical mile zone of control as outlined in the treaty.

More importantly, China has thus far rejected all methods of arbitration outlined in Part 15 of the UNCLOS treaty, which establishes four methods for handling disputes—(1) a hearing before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS); (2) a hearing before the International Court of Justice (ICJ); (3) ad hoc arbitration in accordance with UNCLOS procedures; or (4) a hearing before a special tribunal for the purposes of arbitration. China’s position is that other claimants can only negotiate with China bilaterally (as in the South China Sea disputes with ASEAN member-states) or that the other claimants have no claim (as is apparently the case in the East China Sea disputes with Japan). Most of the states involved have rejected China’s methods of handling maritime disputes, with the Philippines now bringing its claim against China in ITLOS. Not only has China actually refused to join the hearings, it has even gone so far as to accuse of the Philippines of “immorality” for turning to the UN for help.

To underscore the theme of revisionism, the Chinese attitude towards UNCLOS is perhaps best outlined by Singapore’s former leader Lee Kwan-yew:

I don’t believe the Chinese will submit their claims, which are based primarily on China’s historical presence in these waters, to be decided by rules that were defined at a time when China was weak.

Bear in mind that when Lee says “when China was weak” we’re not discussing unequal treaties of the late 19th century—China ratified UNCLOS in that distant year of 1996.

Despite the rhetorical warfare employed by China in its unrelenting pursuit of maritime claims, the country prefers clever logistics strategy to old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. In an excellent multimedia presentation on how the Philippines and China have vied for control over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, the New York Times detailed China’s “cabbage strategy”:

In June of last year, the United States helped broker an agreement for both China’s and the Philippines’s ships to leave Scarborough Shoal peacefully, but China never left. They eventually blocked access to the shoal and filled in a nest of boats around it to ward off foreign fishermen.

“Since [the standoff], we have begun to take measures to seal and control the areas around the Huangyan Island,” Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, of China’s People’s Liberation Army, said in a television interview in May, using the Chinese term for Scarborough. (That there are three different names for the same set of uninhabitable rocks tells you much of what you need to know about the region.) He described a “cabbage strategy,” which entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats — fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships — that “the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.”

The more ships China sends to the East China Sea and South China Sea, the more the country looks like a “hard power revisionist,” and the more American policymakers sound like they’re dealing with a country like Russia. But this is only one layer of China’s imperial strategy. The other involves softer power—and is much older.

About a decade ago, China made a big push to celebrate Zheng He, a Ming Dynasty admiral who led “Treasure Fleets” in seven trips around Asia in the 15th century. Sinophilic accounts note how Zheng He’s ships spread Chinese culture, linked up Ming China to the Chinese diaspora in the near abroad, and peacefully demonstrated Chinese greatness to nations as far away as the Horn of Africa. More realistic accounts hold that Zheng He was not afraid to use military force to play regional kingmaker, secure trade routes, or even to acquire wealth. Naturally, the Chinese Government has emphasized the more pacific aspects of Zheng He’s Treasure Voyages, linking Zheng He to the ongoing propaganda narrative of China’s “Peaceful Rise.”

With these accounts of Imperial China as background, a new generation of revisionist scholars have painted a sympathetic portrait of the Chinese imperial project. Martin Jacques has certainly dabbled in this line of thinking, but Pankaj Misrha is the most compelling of these historians. Mishra has argued, in an unconscious echo of Samuel Huntington’s civilizational thesis, that Asia has long been comfortable with China as a civilizational leader:

For China was not only the Greece of Asia, imparting its Confucian cultures: Its empires were also at the center of a trade and diplomatic web extending from Nepal to Java, and the Amur region to Burma. China’s economy was central to the region; overseas Chinese merchants and traders were later to become crucial in the economic development of Southeast Asia.

China’s neighbors benefited both materially and politically from acknowledging its hegemony; they didn’t seek to “balance” its power in the European way by forming alliances.

The emperors in Beijing, in turn, seemed content with recognition of their legitimacy and authority as the dominant power (no one back then bothered with the nominal “equality” of our nation-state system that gives Vanuatu as many voting rights at the United Nations as India, but allots the greatest power and influence to the U.S.). Though militarily capable of enforcing territorial claims on neighboring states, China refrained from making them.

These historical accounts—of Zheng He and the tributary system—point to the possibilities of Chinese statecraft in the future. While Mishra doesn’t come out and use the “I-word,” China’s historical mode of imperialism was built around soft power, and insomuch as China is a revisionist today, it is mostly a “soft power revisionist.” As I noted on Twitter, a key difference between Putin’s imperialism and Chinese imperialism is that Putin’s path to regional hegemony is based on threats—“join us or else”—whereas China offers rewards to those who follow Beijing’s line. For Chinese, Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “bide one’s time and hide one’s capabilities” remains operative. China’s policies are far more subtle than Russia’s, yet given China’s sheer size, even its “subtle changes” to geopolitics can be earthshaking.

Russia talks louder in part because it is a smaller country (in terms of population and GDP) with perceived security threats directly at its very long borders. Despite the security alliances between the United States and other countries in Asia, China faces no threat comparable to the NATO alliance. US engagement with, say, Vietnam is not as dangerous to China as expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep is to Russia. But Russia is also louder because Eastern Christendom has deep-seated suspicions of Western powers going back to the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

If Russians seem to inhabit a Hobbesian moral universe, it might be because the West has proven itself an unreliable ally at best—and an outright enemy at worst. Although China also has a history of negative interactions with the West, and the Communist Party propagandizes it in every museum and textbook, that history is conspicuously short compared to the thousands of years China spent all-but-isolated from the West. Rather than fume about the West for hundreds of years like the Russians have, China spent most of its history just like Don Draper, not thinking of us at all.

At this point we must ask what the actual effects of Chinese revisionism would be. As we’ve already mentioned, China’s maritime claims would alter Asia’s status quo by giving China the right to control passage by sea and air. At present, the right of passage in the South China Sea is guaranteed by Western-influenced international law—and American firepower. China’s rise seems sure to change the balance of power in East Asia, whether or not the United States can shift resources to the region. In addition, China has flexed its diplomatic and economic muscles with ASEAN, ending nearly fifty years of ASEAN consensus at the hands of China’s client state, Cambodia. China added insult to injury by offering an inadequate response to the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, leading some to believe that China was punishing the Philippines for defying China on its South China Sea claims. In these cases and others, Chinese revisionism is being felt at the regional level before it reaches a global scale.

Let’s talk about China’s influence on human rights and development for a moment. This is an area where China is already shaping the global discourse. Henry Kissinger has always been fond of China for a reason: In contrast to the missionary socialism of the Soviet Union or the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy, China prefers realpolitik, in which no regime is too authoritarian (or too democratic!) to do business with.

Of course, American policymakers are already used to great and minor powers deviating from the liberal internationalist agenda for reasons of realpolitik. In the 1990s, the Clinton State Department was often vexed by countries citing self-interest while undermining peace, security, and human rights efforts in Africa. There’s a case to be made, for instance, that France inadvertently prolonged the Rwandan conflict and genocide by siding with the Hutu government. China is cut from the same cloth, but is potentially immensely more powerful than France. China’s recent history in Africa is illustrative. For instance, even after South Africa turned its back on Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, China has remained a stalwart friend of the regime. Under Hu Jintao, China characterized Western calls for African aid to be tied to reforms “bullying” and offered money without strings attached.

Of course, there are always strings.

During the history of the Chinese tribute system, one of the most important things for the Empire was that the tribute riches continued to flow. It didn’t matter if a country offered tribute to China and a regional rival, as the Ryukyu Kingdom did to both China and Japan. But if regime change in one of the tributaries threatened the status quo, China might intervene, as it did in the 15th century Ming-Ho war with Vietnam, which was fought to restore the pro-Chinese Tran Dynasty and ended in the outright annexation of Vietnam. Today, business deals and international trade have replaced past forms of tribute, but China is still mainly preoccupied with keeping the status quo in its relations with other countries.

When Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata campaigned against violence and labor rights violations in Chinese mining operations, China threatened to pull out investment in advance of the 2006 Zambian elections, a move which may have helped the incumbent government win reelection. China was then rewarded with a special economic zone in Zambia in 2008, which further inflamed anti-Chinese sentiment, despite promises of nearly $1 billion in Chinese investment. When Sata finally came to power in 2011 following violence at a Chinese-associated mine in 2010, Chinese policymakers scrambled to justify themselves to the new government. To Sata’s credit, his administration has kept up the pressure on China, though he hasn’t exactly kicked China out.

Elsewhere, as the Arab Spring kicked off in North Africa and the Ukrainian crisis unfolded, China’s primary concerns have been protecting Chinese nationals and economic interests. China was uncomfortable doing business with Egypt’s then-President Morsi when he came to Beijing in August 2012, but Morsi still managed to gain pledges of cooperation and promises of investment. In Ukraine, China has had to balance its traditional alliance with Russia with its desire to stay on friendly relations with the new government and get back some part of the $3 billion China loaned to Ukraine for agricultural development. Thus, for reasons of realpolitik, China has appeared to be on both sides of Putin’s great Ukrainian adventure.

On the face of it, China’s development aid strategy is an improvement upon Western demands which have often saddled African countries with shaky neoliberal foundations and/or done little to improve African infrastructure. Furthermore, although it is fashionable to accuse China of “imperialism” in Africa, China is not guilty of anything resembling Europe’s horrific legacy of imperial brutality on the continent. Compared to the history of Belgium in Africa, for instance, Beijing looks like a moral giant. That said, by focusing mainly on economics we are missing half of the picture. In terms of human rights in Africa and elsewhere, China has begun to shift away from its Opening Up Period policy of neutrality towards active opposition to Western attempts to enforce human rights norms.

Throughout 2012, China joined Russia to veto several UN Security Council resolutions calling for an end to human rights abuses in Syria. This year, China has come out strongly in defense of its client state North Korea and has, unsurprisingly, condemned UN discussion of human rights in China. Although China wielded its UN veto to protect client states in the past (one thinks of China protecting Mugabe the junta in Burma), there’s a new assertiveness in China’s use of the veto. Of China’s seven UN Security Council vetoes since gaining its seat in 1971, five have been used in the past seven years.

Finally, we must not forget that all of this is happening against the impressive backdrop of China’s emergence as the largest economy in the world, which begs the question of who will be able to rein in pariah states when the Chinese market alone is big enough sustain them, much as Russia today sustains Belarus and China sustains North Korea. In 1996, the popular Chinese nationalist book China Can Say No advanced the concept that China should no longer follow America’s lead in world affairs. Roughly twenty years later, we may be reaching a point where, thanks to Chinese power, authoritarian regimes of the Global South can also “say no” to the West and pay no penalties for it.

That is a kind of revisionism that Vladimir Putin might dream of, but would never be capable of bringing about.

The Meaning of One Child Policy Reform

With news outlets rushing to describe how the One Child Policy will be reformed to allow anywhere from ten to twenty million Chinese families to have an additional child, it seems useful to look at the economic and social implications of the changes. As many have noted, any reform of the One Child Policy carries with it great symbolic weight, even though the One Child Policy is basically moot for many Chinese.

Why moot? Although often presented to Western audiences as an iron fisted law – and it is indeed sometimes enforced in a draconian manner by local authorities – the One Child Policy nonetheless features a number of exceptions. For instance, rural residents whose first child is female, all Chinese minorities, and couples who were both born in single-child households are all eligible to have two children. Even in cases where having a second child is illegal, the enforcement of the law is influenced by China’s crypto-federalist structure, with punishment ranging from minor fines, to the loss of one’s job, to forced abortion and sterilization. Generally speaking, the better-governed a Chinese city, the more lenient authorities are in enforcing the One Child Policy.

While Chinese in the countryside often have more than one child, urban Chinese entitled to having two children rarely exercise that right. There are a number of reasons for this. For starters, while having two children might be legal for a couple, there remains a strong social taboo against having additional children. More often, children represent an undue financial burden for Chinese faced with First World childcare expenses on an emerging economy budget. Along these lines, the tax contributions of Chinese citizens are largely based on VAT and payroll taxes, and the tax system provides little in the way of incentives for couples to have children. Still other couples see a second child – or any children – as an obstacle to career development and even leisure time, which reflects attitudes throughout much of urban Asia. For instance, in Taiwan, which is not controlled by the government in Beijing and thus has no One Child Policy, the birthrate was just 1.265 in 2012.

China’s megacities – Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou – would nonetheless like couples to have more children to grow their tax base and help pay for the costs of a graying population. Over the next generation, the average age of Chinese will grow considerably, and large cities – where life expectancy is the longest – will be even older than the national average. In 2009, Shanghai began a campaign to get eligible couples to have two children, but the public reaction was mixed. While in other countries a similar population deficit in large cities would be corrected through internal migration, China’s household registration system, the hukou, limits the ability of countryside people to become residents of megacities.

Arguably, One Child Policy reform and hukou reform are interlinked. Megacities and first- and second-tier cities have resisted hukou reform because of a longstanding fear of the creation of slums and possible threats to social order. Moreover, internal remittances from the China’s East Coast to the countryside have played an important role in rural development, increasing nonfarm income and allowing for increased economic specialization. Nonetheless, many rural Chinese would like to become residents of larger cities, citing improved access to education and social insurance as the main incentives for changing residency.

In recent years, the government’s response to the demand for urban hukou (urban residency) has been to urbanize the countryside. Shenzhen, a city literally built from the ground up in the last thirty years, is the best-known example, but China abounds with new edge cities and townships which have appeared almost overnight. The government’s recently announced plans for hukou reform are also focused on these current and future lower-tier cities, with the promise of turning rural Chinese into city-dwellers – though not into residents of Shanghai and Beijing. These fast-growing cities will be subject to the same tax pressures as their larger brethren, however, which leads to the question of how they can grow and maintain a local tax base if new residents are limited to only one child. Moreover, without better schools and social insurance in their own cities, newly-urban Chinese will still find migration to megacities attractive, which is a lose-lose scenario from the point of view of Chinese urban planners.

Enter the new One Child Policy reforms. Megacities will benefit from a population bump as the taboos against having two children are diminished. Smaller cities and cities planned for the future will benefit as populations grow and their tax base expands. China on the whole will benefit from the perception that the country is serious about changing one of its most controversial policies. What remains to be seen is how thorough the implementation of the reform will be at the local level. There are many vested interests that have turned the One Child Policy into a moneymaking tool and have used the policy in oppressive ways that Beijing itself has declared illegal. In these dark corners, like human rights activist Chen Guangcheng’s hometown of Linyi, the old, bad One Child Policy is unlikely to go quietly.

A Case of Soft Power Failure

As any political science major could tell you, in the traditional IR discourse, “power” is defined as the ability of a given state to make other states do what they want. Power is typically measured as a combination of military and economic power, and economic power is considered to be fungible — that is, it can become military power.

In Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye’s reformulation, “soft power” is defined as the ability of a state to make other states do what they want absent economic and military pressure. Soft power is the attractiveness of a country and its government; it makes states liked and makes other states pay attention to their ideas. There are various measures of soft power, but generally it’s described as the cultural, moral, legal, and ideological clout of a given state. Traditional concepts of power are defined as “hard power.”

Although China has focused on soft power development in its relationship with most of the Global South, in China’s near-abroad, the relationship is defined by hard power. In the case of Japan (the Senkakus), the Philippines (the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys), Vietnam (the Spratlys and Mekong River watershed), India (Arunachal Pradesh), and elsewhere, China has used aggressive displays of military force, economic sanctions, and “forward” development such as building highways into disputed territories or establishing outposts at sea. Within ASEAN itself, China has utilized economic power to cultivate patron-client relations with Cambodia and (increasingly) Thailand, which has left ASEAN unable to reach a consensus on the best way to deal with the South China Sea disputes.

For the rest we will focus exclusively on the South China Sea claimants. There’s no disputing that China has gone from friendly to deeply negative relations with most of the countries involved. Some of them, like Brunei, hold their nose and remain officially neutral. They value China as a market for the oil they already have rather than they oil and gas they might discover in the Spratlys. (It helps China that Brunei and Malaysia are busy with their own overlapping claims.) Vietnam, of course, is a rival of China, but the Philippines had been extremely friendly to China during the Jiang era and the start of the Hu Jintao years, only to see the relationship sour over maritime claims.

The result of China’s approach in the South China Sea is a soft power deficit in the region. Even countries which are friendly to China, such as Singapore, have grown wary of Chinese military claims. Singapore values free navigation on the seas, and China’s claims treat the South China Sea not merely as an EEZ but also a territorial sea, which runs counter to Singapore’s interests. Singapore, like the Philippines, had previously been extremely friendly to China, with Lee Kwan Yew a respected figure among Chinese politicians and businessmen. Chinese media were quick to quote Lee when he praised Chinese policies and the industriousness of the Chinese people, but they’ve been noticeably silent when he warns against excess Chinese politico-military pressure in the South China Sea or calls on China to settle disputes according to UNCLOS.

The key issue for China is that while she demonstrates an economic and military willingness to dominate the South China Sea, she has yet to prove herself a benevolent actor. The money is certainly there. China has bought Cambodia’s allegiance to the tune of $9 billion. What’s more, the military resources are there. China almost immediately responded to the last major typhoon to hit the Philippines by sending the PLAN to occupy rocks and reefs in the Scarborough Shoal that the Philippines had to abandon because of the storm. But China has consistently failed to act in a way that increases the PRC’s soft power in its near-abroad, even as military and economic moves cast it in an ever-hegemonic light.

This all feeds into media narratives about China. Some of them are very unfair, but the South China Sea has given the media an almost perfect David-and-Goliath tale, which is the favorite narrative framework for Western reporters. The Philippines is the biggest underdog in all of Southeast Asia, and many reporters who once rooted for American troops to leave the Philippines (we were Goliath then) now, in light of Chinese advances along the Nine Dash Line, root for Americans to return. When it appeared China was unwilling to donate more than $100,000 plus matching funds from the Chinese Red Cross to the Philippines, and moreover, when China failed to respond diplomatically to the crisis, the media went after them with a vengeance.

Before China released the latest round of aid, the media’s storyline of China “punishing the Philippines” was easy to accept. I accepted it, I think most of us did. By pledging more funds, China proved us wrong. (Ironically, some 84% of Chinese netizens would’ve proven us right.) Yet China unquestionably wasted an opportunity to take the lead in helping the Philippines. The money being sent will help save lives and restore order. But China isn’t dispatching aid as a regional or world leader, it’s doing what’s expected of it as a member of the international community. The Chinese contribution is unremarkable, and Chinese condolences came late.

The missed opportunity — the soft power failure — in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan was that China did not even attempt to behave as America, Britain, France, or even Russia might’ve behaved if such a disaster happened in their backyard. Part of that is institutional; I agree with those who say that China lacks sufficient organizations to distribute international aid, but shouldn’t we also ask why China lags in humanitarian aid capability even as we are constantly reminded of the “Beijing consensus” and how Chinese aid has been transformative in Africa?

This isn’t a new story, actually. After the Indonesian Tsunami, China insisted on helping with construction efforts but not resettling refugees, citing — in a very off-putting way — the Chinese policy of “non-interference in domestic affairs.” Then, as now, people lamented China’s narrow “hard power” concept of disaster assistance. History repeats. Beijing might simply be tone deaf to “soft power” and unable to see how its actions play into the perception that China is big enough to take away from the Philippines, but not big enough to give when it counts. Fair or unfair, right or wrong, the Philippines and the rest of ASEAN will remember how China responded to Typhoon Haiyan, and they will act accordingly.

Are Chinese Tech Companies a Victim of Washington or of Beijing?

Bipartisanship in Washington is such a rare bird that when it takes flight, one begins to suspect that something is terribly amiss. Not surprisingly, when Congressmen join hands across the aisle and call for the US to get “tough on China,” skepticism is warranted.

Over the last decade, American politicians have raked Cisco over the coals for helping to build the “Great Firewall,” accused Beijing of currency manipulation, and even attacked China for “counterfeit” Apple stores. But no issue seems to animate as much hysteria in US politics as claims that Chinese electronics have “built-in back doors” that could be exploited by Beijing for purposes of espionage or warfare.

Lenovo, which is now the number one PC maker in the world, was one of the first Chinese companies to get hit with back door allegations, with Congress citing potential back doors as a reason to block the State Department’s acquisition of 16,000 Lenovo computers in 2006. The sale went through, though the State Department only used the computers for non-sensitive tasks.

More recently, in May of this year, computer chips manufactured by the Chinese firm Microsemi were discovered by researchers at Cambridge to have an unexplained hardware back door, which, depending on who one speaks to, is either a completely routine diagnostic measure or a malicious platform for cyberwarfare.

It is into this hostile milieu – intensified by the theatrics of an American general election year – that Huawei and ZTE made their doomed bid to help build the next generation of U.S. communication networks. Back doors were once again a major issue.

Before we continue, one must concede that back doors very well could exist in Chinese-built hardware. In our iPhones, for example, or in our new Dell netbooks. “But those aren’t Chinese companies!” one might protest. True, but China’s key position in the global supply chain means that any hardware vendors doing business in China could potentially be infiltrated. If the threat exists, it’s likely already on our desks or in our pockets.

For its part, the Obama administration reportedly downplayed the threat of espionage, telling Congress that there is no evidence of Huawei or ZTE spying on America. Since the White House can call upon more resources than Congress to verify the possibility of espionage, many observers will see the House Select Committee on Intelligence’s findings – as well as Chairman Rogers’ subsequent calls to blacklist Huawei and ZTE – as blatant protectionism. That said, if the allegations of spying against Huawei and ZTE are protectionism disguised as paranoia, does that make them innocent victims?

Victims, yes. Innocent, not so much.

Stan Abrams has detailed on his blog, China Hearsay, the Chinese firms were unable to reach the standard of transparency demanded by the US Congress, and gave evasive answers when pressed by investigators. Huawei refused to answer questions about the possibility of Chinese government ownership through Huawei stock and the nature of its interactions with Chinese regulators. Given their stonewalling tactics, Abrams rightly wondered whether Huawei and ZTE had actually followed the advice of their American lawyers.

Another point to consider is that a national communications network is a sensitive piece of infrastructure, and it’s neither nationalist nor protectionist to ask foreign vendors to be completely aboveboard about their business practices and ownership structure. Therein lies the rub, however, since even if Huawei and ZTE had wanted to be forthcoming, the Chinese government may not have allowed it.

Make no mistake, Huawei and ZTE are great companies fielding excellent products. As the biggest communications company in the world, Huawei has earned praise from Western media for its mobiles and 3G modems, while its market follower ZTE remains less flashy and consumer-oriented at the high end, yet omnipresent in Chinese homes and workplaces. Thanks to a combination of joint ventures with Western companies like 3com, a generous industrial policy from Beijing, and a fair degree of market savvy, both firms have developed into world-class telecommunications companies in a remarkably short time.

Getting to the top has required Huawei and ZTE to play by Beijing’s rules, which have sometimes included disincentives towards transparency, malleable contracts, and creative notions of IP protection. (In fairness, these rules are changing, but Huawei and ZTE, like Youku and Baidu, are still judged by the rules they followed while “growing up.”)  Although Beijing’s rules have enabled Huawei and ZTE to emerge as powerful brands within China, it has also slowed their expansion into Western markets, where the rules of the game are fundamentally different. Furthermore, given the Chinese government’s penchant for labeling information “state secrets,” chances are that neither Huawei nor ZTE will be able to fully comply with foreign regulators, especially those as tough-minded as Congressman Rogers.

Although Huawei and ZTE have stalled out in their bid to enter the American market in a big way, they previously made inroads into Canada, the UK, and other Western countries. Things changed this year. Australia took steps to effectively blacklist Huawei in spring, Canada suggested it might block Huawei from contributing to its National Broadband Network in October, and there’s a real danger that other Western countries may follow suit. If a “global blacklist” leaves Huawei and ZTE as vendors for developing countries only, China’s dream of becoming a high-tech exporter is in peril.

One thing is certain: Beijing will follow up on Washington’s moves against Huawei and ZTE with punitive measures against American businesses. Rather than conclude the first summit between China’s new President Xi Jinping and President Obama (or Romney) with the announcement of “diplomatic hongbao” in the form of big ticket contracts for American companies, Xi’s American counterpart is likely to return home empty-handed. Ironically, this stands to hurt many of the American firms who support the crackdown on Huawei and ZTE in the US.

Karma, as you know, has its own back doors.

The Secret Orientalism of Martin Jacques

Writing for the BBC, Marxist journalist Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, joins the most important discussion foreign policy elites will have in the next ten years — how will China behave as a superpower?  Sadly, Jacques begins well, talking about the weight of China’s population upon the country’s massive economy, but then immediately falls into the same trap as Pankaj Mishra, namely, recycling the Chinese government’s own narratives about Chinese history rather than doing critical research.

The milk of Jacques’ argument begins to turn sour around this point in the article:

In fact we should not expect China to behave in the manner of the US. It will be very different. And nor should we assume that it will necessarily be worse.

Why will it be different? Because its history is so different. Articles about China’s growing involvement with Africa – in terms of trade and investment – often talk of the “new colonialism”.

If we hold China to the same standards that America and Britain have been held to by the left, then its cultivation of client states in Africa and Southeast Asia is precisely that —  a neo-colonial power.  If, on the other hand, we discard dependency theory as warmed-over Marxism and look at China through a traditional realist lens, Chinese behavior in Africa is balancing behavior, not neo-colonialism.

And while I’m sympathetic to this argument, I can’t imagine that Jacques or other admirers of China in the new left would excuse Western behavior the same way Jacques is prepared to make excuses for China.  This is, as we shall see, the key flaw in Jacques’ argument.

We continue:

Beware historical ignorance. China has never colonised any overseas territories. Overseas empires were a European speciality, with Japan getting in on the act for a short while too.

China could have colonised South East Asia, for example, in the early 15th century. It had the resources, it had enormous ships, many times bigger than anything Europe possessed at the time. But it didn’t.

These passages are bizarrely, totally, wrong.

For starters, China, like Russia, India, and the United States, is a continental empire-state.  All of these countries grew out of a strong core nation that, after acquiring sufficient resources, proceeded to conquer and subjugate surrounding nations until obtaining a large contiguous landmass with fairly stable natural borders (e.g. mountains, rivers, seas).  Colonialism doesn’t enter into the picture like it did for, say, Belgium, because an empire-state has enough resources within its own borders that it doesn’t necessarily need colonies.

Understand that colonies qua colonialism are largely a function of distance.  If a country can control the territory of its neighbors first with puppet governments and increasing military presence, outright incorporation usually follows.  How, for instance, is China’s final incorporation of Tibet — which was an independent country for most of its history — different than what Japan attempted to do in China proper?  In fairness, Jacques goes on to acknowledge the massive growth of Chinese empire during the Qing Dynasty, yet this doesn’t trouble him because China didn’t have any colonies.  Except it did.

Let’s look at just one example.  As any good historian of Vietnam will tell you, the Ming Dynasty spent the early 15th century subjugating Vietnam, which led to a guerrilla war against Chinese occupation — a Vietnamese specialty — and the withdrawal of Chinese forces after their defeat by Vietnamese hero Le Loi.  In summary, the Chinese invaded Vietnam in 1406 and administered the country as a colony for two decades.  Perhaps this doesn’t count to Jacques because the Chinese didn’t move to crush Le’s forces with the totality of their might, but the British don’t get any credit for letting India slip away, so why should China?

Jacques gives himself a little leeway to address the Vietnam case, but never does so directly.  He continues:

That is not to say China ignored its neighbours. On the contrary. For many, many centuries it dominated them – as a result of its sheer size and far more advanced level of development. China’s relationship with them was based not on colonialism but what we now know as the tributary system. It neither ruled them nor occupied them. Rather, in return for access to the Chinese market and various forms of protection, the rulers of tribute states were required to give gifts – literally tribute – to the Emperor as a symbolic acknowledgement of China’s superiority.

The tributary system comprised what we know today as East Asia, home to one-third of the world’s population. It stretched from Japan and Korea to the Malay Peninsula and parts of Indonesia.

It proved remarkably stable, lasting for at least 2,000 years and only coming to an end around 1900.

What we see here is that Jacques, the Marxist, begins to paper over classical power relations where China is concerned, and Jacques, the Orientalist, begins to raise his ugly head.  Focus on the Chinese tributary system as a kind of benign empire that doesn’t carry the taint of colonialism was also a thrust of Mishra’s piece, so allow me to quote Dan Trombly’s excellent response to Mishra:

[C]onsidering that during the Qing period the British would pay tribute to China after its subjugation of Burma, at a period when the British had already begun their humiliation of China, treating the tribute system as a supplication to a frequently tenuous and weak Chinese hegemonic capacity is incredibly dubious. Indeed, the increasing direction in studies of Chinese international relations is to challenge the idea of the tribute system as a dominant analytic model explaining vast periods of Chinese history, rather than a relationship with incredible amounts of variance in both outcome and motives for participation. Since the term ‘tribute system’ is a western invention devised no later than the nineteenth century,” it makes more sense to “talk about tributary relations without feeling simultaneously obliged to stick to the tribute system.”

We should also remember that many of modern China’s territorial claims, including settled questions like Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as Chinese nationalist fantasies of seizing the Korean peninsula and Okinawa, are based on these lands once participating in the tributary system under their former feudal rulers.  A troubling paradigm within official Chinese scholarship treats Chinese vassal states as the equivalent of Chinese territory, and China’s neighbors understand that when China engages in political archaeology such as the Northeast History Project, the goal is the Sinification of the past to achieve the Sinification of the future.

Returning to the article, Jacques outlines the staggering reach of 19th and 20th century Western colonialism and contrasts it to humble Ming Dynasty China, which, as we have already seen, was not as benevolent as Jacques would have his readers believe.  (An aside here for my materialist friends:  how much of the power wielded by Western imperialists, compared to the Chinese 300 years earlier, was actually a function of technology rather than ideology?)  Consciously or not, Jacques reiterates Chinese national propaganda about Zheng He, the “can-do eunuch”:

The seven great voyages of Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 around the East and South China Seas and across the Indian Ocean as far as East Africa left no permanent mark – they were about demonstrating the glory of the Middle Kingdom rather than a desire to conquer. Those who left China to settle in South East Asia were seen as leaving civilisation and deserving of no support or protection by the Emperor.

This account of Zheng He, which closely follows the official Chinese history, would have us believe two things:  that Zheng He’s expeditions didn’t have a military function, and that the Ming saw the Chinese diaspora as pariahs.  As for the first point, history records that Zheng He was as much an enforcer of Chinese hegemony — a MacArthur figure, if you will — as he was an explorer.   His fleets pursued pirates throughout Asia, and in Sri Lanka he led the Ming forces in a two-year war against the kingdom of Kotte, installing a puppet ruler who was deposed by the Sri Lankans in 1414.  Rather than piracy, it seems the Chinese fixation on Kotte — they had invaded under the Yuan Dynasty as well — had to do with acquiring the Tooth of Buddha and taking it to China.  (Attempting to steal another country’s artifacts is downright … European.)

As for the second point, Zheng He interacted freely with the Chinese diaspora and they were vital parts of the Ming’s trading network.  If there was any schism between the diaspora and the emperor, it may have been because many of them moved abroad during earlier dynasties.  Zheng He himself referred to these overseas Chinese as “Tang Dynasty men.”  Yet they, along with local peoples in Southeast Asia, venerated Zheng He, which undermines Jacques’ characterization of overseas Chinese, and also calls into question the next passage:

Compare that with the way in which Britain and France celebrated the heroes of their colonial expansion. Our cities are littered with statues and street names in their memory.

Zheng He, while not being a hero of colonial expansion per se, is certainly a hero of hegemonic power.  His are not the only statues of a maritime hero one finds in China, however.  Monuments to Zheng Chenggong, better known as Koxinga, have been erected throughout coastal China as well as in Taiwan.  A Ming loyalist and pirate, Koxinga operated from southern China during the early Qing Dynasty before invading Taiwan in 1661 and overthrowing its Dutch rulers.  With the Europeans out of the picture, Koxinga was left with the task of brutally subjugating the aboriginal Taiwanese — a fact deemed so inconvenient to the official Chinese narrative that the Koxinga scholar Tonio Andrade was told to censor his recent book on the subject or risk being unable to publish a translation in China.

At this point in the article, Jacques makes the correct argument that Chinese rulers remain more internally focused than Western leaders; that, when Xi Jinping becomes president, his agenda “will be overwhelmingly filled with domestic rather than foreign issues.” Jacques also argues, correctly, that Westerners are fixated on exporting their values to the rest of the world.  But he falters when he suggests China is uninterested in spreading its values.  The doctrine of “non-interference,” which Beijing regularly upholds with its UN Security Council veto, is itself a universal value.  The friends Beijing makes through the non-inteference doctrine leads to the contradiction of Chinese becoming more cosmopolitan as the country becomes richer, then looking at their country’s list of allies with shame. And when one of those allies abruptly changes course and becomes freer than China, the envy can be palpable.

Next, Jacques reduces Western influence over the world to a byproduct of Western (read: American) military power and argues,

That kind of overweening military power has never really been a Chinese characteristic.

Instead the quintessential forms of Chinese power will be economic and cultural. Over time, China’s economic strength – given the size of its population – will be gigantic, far greater than that of the US at its zenith. Already, even at its present low level of development, China is the main trading partner of a multitude of countries around the world. And with economic power will come commensurate political power and influence. China will, if it wishes, be able to bend many other countries to its will.

Cultural power will also be important to the Chinese. Theirs is a remarkable civilisation – having enjoyed a place in the sun not once but several times. During the Tang dynasty, for instance, from the 7th to the 10th Century, and most remarkably during the Song dynasty from the 10th to the 13th Century, with major advances in a host of fields from biology and hydraulic engineering to architecture, medicine, mathematics and cartography.

The economic power of the ascendant China will unquestionably great, and as Beijing’s shameless monkeywrenching of ASEAN shows, China has already begun to “bend … countries to its will,” but cultural power remains a giant question mark.  Chinese cultural malaise has paradoxically increased even as China grows economically stronger, which suggests that either the patterns of cultural development have changed considerably and thus economy and culture are no longer fungible, or else the current Chinese government, despite its merits, lacks the openness and vision of the Tang and Song Dynasties.  The Chinese critique, from the Heshang documentary series in 1988, to Wolf Totem twenty years later, to Han Han’s writing today, is that, for various reasons, Chinese culture is backwards and lacks vitality.  Perhaps this self-doubt will change “when China rules the world.” Perhaps not.

Martin Jacques has no room for Han Han and the fierce urgency of now, though.  By the end of the piece, Jacques the Orientalist is fully in charge, telling us that Chinese have a different way of looking at history:

The Chinese have a completely different conception of time to Westerners. Whereas Americans think very short, the Chinese think very long.

For them a century is nothing.

For Chinese peasants and their feudal lords, a century was nothing.  But can we say the same for Han Han’s generation?

Romney Beats Romney, Obama Wins

I tuned into the debate at the halfway mark, just as Romney was giving an effective, soft-spoken critique of Obama’s broken promises. It was the only hit Romney would score on Obama for the next 45 minutes. By the time my C-Span stream cut out during Obama’s closing remarks, it was clear the president emerged the victor in the second presidential debate of 2012.

Obama wasn’t an excellent debater, but he was good. He was engaged, energized, and aggressive — the total opposite of the Obama of the first debate. He was helped by having a center-left New York audience, and also by Biden’s performance in the vice presidential debate. He managed a couple of good quips at Romney’s expense, especially when Romney whined about the investments in the president’s pension. And this time, he was aware that he would be seen on the split-screen (and by the audience), so he adjusted his body language accordingly. There was no looking down.

But Obama wasn’t beyond mistakes or stupid arguments, such as saying automatic (not semi-automatic) weapons need to be taken out of the hands of criminals (for those unaware of American law, this is not an actual problem), calling manufacturing jobs high-skilled jobs (they aren’t or else they couldn’t be outsourced to China) or bragging about the growth in American exports (which is more attributable to the historically weak USD than anything else). And on the economy, which will be the most important issue in most voters’ minds, Obama failed to convince people he would be better than Romney — which is pretty remarkable.

Romney’s defeat was not as devastating as Obama’s was in the first debate, but at a time when both campaigns are focusing on the margins, Romney lost valuable ground. I missed both “binders full of women” — the most quotable Romney line/gaffe of the evening — as well as Romney criticizing the Bush administration, which, if Twitter commentary was any indication, was borderline bitter. What I was there for, however, was Romney’s weird stream-of-consciousness answers once Obama knocked him off script.

What will frustrate Republicans the most is how many missed opportunities Romney had. Every time he had a good question or opening, he would mangle his lines or go off on rambling tangents. He was given a chance to criticize the president on Libya, and responded in such a hamfisted way that I can’t imagine him being able to bring it up effectively in the final foreign policy debate next week. He was given a question on immigration that Republicans need to answer, but he focused largely on illegal immigration instead of a comprehensive policy that would talk about enforcement on the one hand and more paths to citizenship on the other. Gun control led to an sloppy invocation of the Fast and the Furious scandal, then a discussion of two-parent families, and Romney’s basic correctness was overshadowed by the awkwardness of the transition.

Finally, Romney’s Lou Dobbs-esque pledge to start a trade war with China was his most annoying position. I can’t believe Romney even believes it, since he defended his personal investments in Chinese companies. Governor Romney would’ve had the sense to call for a balanced relationship with China, as would have businessman Romney, but candidate Romney’s China policy exists in Schumer-Dobbsian anti-China talking point netherworld where constantly repeating “I will label China a currency manipulator on day one!” is a demonstration of strength. Xinhua will not be amused.

On China’s Cultural Malaise

A few months ago I talked with my students about the culture vs. practicality difference between foreign language students in American who study Japanese and those who study Chinese. For better or worse, Japanese classes are filled with otaku and similar cultural aficionados of Japan, while Chinese classes are dominated by business Chinese students and others who want to learn Mandarin as a marketable skill yet care less about Chinese culture.

Students find this trend extremely upsetting whenever I point it out, and even before the whole Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands mess you could get a hate-Japan session going by suggesting that Japanese culture is more popular than Chinese culture abroad. It is, and the Confucius Institutes aren’t going to change that anytime soon. If you think about it, most Chinese language students in the US are actually being pretty “Chinese” about their studies — cutting out the artsy “fat” and focusing on those “meaty” parts of the language needed in their careers. For example, when I taught Chinese English majors I was depressed by how many cared little about English poetry and literature outside of general knowledges needed to graduate from college.

Getting back to my recent students, I made them even more angry by asking which version of the Monkey King is most famous with Westerners. “Stephen Chow’s?” they asked. “Nope, Dragonball Z.” Some gritted their teeth. I pointed out that Japanese culture is a “child culture” which works within a synthesis between China as a “parent culture” and the West as a “neighbor culture.” There’s a similar theory among Chinese Japanophiles that Japanese culture has flourished because it “borrowed” Tang Dynasty culture, and thus the Japanese have actually preserved former Chinese greatness in their own culture.

The Marxist position taken by one of my students in response was that it’s a matter of development, that Chinese culture will grow popular once China is as developed as Japan. But this theory ignores the fact that Japan’s cultural heavy hitters first started appearing in the postwar period, when Japan was far less developed than China today. By now, China ought to have its own Osamu Tezuka, its own Kurosawa. It doesn’t. And, as the New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos notes, it doesn’t even have its own PSY.  For some Chinese, that’s cause for shame.

In 2010, the Chinese writer Han Han, reflecting on Chinese soft power or the the lack thereof, argued that if all of your cultural products are based on things written down 2,000 years ago, then your culture is basically dead. It’s true that a lot of Chinese cultural malaise and the constant focus on ancient culture is the result of political self-censorship and direct censorship in mainland Chinese media, which Osnos explores at length with nice anecdotes from Chinese director Lu Chuan, but that can’t explain everything, because Hong Kong and Taiwan — which are as developed as Japan — also lack significant cultural soft power around the world, although they have vast reserves of it to spend in the mainland itself.

The bigger problem is that Chinese culture remains both insular — with taboos about mocking cultural images — and, more damningly, lazy. Hong Kong and Taiwan media magnates rely on “templates” for managing stars’ careers and plotting movies. For instance, a model will appear on TV, release a CD, and then start acting in movies, regardless of her actual talents in these fields. This happens so often that stars have become interchangeable, predictable, and boring. Movies are much the same, especially now that Chinese directors have adorned their films with CGI the way a “new rich” Chinese covers himself in golden baubles.

As for Osnos’ piece, PSY is not a highly representative cultural product of South Korea, so the Chinese Osnos says are soul-searching are doing so based on a false premise. South Korea has, by and large, followed the exact same pattern of “manufacturing” entertainers as China, and Korean films and dramas are filled with an army of cookiecutter stars with lookalike plastic surgery-enhanced faces.  PSY, on the other hand, is sui generis in Korea — polished in a way that looks unpolished, amusingly critical of Korean society, and with a face that sets no Japanese housewives’ hearts-a-flutter. He is, emphatically, not the typical K-Pop artist. And based on news coverage, Koreans themselves are at a loss to explain why PSY has conquered the globe when the Wonder Girls, Jun Ji-hyun, Super Junior, and Rain could not.

Alas, there is no parsimonious explanation of why China has no “Gangnam Style” or why no Chinese director could make Kung-Fu Panda. I admit that economics and “face” is part of it. Once Americans start thinking of China as a rich country they’ll respect China more and come to appreciate Chinese culture. Politics is part of it, too. As I quipped during the anti-Japan riots, protestors calling for a boycott of Japanese cultural products should be protesting SARFT for not allowing Chinese artists to be as experimental as their Japanese (or Korean or American) counterparts.

Ultimately, though, Chinese artists have also succumbed to the laziness that follows economic success. Hong Kong and Taiwanese directors and producers were at their most innovative in the 1970s and 1980s when budgets were tight. Once money flowed freely, they lost the incentive to be creative. Instead, they flooded the market with forgettable, mass-produced, lower quality cultural products.  Why would the mainland be any different from the rest of China?

Greening Chinese attitudes? Yes and no.

Gallup has some data that point to a “greening” of the Chinese public:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Fifty-seven percent of Chinese adults surveyed in 2011 — before the country’s economic slowdown grabbed headlines — prioritized protecting the environment, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. About one in five believed economic growth is more important. Chinese attitudes are typical of those in other emerging-market economies, where residents sided with the environment over the economy in earlier surveys.


Although I believe that green issues are the area where the Chinese Party-state deserves the most criticism and will receive the most opposition politically in the future (after all, “clean water” is much more tangible to the masses than “free speech” and other tenets of liberalism), I’m disinclined to read much into these results. Why not? Well, somewhere between the 57% of Chinese that say protecting the environment is more important than growing the economy and the 77% who are generally satisfied with the Chinese government’s record of environmental protection lies the shadow of social desirability bias.

These two percentages (57% and 77%) seem to contradict each other unless a strong majority of Chinese already believe the government is putting the environment first, which not even the government seems to believe.  Instead, what we’re likely seeing is Chinese giving two “politically correct” answers and obfuscating the real data underneath.  As an educator I see this from students all the time, since they are conditioned to tell authority figures (and their peers) what they want to hear rather than offer genuine opinions and risk losing face.

Incidentally, the cohort that interests me is that small subset in the poll that believed in putting the environment first and were dissatisfied with China’s environmental record.  Who are these guys, and what are they doing?

It’s Not Their English, It’s Their Mandarin

In two back-to-back classes on Friday I encountered the sort of problem that most ESL teachers will ignore, either because they make sweeping assumptions about Chinese pronunciation, because they’ve never bothered to learn Mandarin, or because their training never prepared them for regional variation in the English pronunciation of their students.

In the first class, a girl named Ann from Guangdong was totally unable to pronounce the word “shine” in the brand name Shineway.  Instead, she said shuài (handsome) repeatedly, which made her classmate laugh, since Shineway is a sausage company.  I asked Ann if she could pronounce “shoe” and “shoot.”  No problem, and even “shit” came out okay.  However, “shall” came out “share” and “shy” also came out shuài.  Setting aside the l/r issue, I created a list of s/sh minimal pairs on the board (e.g. “sheep”-”seep”) and used it to drill Ann and her classmate, a girl from Beijing.  Ann had trouble, as you might expect, but the Beijing girl breezed through it despite having lower overall fluency than the girl from Guangdong.  Why?

Well, as anyone who has “listened for” a Chinese person’s hometown in their way of speaking can tell you, Beijingers and people around Beijing, including Tianjiners, Hebei residents, and Hebei/Beijing transplants to Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, generally have an easier time with English pronunciation than people located to the south.  (In this case, the “south” means the bottom 2/3rds of China!)  While “Beijing Mandarin” is still very different from English, its native speakers are generally able to handle more English blends such as sh as well as distinguish between the dreaded l’s and r’s, though they still have trouble with consonant sounds that don’t neatly fit into the pinyin system of initials and finals.  For instance, my wife cannot pronounce “zero” to save her life, since there’s no equivalent to z + e in Mandarin.  Getting back to “southerners” (again, I’ll use this term broadly), the trouble they have with pronunciation tends to manifest in their Mandarin first and then appear later in their English.

Consider the second class, which featured a new student unable to say s sounds clearly.  Every s-word she said, such as “sorry” or “so,”  began with an sh sound.  I asked her if she was from the south and she said no, that her hometown was Shanxi and Shanxi was in the north.  So I pointed out that that’s still in the “south” compared to Tianjin-Beijing.  I asked her if she had trouble with s and z sounds in Mandarin, which she found odd, and she said she wasn’t sure.  So I asked what she called the special food Chinese people eat during Dragon Boat Festival and she said zhòngzi.  (It should be zòngzi in standard Mandarin.)  I asked her to say the word “zoo” and she kept saying zhū (pig) instead.  She said her English pronunciation was bad but I suggested to her that her troubles really began with her Mandarin pronunciation, and that she is not alone.

To understand what’s going on here, we can run a quasi-experiment to show how a student’s Mandarin-speaking environment will influence their English.  Let’s look at Chinese Koreans from Dongbei vs. Chinese Koreans born in Tianjin.  Dongbei Koreans typically grow up in a Korean-speaking environment, and when they speak Mandarin they overuse the second tone, much like Mandarin learners from South Korea.  (Everything sounds like a question!)  Furthermore, when Dongbei Koreans speak English it has a real “Korean flavor,” especially in l’s and r’s, with, for example, “sorry” becoming “solly” and “hungry” becoming “hungly.”  Tianjin-area Koreans, on the other hand, may speak Korean at home but their school and work environment is Mandarin-heavy and they lack telltale Korean accents when speaking Chinese.  When they speak English they face the same issues as most Tianjiners, which is to say that they don’t have a series of fossilized pronunciation errors inherited from Korean language.

A host of issues converge here.  Consider that Mandarin is the first “foreign” language many Chinese learn at school, since their mother tongue is often a local dialect or another language (e.g. Cantonese or Korean), and that their Mandarin learning often suffers from the same problems that plague their English learning:  they can read and write reasonably well, do alright in listening, but are essentially “mute” except for stilted, prememorized recitation exercises.  Failure to fully grasp spoken Mandarin leads, in turn, to difficulty in speaking English, since Chinese English teachers usually stop drilling English pronunciation once a student progresses past the ABC level, and so, later on, many challenging sounds and blends that native Mandarin speakers can approximate become intimidating to these students.  Of course, there are exceptions to my generalizations, and anyone living in China is likely to have southern friends with brilliant English abilities.  Yet most of them will also demonstrate outstanding Mandarin skills!  The two languages go together, at least in China.

The overall point of these anecdotes is that ESL teachers in China need to orient themselves to the fact that a student’s English abilities reflect not only their intelligence and their commitment to learning English but also the way they speak Mandarin.  If you as a teacher haven’t taken it upon yourself to learn a little spoken Mandarin and the basic rules of Mandarin pronunciation, your teaching is actually missing a practical and helpful component.*   If you do learn Chinese, however, you’ll be surprised at how many of your students’ English pronunciation mistakes actually began as mistakes in their Mandarin.

* Setting aside the entire pronunciation issue above, a basic-to-intermediate grasp of Mandarin is useful when the ESL teacher is faced with the task of deprogramming Chinglish mistakes among their students.

Adventures in Democracy

Our blog emerges from long dormancy with a tale set long ago in an English classroom far, far away.  (Or Friday here in China for those of you who remain sticklers for facts.)

In recent weeks I’ve been talking about American politics as part of my school’s American culture series of lectures.  Talking about politics in a Chinese classroom requires, in part, a certain academic distance from one’s true political leanings as well as a comparative approach that finds as many similarities as possible between the Chinese and Western polities while explaining the key differences between each system.

We teachers self-censor, to be sure, but anyone who has observed Chinese politics closely is aware of the internal Communist party dynamics that resemble the coalitioning at work within the elite leadership of most American political parties.  Ultimately, the American people are enfranchised and the Chinese people are not, yet the forces at work that produce our available choices as American voters are similar to those forces which propel China’s next generation of leaders to the top of the politburo.

While talking about this to students I also take care to explain the variety of balances at work within American politics — between branches of government, between interest groups, between large states and small states, and between the majority and the minority — and highlight how China is very different from America in this respect, often to the detriment of Chinese citizens.

Of course, this high-minded talk may obscure the fact that I am no longer a university teacher but instead work at an almost-anything-goes English training center.  Our core goal is a fun, productive English learning environment. And so, with a nod towards the goal of promoting fun, I spent a handful of minutes designing a classroom election activity for Friday afternoon.

What follows is a documentary account of how said activity unfolded.

The class began with a review of a few of the political terms I had previously introduced to the students.  Specifically, we discussed:

  • political parties
  • political beliefs (“ideology” was too complex a term for a mixed-level student group)
  • party platforms
  • issues
  • candidates
  • elections

English classes, particularly hour-long classes like this one, shouldn’t overwhelm the students with vocabulary.  And with these few terms in hand we had enough to move on to the next step.

I again highlighted the concept of issues and elicited from the students a list of eight “hot issues” in China at the moment.  The “two meetings” of the NPC and CPPCC, which were held in Beijing at the start of March, pushed most of these issues to the forefront, with the government talking about talking about solving various problems, while possibly but not really implementing solutions.  (You see, China really is like America!)

The list of issues the students produced was as follows:

  • controlling housing prices
  • cleaning up pollution
  • improving health care
  • reforming education
  • whipping inflation*
  • fighting corruption
  • maintaining full employment
  • reducing inequality

* Okay, they didn’t actually say “whipping,” but all the talk about inflation got me to thinking of this:

Moving on, I divided the class into three roughly equal-sized groups and told them that they were all now political parties and that they were about to hold a political convention.  Their first item of business?  To choose an animal that represents their political party.

The first group of students was divided.  Panzer II, the school’s resident Hitlerphile and small government libertarian, suggested that the party call itself the “Virus Party,” because they could infect and kill the other political parties.  Another student wisely suggested the “Eagle Party” as an alternative.  I had their group put it to a vote.  “Eagle” defeated “Virus” by a vote of 8-2 with 5 abstentions.  There’s no telling what animals the abstainees would’ve preferred.

The rest of the students were unanimous in their choice of party names.  The second group called itself the “Wolf Party,” while the last and smallest group of students called itself the “Panda Party,” which immediately provoked a “Why didn’t we think of that?” reaction from the other groups.  Personally, I was thinking of pandas on unicorns:

Next, I gave them the task of devising a party platform that addressed each of the eight issues we brainstormed earlier.  Panzer II immediately suggested that “Ein Volk … ein Führer” as the Eagle Party platform.  God (in this case, me) responded in the negative.  Most of the groups went about their party platform work more seriously, however, and in the middle of the “convention” I asked them to nominate their candidates for president and vice-president.

Time management is essential in activities like this one, so I rushed the process along and had students announce their party platform and candidates and then had the six candidates — three presidents and three-vice presidents, three men and three women — all come to the front of the class.

It was time for a debate.  The Eagle Party’s whole plan of action was built around taxing apartments larger than 90 square meters to pay for everything. (You see, they started out as Nazis and turned into tax-and-spend Democrats.)  The Wolf Party, on the other hand, was pretty ineffectual, building their platform around core ideas in Jiang Zemin’s now-abandoned western China development strategy, and prone to being caught in “gotcha” moments by their opposition when they failed to answer questions posed by Sam Donaldson (also me).

As for the Pandas, well, in the words of their presidential candidate who himself paraphrased Hu Jintao, the panda is a “harmonious” creature and, by learning from the panda, the Panda Party would promote a more “harmonious society.” (This line was delivered in perfect deadpan earnestness and provoked a wave of laughter from the students.)  The debate ended with a closing statement from each party, and it looked for sure like the Eagle Party, which kept focusing like a laser beam on housing prices, was the clear favorite.

With a few minutes left in class we turned to voting. I handed out slips of paper and told the students that they were now voters and could vote for the party that they liked best, and that they didn’t have to vote for their own party. Alas, Palm Beach County (me yet again) failed to devise a sound balloting procedure.  Inspecting the final tally I noticed there were more votes than there were voters, but we were out of time.

The result?  The Pandas harmoniously stole the election.

Avatar’s Political Messages: the Overt and the Hidden

Stuart Staniford has written a compelling post where he compares the politics of James Cameron’s Avatar to the philosophy of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber.  A key — and disturbing — passage:

We put [the Unabomber] in jail because he started killing technologists, stating as his reason that he hated industrial society and wanted to return to a more natural and free state of humanity. He was less successful in the execution than Jake/Trudy/Grace and the Na’vi – who actually succeed in ejecting Parker and Co. from Pandora – but it seems to me that the moral logic is exactly the same.  Nature good, technology bad, violent opposition justified.

So, you might want to stop a minute and ask yourself: how exactly does Cameron get mainstream American audiences to root for the Unabomber side in this conflict?

It’s a good question, but in fact, Avatar is not the first time Cameron has asked viewers to root for terrorists.  Though it predates the Unabomber as a public figure by four years, Cameron’s Terminator 2 is heavily infused with a violent ludditism not unlike Kaczynski’s manifesto.  We come to accept Sarah Connor’s extremism because, in the universe of the film, there really is a future where technology threatens mankind.  But that doesn’t change the fact that her rhetoric and the Unabomber’s rhetoric are cut from the same cloth, in particular when she rants and starts comparing the creators of Skynet to the creators of the atom bomb.

(As an aside, before Cameron was a hypocrite for using cutting-edge technology to make a film attacking technology with Avatar, he was a hypocrite for doing the same thing in Terminator 2.)

Returning to Staniford’s question, how does Cameron get audiences to side with terrorist luddites (or if you want to use an Iraq metaphor, “insurgents”)?  Part of it is because, like Terminator 2, the technological baubles he throws at us are so appealing that most audiences barely think about the plot.  Still another reason is that, for liberal and moderate audiences, the movie is a triumphalist appeal to white guilt.  Triumphalist, because rather than lecturing the protagonist about his racism, it gives him the opportunity to transcend his own racial limitations.  As Annalee Newitz put it in her essay on race in the films Avatar and the much-superior District 9,

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

There’s another side to this which explains incentives for Sully (and the audience).  More than just “peoples of color” or even “noble savages,” the Na’vi are highly idealized and eroticized, presented to us as, in the words of one friend on Twitter, “ten foot blue supermodels.”  Unlike the aliens in District 9, whose appearance and behaviors tend to repulse rather than evoke sympathy, Cameron banks on sexual imagery both to lure in the teenage demographic and to make his messiah tale more palatable.  (This choice was so blatant that Cameron opened himself up to all kinds of parody.)  What if, however, Cameron had made the aliens in Avatar something truly alien, like the jellyfish-like Flouwen in Robert Forward’s Rocheworld, or simply made Eywa herself the only sentient life on the planet?  He could have sidestepped many of the film’s shortcomings, though the end result would’ve been closer to 2001 than any of Cameron’s prior work.*

Despite the film’s politics, Cameron manages to sell us on Avatar with a ton of technology, a feel-good fable, a significant amount of sex, and a dumbed-down New Age religion.  And yet there’s a less-discussed moral aspect of the film that appeals to audiences:  the defense of property rights.  This is perhaps an accidental reading of the movie; Cameron certainly wasn’t out to defend one of the foundations of capitalism when he wrote the script, but the movie invites such comparisons.  Here’s libertarian David Boaz, making the case that Avatar is about eminent domain:

Conservatives rallied to the defense of Susette Kelo when the Pfizer Corp. and the city of New London, Conn., tried to take her land. She was unreasonable too, like the Na’vi. She wasn’t holding out for a better price; she just didn’t want to sell her house. As Jake tells his bosses, “They’re not going to give up their home.”

“Avatar” is like a space opera of the Kelo case, which went to the Supreme Court in 2005. Peaceful people defend their property against outsiders who want it and who have vastly more power. Jake rallies the Na’vi with the stirring cry “And we will show the Sky People that they cannot take whatever they want! And that this is our land!”

I’m sure that some in America will roll their eyes at Boaz.  But here in China, the Avatar-as-defense-of-property rights meme is the dominant view of the film.  Chinese have little interest in Avatar‘s cotton candy pantheism and no white guilt to make them sympathize with native peoples (in fact, had Cameron linked the Na’vi to Tibetans or other minorities, Chinese would have hated the movie), so the sheer spectacle of the film is what drew in Chinese audiences and the economic aspects are what they took away from their viewing.  How else to explain the apparent victim of an illegal demolition who hoists a banner above his half-smashed home, telling people that the lesson of Avatar is “to defend your home to your death!”

* Save perhaps for The Abyss, which presents us with “aliens” that are fantastically different from us, though at times sickeningly cute.

Send China to Burma

Dr. Steven Taylor noted earlier in the week that the SLORC junta in Burma (sorry, no Myanmar here) has agreed to receive aid but not aid workers.  Dr. T notes that this is par for the course in dictatorships:

One of the tried and true (and tragic) behaviors of hardline dictatorships is to reaction to internal disasters as if either they didn’t happen (something that is increasingly difficult to do these days) or to downplay the need for help from the outside (if not to reject it outright). It has to do with control (of information as well as what the population might learn) as well, I suspect, with embarrassment over the state of the country. No doubt there is a healthy dose of xenophobia thrown in for good measure.

The shroud being drawn across the disaster relief effort by the junta naturally creates a problem for donor countries, as there are zero guarantees that humanitarian aid will (a) go to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, (b) not be used politically by the government, and (c) can actually be delivered in a prompt and effective manner.

To an extent, the junta’s policy is understandable from the perspective of a hyper-paranoid autocratic elite which has almost no international friends and sees the crisis situation as a potential opening for outsiders intent on toppling the regime.  The human cost of this need for total control is difficult to estimate — surely it will add thousands to the final death toll from the storm — but SLORC likely looks to examples such as the North Korean famine as assurance that a hardline regime can remain in power despite massive loss of life.

So, what should the UN and the West do to make sure that relief aid can actually get to devastated Burmese communities?  They might want to call on China.

While an international pariah, SLORC, like the regimes in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and North Korea, has a significant ally in Beijing.  Westerners have thus far unsuccessfully tried to pressure China to change its friendly policies towards the Burmese government.  They ought to learn by now that China will always refuse to implement policies that might run contrary to the interests of one of its client states.  That said, while nothing will sever the Sino-Burmese relationship, the international community might be able to persuade China to put boots on the ground in Burma as part of the relief effort.  SLORC trusts China, after all, and is not likely to see Chinese relief workers as a security threat.

China might not agree to be the West’s proxy, but the country’s relatively recent history in providing relief operations suggests an openness to the idea.  Bringing Beijing on board would require illustrating the following benefits to Hu Jintao and his foreign policy hands:

  • Leading a significant relief effort will provide good PR for the Chinese government in advance of the Olympics and in the wake of the Tibet riots.
  • China, by distributing aid, could help stabilize Burma (and help SLORC stay in power).
  • Western countries could provide the bulk of the material cost, and even some of the air- and sealift, leaving China with the cost of manpower, which is significantly less than Western manpower costs.

Many in the West will be left scratching their heads and wondering where the good side is in this proposal.  China, a sometimes-adversary, comes out ahead, while the SLORC emerge unscathed and Western countries foot most of the bill.  Yet, as we watch the news from Burma, we cannot underestimate the scale of the tragedy nor the urgency of the situation:  between 20,000 and 100,000 already dead, millions displaced, and tens of thousands more threatened by malnourishment, disease, and floodwaters.  This is a rare circumstance where the lesser of two evils is easy to determine.

The question is, will any leaders in the West or the UN step forward and ask China to go to Burma?