This newspaper interview with one of Chinese Characters’ contributors (in Chinese) explores topics such as the way readers within the PRC have responded to Country Driving, his latest book, and also includes his reflections on the period when he was writing River Town.
“In his classic book titled The Two Cultures, C.P. Snow wrote that a ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension’ had come to divide two types of people, who would seem to have some basic things in common. He was thinking of “humanists” and “scientists,” but in the present moment, some of his phrases work at least as well for “professors” and “journalists.””—CC editor Jeffrey Wasserstrom on an upcoming scholarly conference: Should Scholarly Meetings Make Room for Journalists?
“Although nearly two weeks have passed since the Lantern Festival that officially marks the end of the 15-day holiday, cities across China are still facing a serious labor shortfall. In order to lure new workers and retain the old, some companies give employees sizable bonuses just for coming back to work, while others offer cash for every new employee they bring along with them. And in many areas, wage increases ranging from 10 to 30 percent have become the norm.”—From Michelle Dammon Loyalka’s opinion piece in The New York Times, Chinese Labor, Cheap No More. Her CC chapter and new book, Eating Bitterness, is about the lives of migrant workers.
Chinese Characters’ first event will be at the M Literary Festival in Beijing: Beijing-based writers and contributors to the forthcoming anthology Chinese Characters: Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, Evan Osnos, Ian Johnson, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Michelle Loyalka and Christine Larson share the profiles of individual Chinese people written for the book and how it brings a unique perspective to understanding China. Sunday, March 4 at 12:30pm.
“The reasons why they have chosen this method of protest are not exactly clear. People inside Tibet, especially in rural areas, are sometimes able to get radio news in Tibetan from outside sources such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, but probably know little if anything about the Tunisian self-immolation last year, let alone the Vietnamese self-immolations 50 years ago. But they would have heard about the demonstrations that lead to the Arab Spring, and this might have encouraged people in a general way to see popular protest as a way to bring about change.”—From a wide-ranging and thoughtful Asia Society interview with Tibet specialist Robert Barnett on the wave of political suicides by ethnic Tibetans in the PRC
“More important now is the political perception of Tibetans as victims who have suffered great abuses heroically and non-violently, or the Chinese stereotype of Tibetans as brutally oppressed serfs who are rejoicing at liberation. These are just some of the stereotypes that abound, so there is some variety but it’s still a very one-dimensional picture. Whichever stereotype you take it leads you down a political cul de sac, and you end up demeaning Tibetans and not seeing them as intellectual or moral equals. These images tend to evaporate if you read serious writing produced by Tibetans within Tibet, or if you are able to talk in depth with people from there.”—CC contributor Alec Ash interviews Tibetologist Robert Barnett at The Browser. Ash’s chapter introduces readers to a three-dimensional Tibetan.
Yang Jisheng Tombstone
Cosmos Books, 2008. 950 pp.
Frank Dikötter Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962
Walker & Company, September 2010. 448 pp.
In July 2011, Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine won the BBC’s Samuel Johnson Prize, one of Europe’s best known and most lucrative awards for a work of nonfiction. One of the judges, Brenda Maddox, explained to the Guardian why the book impressed her so much: “Why didn’t I know about this? We feel we know who the villains of the 20th century are — Stalin and Hitler. But here, fully 50 years after the event, is something we did not know about.”
That reaction highlights both the main contribution and main limitation of Dikötter’s book. Though there have been many books and articles published on the same subject — in English, Chinese, and I’m sure other languages — apparently Dikötter’s is the one that brought awareness to at least one more Westerner ignorant of the catastrophe. On the other hand, Dikötter’s attempt to draw parallels between the Mao-era famine that swept over the entirety of mainland China from 1959 to 1961 and killed tens of millions, the Holocaust, and the Soviet Gulag is, at best, an over-simplification that hinders understanding. To borrow what the discerning Asia scholar Ian Buruma once said on a different subject: “To distinguish between atrocities does not diminish the horror, but without clarity on these matters history recedes into myth and becomes a form of propaganda.”
The most authoritative study on the famine is Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone, which has a broader and deeper perspective. The Chinese language edition of the book was published in Hong Kong two years before Dikötter’s, and an English version is due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in fall 2012.
Educated at Tsinghua University, Yang Jisheng came from a peasant family in Hubei Province, where his father starved to death during the famine. Yang worked for 35 years as a respected reporter at the Party-run Xinhua news agency. After retiring in 1996, he began a ten-year journey of investigation into the famine that had burdened his heart for decades. Traveling all over the country, and helped by his many contacts in journalism and the government, he managed to access a wealth of material closed to the public, making copies of over 3,600 folders of information from provincial archives as well as those of the central government in Beijing. He often had to be stealthy about his research subject: instead of saying he was writing about the famine, he claimed, to Buruma, that he wanted to understand “the history of China’s rural economic policies and grain policy.” He got away with it most of the time, even in Henan, a province tightly guarding its archives where, years later, Dikötter’s research efforts were stymied. The only time Yang failed to get access was in the remote backward province of Guizhou. There, when he handed a carefully researched list of document titles to the archivist, the woman was frightened, and said she’d need instructions from above. When the provincial officials subsequently told Yang they needed approval from Beijing, he had to give up.
To gain a human perspective on the great tragedy, Yang interviewed a wide array of witnesses, from ordinary survivors to officials of various ranks who had handled policy at the time. As a Xinhua veteran, Yang’s capacity to access to these officials is unmatched, as is his cultural perspective from within. The resulting two-volume book of 950 pages offers a systematic examination of the famine with distinctive precision, thoroughness, and insight. (Oddly, it is a book that Dikötter is somewhat dismissive of.)
Conducted about a decade later than Yang’s research, Dikötter’s study draws from the same combination of sources: official archives and witness interviews. His book, too, presents useful research on several — though not as many — aspects of the famine.
Together, these two books cover 26 of Mainland China’s then 29 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions. The studies clearly establish the facts on the horror and extensiveness of the famine. While a few wide-eyed young Chinese nationalists, and a bunch of older Maoists writing on the Chinese website Utopia, still refute that a massive famine occurred, they do so by ignoring the evidence.
The Chinese have a saying: “The past that is not forgotten becomes the teacher of the future.” If the famine was the deliberate act of an individual villain (Mao Zedong) as demonic as Hitler or Stalin, then, the villain long dead, the matter is settled. On the other hand, if it was the result of failings in the social and political systems that, at least in part, still persist, then there are important lessons for today’s leaders.
Wednesday, Jan. 25: Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California, Irvine, will discuss visual images of the Tiananmen Square Massacre such as the famous photograph called “Tank Man,” taken June 5, 1989, by photographer Jeff Widener of The Associated Press.
“Meanwhile, the Shanghai-based car rental company eHi Auto Services Co Ltd also received a $70-million investment from a consortium in which Goldman Sachs was the lead investor in 2010. It used the money to further expand its fleet and its presence throughout the country.”—
“A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.”—Apple, America and a Squeezed Middle Class - NYTimes.com
"For an outside audience that still sometimes sees the Chinese as the faceless masses, Wasserstrom and Shah have assembled a collection of faces and names and fascinating life stories of a range of Chinese people. The contributors are some of the best-known writers on China today, and from every layer of society and every walk of life, the Chinese characters they have portrayed give readers a privileged glimpse inside a country that is bubbling with diversity and change."
Rob Gifford, China Editor, The Economist, and author of China Road, in his advance review of Chinese Characters
“She said it was “ridiculous” that the daily rental for a Volkswagen Polo had surged from less than 300 yuan ($47.50) before the holidays to more than 900 yuan.”—In "Car rental firms in the driver’s seat" at China.org.cn, the author discusses a surge in car rentals in China. Contributor Megan Shank introduces us to the industry and one man trying to take a greater share of the market in her chapter of Chinese Characters.
“'China' is the Leatherman-tool of rhetoric of this campaign: versatile, handy, and ready to plunge between the ribs of a passerby. It’s a proxy for saying—without actually saying, God forbid—that Americans of a certain kind are feeling weak and helpless, and they suspect that someone has crept into the house and stolen their mojo.”—Evan Osnos post for the New Yorker.
“Victims of corruption and injustice have no faith in the law, and yet they dream that an upright official will emerge to right their wrongs. Although a complaint mechanism is in place at all levels of Chinese government, petitioners seem to believe that the central authorities are less susceptible to corruption, and so make Beijing their destination. By some estimates, more than 10 million complaints are filed around the country each year, far more than are heard by the regular courts.”—Yu Hua’s latest op-ed, "In China, the Grievances Keep Coming."
“Havel belongs not only to Eastern Europe. He leaves a long record of moral support of democracy and human rights in China. And perhaps nowhere today do his writings have as much resonance as in China…
Havel warned…that relativism and consumerism could strip people of their humanity, and subsequently of their moral responsibility to one another…”—Rowena Xiaoqing He’s "Reading Havel in Beijing" (Wall Street Journal)
“People no longer believe you can win by working hard and honestly in China.”—A struggling journalist in Beijing, as quoted by CC contributor Christina Larson in “The End of the Chinese Dream” (Foreign Policy)
“The overall sense in western reports is that things are spinning out of control in China, that the center can’t hold and the Communist Party can’t manage. We are told that China has tens of thousands of similar protests each year. The exact numbers aren’t clear but official figures show a dramatic increase in “mass incidents” over the past decade from just a few thousand to, by some measures, 80,000. Subconsciously we get the message: protests are a sign of instability, ergo the stability of China under one-party rule is eroding. And yet to a degree this analysis doesn’t add up.”—CC contributor Ian Johnson on the recent protests in Wukan, from his New York Review of Books blog post "Do China’s Village Protests Help the Regime?"
China has, in recent months, been pressing North Korea to consider adopting a Chinese-style ‘reform and opening up’ policy.
On recent visits to China, Kim Jong-il and other North Korean officials have been taken on tours of factories and special economic zones, with officials saying they were keen to learn how to implement reforms back home.
But following Kim Jong-il’s death, any likelihood of that appears dim, said analysts, with the North now likely to focus on ensuring internal political stability.
”—Another Chinese Characters contributor, Ananth Krishnan, weighs in on Kim’s death for The Hindu, focusing on NK leadership transition’s implications for and concerns in the PRC.
“As Kim’s death came on the heels of Czech dissident leader and poet Vaclav Havel, many Weibo users also compared the two men’s very different legacies, of freedom and dictatorship. (Xinhua published a dubiously truncated obituary of Havel yesterday). One Weibo user wrote: ‘Both Havel and Kim Jong Il have died; one let us see the efforts of a man of conscience, while the other the stubbornness of a dictator.’ Another: ‘The only way in which Kim Jong Il ever came in front of Havel was by dying first.’ The Chinese poet Sang Ke wrote, ‘Mr. Havel, had it not been for you before, I would have walked in the dark even longer. Thank you.’ But as Cheng Yizhong, a Chinese journalist with an independent streak, observed sadly, with a nod to North Korea and perhaps China as well: ‘Havel passes away, but totalitarianism remains.’”—From Christina Larson’s Foreign Policy blog post "Two Funerals, and Weibo.”
Report from Tom Lasseter (McClatchy) who “was able to slip into Wukan on Thursday night…with the help of a local who had detailed knowledge of winding routes that skirted police positions in roads outside the village.”
“Some Chinese say openly that using ancient culture to promote soft power is a bad idea. Pang Zhongying of Renmin University says it does not help the country boost its standing abroad. Instead, says Mr Pang, a former diplomat, it highlights what he calls ‘a poverty of thought’ in China today.”—China abroad: Sun Tzu and the art of soft power | The Economist
'We'll keep resisting until our lawful demands are met,' Yang said.
At first we wanted our land to be returned. But now we think it would be better if we were given compensation as well.’
But Friday’s memorial was mostly about the man who had died. His family hit sticks against the ground to summon his spirit back to the village. The mood was sad rather than defiant, and many fear this village will end up paying for its fighting spirit.
”—Louis Lim reporting from Wukan, where villagers angry over official corruption and land grabs, have been mourning a fallen protester.
If you will be in Seattle in late January, one of CC’s co-editors will be going there to take part in a Q and A session after a January 24 showing of “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” then give a January 25 lecture on the “Tank Man” image the following evening….all part of a University of Washington globally minded series on iconic photographs.
This choice has relevance for China, where in 2011 as well as in other recent years many kinds of protest broke out, including the dramatic incident rural unrest currently underway. A runner-up on TIME’s list was Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
“The prevalence of pirated software on Chinese government computers has for years served as damning evidence of China’s lax enforcement of intellectual property rights. In an effort to address that embarrassment, China’s Vice Commerce Minister Jiang Zengwei last year announced that the State Council, China’s cabinet, would launch inspections—to be completed by October 2011—to ensure that central and local government bureaus and businesses are using legitimate software.”—From the recently re-launched (and missed while it was gone) China Real Time Report blog; good to have Josh Chin et al. updating us again.
““The government allowed the establishment of microblogs to prevent Twitter and Facebook from gaining influence in China, to create a version of Twitter that could be controlled,” says Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.”—China’s love affair with blogging wanes by Kathrin Hille at FT.com
Wall Street used to be full of cash, stocks and bonds; now it is full of tents and banners. America clearly has a problem, but that problem is far from simple. Weak financial supervision, inequitable distribution of wealth, inhibited class communication and the failure of democratic coordination are all the nation’s blight. There are some who look at this and point to America’s decline, but that isn’t my concern. I want to address those who think the turmoil on Wall Street shows up the failures of democracy. I think that’s over the top.
Democracy clearly has its flaws, but OWS shows not the defects of democracy but its advantages….