Thursday, March 25, 2010

One China, Two Chinas, Many?

On Tuesday afternoon, Bob and I went to BU's Pardee Center for a well-attended event titled "Shifting Patterns of Dissent and Repression in a Changing China," sponsored by the Asian Studies Initiative at BU.  Jeff Wasserstrom (UC Irvine) and Yang Jianli (Carr Center for Human Rights) gave interesting – and different – perspectives on the topic.
Jeff Wasserstrom's talk was derived from his new book China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. He points out several misconceptions that Western people commonly hold about China, one of which is to view Chinese people as divided into dissidents and loyalists, whereas in fact there is a whole spectrum of political positions staked out these days. He views this as a very different reality from either the time of the May 4th movement in 1919 or the June 4th movement in 1989; in both of those times, Chinese people's political stances were more united than now.

As a historian, who wrote his PhD thesis on Chinese student movements in the early 20th century, Wasserstrom provides a more historical perspective on China than most. He was finishing his thesis just as the 1989 Tiananmen protests were erupting, so has a good angle to think about that movement. He points out that one of the things the Chinese government has learned from the June 4th event is to be more pragmatic. Recognizing that there are numerous mass protests in China every year, the government brushes most aside as unimportant. It is only when activities are not of short duration or not geographically and socially localized that the central government takes action against them. This is a political change, contrary to some people's view that China has only changed economically.

I largely agree with the views Wasserstrom presented. I categorize myself, for example, in neither the dissident nor the loyalist camp. I'd like to remain an independent thinker for the rest of my life, which is a rather difficult position these days. I've lost some American writer friends because I refused to call the Beijing Olympics "genocide Olympics."  And I don't necessarily fare better with Chinese readers of my blog either. Though most Chinese are not at the extremes of the spectrum, it seems that those who are, are most active and outspoken. Apparently my blog does not please readers who take certain strong positions – the left are unhappy with my often critical attitude toward the government as well as my refusal to let go of the memory of, and lessons from, the past, while the right are unsatisfied that I do not talk as radical as dissidents do and that I advocate political reform rather than revolution. No matter. An independent thinker I will continue to be. Just as there are reasons for the left and right to exist, there is also a reason for someone like me to exist somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. :-)

I'm always happy to hear Western thinkers and writers, such as James Fallows, Jeff Wasserstrom, and Peter Hessler, emphasize the concept of variety when it comes to China and Chinese people. The point that there is a spectrum of attitudes and actions within China is right on the money. With over one billion people you would expect to find almost every imaginable attitude present. Yet surprisingly many Westerners do not perceive this way. Even Yang Jianli wanted to talk about "two Chinas": the elites and the "shitizens" as he calls them. As a writer, I do like the colorful term, but compared to Wasserstrom's more realistic perspective, Yang's two-dimensional classification seems way too simplified to give much insight. One China, two Chinas, many Chinas. I would have to go with the last.

Of course, Yang Jianli is a dissident, as he declared himself right at the beginning of his talk, and he does have more than ample cause to bear ill will toward those that imprisoned him. He was certainly right about one thing. In responding to Wasserstrom's observation that nowadays an individual could stand on Tiananmen Square and curse corrupted officials without being put into jail, Yang Jianli argued that you might or might not be arrested, but you are never sure. This is certainly true. I, for example, when researching on the Cultural Revolution during my China visits, have always worried whether I would get into trouble. I never have, but that did not eradicate my worries.  Yang was also right that, because the political changes are not systematic, there is always a danger that the bad old ways might make a comeback.  I expressed the same concern in a post titled "What Kind of Country is China Today?" last year.

However, I don't see that Wasserstrom's observation necessarily contradicts Yang's. China has changed not only economically but also politically from the time I lived there, yet China has a much longer way to go in its political reform. Whether the Chinese government's current programmatic approach will lead to a more systematic change remains the important question.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What Do You Know about Edinburgh?

I'll be heading to Edinburgh for a writing conference titled "China Inside Out." (I know, the resemblance between the conference's title and my blog's is curious, but I believe this is just a coincidence, with a slight possibility that they copied me. :))

The Chinese name for Edinburgh, 爱丁堡, always rouses the picture of an ancient castle, European style.  I've never been in Edinburgh before and I'm excited for this opportunity, not the least because "in October 2004 Edinburgh became the very first UNESCO City of Literature."

The conference, held in the University of Edinburgh from March 11-13, is "a celebration of Chinese Women Writers in English." Participants include:
  • Writer and academic: Professor Shu-mei Shih, Dr Judith Misrahi Barack, Dr Margaret Hillenbrand
  • Poet and fiction writer: Wang Ping
  • Fiction writers: Xujun Eberlein, Liu Hong, Chiew-Siah Tei,
  • Critics: Professor LuMing Mao. Dr Amy Lai
  • Scottish writers: Lesley Glaister, Dilys Rose, A C Clarke, Dr Bashabi Fraser
  • Convenor of the Women's Committee of Scottish PEN: Faith Pullin
  • President of Scottish PEN and writer: Jenni Calder 

Friday, March 5, 2010

China 2013: A Quick Review

The Prosperous Time: China 2013, by Chen Guanzhong, Oxford University Press (China), HK$70.00.

In a country where social science fiction is currently rare, this neo-Orwellian novel by a Hong Kong author who has lived in Beijing for a decade is quite phenomenal. Set in 2013's Beijing, the story follows Mr. Chen, a writer whose life experience and surname resemble that of the author, as he attempts to track down and pursue the frequently disappearing love of his life, a marginalized woman named Xiaoxi who distrusts the government and whose son is a Party informant. Meanwhile, Chen's old acquaintance, Fang Chaodi, a man in his mid-60s with a complex background, involves Xiaoxi in a different kind of search – for a lost month from the spring of 2011. Both efforts are unpopular and run into political and social obstacles. Suspicious of the government's foul play, Fang, Xiaoxi and another friend eventually kidnap a Party politburo member for questioning. In the novel's final revelations, we learn that there have been 28 bloody days preceding China's prosperous time. However, though the Chinese government has in fact done tricks to successfully create prosperity at a time of world doom, the populace's selective memory loss is not due to one such trick.

What sets the novel apart is its attempt at maintaining an Orwellian perspective against the one-party autocracy while bringing the setting up-to-date: the dark gruesome milieu in Orwell's 1984 is replaced with a jubilant celebratory mood. This proves to be both an accomplishment and a challenge for the plot. The storyline hangs together well for most of the book, but falls short in the end. It seems as if the author had set out to tackle the paradox of why an authoritarian government should be advocated by the majority of people, but ends up being persuaded by his own antagonist of the regime's legitimacy. Part of this weakness might have been caused by missed opportunities in the plot, for which I will attempt a more detailed analysis in a formal review. Despite this neo-Orwellian novel's unintended counter-Orwellian ending, it nonetheless leaves the reader troubled by the possibility of widespread public support for a non-democratic regime and thus the failure of democracy's universal value.

Update: related link - "The Return of Politically Charged Science Fiction in China" (Foreign Policy)