November 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
Occupy Wall Street protests have not spread to China, but Beijing’s crackdown on media coverage and Internet activity related to OWS isn’t surprising. What’s less predictable are ways that Occupy protests could shake up China’s internal politics, especially among neo-Maoists.
Occupy Wall Street protests have not spread to the People’s Republic of China. But word of the protests has, and the Chinese authorities are trying to figure out how to respond.
Their reactions have run the gamut: from gloating denunciations of American capitalism, to a crackdown on all media coverage of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Of course, there is no real surprise in this sequence of responses. More interesting, and less predictable, are the ways in which the Occupy Wall Street protests could substantively shape China’s internal politics.
In the early days of the OWS movement, when protests were confined to US cities, a China Daily OpEd (Sept. 30) harshly attacked the American media for journalistic hypocrisy, for not giving coverage to protests in their own country even as they had relished covering protests in the Arab world just a few months earlier. A couple weeks later, state-run Xinhua News was harsher still, arguing that the protests in New York’s Zuccotti Park “laid bare malpractices of the US government and ailments of its political and economic systems.”
But as the Occupy movement spread globally, the Chinese response shifted. Assault on the silence of the American press gave way to anxiety about the possible effects Chinese media coverage might have on their Chinese audience.
On Oct. 17, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, after remarking that the issues raised by OWS may be “worth pondering,” cautioned the Chinese media, saying that their “reflections should be conducive to maintaining the sound and steady development of the world economy.” On the same day, editors of the Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times called for people to “calmly observe the protest movement and the global situation, and not be confused by extreme points of view.”
A few days later, on Oct. 19 and 20, Beijing authorities – setting aside any ambivalence they might have had about the Occupy movement – issued an order to the Chinese media to cease all reporting and commenting on the OWS movement.
What happened? Perhaps Beijing had examined the numbers in the intervening three days, and been reminded that as high as the income gap in the United States is, China’s income and wealth inequality is right up there as well, even higher according to some estimates. Or perhaps recognition had set in that China’s elite 1 percent just might – like America’s 1 percent elite – be open to charges of greed and corruption.
Given, too, that 36 percent of the Chinese people (that’s 481 million people) live on $2 a day or less, the Beijing leadership might have become worried that the Chinese would not remain as “calm” in the face of news about the US protests as the Global Times might wish.
Cyberspace censorship quickly followed after the media gag order. Searches for “Occupy Wall Street” and, more pointedly, for “Occupy Beijing,” “Occupy Shanghai,” “Occupy Guangzhou,” “Occupy Zhongnanhai,” and “Occupy Lhasa,” among a growing list of banned terms, now yield blank screens on microblogging sites like Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter).
Such a crackdown was predictable. Since the Arab Spring uprisings, the Chinese leadership, vigilant about any signs of civil unrest at home, has been aggressive in promoting the “harmonious society” that is the Community Party’s mantra.
But tensions in the ruling Chinese Communist Party have surfaced in recent years. New Leftists, sometime called New Maoists, have become more voluble about the widening gulf between rich and poor; corporate and official collusion; the state’s inattentiveness to the needs of the elderly, the infirm, and the impoverished; and the rise in “mass incidents” of protest against official corruption. It is time, the New Leftists suggest, to put the brakes on the liberal reform experiment launched in the post-Mao era by Deng Xiaoping. It is time to resurrect the revolutionary, egalitarian spirit of Chairman Mao.
Will the message or spirit of the Occupy Wall Street protests resonate with China’s 99-percenters and give momentum to China’s New Maoist agenda? OWS has already produced small demonstrations in nearby Hong Kong and Taiwan. If OWS endures and expands its reach to mainland China, savvy politician Bo Xilai, party chief of Chongqing municipality in China’s southwest, would likely have much to gain. The leading figure and public face of the New Maoists, Bo is angling – some would say campaigning – to win a position on the all-powerful nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo in 2012.
Described as “handsome,” “outgoing,” and “Kennedy-esque,” Mr. Bo has made a name for himself as an activist party chief – even as he has ruffled feathers along the way. He launched a popular campaign targeting organized crime and official corruption in 2009. He also sponsored low-income housing projects and welfare programs for the working class and the poor in Chongqing. This summer, he inaugurated the Red Culture Movement, calling for a renaissance of the revolutionary spirit embodied by Chairman Mao.
Residents of Chongqing are encouraged to come together in parks and stadiums to sing “red songs” – songs extolling the achievements of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party – and to watch the revolutionary dramas that have replaced the soap operas on Chongqing TV. With such efforts, charismatic Bo has struck a strong populist chord in Chongqing and beyond.
But winning acclaim from the people and winning a place on the Standing Committee of the Politburo are two different matters. Bo’s flamboyant style is at odds with the staid style of present members of the Standing Committee (which in a process lacking any transparency will select the replacements for those retiring from the Standing Committee next year).
His support for a more tightly state-controlled economy is at odds with the more liberal state capitalism now in vogue. And his Maoist rhetoric is at odds with the liberal reform rhetoric embraced by the Chinese leadership for the past decade, and especially by current Premier Wen Jiabao. Bo’s words and actions have conjured up, at least for some, the specter of a return to Cultural Revolution days.
Still, in the words of the press, Bo is a “political rock star.” Excluding him from the Standing Committee may be difficult. But should China’s 99-percenters awaken to the call of Occupy Wall Street and coalesce around the movement, excluding Bo from the Standing Committee mix would be more than difficult – it would simply be too risky, even for China’s authoritarian ruling party.
This post first appeared as an op-ed article in the Christian Science Monitor on November 8.
July 5, 2011 § 2 Comments
The Setting: Tiananmen Square
The Time: January 2011-June 2011
The Players: Mao Zedong, Confucius, Louis Vuitton
Sounds almost like a Tom Stoppard play. But, no, Mao, Confucius, and Louis Vuitton have been mixing it up lately on China’s most renowned stage.
For decades now, Mao’s portrait has hung over the Tiananmen Gate at the far north of the Square, even as his embalmed body lies in the mausoleum built immediately after his death in the center of the Square. Mao, the Great Helmsman, founder of the People’s Republic of China, looms mightily over the Square reminding the Chinese people of the Party’s achievement in raising the country out of its “feudal” and impoverished past and restoring it to prosperity and global influence.
On January 13, Mao was joined in the Square by a figure of at least equal repute in China: Confucius.
Born in 551 B.C.E., the Sage, as he is known, left behind a set of teachings as influential as any the world has known. These teachings became the basis of state ideology by the second century B.C.E., and remained so, with some ups and downs, for more than two millennia. But with the opening decades of the 20th century, prominent intellectuals and political figures took aim at Confucian teachings, arguing that they were in large part responsible for China’s backwardness and weakness relative to the West.
Mao especially disliked what he believed to be the enduring effects of Confucius’ “feudal” practices on the people and, during the cultural revolution of 1967-1976, called on the Red Guards to destroy all texts, temples, sites, and statues associated with Confucius throughout China. No small irony then that, suddenly, in early January, a humongous 17-ton statue of the Sage appeared at the north gate of the newly renovated National Museum of China on the east side of the Square—facing, almost directly, Mao’s 15’ x 25’ visage hanging above the Tiananmen Gate.
Now, if Mao himself wasn’t agitated, loyal supporters apparently were. Confucius, after all, was an affront to all that Mao had stood—and fought—for. Consequently, Confucius, all 17 tons of him, disappeared on April 20, as suddenly and mysteriously as he had appeared 3 months earlier. No one has yet come forward with a formal explanation of the statue’s comings and goings, but pundits assume, no doubt rightly, that Confucius’ appearance and disappearance represent behind-the-scenes political jockeying between different camps within the leadership.
So, Confucius has exited the square. Enter Louis Vuitton. Louis Vuitton has taken up a perch almost exactly where the bronze Confucius had been set down. But rather than outside the north entrance of the National Museum, Louis Vuitton is inside the National Museum. What’s he doing there next to rare porcelain vases and bronzes vessels. He is displaying, in a 4-room exhibition, LV luggage and handbags dating back to the 1860s, reminding museum-goers of all the luxury they missed out on since the country’s fall from power in the mid-19th century. Clever marketing, especially in a country where the world’s high-end brands are all competing for visibility among a newly consumerist population.
The question that comes to mind is this: Confucius has been chased from Mao’s square, but can Louis Vuitton, the representative of capitalist luxury and wasteful consumption, be any more palatable to the Chairman? Is Louis’ presence there preferable to the Sage’s? Some Chinese, among them no doubt Mao’s followers, have expressed displeasure with a Louis Vuitton show in a Chinese historical museum, of all places. Stores are one thing—there are now 27 Louis Vuitton stores in China—but a spot in the fabulously renovated National Museum of China in one of the world’s most historically rich squares?
Don’t assume, however, that Confucius has entirely left the stage. Having lost his much coveted spot outside the National Museum in Tiananmen Square, he’s moved on to Shanghai. For reasons that are not at all clear, the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum decided that the great Sage, with his renewed popularity, deserved a show at the very same time the museum had planned to display “Albert Einstein (1879-1955),” an exhibition owned by the Historical Museum of Bern, Switzerland (currently on view at the Hong Kong Science Museum).
The Shanghai museum’s motive here is unclear. Did it see a comparative-sage exhibition as a potential blockbuster? Or was it a nationalistic decision? That is, we have our Eastern Sage too? Or maybe it was simply to fill gallery space. In any event, unhappy with the Shanghai’s proposal to merge the Einstein exhibition with a Confucius exhibition, the Bern Museum announced on Tuesday (June 7) that it had shelved plans to bring its show to Shanghai.
Confucius thus seems to have fared better against Einstein in Shanghai than against Mao in Beijing. Whether Confucius will have a solo show in the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum remains to be seen. And the meaning of the showdown between Confucius and Einstein is, if possible, less clear, at least at the moment, than that between Confucius and the Chairman.
What is clear, though, is that Confucius, however aged, is getting around these days.
A version of this post first appeared as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on June 29.
May 9, 2011 § 3 Comments
The Red Army fears not the trials of the Long March,
Holding light ten thousand crags and torrents.
The Five Ridges wind like gentle ripples
And the majestic Wumeng roll by, globules of clay.
Warm the steep cliffs lapped by the waters of Golden Sand,
Cold the iron chains spanning the Tatu River.
Minshan’s thousand li of snow joyously crossed,
The three Armies march on, each face glowing. (The Long March)
Written by Mao Zedong in October of 1935 to commemorate the Red Army’s legendary 6000-mile trek (1934-1935) that broke the Guomindang blockade, the “Long March” is being read avidly today—at least by members of the Chinese women’s Olympic volleyball team. During practice, the team works on their spikes, stuffs, sets, and line shots; after practice they come together to read the “Long March.”
Why do they read and recite the “Long March”? The China Volleyball Association website explains,
Through these kinds of activities, the Chinese women’s volleyball team…learns from the old Red Army, stays brave when facing difficulties, devotes itself to daily training, works hard, raises standards and prepares for the London Olympics with the momentum that Chairman Mao had when leading the Red Army throughout the Long March.
Never mind that we can’t know how genuinely inspired team members are by their reading of “Long March” or whether the Chairman’s poetry will provide sufficient inspiration for them to win gold in London in 2012. What’s notable here is that Mao is enjoying a renaissance. That the Olympic volleyball team holds study sessions to discuss the poems of the Chairman, much as youths 50 years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, studied the sayings of Mao in the Little Red Book, is but one indicator of his renewed popularity.
Another, more telling indicator is to be found in metropolitan Chongqing (pop. 30 million). Tune in to Chongqing Television (CTV) at prime time and you’ll no longer see the lineup of popular soap operas and sit-coms; instead you’ll be able to watch epic films or sing along to one of 36 “red songs” (selected by the government) that extol the achievements of Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party.
Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai ordered the change in programming–as part of his “red culture” movement. For Bo, and others like him– dubbed the “new left”–China has strayed too far from its “red” roots and needs to recommit itself to the revolutionary values of the early People’s Republic.
In the first couple of decades of the PRC (1949- ), the new left maintains, the Mao-led government guaranteed economic security—jobs for all at equal pay; a safety net—where the elderly and infirm were to be provided for by the state; and a social equality—where distinctions between the privileged and unprivileged, the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural were not indelible. Zhang Jiedong, a recent graduate of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, says this message resonates now, especially with older generations, in its nostalgic appeal to an era where “there was less stress; income was guaranteed and competition for status symbols was almost non-existent.” (Bloomberg)
Where is all of this–the reading of the “Long March,” the watching of revolutionary films, the singing of “red songs,” and the calling for government policies that hew more closely to the founding ideals of the PRC–headed? Hard to say. But that the Chairman’s voice–35 years after his death–is vibrant and influential in China today—is certain.
May 3, 2011 § 2 Comments
What do Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei and the iconic Sage Confucius have in common? They’ve both recently disappeared from public sight without explanation.
Ai went missing on April 3. Only on April 7 did government officials acknowledge that he had been detained as he was preparing to board a flight for Hong Kong. A few days later, reason for the detainment appeared briefly on the Xinhua’s wire service before it too disappeared: Ai was under investigation for “suspected economic crimes.”
Sure, “economic crimes” is a possible reason. More likely, Party leaders have grown tired of his in-your-face political activism—directed at the Party. The photo series of his outstretched middle finger, taken in Tiananmen Square and aimed at the Tiananmen Gate, atop of which Chairman Mao announced the establishment of the People’s Republic 60 years ago, no doubt rankled some Party higher-ups.
If the photo series didn’t, his unrelenting public campaign to hold government officials accountable for the shoddily constructed schools that collapsed in the 2008 earthquake in Chengdu, killing more than 5000 innocent children, did. Then there’s his ongoing, again very public, twitter-driven rant denouncing the government’s repression of freedom of expression and human rights.
Confucius’ disappearing act remains more mysterious. Only three months ago, on January 12, authorities placed a 17-ton, 30-foot statue of the Sage in the very square in which Mao declared the new People’s Republic in 1949. Not just in the very square, but positioned at the northern gate of the National Museum of China, a spot from which Confucius could gaze on the massive 15’ x 25’ portrait of Mao that hangs just above the Tiananmen Gate. It was, from the beginning, an uneasy relationship.
After all, Mao’s contempt for the “feudal” Confucius, had been deep and enduring, resulting in a massive anti-Confucius campaign that swept through the country during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s, bringing ruin to temples, books, and historical landmarks associated with the Confucian tradition. Safe to say then that Confucius’ sudden, unannounced appearance across the Square from Mao’s gaze was not a welcome sight to the Chairman or his dedicated followers. To them—and many observers—it represented the CCP’s rehabilitation of Confucius and his teachings and the Party’s further distancing from Maoism.
But where authorities did, after a few days, explain the “disappearance” of Ai Weiwei, none has yet been given for the removal of Confucius late Wednesday night, April 20. Visitors to the Square on Thursday, hoping to get a glimpse of him, found only an empty pit cordoned off by blue corrugated iron fencing. No sign, no explanation.
We can assume, I think, that he is not under investigation for “suspected economic crimes.” We can assume too that he never gave the finger to the Tiananmen Gate, in the direction of Mao’s portrait; or complained that the corrupt or irresponsible officials in were in part responsible for the deaths of schoolchildren in Chengdu; or criticized the regime for its refusal to open up more political and social space for the Chinese people to express themselves. (Though the specter of his doing so may have been very real to some.)
So, why the disappearance? We simply don’t know for sure. One museum worker is reported to have said that the statue’s placement outside of the museum facing Tiananmen Gate had been temporary and was being moved to an out-of-the-way sculpture garden inside the Museum. Seems plausible, but why not a more formal announcement to that effect, from either authorities at the Museum or in the government? And, if that is the case, what was the point, given the massive construction efforts and costs involved, in placing it in the symbolically sacred Square in the first place–the significance of which certainly wouldn’t have been lost on the Beijing leadership?
Chinese leaders today are in a state of high anxiety. The turmoil in the Mideast has them agitated and overly vigilant. It seems too that there’s a tug of war within the leadership itself, between hardliners (like Wu Banguo) and more reform-minded liberals (like Premier Wen Jiabao), with the hardliners, for the time being, ascendant. In any event, the Beijing government doesn’t appear to be in the mood to countenance any threats to its authority—and to the authoritarian principles that undergird Communist Party rule. Confucius’ very presence in the Square may have been perceived by many as diminishing Mao (e.g., Maoflag.net), the “Great Helmsman” of the Chinese revolution and the continued source of much of the CCP’s legitimacy today.
An emerging “red culture” movement, promoted most famously by rising political star Bo Xilai, Party Secretary of Chongqing municipality, further indicates that Mao and hardline descendants have not surrendered to the reform agenda inaugurated three decades ago by Deng Xiaoping. They are resisting what they view as the loosening of CCP control over Chinese society. At the heart of this “red culture” movement, dubbed by some a “New Maoism,” is the celebration of the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party, a reminder to the Chinese people that it is the steady, guiding hand of Mao and the Party that is responsible for the country’s rising fortunes since 1949.
In Chongqing (pop. 30 million), Party Secretary Bo has ordered Chongqing television to stop airing soap operas and sitcoms during prime time and to show instead film epics like Marching Forward for the New China and Liberation of the Great Southwest and public service ads; radio stations are expected to broadcast the 36 “red songs”—selected by the government—like “Ode to the Motherland,” “Without the Communist Party There Would be No New China,” and “Fluttering Flag” throughout the day. Reports are that this movement is striking a chord, especially among older people who remember nostalgically the first decades of the People’s Republic as a time of social and economic security and equality—a security and equality largely absent today.
To return to the disappearing Confucius: as the story of perhaps the world’s only 17-ton portable statue unfolds, we may learn more about the shifting political winds in China. Or, we may find that even then we’re still in the dark. Chinese politics can be hard to read. But, on the face of it now, it looks to me like Mao has won the recent round in the showdown at Tiananmen.
March 11, 2011 § 2 Comments
This article first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on March 2:
The West is guilty of wishful thinking when it excitedly imagines people-powered revolt in the Arab world spreading to China. There is dissatisfaction in China. But Tiananmen Square is not poised to become a Tahrir Square anytime soon. Here’s why.
In the past week or so, a lot of Western press has been given over to the question, “Is China the next Egypt?” Why this question is receiving so much attention puzzles me. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking: We’d like to see every country under authoritarian rule become more democratic. But looking at China today, even if I squint really hard, I don’t see a government at risk of being toppled by mass protests soon.
This is not to say that Chinese people are uniformly happy, or even satisfied, with their government. There are the poor who aren’t participating in China’s skyrocketing prosperity; there are the powerless who see their lands seized from them by those more powerful and better connected; there are the college-educated who can’t find jobs commensurate with their skills and expectations; there are the activists who have been silenced (sometimes brutally), placed under house arrest, or imprisoned by the state. And, there’s the sort of culture of official corruption where a hit-and-run driver can taunt his pursuers by shouting, “Go ahead, sue me if you dare. My dad is Li Gang!” (the deputy director of Baoding City’s public security bureau).
There is dissatisfaction in China. But Tiananmen Square is not poised to become a Tahrir Square anytime soon. Here are a few reasons why.
First, and most obvious, under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) China has enjoyed 30 years of uninterrupted economic development. GDP has grown at an average annual rate of nearly 10 percent for the past two and half decades. Children live much better than their parents, who, in turn, live much better than their parents. Pundits may point to the fact that Egypt’s GDP has experienced solid growth in recent years as well. But growth there has been half that of China; and more telling is the percentage of Egyptians still living under the poverty line, a whopping 20 percent, compared to China’s 3 percent.
Wisely, too, the Chinese government has dedicated much of its new wealth to building up the country’s infrastructure. By pouring money and resources into the road and highway system, subway lines, high-speed rail, power grids, telecommunications, schools and education, and water supplies, for example, the CCP has sought to improve China’s standard of living. In these projects, Chinese people find some tangible signs of a government that is giving back to the country. In Egypt, the popular perception was that former President Hosni Mubarak used the country’s growing prosperity mostly simply to enrich himself, his family, and his cronies.
Second, that China in 2011 is now counted among the world’s great powers, economically and politically, is a source of great pride among the Chinese people (consider the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics). Remember, this is a country that just over 30 years ago viewed itself – and was viewed by much of the world – as backward. The people’s deep pride in witnessing their country’s triumphant return to the global stage cannot be underestimated; it’s a pride that serves to bolster the legitimacy of the current government, since the CCP, after all, has been the guiding hand responsible for shaping China’s emergence as a 21st-century superpower.
Third, China is ruled by a party whose leadership changes at least every ten years. In 2002, President Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang Zemin as party leader; in 2012 Xi Jinping is expected to succeed Mr. Hu for the two five-year terms allowed by the Constitution. In Egypt, under Mubarak, the government was embodied in the person of one “strongman” – for a full 30 years. The grievances of the Egyptian people could find a ready target in this one man; he was a natural focal point for their disaffection.
In China there is no similar focal point, in part because CCP leadership is routinely changing faces, and in part because within the leadership there are differences of opinion (which often make their way into the press) – over foreign relations, the domestic economy, the rule of law, environmental stewardship, the rise of nationalism, and Internet freedom, for instance. That there exist differences within the party helps to mitigate the intensity of people’s opposition to one-party rule.
At the Feb. 19 meeting with high-level government officials Hu, according to Xinhua News, “acknowledged that despite China’s remarkable social and economic development and growth in its overall national strength, the country is ‘still in a stage where many conflicts are likely to arise. There are still many problems in social management.’” Xinhua paraphrased him as further saying, “The government should speed up the development of various social sectors by developing education as a priority, promoting employment, reasonably adjusting income distribution, and perfecting the social security system that covers urban and rural residents.”
And in an Internet chat directly with the people this week, Premier Wen Jiabao, in the words of Xinhua, “laid out three planks of government policy essential to maintaining stability: closing income gaps; equal benefits and opportunities for rural residents; and eradicating corruption.”
This isn’t Mubarak’s government. This is a government that realizes what it is expected to do to maintain the support of its people – and its own legitimacy.