Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Run Away Student and Good Old Teachers

(Continued from yesterday's topic)

One weekend in Chongqing, I told Doggy I was going to see the tomb of Bamanzi (more about that in a future post), and asked if he knew who Bamanzi was. "I know," he said, "an ancient man who cut off his own head." I was totally surprised because many Chongqing people are not aware of the Bamanzi story, or his partial burial in their own city. I also had the impression that Doggy's generation of young people were very ignorant about history. It turned out he learned about Bamanzi from his best friend, the boy who had run away from the abusive teacher and the mother who often asked the teacher to punish him. "He's a history lover," Doggy told me about his friend.

Thus I got interested in that boy's story, and Doggy let me talk to him once on his cell phone (they call or text-message each other frequently). The following is our conversation.

Me: I heard you are good at history.

Doggy's friend: I'm a member of the "Spring and Autumn Society."

Me: What's that?

Doggy's friend: A group of students who are interested in learning about history in their spare time.

Me: In your middle school?

Doggy's friend: Yes.

(Such an interest group was a surprise to me, given how heavily the students were burdened by the school's over-loaded class schedule.)

Me: Who organized it?

Doggy's friend: A retired history teacher. He's really good! He tells us interesting stories instead of forcing us to learn. It’s impossible not to fall in love with history when you listen to him talk.

Me: How old is he?

Doggy's friend: In his 70s maybe? But he's sick now. He has to stay home. Our "Spring and Autumn Society" is not active any more.

Me: Surely there are other history teachers in school who could help you out?

Doggy's friend: They don't care. They care only about exams and grades.

Me: What kind of activities did your "Spring and Autumn Society" have?

Doggy's friend: In weekends, we went to visit historical sites in the city. We also read books about them and had discussions.

Me: Wow, that would be a lot of places! Chongqing has three thousand years of urban history.

Doggy's friend: Yes, I think we've visited nearly all by now.

Me: Including Bamanzi's tomb.

Doggy's friend: Yes.

Me: What other subjects are you good at?

Doggy's friend: I like physics.

Me: (again surprised) Why do you like physics?

Doggy's friend: I didn't at first. In school the physics teacher could not explain anything clearly to us and the class was very boring. I got bad grades in the first semester. My grandfather is a retired physics teacher. He began to teach me at home. With his teaching, every physics concept became so clear and interesting! I soon fell in love with the subject.

Me: Lucky you to have a grandfather like that. What other subjects do you love?

Doggy's friend: Hmm…I think that's it.

Me: How interesting – the subjects you actually loved were all taught by retired old teachers. They are the generation of my teachers.

Doggy's friend: Yes.

Me: So, what do you think of the current generation of teachers in your school?

Doggy's friend: I don't like them. You probably have heard from Doggy about our head teacher. You can't learn with teachers like that.

Me: Well, she might be an isolated case.

Doggy's friend: I don't think so. I've been growing up with corporal punishment since primary school.

Me: Do you like to talk about it?

Doggy's friend: Hmm…not really. (Pause.) It's the humiliation that's the worst, you know? (Pause again.) Aunty, could I ask you a question? You are from America, I think you are more open minded than my parents.

Me: I don't know about that …What question is it then?

Doggy's friend (with a hint of flame): Since we know how bad the education system is, why should we put up with it?

(I remembered what Doggy had told me, that this boy had run away from home once, and attempted to a second time. I didn't know what was in his mind now.)

Me: Well… How old are you?

Doggy's friend: 15. Same as Doggy.

Me: Do you think a 15-year-old can contend with an entire system?

Doggy's friend: …No.

Me: Then why waste your energy on useless efforts? The best you can do now is to accumulate knowledge. Then maybe when you grow up you'll have enough knowledge and strength to make changes. You are a boy who has thoughts and ideas. Maybe you'll take leadership in a field when you grow up, who knows?

(He didn't argue, but I didn't know if he was convinced.)

Doggy's friend: American schools are better than China's, right?

Me: In some aspects, yes, but they have their problems.

This conversation reminded me one instant with my own daughter, born and raised in the US. In the early years of her elementary school, she used to be fond of mathematics and did well. ( That's so like me, I had thought.) So when in the 6th grade she got a C in math, I was very surprised. It turned out that, for three times, she had forgotten to turn in her homework, and homework counted for more than half of the final grade. Despite her good exam scores, she got a C. Unfamiliar with the American school system, I wrote an email to her math teacher asking why, when a student forgot to turn in homework three times, her parents were never informed. I had thought that was a very reasonable question. But the teacher got mad. It was not his responsibility to inform the parents, the teacher wrote back, in a very unhappy tone. After that incident, my daughter became miserable in math class because she felt the teacher began to treat her rather coldly. She soon fell out of love with math. She has hated math ever since. What an unintended mistake a mother can make by asking a teacher a question! But at least that teacher wasn't abusive.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Questionable Teachers and Bewildered Parents

I've been meaning to write this post for quite some time, but had put it off for other seemingly more "urgent" topics and activities. Now two events made me feel this topic's own urgency: First, one of the most popular questions asked, and the very first answered by President Obama during his unprecedented on-line town hall meeting yesterday was about education. Second, I just got some frustrating news in an email from my older sister about her son, my hip-hop nephew.

My 15-year-old nephew, nicknamed Doggy, is in his final semester of middle school in Chongqing. During my visit last month, I had several chats with him. Below is a conversation from my notes.

My nephew Doggy, who loves street dance

Doggy: I don't really know a lot about America, but I feel American education must be better than ours.

Me: Better in what sense?

Doggy: At least it won't all be about coping with exams.

Me: You mean all your school does is to teach you how to deal with exams?

Doggy: Yes! Do you want to see our class schedule?

(The following is his daily class schedule this semester:

Monday - Thursday:
5 morning classes from 8 am – 12:10 pm;
3 afternoon classes from 2:30 – 4:50 pm;
evening class from 5:50 – 8:30 pm with only one 15-min. recess

5 classes from 8 am – 12:10 pm (same as other weekdays);
3 classes from 2:00 – 4:30 pm;
30 minute exercise;
evening class from 6 – 8:30 pm

That's over 12 hours a day in school, five days a week. This over-loaded schedule is aimed at achieving a higher fraction of winners for the forthcoming high school admission exam. How merciful that the school gives the students 10 minutes off the evening class on Friday. On weekends, most of the students are also forced by their parents into fee-charging after-school lessons.)

Doggy: Tuesday is the worst day: Four English classes in a row in the morning, and two math classes in a row in the afternoon.

Me: Don't the teachers worry that students can't digest that much? Four classes in a row for one subject is ridiculous.

Doggy: The English teacher is our Dean, he has the power to do whatever he pleases. The math teacher is the head teacher for my class, she loves to play spy games. She hides behind the window glass and peeps, then suddenly pushes the door open. Or she pretends to walk away but suddenly turns around. Hey, the trick often works! She can usually catch several students talking.

Me: What does she do to those students?

Doggy: Punish them.

Me: Does she teach well though?

Doggy: She teaches okay, I guess.

Me: Do you like math?

Doggy: I hate math the most.

Me: Why?

Doggy: Because the teacher hates me.

Me: How does she hate you?

Doggy: The way she stares at me is as if I'd killed eighteen generations of her ancestors. When I bring a bottle of ice tea to school, she says it's alcohol. I ask her to smell it, it's not alcohol. She seizes it anyway to drink herself.

Me: Then don't bring ice tea to school.

Doggy's mother: That's what I said.

Doggy: Once I was a few minutes late for class, the teacher made me stand through the entire afternoon. I had to take course notes in standing up, it was really hard. I stood through the entire afternoon and thought that was it. But the next morning, she ordered me to stand again, through the entire day!

Me: Well, if this is true, you should tell the principal. Corporal punishment in school is illegal even in China.

Doggy: (precociously) What a naive idea to tell the principal. You don't know how dark China's schools are! My teacher will only make my life more miserable.

Do you want to hear something funny though? Once, the teacher ordered a girl in our class to stand outside the door for no reason. She said the girl was allowed to come in to sit down only if she got her father to accompany her to class. The girl stood for an hour, and couldn't bear it any more, so she called her father on her cell phone. To her surprise, her father told her to ignore the teacher and simply go in and sit down, "See what she can do to you!" So that was what the girl did. The teacher shouted at her, "Who let you come in and sit down?" "My father," the girl replied. The teacher was very angry but couldn't do anything (laugh).

Me: Well, I guess you could do the same then.

Doggy: No, because my mom doesn't help me! She always says the teacher does this for a reason.

Doggy's mother: (sigh) But what else could I say? I can't encourage him to fight his teacher.

Doggy: My best friend's mother is worse. She calls the teacher often and tells her, "Don't hesitate to beat up my son if he doesn't behave! Teach him a lesson anytime like you would teach your own child!" So my friend got corporal punishment the most often. Once he couldn't bear it any longer and ran away from home. His parents were very scared. After they found him, he made his mother promise not to call the teacher again to punish him.

Me: Did she promise?

Doggy: Yes. But she didn't stop calling the teacher until my friend threatened to run away again. And the teacher didn't stop punishing him. She just got into the habit of corporal punishment, and that was how we lived through the first two years of our middle school.

Me: Is it because you and your friend like street dance that the teacher doesn't like you?

Doggy: My friend doesn't dance. He has a bad leg.

Doggy's mother: Actually that boy has very good grades. A smart boy. It seems the boys were treated badly because we parents did not get the teacher's hint early.

Me: What hint?

Doggy: To give her expensive gifts. She likes that. When she was getting married, she repeatedly reminded the whole class her wedding date and asked us to tell our parents. On the wedding day, more than half of my classmates and their parents went, every family bringing gifts or a red envelope [of cash].

Me: Did you go?

Doggy: No, my friend and I didn't go. All the girls did. Some of the boys too.

Doggy's mother: That's another reason why his teacher doesn't like him. It is my fault too. Once, the teacher called me to meet with her in a hospital to talk about Doggy. It was weird, why meet in a hospital? It turned out her mother-in-law was hospitalized, but it wasn't a big deal disease or something. I realized only afterward that she wanted me to bring nutritious stuff for her mother-in-law.

Me: Did you?

Doggy: My mom didn't that time. But she did give my teacher money during my second year, and it bought me peace for one semester.

Me (to my sister): Is this true?

Doggy's mother: Yes. Then I didn't have money to give her the following semester, so everything started all over again.

Me: I can't believe this.

Doggy's mother: It's actually quite common in today's schools.

Doggy: The teacher has been a little better this semester. She didn't punish us as often.

Me: Why?

Doggy: I don't know, maybe because she's married and had a baby? Maybe because we have grown up and might actually take revenge on her?

* * *

Postscript: It wasn't like this in my own school time, in the 1970s. The worst thing a middle school teacher did to me was ask me to write an essay so that he could recommend it for some sort of writing contest. Instead, he took that essay and said it was written by his daughter and got a job or something for her. In my high school the teachers worked really hard to teach us science and literature instead of political propaganda, especially my math teacher, who risked denunciation to give me advance math lessons in his apartment after school. I know I have written about China's morality crisis, and I am sure not all teachers are like this, but I still want to ask, What's wrong with this generation of teachers?

(More about teachers tomorrow)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Shanghai International Literary Festival Live Blogging

Shanghai's international literary festival does an impressive live blogging, which provides real time transcripts of author talks and audience interaction. I found several of the China-related conversations quite interesting:

James Fallows: "People in the U.S. would generally like to think, 'well is China good or is it bad?' and the answer is of course that, like the U.S. it is good and it is bad. You have to embrace the good and work on the bad."

Stella Dong: "In Shanghai the taxi drivers come out and put your luggage in the back of the trunk. They want to do what you want and help you out. In Beijing, people argue with you and you're treated, well, there's this certain attitude like, make me do it. "

Jeff Wasserstrom: "There are so many differences and rivalries between Shanghai and Beijing. When I told people I was writing about important student movements like the May Fourth movement, they said 'but that happened in Beijing!' But I point out that although the protests started in Beijing, they peaked in Shanghai."

Jen Lin-Liu: "Nevermind that I clearly informed the administration of this information. 'Miss Lin is a Chinese-American writer and she wants to spread propaganda to the Chinese people...unsurprisingly, they thought I was retarded.'"

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Literary Weekend in Hong Kong

On Saturday and Sunday, I participated in two panels at the Hong Kong Literary Festival, and very much enjoyed meeting the talented writers Chiew-Siah Tei (author of Little Hut of Leaping Fishes), Neel Chowdhury (author of The Inheritors), Nam Le (author of The Boat), and Rana Dasgupta (author of Solo). I bought their books and really look forward to reading them.

One panel was titled "Dislocated Voices" and moderated by Sue Gourlay, who manages the Man Asian Literary Prize. The other was "The Year of the Short Story," moderated by Chris Wood, editor of Asia Literary Review (which published my personal essay "Lost Letters" in December 2007).

Nearly all participants in the two panels had recently had their first fiction book published, with the exception of Rana, who is enjoying his second book. Our panels were anything but dull, mainly because we argued about, instead of agreeing on, things. :-)

A question raised from the audience during the first panel discussion was whether our fiction should help push just causes in the author's native land. My viewpoint was "no," because the definition of whether a cause is just or not changes over time. If you want your fiction to have lasting life, to be read even ten, twenty, or fifty years later, you certainly should avoid carrying any immediate political agenda. I believe fiction should transcend any ideology, and it should let characters rather than the author speak. As I see it, the ultimate goal of fiction is to explore human nature. To issue the author's own political opinions, write nonfiction instead.

This discussion reminded me an old Chinese novelist, father of a writer friend. In my youth, when my first short story was published just after the end of the Cultural Revolution, there was no monetary payment, instead I got a notebook and a three-volume novel as an award. That novel was about China's rural communization in the 1950s. The novelist, and his main characters, wholeheartedly believed in the communization movement. He was a well-known author and the book was well-written. I remember a reading of the novel in a funny local dialect that was broadcast by radio stations all over Sichuan province. People loved it, and the novel became very popular for a while. I loved it too, not just because the author's daughter, a young writer like me at the time, had become my friend, but also because his writing was witty and fun to read, his characters vivid. It was only years later that we learned what disaster the communization movement had brought on Chinese farmers. Now no one reads that novel any more. It can no longer even be found in libraries. The novelist stopped writing novels. Instead he spends all his time researching the ancient Chinese classic A Dream of Red Mansions (红楼梦).

My "no political agenda" view, of course, is not shared by every writer; probably more would disagree than agree. A counter argument given by another panelist was the novel 1984. That novel certainly carries a strong political agenda, and it is still read by many today. (I have to say that was a very good argument.) But 1984 also makes fun of human nature, and that part really transcends the ideological message. It is an exceptional novel in that regard.

In the second penal on short story writing, the other two authors said their stories were mainly products of imagination, while mine were largely experience-based realism. Now, both imagination and "write what you know" are viable vehicles for creating fiction, and the two certainly are not exclusive. In fact, in every work of fiction, each is embedded in the other. But when I heard the strong words against "write what you know" from the younger men, I was in a teasing mood. Is it because you don't have interesting experiences that you put so much emphasis on pure imagination? I asked them. And we went on for a fun round. I must add here that the other authors are really intelligent young men, and it was exactly because of this I had fun arguing with them. Read their books and you'll see what I mean – they are very good writers. And Chris Wood, a delightful gentle Englishman, was a great moderator. I got a copy of the latest issue of his magazine, the Asia Literary Review, and both the format and content look very attractive.

Much to my added delight, I was told that my book (the Hong Kong edition) sold quite well following the panels. Perhaps readers like argumentative authors. :-)

During the weekend I also met my Hong Kong publisher, who has a fascinating personal history. When he was young, he traveled from England along the Silk Road to Xinjiang, China, and ran out of money. He didn't have any means to make a living there; in the course of searching for a job he accidentally landed in Hong Kong, and has stayed there ever since. I will not leak all his secretes in the hope that one day he will write them down himself. His publishing house, Blacksmith Books, is doing quite well now, and he is planning to open an office in London soon.

I want to end this post by saying I had great fun in Hong Kong. Two decades ago when I moved to the United States from China, I had a short stay in Hong Kong for the first time. I didn't like it very much then, probably because it was so different from the inland cities in China. But this time I truly enjoyed it. It completely made up for the 26 hours of flying from Boston.

My only regret is I missed Prof. Jeffrey Wasserstrom's session "Bloggers: Should They Be Taken Seriously?" (moderated by Rebecca MacKinnon, whose blog I love) on Monday evening. Jeff had very kindly invited me to share the stage with him, however by then my plane tickets were already arranged by the Festival. As I had to leave Hong Kong Monday morning, I missed the great opportunity to meet in person two people I admire. I hope their session went well last night.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Hong Kong Scenes

I'm in Hong Kong for its Literary Festival this weekend. Here is a photo I took from my hotel window:

I've not been in Hong Kong for a long time -- 15 years perhaps? And I'm quite disoriented (it didn't help to arrive at midnight last night). This afternoon I went to have a look outside the hotel (named "the Excelsior") and saw young people jamming streets and stores everywhere. Here's a photo I took at the door of "Ireland's Potato":

I asked a teenager who was eating chips on the sidewalk why so many people waited in line for this one. I thought he would say "because it's cheap," instead he said "好吃" (taste good). I had heard that the global financial crisis hit Hong Kong harder than mainland China, as a result many retail stores were closed. (This morning a reporter who came to interview me also said his magazine, a glossy one, was gone.) So this crowdedness on the streets was a bit unexpected. Was it "少年不知愁滋味" ? Even such a big crisis can't stop today's young people from enjoying shopping and eating out? Later I learned this area is a high-end shopping district (it didn't look like one to me). That could explain it, I guess. A young couple who were eating supper at the same table I sat at said "lots of rich people in this area."

I'll post about the Literary Festival after I return home Monday, and also respond to the comments below the previous post. There's no internet blockage in Hong Kong, but the hotel charges quite expensively for the wireless connection. :-(.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What Kind of Country is China Today?

In previous posts I said that China still has a (somewhat weakened) totalitarian government, but no longer a communist one. A couple of readers then questioned whether China really is still a totalitarian country at all. I think this is an important issue worth further discussion. As Confucius says, "When the name is improper, what is spoken will not be reasonable. When what is spoken is unreasonable, what is acted upon will not succeed." ("名不正则言不顺言不顺则事不成。")

To start the discussion, here is the Wikipedia definition of totalitarianism:

Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) is a concept used to describe political systems whereby a state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private life. Totalitarian regimes or movements maintain themselves in political power by means of an official all-embracing ideology and propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, a single party that controls the state, personality cults, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of free discussion and criticism, the use of mass surveillance, and widespread use of terror tactics.

When thinking about it according to this definition, an interesting observation emerges: While China still has a political system that is built for all the above totalitarian functions, the party that operates this state apparatus is no longer exercising many of the functions. For example, the tight control over the economy is largely gone in many settings, and the old ideology (communism) is hardly mentioned in propagandas any more. Stupid restrictions on free discussion and criticism still exist, for example the internet blockage and the recent arrest of Liu Xiaobo, but there are also a huge amount of dissenting voices that can be heard on the internet. When it comes to individual life style choices, people are largely left alone. In recent years, there have emerged independent media outlets such as Caijing and the publications of the Southern Media Group. Those things certainly couldn't have happened in Mao's time.

Another thing I found very interesting during my recent trip to China is that a growing number of people choose to join other political parties such as the Zhigong Party, either for political participation or self-protection or both. The background of this is the influence and political status of those so-called democratic parties have been, bit by bit, increasing. I met a senior medical doctor in Chongqing who is a member of the Zhigong Party, and he told me a story about a businessman who was wrongly jailed. Fortunately that man was a ranking member of another one of the democratic parties. With the support and appeals from his party, the man regained his freedom. "You need an organization to back you up if you want to fight injustice. One person does not have enough strength," the doctor told me. "Years ago when I wanted to join the CCP, they didn't want me. Now they want me, but I no longer what them," he added with a smile. All together, the many legal democratic parties in China are still not strong enough to match the CCP's power. "In the local Political Consultative Conference (政协), there may be one third of us and two thirds CCP members, so when taking votes they always win," the doctor told me, but he was also quick to point out the strength of democratic parties was growing. However, it occurs to me effective political reform is needed to really give these democratic parties, and others that should be allowed to emerge, their due status.

Here is something else I found out: the CCP's power is fading at base levels of the government and society. In a public work-unit, there are usually two top officials: the administrative official and the Party official (called "the secretary"). Traditionally, the Party secretary dominated the administrative official (who could be a non-CCP member). Nowadays, this remains true at certain higher levels, for example the county level (regiment level in the military) and above. But at lower levels the administrative official now typically holds more power.

The gradual fading of "personality cults" in China is also significant. People of my generation can vividly remember how such a personality cult reached the peak during the Cultural Revolution. After Mao died, there were still strong propaganda campaigns trying to build personality cults for the succeeding leaders Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin, but each time on a reduced scale. Nowadays, you see very little of these attempts at cult building for the current leader Hu Jintao.

So, why does a one-party government that possesses the totalitarian system machine give up operating much of it? There may be many reasons but one, IMO, is due to the progressive trend of civilization world wide. This certainly includes the Chinese people's wakening to their own rights, ever since the Cultural Revolution ended over three decades ago. Globalization might have brought in many bad things but one good thing – I'll call it information globalization – has made it much harder to control people and information now than before. This is to say, running counter to the progressive civilization trend increasingly damages the legitimacy of the party's leadership. Certainly they continue to do things that seem backward, but the boat is still higher when the water is rising.

There are also signs that the central control is increasingly weakened by internal factions within the CCP as well as the effective dispersion of power to sector and local leaders. A recent example is the "empty the cage for new birds" (腾笼换鸟) case. Last October, the party boss of Guangdong Province, Wang Yang, used this term to demonstrate the idea of having new, capital-intensive industries replace the old, labor- intensive industries in Guangdong. As such he took the current economic crisis that closed many of the factories – what he called the "backward productive force" – as a good opportunity. This idea was viewed by his opponents as a selfish localism aimed at getting rid of the large number of migrant workers in Guangdong. And Wang Yang's idea is not supported by Premier Wen Jiabao, who made a number of speeches to emphasize the importance of supporting small and medium sized private enterprises that provide jobs to migrant workers.

Party factions have always existed in CCP's history, but they were either consealed from the public or publicized in a violent way. Such a conflict between Wang Yang (a local boss) and Wen Jiabao (the nation's Premier) to be made public peacefully would have been unthinkable in the old times. Lately, there is also a sign that Hu Jintao supports Wang Yang, which puts the President and the Premier in somewhat opposite positions. Rumor has it that Wang Yang belonged to Hu Jintao's Youth League faction, while Wen Jiabao is from the State Council clique, so this dispute could be a factional one. Without making a rash judgment on whose arguments make more sense, I must say so far this "cage and bird" debate has been largely rational and non-confrontational from both sides.

To point out the above changes is not to gloss over China's problems such as government corruption, social injustice, and the lack of independent judiciary. Rather, I see a hope here that a peaceful ongoing improvement in these areas might be possible. Given the significant reduction in China's totalitarian function and power, could we say that China now has progressed into a semi-totalitarian country from the Mao era of totalitarian? If this holds, and if this first half of the transformation has been made relatively (but not completely) peacefully, isn't there the possibility that the second half of the transformation, from semi-totalitarian to non-totalitarian, could also be non-violent?

For this I see the increasingly publicized factional disagreement within the CCP as a helpful, and benign, sign. When factions go public, it also points to the hope for possible voting differences within the CCP so that vote of the doctor I spoke of above might really count. That could in turn be the first step toward a more complete democracy.

Of course, there may also be more severe factional conflicts behind the scenes, between the vested interest groups of the "prince party" (太子党) and the unnamed benign force, as the rumor on the street has it. If so, political reform is needed even sooner to prevent something much worse than political backstabbing from happening.

The danger is, the totalitarian state apparatus is still lying there, even if it is semi-inactive. No one can guarantee it will never be activated again by some insane leaders if political reform is not carried out in a timely manner.

(Thanks for reading my tentative thoughts. Rational discussions on the above are welcome and much appreciated.)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Impeccable Disrobing

There's something hilarious in the Pentagon's description of Chinese ships "harassing" a U.S. surveillance (spy?) ship: "Impeccable sprayed its fire hoses at one of the vessels in order to protect itself. The Chinese crewmembers disrobed to their underwear and continued closing to within 25 feet."

Adding to the amusement is that each Chinese language website gives a different translation for the US ship name "Impeccable." To cite just a few:






Gosh, the realm of name translation to Chinese is surely out of control.

A side note: CNN reports that "there were no stories about the incident in Chinese media." However the website of China's official magazine Global Times has a report that calls Pentagon's protest "hasty" and "fishy," because the news broke at a sensitive period of the two countries' military exchange. It also says the harassment claim uses lame logic, given Impeccable's location. However, the Chinese article does not mention the "disrobe" part of the Pentagon statement. Their loss, no 完美号 humor for them.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Western Ideological vs. Chinese Nationalistic Sentiment

A few years ago, a Chinese American whom I didn't know surprised me with an email, after he read a story I wrote about the Cultural Revolution. The email said,

Most writers from China like to write something negative about China, sort of justifying [why] they left China. When we left Taiwan during the 60's, even though we didn't like the government there, we never wrote/said anything negative at the expense of China (Taiwan). Remember, during the early days of the PRC, China had to do something drastic to rid of the old trash, China would not have enjoyed today's status without doing that.

I sent him a polite brief response, as I thought he had misunderstood my writing. It would be more accurate to say my writing has something to do with negative things about human nature than about a country. In the next email he continued to vent:

I don't like any Chinese writers to write something bad about China especially if they write in English, the problem is most American readers don't have enough knowledge about China, they will misinterpret what they have read and believe this is really what China is like. It is not, compare with China 50 years ago, today's China is a totally different place.

At the time I was taken aback by this. I disagreed with him on not to write anything "bad," but took his opinion as an isolated extreme, as such I didn't reply to his second email.

Since I started blogging over a year ago, the topic of the nationalistic sentiment of overseas Chinese has kept coming back, only then I realized the opinion of the early email contact is not that uncommon. I talked about this sentiment in an earlier post titled "Are Overseas Chinese More Patriotic?"

Now there is a difference between patriotism and nationalism, though not everyone shares the same view of what defines each. One terse, and whimsical, definition I have heard is that "A patriot is willing to fight for her country. A nationalist wants to argue for her country." Using that distinction, I think the term "nationalistic sentiment" more accurately describes what I'm discussing here.

Not very long ago, a cyber friend, a Chinese immigrant of my generation, told me about his uneasiness with his view regarding the CCP. Having grown up in China and moved abroad after college graduation in the early 1980s, he had viewed the first 30 years of the CCP's rule as morally unforgivable. Yet he finds himself increasingly forgiving the CCP now, and couldn't rationally explain this softening to his own satisfaction.

Coincidentally, during my recent visit to China, I met with another friend, an overseas Chinese writer who divides his time between the US and China, and he expressed similar feelings. He is a few years older than me, and, like me, is a member of the historic and misnamed "Class 77" (the first cohort that entered university after the Cultural Revolution, in February 1978). I was telling him about my research in Chongqing regarding the history of one line of the CCP's anti-American propaganda, and his face dropped. He said my research topic had an adverse effect on him and that it was not productive to dwell on such past misinformation. This surprised me a bit because I had known him since college time, during which he was an active participant in student democracy movements. And, in our conversation that lasted for several hours, when we were not addressing the CCP in particular, he presented a clear and penetrating view of China's current problems such as government corruption.

Note those are not isolated cases. I can give you many more examples.

Upon returning to the US, I was joking with Bob that if the Chinese government were smarter, it should send all dissidents overseas instead of putting them in prison, as living the West seems to be more effective in changing views.

Seriously though, I'm more interested in figuring out what caused the strong nationalistic sentiment among overseas Chinese. There have been many discussions on Chinese nationalism in general, for example see the Council on Foreign Relations article here. However, as far as I can tell, nowadays the nationalistic sentiment is even stronger among overseas Chinese. This is especially interesting because many of them are changing their view as cited above.

IMO, there is the external factor and there is the internal factor that causes such strong sentiment, in addition to the general/historical factors cited by others.

The external factor: such sentiment has appeared as a natural balancing force against unbalanced Western media reporting on China. Apparently, the media in the West did not keep up with the changing China and thus stuck with an outdated view of it, and that annoyed many overseas Chinese who are proud of their motherland's progress. Especially in early 2008, during the Olympics torch saga, the one-sided reporting reached its peak. As a consequence the overseas Chinese nationalistic sentiment also reached its peak, as demonstrated in the huge New York rally that no media reported. Around the time, I wrote a few pieces about the need for balanced reporting, see for example "No conversation on BBC" , "Cyber Voices on Tibet - A Search For Balance", and "A Sichuan Family and Tibet’s Future".

More frequently than not, the criticisms on China I heard were not based on historical or present facts, rather they were based on ideological sentiment, often from people who knew little about China except "it's a communist country." There was also a telling anecdote posted on an overseas Chinese website: In San Francisco, on the day of the Olympics torch relay, a Chinese student asked an American student why he came to participate in the Tibet Independence movement, and the answer was "they asked me to."

I have my own reasons to resent communism, and this is based on my experience growing up in China in the 1960s-80s. However, for better or worse, the China of today is no longer the China I grew up in, and many Americans don't see that. To my mind, China is hardly a communist country any more. It still has a (somewhat weakened) totalitarian government, but no longer a communist one.

Ever since the Cultural Revolution, Chinese people have lost their belief in communism. Those who join the party no longer do so to pursue its stated ideals (as my parents did in the 1940s), rather they join in the hope of getting power. In the old days only "the proletariat's vanguard fighters" were permitted to join the party, now it has changed its recruiting policy to be all-inclusive. I learned during my recent trip to China that, nowadays, anyone who applies is admitted to the CCP. As a result many rich entrepreneurs have become party members, to complete the process of combining money with power. The party might now be called a half-breed of several things and capitalism is one of them, but it no longer believes in communism. I doubt its top leaders are still believers either. After all, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were both Red Guards once and suffered through the chaotic time of the Cultural Revolution. I suspect their stubbornness on maintaining "stability" has something to do with that painful experience. Though the "communist" label continues to be used by the CCP, it seems to me such a label is more for the sake of continuity (="stability") than anything else. As such, when addressing China's problems – and it does have serious problems – attacking communism is like treating lung disease with foot fungus medicine. Worse, such attacks result in aversive effects.

To have rational discourse on China’s issues, the Western media should abandon its outdated ideological stance against "communist China." If anything, China has become a country with no working ideology, and that might also be one of its problems. As a matter of fact, China is no more and no less than a problematic and promising country, and in this regard it is not unlike any other country in the world. Attacks and hatred based on ideological sentiment have become irrelevant and ill-placed.

One good thing that the Beijing Olympics brought was a whole lot of journalists visiting China, and they saw a humanly country with huge variety and diversity in people's behavior and lives. This has certainly helped the Western world's understanding of China, and thus increased rational criticism and decreased irrelevant attacks since the Olympics. Even the obstinate BBC and CNN have shown signs of change now. In other words, the West has begun to treat China factually instead of as a well-defined "communist country." This change should also help to bring down the fever of overseas Chinese's nationalistic sentiment – a return to equilibrium.

[Added: what a coincidence - just saw a post on ESWN today about Western media's misreporting on China.]

The internal factor: many of us overseas Chinese live a far better material life than the average people inside of China, and we are too far away to feel their daily struggles intimately. The center problem of China right now, as many insightful scholars have pointed out, is a bureaucratic power that lacks checks and is not monitored. That is the root of government corruption and people's discontent. Our distant position in overseas might have enlarged the apparent successful image of China's economic reform, but overlooked the lurking danger caused by the lack of political reform. The present trouble with the CCP is that it no long possesses its old ideological strength, but is still uses its backward political structure to hand out power.My latest visit to China has convinced me more than ever that political reform is needed and overdue. The difficult question is how to carry out a peaceful political reform instead of causing another chaotic revolution. No sensible and sane Chinese, except those with their own agendas based on self-interest, want another revolution. As overseas Chinese, we can help to bring about a peaceful reform through rational discourse. Overheated nationalism, like irrelevant ideological attacks, will not help at all. That is to say, while a balanced and updated view from the Western media is called for, we also need to put our nationalistic sentiment in check, so as not to turn a deaf ear to rational criticism or simply rebut it with anger. More on this in future posts as this one is already too long.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Need for a New English Pronoun

This resonates with me:

There have been at least 18 recent tweets about the fact that English has no grammatically correct substitutes for words like "he," "him," and "his" that do not have a gender implied.

Consider the sentence "Everyone loves his mother." The word "his" may be seen as both sexist and inaccurate, but replacing it with "his or her" seems cumbersome, and "they" is grammatically incorrect.

Read the complete CNN report here.

What's your take? What is the word we need and want?

(Interestingly, in written Chinese, there isn't such a gender-neutral pronoun either.)

Monday, March 2, 2009

"The Biggest Threat Is not Social Unrest but Societal Breakdown" (2)

by Sun Liping, Professor of Sociology at Tsinghua University

(Continued from yesterday's post)

[in translation]

8. Society has lost the ability to think long-term. Vested interest groups formed on bureaucratic capitalism pay overly great attention to short term interests; they have neither the ancient emperors' responsibility toward their descendants, nor the nobleman's detachment and transcending spirit. There is a tendency in our society for an exaggeration-syndrome over short-term problems to co-exist with a numbness-syndrome over long-term behavior. For every problem at the moment, each bush and tree looks like an enemy soldier; Problems concerning our descendants and society's long-term development all meet with a blind eye. "Get drunk today when there is still wine" becomes institutionalized behavior. With resource and environmental issues, they drain the lake to catch all the fish. Facing institutional malpractice, they put off whenever they can. The city of Handan went through ten mayors in a decade. The national average for a mayor's term is now 1.7 years. In the first half of each term, the job is to "hold up [the new leadership] onto the horse and accompany them for a distance"; in the second half of the term it is to search for and train the successor. Power and interest before one's eye is everything; there is no time to do real things.

9. Why can't counter-corruption be carried out effectively? This shows how things are weighed from the perspective of vested interests, i.e., which is more frightening, the corruption, or the prospect of appealling to society in order to institute counter-corruption measures? This logic of course holds for a corrupt individual, but when it transforms into an institutional logic, the problem becomes severe. Unfortunately, the above logic is far from non-institutional. Many years of counter-corruption activities basically stop at the point of making a show and killing the chicken to frighten the monkey. When it comes to substantial measures in countering corruption, despite the fact that everyone, top to bottom, knows what is going on, there has never been fundamental progress, let alone an appeal to society to implement measures for counter-corruption.

10. Maintaining vested interests is a tiring job, and our society has placed too much of its energy and resources behind this. To maintain vested interests, freedom of speech must be suppressed. Just think about it, how much energy and resources have been used to suppress those voices? To maintain vested interests, democracy the obstruction must be bypassed using every possible means. Just think about it, how much energy have we wasted on justifying, how many reasons and theories have we made up, in order not to have democracy? To maintain vested interests, we have to suppress the people's rightful expression of interest, as a consequence how many mass incidents have brewed, and how much energy has been spent on resolving those mass incidents? To maintain vested interests, we don't dare to adopt many effective counter-corruption measures used in other countries, and we have to use those clumsy and ineffective campaign-style methods. How much more energy and resources have been wasted with those campaigns? One must know that, to simultaneously realize the two goals of maximizing vested interests and maintaining normal operation of society is a considerably difficult and laborious thing to do. It tires our system, and it tires the management. The psychological burden is heavy from the system to the manager. More importantly, to maintain vested interests, our society needs to pay a deeper and further cost. For instance, why do we have to criticize universal values on a grand scale? Does something in universal values make us lose our temper? To be frank, it is democracy and liberty. Because they threaten vested interests, but to directly criticize democracy and liberty does not sound good, so those in power have to take on universal values. In today's faithless and morally degraded reality, even universal values become the subject of criticism, the consequence is predictable. But for the sake of vested interests, it has to be done.

11. The root cause for societal breakdown is the formation of bureaucratic capitalism. In the past, many viewed power and the free market as two opposite things, now one can see the two things are married in China. This is like two people whom others think it would be impossible to marry are wed. Not only they married, but they live well together. In the past there was this thought that power would be restricted in a market economy; Now it is exactly the emergence of the market that provides power with greater opportunity for its use. The market is the market in which power plays a role, power is the power used in the market. Furthermore, power is traded at a better price in the market. This is the problem we face right now. In 2002 I raised the "broken society" concept (see Vested interest groups under bureaucratic capitalism can form a divide between "us" and "them." As analyzed above, this divide has created a psychological distance.

12. China's realm of ideology faces the marriage between power and money. Both power and markets need to be regulated, but more importantly the link between the two must be severed. Recently Mr. Mao Yushi proposed to "prohibit the rich from having power, prohibit the powerful from making money," which is the same idea. We must see that the key problem is the marriage between power and money. But the situation in China's current realm of ideology is like this: Presently, power and money the seemly unmarriageable two have made a family and are living well together. Now, a dispute appears between the leftist and the rightist. One says, in the family, the husband is a good husband, the wife is a bad wife. The other says, but the wife is the good one and the husband is bad. The two sides quarrel fiercely, while the married couple are living their sweet life.

13. Due to the wrong way of thinking, all kinds of measures in "maintaining stability" have made it impossible to carry out reforms to help society's health, and the consequence is further exacerbation of societal breakdown. Social unrest can be handled by "maintaining stability," while societal breakdown is much harder to deal with. I recall the time when the former President of Philippines, Estrada, fell because of corruption, one American media outlet commented that the internal wound caused by the country's corruption might need its people to pay the cost for 100 years. When corruption becomes a life style, when corruption becomes an irreproachable value, when corruption becomes a thing that everyone curses yet everyone wants, the entire social life enters a state of metamorphosis. History will prove that, "stability" not only can't prevail over everything, its pursuit can destroy everything. The stiff thinking to have stability prevail over everything will kill any sprouting effort at making our nation healthy.

14. The marriage of power and money and the corruption it causes have fundamentally distorted China's social development process. Last year was the 30th anniversary of China's reform. At such an important moment, people expected a serious summary and in-depth reflection upon the past. Regrettably however, cheap praise and meaningless set-expressions lost the great opportunity. This shows we have lost the ability and courage to face reality, including reform. In fact, as I emphasized in a series of articles in 2005, to some extent reform is becoming a war of property robbery. The consensus on reform has basically fallen through; the drive for reform has been lost. The reason? It is that reform is constrained by the frame of vested interests. Even the really open-minded reformer is unable to get rid of such constraints. In this situation, the mechanism to distort reform has formed. Even a reform with the best motive can have the opposite result.

15. Actually, China's reform is neither as good as some have said, nor as bad as others have said. I never agree to completely attribute the economic development speed and the improvement in people's material life to reform. As long as there are no unusual natural or man-made disasters, the economy will develop as a matter of fact. Some people often compare today's material life with that of 30 years ago, in order to illustrate the success of reform. But in fact, in addition to the fact that normal social development has been driven by technology progress, the decrease of birth rate and average family size is also an important factor. If today's cities, had many families with 3 children, what kind of life would it be? Therefore we can say that reform and opening-up have benefited from family planning, and that reform has benefited from opening-up (which speeds technological progress). This is not to deny reform, but to take a rational attitude toward it. The real meaning of reform is to transform China from a distorted and metamorphic society into a normal society and merge it into the mainstream of human civilization. A market economy is only a limited part of it. And this process is far from complete, in recent years has even been retreating.

16. China's reform has congenital deficiency. Reflecting on its starting point can help us re-think a few issues. China's reform actually did not start from "the verge of collapse of the national economy." The launch of the reform was the result of several forces combined. There was people's desire to improve their economic condition, and there was intellectuals' ideal of changing the status quo, but more importantly there was the demand from those who lost their power in the Cultural Revolution to return to the power center. The latter includes two kinds of people: those who wanted to return to the 17 years before the Cultural Revolution, and those who wanted to borrow the opportunity to advance into a new civilization. In the early 1980s reform was controlled by this part of the people. However, what was in contrast to the situation then was only the absurd years of the Cultural Revolution, therefore the power-holders were full of confidence. This confidence created the enlightened period of the 1980s. However the surface progress concealed the fundamental deficits of the reform, i.e., its lack of a real value target that leads to a new civilization.

17. "Stability" has begun to become a means to maintain the existing structure of vested interests. (The end)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

"The Biggest Threat Is not Social Unrest but Societal Breakdown" (1)

by Sun Liping

(Note: I just returned from a month-long visit to China, during which I talked to many people from various social classes – more about that in future posts. One thing that surprised me a bit is that the state of freedom of speech in China is not as bad as I'd expected, despite the notorious internet blockage that prevented me from even viewing my own blog. On the Chinese internet one can read lots of dissenting voices, some admirably rational. The following is my translation of a recent article by Sun Liping, a professor of sociology at Tsinghua University. This article, recommended to me by a writer friend in Shanghai, has been reprinted on many Chinese websites and can be easily googled within China. You can read the Chinese original here. Also note its large readership. – Xujun)

[in translation]

This is a discussion post; its core point is: the biggest threat to China perhaps is not social unrest but societal breakdown. This is a tentative view, therefore this post is in constant revision. Constructive discussion from interested friends is welcome.

1. Are we anxious about the wrong problem? Now people are all concerned with social conflicts and clashes, mass incidents, etc. Those concerns come from the worry about large scale social unrest. But in fact, the biggest threat to China perhaps is not social unrest but societal breakdown.

2. Social unrest means that serious conflicts can threaten the basic structure of the ruling regime and system, while societal breakdown is the cell necrosis of the societal body. With more imagery, unrest is like a healthy body wounded by someone else's attack, while breakdown means one's own organs or cells are having serious problems. Mr. Fei Xiaotong's "social erosion" and Samuel Huntington's "political decay" are two concepts that can deepen our understanding on this, even though neither concept is completely the same as the "societal breakdown" as discussed here. The latter of these two concepts might be closer.

3. The opposite of social unrest is social stability; the opposite of societal breakdown is societal health. Although the two are often related, they should be distinguished. Now the problem is, the misdiagnosis of the former often becomes the obstacle of treating the latter. It's like a cancer patient who needs surgery, but the doctor misdiagnoses the patient as having a heart attack, counter indicating surgery. In fact the patient may not be having a heart attack, or may be having only a mild one. In societal reality, some reforms are needed to prevent societal breakdown, but the concern that the reforms would threaten social stability has pushed them aside, and the consequence of this is that the tendency toward societal breakdown becomes more obvious.

4. In a recent article I repeatedly emphasized that, despite many current social conflicts, some even showing signs of intensifying, the possibility of large scale social unrest is small. I wrote about this 10 years ago. See also a two-page interview in Southern Weekend from last year. In the past decade or so, because we overestimated the factors generating instability, a fixed way of thinking that stability must prevail over everything has been formed. In this fixed way of thinking, "stability" becomes the ultimate negating factor; everything must yield to "stability." As a consequence many things that should be done can't be done. Actually, in 365 days of a year, if there is not this incident there will be that incident. In a country with a population of 1.3 billion, big disasters and small troubles are inevitable. If you take pains to look for instability, you will always find it, not to mention that uncontrolled power is continuously creating "mass incidents" (for example the recent "mass incident" in Guizhou was caused by the government's bizarre idea to stop mass entertainment activities). The key is what mentality we should have in viewing such problems. Any country in the world would have destabilizing incidents like ours, but only we have organizations like "the office for maintaining stability."

5. In recent years, signs of societal breakdown have become more apparent. The core problem is the loss of control over power. During the past 30 years of reform, despite the establishment of a basic framework for a market economy, power remains the backbone of our society. Because societal breakdown first appears as the loss of control over power, corruption is but the surface manifestation. By loss of control over power I mean that power becomes a force unconstrained not only externally, but also internally. Before this, although it lacked external constraints, internal constraints had been relatively effective. The power base is weakening; several years ago we had already heard the saying "commands don’t reach outside of Zhongnanhai [the headquarters of the CCP and China’s Central Government]." Local power and sector power have become unconstrained from above and unmonitored from below, at the same time lacking any check or balance from the left or right. This is to say, state power is fragmented, and officials are unable to work responsibly. To preserve their positions they don't balk at sacrificing system benefits (not to mention societal interest). With this background, corruption has gotten beyond control and become untreatable.

6.This societal breakdown spreads to every aspect of life: unspoken rules prevail, becoming the basis for being an official or even being a person, about which Mr. Wu Si (吴思) has a good analysis; Powerful interest groups are unbridled and the tendency toward an underworld society emerges; Social justice erodes; Lack of professional ethics is common; Society's information system is filled with falsehoods, fake statistical data representing systematic distortions of information. "Village cheats village, county cheats county, cheating all the way to the State Council" is a more solid reality than official statistical data.

7.Sense of social identity and centripetal forces are rapidly lost. The big fire at a CCTV building on the day of the Lantern Festival caused a several tens of billions damage, but there are only gloating voices over the disaster on the internet. No sadness, no grief. The morose delectation expresses an unspeakable pleasure. Some say this shows people's coldness; some say there is no hope for our nation; still some ask, why don't those who gloat think that part of their own property burned in the fire (because the CCTV building is state property)? This makes me recall a big fire in the 1980s' Shenyang, at the time many people stood on the streets crying out. How can this be explained using our national identity? Where is the problem? It lies in whether we identify with the society. Crying over Shenyang's big fire, people felt "our own" buildings had burned. In the CCTV big fire, some said, even if tens of billions of yuan were not burned, they would be eaten anyway. Here the eating and drinking of course means using public money. Others worried how much water would be used to put out the fire when there was a drought going on. Behind those talks is psychological distance, that is, those things are "theirs," not "ours." Psychological distance is reflection of structural distance. (to be continued)