Category Archives: The China Blog

LARB’s China Blog covers the life, culture, politics and literature of China. It is edited by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. If you’re looking for blog posts prior to September 2013, please visit our China Blog tumblr page.


Nuts! The Bursting of the Chinese Walnut Bubble

By Austin Dean

Walk down the street in Beijing and you’ll encounter a certain type of character: buzz cut, paunchy stomach, probably tattooed, likely taking drags from a cigarette as he barks into a cell phone. He’s probably also sporting a bracelet or necklace (or both) made of walnut shells strung together. This guy might be a gangster; more likely he’s plain old Chinese nouveau riche.

The walnut jewelry links him back to beliefs and practices from imperial China, though he might not realize the extent of this cultural inheritance. He probably selected these accessories simply to demonstrate that he can afford them. This guy and his peers have made walnut-shell jewelry and other products hot commodities—creating the Great Chinese Walnut Bubble. Like so many other bubbles before it, the bubble has now popped.

The price of walnuts in China exploded between 2008 and 2013, driven by demand not for the edible meat, but the outer shell. Big, symmetrical, colorful shells became prized items. As one farmer remarked at the height of the craze, a pair or shells could be more “more expensive than gold, in terms of weight.”

There’s a lot you can do with walnut shells besides crush them to get at the meat inside. Some people twirl two of them across the palm of their hand, often while walking; others wear walnut bracelets or necklaces that have been carved with intricate designs of Daoist figures or natural scenes. As one walnut carver explained, his designs focus on “longevity, safety, reunion, faithful love, health, and wealth.” But some prefer to forego any carvings and leave the shells as is because “no craftsman can create anything as beautiful as these natural patterns.” With so much money at stake, the aesthetics of walnut design is a serious topic.

There are numerous ways to get involved in the market. You can buy the end products, you can get into the wholesale business or, most speculative or all, you can buy the rights to future walnut shells while they’re still hanging from the tree and covered in green skin. You could end up with prize shells or with duds—the nut business is a risky one.

As with any bubble, there were historic, cultural, and economic reasons behind the sky-rocketing walnut prices.

Chinese emperors and officials rotated pairs of them in their hands to promote circulation. Walnuts became a gift traded among the Chinese elite, part status symbol and part health remedy. As one walnut farmer remarked, “Mainly the walnuts are good for the body, that’s why people play with them.” In fact, the very act of twirling the walnut shells will, over time, give them a red, glossy polish, making them even more valuable, or so the thinking goes.

And let’s not forget our friend from Beijing with his walnut jewelry. He represents the segment of the population for whom this cultural inheritance became cool, As one article from the height of the bubble observed, buying, wearing, and speculating in walnut shells was “especially popular among the newly wealthy and gangsters profiting from Beijing’s grey economy.” The walnut craze also had a gendered aspect; though it’s impossible to cite statistics, it seemed to be primarily a male pastime.

At the level of individual decision-making, the walnut bubble reflected a shortage of assets to invest in. The Chinese stock market is a mess, rates on bank deposits are abysmal, and average citizens are only allowed to move a certain amount of money out of the country each year. As a result, a lot of investment goes into housing. But if you already have an apartment (or three) and you want to put your money to work in some way, then walnuts (as well as tea, garlic, and jade) might start to look quite appealing. If you think wearing walnut-shell necklaces looks cool and prices are likely to rise, then, well, all the better.

But the good days are likely over for walnut speculators. As a number of Chinese media outlets have recently reported, the walnut market is not the same as it once was. Walnut shells themselves are quite fragile—easily scratched, broken, or damaged—and so is the walnut market.

One of the traditional homes of walnut carving is in Zhoushancun, near Suzhou, on the east coast of China. It has been epicenter of change in the walnut market during the past few years. As prices rose, people flooded into the business: stay-at-home moms and former fruit vendors learned how to carve walnuts; teenagers entered the trade; famous walnut carvers swamped with orders farmed out production; walnut bracelets and necklaces designed using computer programs emerged.

In 2014, the Chinese walnut crop was 35% higher than normal. Supply went up. Quality, or perceived quality, went down—and so did prices and sales volume.

At the height of the walnut craze, growers and vendors didn’t even have to bring their goods to market. The market came to them, with waves of cars from urban areas descending on the countryside. That’s no longer the case.

At the retail level, a store that grossed 2-3 million yuan in monthly sales in 2012 or 2013 is now doing a small fraction of that. One shop owner told a television reporter that she now has to call up former customers to see if they’re interested in the most recent arrivals. In 2013, she wouldn’t have had to chase customers for their business.

With sales down, the retailer is naturally pickier about what types of walnut shells she displays. On her rounds to various walnut carvers, she rejects a number of samples as too poorly designed. This change filters down through the walnut industry. One walnut carver (a former fruit vendor) noted that she’s trying to renegotiate her rent payments on her small carving studio and store. Carvers, in turn, are more demanding about the types of walnut shells they procure for wholesale merchants—not just any pair will do.

The nut business, clearly, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.


Thinking and Writing about Inner Asia: A Q&A with Rian Thum

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I recently caught up by email with New Orleans-based historian Rian Thum to ask him a variety of questions about topics he knows and cares a lot about, ranging from trends in publishing on Inner Asia to the curious ways that even seemingly arcane issues relating to the past can get intensely politicized in today’s China.  Thum’s name should be familiar to regular readers of this publication, since both an excerpt from and an effusive Nile Green review of his prize-winning first book, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, ran in LARB.

What trends have you noticed in the kinds of books on Inner Asia that have been coming to you as Journal of Asian Studies Book Review Editor for that part of the continent?   And since this is an interview for something called the “China Blog,” perhaps focus most on the works that deal with places that are now at least partly encompassed in the PRC, though if there has been a massive surge in English language studies of the Central and Inner Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union that would be interesting to know!

I’ll have to go region by region here, because there’s relatively little recent work that straddles the various Inner Asian cultures. There are exceptions, for example a new edited volume that looks at ethnic conflict in both Tibet and Xinjiang and a very important new book that examines reincarnation as a political phenomenon linking Tibet, China, and the Mongols, but most new work focuses on a single culture.

Of all the Inner Asian regions, Tibet has always received the most attention, which means that there are enough books on Tibet to really identify consistent trends. Lately scholars have taken an interest in Tibetan biography, analyzing both the genre in its particular Tibetan forms and its potential to open windows on the experiences of Tibetans of the last millennium or so. This is an exciting turn, because it injects very personal and human elements into the abstract institutions and ideologies that have featured so prominently in the study of Tibet.

For the Mongolic-speaking traditions, the last couple of years have seen some important books on religion, both Buddhism and shamanism, Mongol and Buryat. This is, I think, a reflection of the kinds of sources that are available, but also of an attention to the ways Mongolic-speakers frame their own experiences. However, there’s also a pair of books out that examine violence in Mongolia, reflecting a nascent tendency to mine Inner Asian materials for insights into universal social phenomena.

As for Xinjiang, what’s most striking is that we’re finally seeing more than one or two books per year. This is the culmination of a long process of developing linguistically competent scholars with experience living in Xinjiang, a slow process that only began with the reopening of the region in the late 1980s.

I’m also happy to see an ethnography of the Ewenki reindeer herders, a group that has not received much attention. Manchu books tend to work from the Qing imperial perspective, and so usually find their way to the China section of the book reviews, rather than Inner Asia.

Zeroing in on Xinjiang, the region that has been the main focus of your own work, what strikes you most about the style, range, and topical or chronological emphases of the works about it that have been coming across your desk?

Diversity, and that’s something new. When people started writing about Xinjiang again in the 1990s, a focus on ethnic identity or resistance to the Chinese state was de rigueur. But as the field has developed, authors have begun to explore a wider range of questions. 2016 is turning out to be the biggest year for Xinjiang books in a century, and coverage is all over the map. We have books on the contemporary experience of Han Chinese colonists in Xinjiang, on the development of the “Uyghur” idea across the Sino-Russian border, and on Republican-era politics in Xinjiang through the eyes of its Chinese rulers. Another forthcoming book re-imagines indigenous officials in the 18th and 19th centuries as capitalist entrepreneurs. These are all academic works, but they are also remarkably readable, which places them in a growing movement in the humanities away from tortuous prose and specialist jargon.

Largely for logistical reasons, the JAS, mostly reviews English language scholarly works, though it is certainly open to looking at works in other languages.  What are the most important languages other than English these days for scholarship on Inner Asia, and does it differ between, say, Tibet and Xinjiang?

You can get a sense of the history of Inner Asia scholarship from those kinds of linguistic divisions. Japan’s long tradition of research on Xinjiang, for example, and Soviet interest in the Central and Inner Asian cultures that fell under Russian rule are both reflected in publications in those languages. Tibet, on the other hand, tends to see more work in western European languages. There are of course important publications in Uyghur, Tibetan, and Chinese, but the Chinese state, through its academic system and through its censorship regime, presents some pretty daunting obstacles to effective humanistic scholarship. Inner Asian and Chinese authors who manage to overcome those obstacles often end up publishing in English.

Okay, a couple of final questions beyond books.  First, is there uniformity in how people define “Central Asia” or “Inner Asia,” as it’s sometimes called, as in the “China and Inner Asian Council” of the Association for Asian Studies?  If not, how do you think about this region, in terms of its contours and shape?

These area divisions are always messy and always disputed, but there’s a clear center of gravity in defining both Central and Inner Asia. The Turko-Persian areas of the former Soviet Union tend to get called Central Asia, with Afghanistan sometimes lumped in. Inner Asia is a term that, to my mind, accommodates a China-centered view of the Asian interior: the steppe region to China’s north (most recently dominated by Manchus and Mongols), “Xinjiang” or “Eastern Turkestan,” and Tibet all have histories that are intimately entangled with China. The major point of overlap is Xinjiang. Culturally it looks more like former-Soviet Central Asia, but historically it has important connections to China.
Finally, turning to something associated with both Chinese and Inner Asian history, have you been surprised to by how passionate some Beijing authors have been in their denunciations of the “New Qing History,” treating it as something with major political implications, rather than the topic of purely scholarly interest that it might seem to be to the non-initiated?

Working, as I do, in a field in which historians have been banned from China for their writing, I can’t say I was very surprised. The party has taken upon itself the task of justifying the borders of the Inner Asian Qing Empire, borders which the PRC has inherited, in the language of Chinese nationalism. To a certain extent, the insights of “New Qing history” were spurred by taking seriously the Qing rulers’ explanations of how and why they maintained such a massive empire. PRC nationalist historians have great difficulty weaving this material into their narratives of China – of a primordial and continuous China, one that “unifies” rather than conquers and divides rather than contracts – without leaving some frayed edges. Those frayed edges are particularly visible in Inner Asia.


The Promised (Disney)land

By Alec Ash

Wang Zhigang flew three hours just to see Mickey Mouse. In swimming shorts and a colourful umbrella-hat sold by peddlers outside the entrance to keep the sun off, he queued in 97 degrees heat for hours to get on the best rides. All because he made a promise to his son while Shanghai Disneyland was still under construction, that they would go when it opened. Wang Zhigang is a good father.

With his eight-year-old son, Xinbiao, he flew from Bazhong in Sichuan (just another anonymous Chinese city of three million) to Pudong international airport by the Pacific ocean. He took a plastic bag into the theme park. In it were two pots of instant noodles, a cylinder of chips, three bottles of water and a pack of what I can only describe as miscellanious meat jerky in shrink wrap. In his line of work as a travel agent, he explained, he has been to many of China’s tourist destinations, from the Sichuanese nature reserve Jiuzhaigou to mountainous Zhangjiajie in Hunan. “China has famous mountain and water scenery,” he told me – a stock phrase – then seemed to doubt his own pitch. “But it’s just mountains and water. Disneyland is more experimental.”

I asked what he meant. “It’s the meeting point of Chinese and Western culture.”

We were on a Pirates of the Caribbean themed ship at Treasure Cove. Over the lake rose the spires of Enchanted Storybook Castle. Other attractions included Tron Lightcycle Power Run, Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue, Alice in Wonderland Maze and Marvel Universe. I saw the Western culture, I said. Where was the Chinese?

“Well,” he eventually responded. “It’s in China.”

Families like the Wangs are why Disney chose the mainland as the location for its newest resort park in ten years (Hong Kong already has one). The $5.5 billion site has been under construction for five years, a joint venture between Disney and the Shanghai development group Shendi, and since it opened on June 16 an influx from all over the nation has proved it a smart investment. Zhigang paid 499RMB ($75) for his peak period entrance ticket – a significant sum, which is why he was stinting on the Mickey burgers by bringing his own food in. Then again, disposable income and a rising middle class is part of the magic.

There are Chinese characteristics to the park, but they feel token. A pagoda-roofed restaurant, the ‘Wandering Moon Teahouse’, serves Shanghai-style braised pork and ‘eight treasure’ steamed rice with duck inside a lotus leaf. At ‘Garden of the Twelve Friends’, the animals of the Chinese zodiac are reconfigured as Disney characters – Pluto for dog, Kaa for snake, Abu for monkey, Tigger for … you get the gist. Yet domestic tourists aren’t there for that; they’re pulled by the soft power of Disney and the rest of the world, which Chinese society embraces all the while that its leaders assert China’s uniqueness.

For a thirty year old, I had a wonderful time in Disneyland. Mickey and his friends were stoically cheery inside furry costumes in the blistering heat. The Tron ride was amazing. We picnicked in a grassy park in Fantasyland that everyone else seemed to assume was off-limits. The light show on the enchanted castle at nightfall was everything my inner preteen hoped for. Even a three-hour queue for a ride called ‘Soaring Over the Horizon’, where our feet dangled over smellovision vistas from the Taj Mahal to the Australian outback, somehow seemed an essential part of the experience.

When the four-minute ride finished with fireworks over the Shanghai skyline, and our toes touched the ground once more, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed. Then I turned to my right, where eleven-year-old Li Jiayi from Shandong province was in conniptions. Shanghai was the furthest from home she had ventured, and she was biting her fingers in shrill excitement at the thrill of it all.

Xiasiwole!” she said. Shocked to death. “The world is so big!”

Great Wall

Talking Rural Reconstruction, Books, and Blogs with Kate Merkel-Hess

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Prelude: The Birth of a Blog

On a sunny day way back in the summer of 2007, when Kate Merkel-Hess was still a UC Irvine graduate student rather than a member of Penn State’s History Department, one of her professors posed an unexpected question to her.  Would Kate, he asked, consider joining him and her thesis adviser, Ken Pomeranz, in launching a digital publication aimed at trying to bridge the gap between the way journalists covered and academic analyzed China.  This could, he said, stumbling a bit over the word, be a sort of “blog.”  Perhaps she could be its lead editor, he proposed, as she was the only one of the three of them with any actual experience “blogging,” having launched a personal blog during her just concluded year doing research in Chinese archives.  He said that he and Ken had enjoyed reading her online commentaries, and this was part of what had inspired them to consider doing something similar, but with multiple contributors. Kate quickly said “yes,” and the rest, as they say, is history.  Meaning, in this case, the start of a four year run of a blog, plus the publication of a spinoff book, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, of which Kate was the lead editor.

That is how the “China Beat” came into being—at least, I think I’ve got it right.  To be honest, it might have been Ken (now at the University of Chicago), rather than me (still at Irvine), who asked Kate if she’d join the project.  It might have been early in the fall, rather than summer, when one of us broached the subject to her.  And being a sensible person, Kate might have taken a day or two to think about whether to sign on.  It was no simple matter to juggle completing her dissertation—which in dramatically revised form is about to come out from the University of Chicago Press as a book—and playing a key role in a blog whose other co-founders seemed to have only a vague idea about what exactly the publication would be like.  Some day I’ll quiz Kate about what her memory is of the origins of China Beat (a venture whose final editor would be the China Blog’s own Maura Cunningham), but I didn’t think of asking her about that until we had concluded the following email interview, which took up other, perhaps more interesting questions, related to Kate’s work, her hobbies, and her hometown:

Let’s begin with The Rural Modern: Reconstructing the Self and State in Republican China, your forthcoming book.  Can you tell our readers a bit about it?  Who are some of the main figures in it?  What’s the main thing you want readers to take away from reading it?

In The Rural Modern I describe an incredibly vibrant effort to mobilize China’s rural people in the 1930s and 1940s, an effort that contested the state’s prioritization of urban areas. When I describe it this way, at least some people will assume I’m talking about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which built a revolution against the ruling Nationalist (Guomindang) Party in China’s rural areas at precisely this time. But the CCP wasn’t the only rural reform organization in China during this period. In fact, there were thousands of other rural reformers – urban intellectuals, government officials, missionaries, educators, public health workers, agricultural outreach specialists, committed social activists – who started hundreds of rural reform projects in rural China and experimented with efforts to reach out to rural people that look a lot like the rural outreach programs the CCP adopted. In the course of my research, I even found individuals who started in some of these neutral or Nationalist-affiliated programs who then took their expertise to the CCP base areas – very direct evidence of the connections between these two seemingly separate groups of rural activists. The Rural Modern tells the story of what I call the second most important rural reform movement of the period (second to the CCP, that is). Describing the breadth and depth of this undervalued movement complicates the notion that the CCP rural strategy “succeeded” and everyone else’s “failed” and places the CCP reforms within a much broader context of efforts to remake the countryside – the milieu in which the CCP actually functioned at the time and from which it drew a lot of ideas, personnel, and strategies of rural engagement.

This is a story with fascinating, charismatic figures, like the Yale-educated literacy evangelist Yan Yangchu (known as James “Jimmy” Yen in the U.S.) who worked his Ivy League connections to fund his outreach project in Dingxian, southwest of Beijing, but also many others who have been forgotten or who barely register in the historical record. I laced my book with these stories, as best I could excavate them, because these largely forgotten people were the ones who were engaged in generating an agenda of rural reform that I argue prioritized a specific process of self-transformation. First, reformers believed that people needed to be literate. This was part of a bigger trend in late nineteenth and early twentieth century nationalism, where elites believed that being able to read profoundly changed the mind, made people more disciplined, and prepared them for civic participation. If many people learned to read, then reformers believed they would have the basis on which to draw together communities of reformed individuals who could collectively act for the social and economic good. Finally, these people would create self-governing communities that would be a part of but not completely subject to the nation. I want to emphasize how radical this idea was, particularly in comparison to some of the more hierarchical proposals for the construction of a nation that were floating around China at the time.

These ideas didn’t emerge from nowhere. Reformers grounded some of them in the ideas of earlier Chinese thinkers, like the early nineteenth century intellectual Feng Guifen. They also, however, were influenced by a set of ideas coming from abroad that contested the headlong rush to prioritize urban modernization. The Chinese rural reforms of this period – which were often called “rural reconstruction” (乡村建设) – drew on a global “rural reconstruction” movement that I have traced back to efforts in Ireland in the first decade of the twentieth century, with iterations also appearing in South Africa and India, among other places. These global rural reconstruction movements, like the later Chinese one, argued for the importance of robust, self-governing rural communities. Their proponents, among them the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, believed that having lively rural communities mattered to the nation’s culture and identity, and they feared that corporate agriculture would wipe away that culture. Tagore, for instance, made the argument that such communities were proof that Britain had not eliminated a kind of native Indian spirit and tradition of self-reliance. Everywhere I have found it, rural reconstruction was about preserving rural communities and establishing them as a bulwark of localism against the state. It’s really important to make clear that these rural reconstructionists were not anti-modern. They embraced many elements of modernity. They were against a specific vision of modernity that prioritized urbanization and that made rural areas ancillary to some kind of center – whether it was colonial or national.

But, of course, their vision of the countryside did not triumph. In the past fifteen years in China we have seen both an emptying out of the countryside and also some half-hearted government efforts to bolster rural communities. I hope that readers will take away from my book that this contestation over the countryside’s role in the Chinese polity (and the polity’s role in the countryside) – and the efforts to keep the balance from tipping to the cities – has been going on for a very long time. The debates of almost a hundred years ago about the future of rural people and their livelihoods and communities remain very salient.

The book evolved out of your UCI dissertation.  What’s something interesting in the book that wasn’t in the thesis?

The book is significantly different from the thesis and I added a lot of new material to further fill out the story I’m telling. My favorite new part traces the emergence in the Republican period of organizational charts. Much of the research for the book was based on popular publications meant for cheap and easy distribution, social science reports, government reports, and reports to funding agencies. Few of these were things created to be beautiful or aesthetically appealing. So when I saw images, I got really excited because they were very rare. But these were hardly ever reproductions of photographs. Instead, the images I ran across were rough charts and graphs. The ones that struck me most were the efforts by the rural reformers I was studying to sketch out their visions of a new society or a reformed person – and how they rendered that process of transformation into a two-dimensional image. I think how they depicted it tells us a lot about how that process of remaking society was conceived.

What are you working on now?

I’m now working on a book on the history of the warlords in early twentieth century China. Every time I teach the modern China course at Penn State, I get tripped up on the warlords week. It’s just a mish-mash moment that gets treated like an aberration – there’s the effort to establish the Republic of China, and then things go haywire for a decade of warlord mayhem, and then Chiang Kai-shek comes back and now, yay, we’re back to a narrative with a center. I wanted to see if the warlords could be part of the narrative of modern China. And they are all such fascinating figures. There are a lot of great stories to tell about them that haven’t been told.

I’m particularly interested in the contributions the warlords made to shifting Chinese politics and political rhetoric in this nascent period of the Republic. Very quickly in my research, I realized this meant looking beyond the warlords as individual personalities and examining the people around them, particularly their families. For the first time, political wives were mobilized as public assets. They start to appear in pictorials and become engaged in philanthropy (particularly in the 1930s, as the war efforts kicks off). The networks of elite women who become acquainted through school and employment begin to matter to politics. When you use these descriptors, we all think of Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Song Meiling. But she wasn’t alone. I found a journal article from 1928 that mused on who the first lady of China would be: Song Meiling, Feng Yuxiang’s second wife Li Dequan, or the wife of Zhang Zuolin. They were presented as equal possibilities (each with her own distinct style). The warlords were part of a broader and more public political class than had existed in earlier periods, and they began to experiment with how to court the public that now sustained them and kept them in power.

Are there thematic as well as chronological and geographical connections between this project and your first one or do you see it as a complete departure?

There’s a very direct connection, which is that in the course of researching rural reform in the 1920s and 1930s I ran across a number of initiatives that were funded by various warlords – supporting adult literacy programs, educating women, trying to improve public health – and I was surprised that the warlords had been involved in such things. At that point I just thought of the warlords as military strongmen – glorified local bullies. Some of them were that. But most of them were much more complicated leaders, and they thought of themselves as a new kind of Chinese ruler, and attempted new models of political leadership. So that led me to look at them more closely.

The other connection is my interest in localism and in narratives that disrupt our notion of the nation as real or coherent. During the warlord period the notion of a unified China breaks down – it continues to exist as a dream, but doesn’t exist in reality certainly from 1917 to 1927 and arguably is quite broken in important ways from 1911 to 1949. Many of the warlords put themselves forth as local or regional rulers. I track the polities they proposed in place of a unified China and what kind of political identities they mobilized to that end.

Going in a totally different direction, I can’t resist asking what the deal is with China historian-blogger-editors and knitting.  I recently came across your 2014 interview with the American Historical Association, which somehow I hadn’t seen before, and you describe knitting as a great passion of yours.  Now, Maura Cunningham has been very public about her own interest in knitting, working it into her tweets and blogs posts.  Coincidence?  Or is there some reason that China, blogging, and knitting might go together?

KM: Knitting, blogging, and learning Chinese are all rather fussy projects, requiring persistence and an attention to detail, so perhaps there’s that. In addition, knitting is a great pastime in China because there are so many knitters there and it’s easy to find cheap yarn in almost any market. For me, though, it was also a conversation starter – I could pull out my needles on any train or bus and middle-aged and older women would chat with me about it. Sometimes, they wanted to correct the way I held my needles (since I was taught to knit by “throwing” stitches in what’s called English style, whereas most Chinese knitters “pick” in continental style), or they wanted to know how I had learned. This felt like a very safe group of people for me, as a woman often traveling by herself, to chat with on public transportation. I also felt the activity humanized me for the people around me. It doesn’t really fit the Chinese stereotype of the kinds of things that foreigners do and it opened the door to talking not only about the project on the needles – what it was and where I’d bought the yarn and why was I doing this or that with it – but also about family, craft, and tradition.

For the past few years, I’ve been collecting little bits of historical details about hand knitting in China. I’m curious about the origins of Chinese knitters’ reliance on continental style, as well as their preference for fine gauge knits (which I’m guessing probably has to do with the desire to replicate machine knit goods; but it’s still an interesting contrast to Western hand knitters, who tend to knit in a wider range of gauges). Maybe someday I’ll have enough to write something about it.

I’m heading to Iowa soon to check out the holdings relating to the Boxer Uprising at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, and also to give a reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore on August 30 to help launch the American edition of The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, for which you and I co-wrote a chapter.  I can’t resist asking what I should be sure to see when I’m in your old stomping grounds of Iowa City.  Any thoughts?

I’ll give a few historical recommendations – a reflection of the fact that I haven’t spent more than a few weeks or days at a time in Iowa City in twenty years and thus have no business recommending current restaurants or institutions.

One of my favorite places in the whole world is Rochester Cemetery in Cedar County, Iowa – just a little further east from West Branch (where the Herbert Hoover Library is located, itself just a little east of Iowa City). There are very few remnants of original Iowa “oak savanna” prairie left, but Rochester Cemetery is one of them. It’s a beautiful place to walk around and look at Civil War era (and earlier, and later) graves, but also to get a sense of the Iowa landscape and ecology. A lot of people think Iowa is flat, but it is actually quite hilly, particularly in eastern Iowa. By late August, you will still get a feel for the abundance the rich Iowa soil makes possible – not just the raspy, hot rows of corn but the riotous biological diversity that made those rows of corn possible. (To read a great article about it, click here—and, if you do go, make sure you do a tick check after you walk around in the tall grasses!)

Next, you could swing by Hamburg Inn No. 2 in downtown Iowa City – the famous home during caucus season of the coffee-bean caucus (where visitors get to vote for the candidates using coffee beans). If you are feeling brave, you can order a pie shake. It’s just what it sounds like. Iowans take their pie seriously … and in all other forms too.

Last, there are lots of historic homes in Iowa City. For a short visit like yours, I’d recommend a drive-by of the “Bloom County” house – the one that Berkeley Breathed modeled the boarding house for Opus and the gang on. It’s at 935 East College Street, just off downtown and not far from the New Pioneer Coop, where you can grab a quick bite to eat. Now it’s an upscale market with a super deli – but I remember when it was just a dusty warehouse selling bulk whole grains and carob treats (a serious disappointment when you are five years old). They have better candy now. If you are there on a Saturday morning, you can walk kitty-corner to the farmer’s market and check out the local produce.

You didn’t ask, but there’s a connection between Iowa and my research too – which is that though I grew up in Iowa City I remained throughout my childhood very connected to my mother’s laojia, her ancestral home (if there is such a thing in the US), in northeastern Iowa. I felt a great deal of affinity for the rural communities that I studied in China, which were so much like the little hamlet of Luxemburger Catholics that my mother’s family came from, and which has undergone some of the same dispersals and hollowing out that rural areas throughout the US have experienced since the 1980s (and really, of course, part of an ongoing process since the 1930s) and that Chinese villages have been experiencing over the past two decades. This is a global story, but for me also a personal one.

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Introducing the Hong Kong Review of Books: A Q&A With Aflie Bown

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Earlier this year, two literary scholars, Alfie Bown and Kimberley Clarke, founded the Hong Kong Review of Books, a lively and varied addition to the online publishing scene.  I recently emailed some questions to Bown, whose name should ring a bell with readers of the China Blog due to his recent contribution to it, to learn more about their joint endeavor.  Here are my questions and his replies.

From the Hong Kong Review of Books’ website, I see that you moved to Hong Kong a year ago. What inspired you to start the HKRB

Well that’s quite an easy question to answer. Kimberley and I both work in literature studies and are regular readers of other review of books sites like the Los Angeles Review of Books and the London Review of Books. When we arrived here last year we decided to check out the Hong Kong Review of Books, but when we tried to do this we realized that it didn’t exist! We assumed that a city with such a rich literary heritage as Hong Kong would have already had a site like this and so we just saw an opportunity to create it. There is the Asian Review of Books, which is great, but that is a very different project which focusses on books that are actually about Asia. Everyone seemed very supportive of the idea so we went ahead and launched the site with the simple ambition of proliferating some interesting discussion about radical literature!

What do you hope the Hong Kong Review of Books can accomplish in its first year?  

Well, we are six months old and we are very pleased with our growth so far. We’ve had dozens of contributors including poets, academics, novelists, journalists, and illustrators and we just want to keep growing the site as a platform.

We’ve basically got three main projects. The first and biggest is of course book reviews. We review several books per week, focusing on poetry, literary fiction, and (most of all) non-fiction. We aim for at least 1 in 5 books to be about Hong Kong or China, or to be written by Hong Kong or Chinese authors, but the rest of the things we cover are international. Our reviewers are from all over the world and we leave it up to them to judge what is worth reviewing. Unlike many other review sites, we don’t decide what to cover and nor do the publishers. Instead we invite reviewers to pitch books that they are interested in writing on.

Secondly, we have our HKRB Interviews Series which is our most successful feature because we have interviewed some of the very top philosophers and writers in the world. This is exclusively about ‘critical theory.’ Once per month we interview an author of a new book in theory and philosophy about their work, discussing politics, philosophy, and culture.

Finally we have a new feature, our HKRB Essays Series, which has just launched with essays on the refugee crisis and the singer Prince. We’re hoping to build this a lot more and solicit essays on Hong Kong politics and culture from our many contributors in Hong Kong.

We’re always looking to grow, and if any China Blog or LARB readers want to write for us they should get in touch! Details here.

Part of the mission of the Hong Kong Review of Books is “promoting radical discussion in challenging political climates.” Hong Kong is certainly in its most challenging political climate since the Handover, yet many in Chinese publishing there are shying away from any type of radical discussion. Do you think the English press is held to a different set of standards? Is there any fear that you’ll receive pressure from the Hong Kong government to abstain from controversial subjects? 

Yes, that’s a big part of our mission! This is a great question and, we think, the most important. First we should say the obvious: that the site is all about books. For some people this would be a way of saying that its relatively harmless – i.e. the idea that ‘it’s only books’ – but this is the opposite of what we think. We firmly believe that literature and writing itself is always political. So, in order to be a genuine site about literature and about writing, you would have to be engaged with politics.

By ‘radical discussion’ we mean new and innovative ideas which deal with the difficult times we live in. Like with our reviews, the political content is determined by what our contributors want to write on. We certainly don’t abstain from controversial subjects and we urge our writers to tackle them. As you say, we see Hong Kong as being in a very important political moment in which it is very important to be political and think about the future, so yes, we want to help provide a platform for such discussion.

What are your impressions of the English-speaking Hong Kong literary scene? How does the Hong Kong Review of Books fit into that scene?

We think there is a great literary scene here and we are looking forward to being part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival later this year which shows just how much is already here. We just want to bring all this together and also join it up with other international discussions of literature really. Like LARB, we are a properly international review of books site, but we are also very interested in Hong Kong literature and culture and we want to really bring the two together.

Finally, what has surprised you the most about Hong Kong?

The fact that there was no Hong Kong Review of Books already. We were lucky!

KFC world tour

Chinese Nationalism and the Colonel’s Chicken

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Whenever a new bout of state-sanctioned nationalist fervor in China makes headlines, I think back to the time in May 1999 when NATO bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three citizens of the PRC and triggering protests. I happened to be in China then and spent an eventful week observing responses to the deaths in first Beijing and then Shanghai. I visited campuses to read and take photos of wall posters denouncing the United States and Britain, the two countries that had taken the lead in the moves against Serbia. I went near the American Embassy to watch a rowdy demonstration, and a few days later walked by the Shanghai Consulate where I saw its outer walls still festooned with the tatters of placards denouncing Washington that protesters had pasted on them, but also saw police lined up to make sure there would be no more further demonstrations there. At a Shanghai campus assembly devoted to the event, the main speaker, a faculty member, lauded students for having expressed their patriotism. He also said, in step with the party line of the moment, that the time for street action was over. He noted in closing (lest he seem insufficiently patriotic) that at times like that, when China was being bullied, he was glad that Beijing was among the countries to possess nuclear weapons.

These experiences, which I have written about before in essays and a 2007 book chapter, have been on my mind again in the wake of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in favor of the Philippines and against China in the maritime dispute involving the two countries. Some completely predictable things have happened. Chinese officials and the country’s state-run press have alternated between dismissing the verdict as irrelevant, on the one hand, and criticizing it as unfair and the result of bias, on the other. There has been the expected flurry of online jingoism, as a mix of ordinary people and “50 centers” (the term for those paid a token fee by the government to make comments supporting the party line) have denounced the decision, and made derisive comments not only about the Philippines but also Washington, which is seen as playing a crucial and nefarious part in trying to block Chinese claims to islands, specks of land, or reefs that other Asian countries say are theirs. All this has fit into a familiar pattern. So, too, in a way, have the very recent state media calls for some kinds of protests to stop, as there generally comes a time in these outbursts, as there did in 1999, when the authorities worry about popular agitations, once unleashed, being too hard to keep running in acceptable channels.

There have also been some things happening that have been novel, albeit not really surprising, given how they resonate with past reactions to real and imagined slights to Chinese national pride. For example, a slew of celebrities, the globally famous pianist Lang Lang among them, have put up identical patriotic postings showing a map portraying the PRC as big as it is ever imagined to be, including the stretches of water inside the “nine-dash line” that is used to describe maritime areas Beijing claims. Along with this image have been characters declaring that patriots should not let China shrink by even “one dot’s worth,” in the sense of letting go of even a single island or moving any of those nine dashes. (These expressions of patriotic pride have not gone uncontested, as little does in our thoroughly wired and complexly interconnected world; some Vietnamese Internet users, for example, have posted comments saying that due to their own love of country they cannot remain fans of the Chinese celebrities in question, while Taiwanese have objected vociferously to Taiwan being included as part of the PRC in the online maps.)

Another example of a mix of the expected and the novel involve reports that some Chinese have taken to smashing their iPhones to show anger at America while others have been calling for a boycott of Philippine mangoes to punish Manila. The destruction of iPhones is reminiscent of the destruction of Japanese cars when anger at Japan ran high a decade ago. The move against mangoes is new, in the sense that this particular fruit has not been boycotted before, but it fits into a very long term pattern, linked to both state-sponsored and partly genuine nationalist upsurges and the purely bottom-up variety, in that there have been calls for boycotts of foreign products before in China during many different sorts of movements. An important early case in point was the anti-American boycott of 1905, which was launched to show displeasure with discriminatory U.S. immigration laws. A very recent example, tied to purely online as opposed to digital and street actions, was a call for mainland consumers to eschew buying the products of the French L’Oreal cosmetic group until it distanced itself from Hong Kong singer Denise Ho, simply because she had expressed her support for her city’s Umbrella Movement in 2014 and later met with the Dalai Lama. (Historical point: U.S. immigration laws didn’t change for decades, but within days, L’Oreal cancelled a concert it had planned to hold in Hong Kong that would feature Ho, though the plucky singer has, as Elaine Yu and I detail in a recent commentary, found creative ways to protest the French company’s capitulation.)

One thing that has interested some scholars weighing in on recent events and also some journalists, including Adam Minter, is what could have happened, but didn’t, when the verdict came down. Most notably, there were no rowdy demonstrations in city centers, of the sort that took place during anti-Japanese upsurges earlier in this century and in 1999. There were also no angry gatherings outside of embassies comparable to the ones I saw seventeen years ago; this time, police worked to ensure there would be any protests at these kinds of sites right away, rather than waiting for a few days to do this.

At first, as I tracked the response to the verdict from this side of the Pacific, I was struck most by the differences between what I witnessed on the other side of the ocean in 1999 and the current chain of events, despite seeing some parallels and things that conformed to a familiar pattern. In 1999, Chinese lives had been lost, which gave the sense of outrage a more human aspect than in this fight over bits of territory. The 1999 protests also had deeper connections to longstanding traditions of campus unrest than have recent expressions of nationalist outrage in China, including those of this year, which have not generally been so rooted at universities. The rise of digital and social media has changed many things as well. In addition, the current government seems even more obsessed with control than its immediate predecessors, and quicker to try to curtail even loyalist demonstrations due to worry that, once started, they could move in what it considers the wrong direction.

One thing that began happening this week, though, has definitely triggered powerful 1999 flashbacks—protesters in various cities lashing out at Kentucky Fried Chicken as a symbol of America. KFC was also a target of protesters in 1999, though often it was paired with two other icons of the American food and drink world, McDonalds and Coca Cola. Don’t eat the Kentucky Fried Chicken, don’t eat Big Macs, don’t drink Coke was a tripartite theme in more than a few posters I saw.

Beijing 1999 Protest

Someday, this latest KFC boycott may become part of a master’s thesis on the political as well as business-related story of the Colonel’s brand’s Chinese adventure. I’ll end here, though, with just a few final thoughts relating to it, and some photos I took at the time that I’ve found interesting to look at again while the latest nationalist outburst in China is in the news.

Shanghai post 1999

I was not an eyewitness to China’s 1989, but learned from accounts by others that the KFC near Tiananmen Square sometimes served as a meeting point for participants in that important struggle. This led to a curious case of cultural miscommunication when Chai Ling, a leader of the 1989 protests, came to speak at the University of Kentucky in 1991, as part of an event commemorating the movement. Seeking to connect with the students and faculty of the school, where I was teaching, she brought up a key meeting held at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, assuming that the crowd would take pride in the state’s name being connected to efforts to make China freer. It was a natural assumption, but it was one part of her speech that fell flag, since many professors were from places other than Kentucky and some looked down on fast food franchises of all kinds, while more than a few people with ties to the state didn’t view KFC as a positive representative of it.

Beida Posters 99

US Consulate

My last comment concerns my experiences taking photographs in 1999. Fascinated by the call to boycott McDonalds and KFC, as well as being interested in how popular those places had become in China during the final years of the last century, I spent some time checking out the branches of both to see how they were faring in the wake of the Belgrade bombing. Within days of the first boycott calls, lots of people were back to getting their fried chicken and Big Macs in the usual way. What sticks in my mind most about visiting the franchises, though, was that when I took out my camera to take photos of crowds and also of the décor inside them, as I’ve always been interested in the strategies global brands make to adapt to local tastes and traditions, I got hassled more by security personnel than I had been the previous days on campuses. It turned out to be easier for me to take photos of protesters rallying to the cry of “Down with American-led NATO Hegemonism” (one of the movement’s main slogans, which doesn’t roll off the tongue in any language) than of the interiors of establishments seen as important symbols of U.S. capitalism.

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Q&A with Terry Lautz, Author of ‘John Birch: A Life’

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Terry Lautz is the author of John Birch: A Life (Oxford, 2016). He is interim director of the East Asian Program at Syracuse University and former vice president of the Luce Foundation.

We’ll get to your fascinating book in a minute, but you’ve spent a long time thinking deeply about U.S.-China relations, both as a scholar and in your capacity until recently as a leading figure in the Luce Foundation, so I want to begin with some general questions relating to the tensions and ties between the two countries.  We are at a delicate moment in U.S.-China relations and a tricky point in time when it comes to images that Chinese and Americans have of one another. What strikes you as most interesting and most dangerous about this juncture?

From a U.S. perspective, I think the most interesting development is a growing sense of disappointment, disillusion, and even alarm over China’s current direction. I’m wary of the growing chorus of pundits who say China has made an irreversible choice to reject more liberal policies. From a distance, Westerners tend to view China as a monolith that moves in lockstep on orders from Beijing. China is more like Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, an imaginary animal with two heads and two minds pointing in opposite directions. One is pushing toward openness and reform, while the other is pulling toward control and repression. At this juncture, the second head seems to be winning out, and we should be concerned about a more authoritarian direction under President Xi Jinping. But China is in a state of constant social, economic, and political change.

I think the greatest danger in terms of Sino-American mutual perceptions is the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If both sides perceive the other as an enemy, it increases the possibility that we will actually become enemies. Despite significant mutual interests — ranging from trade and investment to climate change to nuclear proliferation — the relationship is in a downward cycle right now. So it’s more important than ever to stay engaged and try to address the sources of distrust. Americans need to adjust to China’s status as a major world power, and Chinese should understand the hazards of anti-foreign nationalism.

Do you hear echoes of past rhetoric about China in current discussions of the threat that the country poses to the United States?

The idea of China as a threat has been a steady theme in American perceptions, alternating with more positive, often romanticized views. Early on, it was the racist dread of a Yellow Peril. After Mao seized power, it was the specter of a Red Menace. These stereotypes assumed that all Chinese look and act alike. Fortunately, as our two nations have become inter-connected, U.S. public opinion has evolved. Stereotyping still exists, but Americans are mostly worried about practical issues such as the loss of jobs, trade deficits, and cyber attacks as well as China’s impact on the environment and its growing military power.

We hear a lot about China as a threat in the South China Sea. While this is a source of concern, I think it is mainly a test of wills. China is deeply ambivalent when it comes to the U.S. presence in East Asia. On the one hand, many Chinese believe that the United States opposes China’s rise and seeks to undermine its political system through “peaceful evolution.” According to this line of thinking, America’s arms sales to Taiwan are evidence of a U.S. policy to prevent China’s unification. On the other hand, China’s leaders realize that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region could lead Japan and South Korea to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. So Beijing resents the United States as a “hegemon” but understands the stability that continued U.S. presence brings to the region.

In terms of the rhetoric coming from the other side of the Pacific relating to pernicious “Western” ideas and values, how concerned are you about official pronouncements in China about the need to be more vigilant in protecting the country from these and about new regulations regarding non-governmental organizations (NGOs), a category that includes civil society groups and apparently also educational institutions with ties to the United States?

The current campaign against so-called Western values is perplexing. At the same time Chinese students are being warned about the risks of glorifying foreigners, they are flocking to Western universities in record numbers. China has become a global power, yet it practices extensive censorship of the internet. Contradictions like these reflect a confusing mixture of confidence and insecurity on the part of China’s leadership. What seems clear is Xi Jinping’s determination to avoid the fate of the former Soviet Union, which means that advocates for constitutional democracy and freedom of speech will not be allowed to challenge Party rule.

The recently announced foreign NGO management law looks like part of a broader movement to control and limit outside influence. International as well as Chinese organizations that support activities such as poverty relief, healthcare, and education should be able to continue their work. But advocates for legal and human rights will face an even more restrictive environment. The silver lining in this dark cloud may be that China’s civil society sector will grow stronger as it becomes more self-sufficient. It is worth noting that China is following others, including Egypt, India, and Russia, in limiting the influence of foreigners.

No one can predict the future, but a couple of things seem clear. First, China is no longer a weak supplicant subject to well-meaning American (or Western) paternalism. And second, there is no viable alternative to Communist Party rule in China for the foreseeable future. This means we have to revisit the longstanding assumption that sooner or later China will follow a liberal, democratic path and become more like us. Whatever the path, history tells us it won’t be a smooth and straight line.

Turning to your book, for Americans, like me, who grew up during the Cold War, the name “John Birch” immediately calls to mind one thing: a staunchly conservative organization. Your biography of the man shows, though, that the chain of associations conjured up by the term “John Birch Society” has little to do with the historical figure. Who exactly was he? And why did you feel that having a background in Chinese studies made you a particularly appropriate person to write his biography?

Like you, I grew up thinking John Birch was a right-wing fanatic, and was quite surprised to discover that he had absolutely nothing to do with naming the John Birch Society. Birch spent five years in China during World War II, first as a Baptist missionary and then as a military intelligence officer, working for Claire Chennault, who commanded the Flying Tigers and then the 14th Air Force. Ten days after Japan’s surrender in August 1945, Birch was shot and killed in an altercation with Chinese Communists in North China. It was later claimed that he sacrificed his life to show that the Communists were enemies of the United States, even though they were cooperation with the U.S. against Japan at the time. I argue in the book that Birch had no desire to be a martyr and his name was misappropriated.

I’ve long been interested in U.S. relations with China during the Second World War and the origins of the Cold War in Asia. This started when I lived in Taiwan as a teenager. After college, I served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam and concluded that Americans needed to learn much more about Asia. I was also drawn to the story of Birch as an idealist young man whose life personified the basic American impulses to save, rescue, and defend the Chinese people. Through various twists and turns, he then became a symbol of America’s fear and rejection of China.

The biggest challenge in writing the book was educating myself about the history of the U.S. conservative movement. I wanted to understand why the Birch Society, which is now viewed a predecessor to the Tea Party and even the conspiracy-minded Donald Trump, was popular with many middle-class Americans during the late 1950s and 1960s. I also wanted to know how it became so controversial.


Can Hong Kong #ACCELERATE?

By Alfie Bown

I CAME TO Hong Kong twelve months ago from a Europe in political turmoil. Fundamentalist attacks and the refugee crisis, symptoms of a failing global system, were hitting Central Europe the hardest, while the UK, my own place of birth and residence, was experiencing its own fallout from the same phenomenon: the rise of right-wing nationalism. One year on, I am still just beginning to learn about how nationalism and politics work in Hong Kong and China, so I can’t speak as an authority of any kind on the topic, but some things strike me about the situation in my new home that may be useful to bring into discussions of the place I left behind, which now dominates the news cycle due to the Brexit vote. It also seems only right that, since global crises require global solutions, we look for connections and possibilities wherever we can find them. What I suggest here is that the political identity proposed by some Hong Kong citizens might provide a hopeful alternative to trends we are seeing in the UK, other parts of Europe, and the US.

A period of crisis is also a period of great potential. When the old is folding and the new has not yet fully emerged, there is the chance to influence the new terms that will replace the old ones. Simultaneously, such times are periods of great potential danger: the wrong forces can easily take hold. The recent Brexit vote, where 52% of the British public opted out of the EU, is a perfect example. While non-nationalist voters who wanted out of the EU cited the exciting potential for change and increased freedom from European restrictions, those who wanted to remain in the EU were more attentive to the (plainly obvious) danger that the real winners from Brexit would be the hard right nationalists.

What most troubles me and many Britons I know who similarly identify with the Left is that in this threshold time of crisis when the new is out but the old is not yet in, the Right is having the most success in offering “solutions” to current problems and outlining a plan for the future. The Right’s plans are backwards-looking, seeking the return to the nation-state, demanding increased national sovereignty and tighter borders. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson are perhaps the most prominent figures to harness this imaginary nostalgia for national serenity and sell it, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, as a solution to the present predicament. Most European nations, though, have a counterpart right-wing representative whose popularity is similarly on the rise. Brexit itself seems to have already emboldened some of them, such as Marine Le Pen in France. Hong Kong is a totally different context, but it is also in a fascinating moment in which we wait to see whether nostalgia for the nationalist past will dominate its political future.

To my mind, the most inspiring call to arms for the Left made in response to this problem is #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO, a 2013 philosophical tract by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, which implores progressives to embrace a speeding up of various forces. This manifesto takes the notion of “acceleration,” which critical theorist Benjamin Noys had quite rightly used as a negative descriptor of recent trends, and gives it a boldly positive new spin. The premise of the document, whose relevance for Hong Kong I’ll get to below, is that we should seek an internationalist anti-nostalgic and future-looking politics that embraces speed rather than trying to slow everything down in a protection of what we already have. In short, Srnicek and Williams are for everything that Trump and Farage oppose. They write:

In contrast to […] ever-accelerating catastrophes, today’s politics is beset by an inability to generate the new ideas and modes of organisation necessary to transform our societies to confront and resolve the coming annihilations. While crisis gathers force and speed, politics withers and retreats. In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled.

Thus we are confronted with the task of overcoming a politics which looks only backwards and attempts to slow things down, tasking us with re-scheduling the cancelled future and taking control of what it might look like.

The BBC have already reported on the position of the Brexpat in Hong Kong, but I would like to give a different and more positive left-wing interpretation of the situation here. Hong Kong, despite the vast contextual differences with Europe, is also at a threshold moment, poised between the old and the new. Given Special Administrative Region (SAR) status in 1997 for a 50-year period, Hong Kong will officially lose its separate political system 30 years from now when it will become closer to Mainland China, a prospect explored so powerfully by Wong Kar-wai in the film 2046. Hong Kong is therefore a very clear example of a temporal space that is in contest, concerned about the dangerous forces that may take hold in the years ahead, but also aware of being in a moment that has potential for positive change.

This gives a sense of urgency to actions by Hong Kong youths, who have become increasingly politicized in the last decade in struggles dealing with everything from local, social, and educational issues to globalization and elections. In my first year of university teaching in Hong Kong, I have been struck most powerfully by some of the students’ willingness to change their minds about political issues — showing both the danger that the wrong forces could take hold and the potential for a powerful political force to do something positive. Most important, my students are willing to recognize the way that national identity is harnessed and used by politicians both here and abroad. While my former students in England might agree with me on this in class, they would immediately take to the streets to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee or the wedding of William and Kate directly after our seminar. On the contrary, I’ve found my students here tend to develop a real suspicion of nationalism in all its forms.

It seems to me that while the Right has made concrete gains in the UK by looking backwards, Hong Kong has the potential to suffer less from nostalgia and to “#accelerate” more effectively via its global political identity. An internationalist solution to the present global crises is the only possible solution –— and is something Trump in the US is and the Brexit campaign the UK was working to prevent, instead using any crisis to justify and implement right-wing change. While there is at least one group at the other end of Eurasia, DiEM25, which has begun the task of building international collaboration in Europe and imagining a new European identity, Hong Kong is a place in both space and time that can potentially contribute to globalizing this struggle.

Neither “localism” nor “nationalism” is the word for this potentially radical construction of Hong Kong’s identity, which often — but not always — involves something more political than things provided by birthright, bloodline, or even citizenship. Some aspects of the pro-independence camp in Hong Kong are indeed nationalistic, and some regard them as not unlike Trump and Farage. One recent “pro-independence” group actually suggests that Hong Kong should first go back to British sovereignty before it claims its independent status, which is obvious nostalgia. Others still advocate a yearning for a China and a return to Chinese identity as it was before 1949, again looking backwards just as Britain tends to do. But there is also another possibility among those I have spoken to here, both teachers and students: a desire to develop an identity that refuses to look backwards, but instead looks to the politics of the future, accelerating away from nationalism. For these people, the “great traditions” of both British and Chinese identities are washed away by the combined influence of America, Korea, Taiwan, and others. Following this line, one academic suggested to me that Scotland might be a more useful model for Hong Kong to follow than England, since their independence bids are borne out of a political necessity to respond to its neighbors rather than nationalist “roots.”

Benedict Anderson famously showed that nation-states should be seen as “imagined communities,” and while the UK and US seem to have never realized this or to have recently forgotten it, believing in the essential Britishness or Americanness of the people once again, Hong Kong — if it can resist the tendency for its criticisms of other cultures to slide into apolitical dislike of the other and essentialist nationalism — has the potential to embrace its identity as something politically “imagined” and help envision new identities, restoring the cancelled future. Identity in Hong Kong can at least potentially be less about an essential connection to a “homeland” and more about the pragmatic choices we face in contemporary politics. While it is mainland China that is charging into the future economically, Hong Kong could #accelerate when it comes to political identity in order “to confront and resolve the coming annihilations,” rather than seeking solutions in the imaginary past.

China Blog 6:28

Taking Stock of Xi Jinping: A Q & A with Kerry Brown

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I recently caught up by email with Kerry Brown, a prolific writer on Chinese affairs who has held a mix of diplomatic and academic posts and who recently moved to King’s College London to head its Lau China Institute.  I was eager to get him to reflect on Chinese politics, the subject he studies and the focus of a new book. It also seemed only natural to slip in one question dealing with Brexit, which has been dominating the international news cycle. 

Jeff Wasserstrom: A couple of years back, you published The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China, a book I reviewed favorably for the Wall Street Journal that was about a group of Chinese elite figures known as the “Princelings”—a term for children of revolutionaries leaders who were connected to Mao Zedong and the founding of the PRC.  That book was partly an effort to explain how one Princeling, Xi Jinping, emerged as the group’s most powerful member.  Do you see your new book C.E.O., China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, which is out in the U.K. and available in the United States as an e-book (with the hardcover version to follow soon), as a sequel to that earlier work, which brings in events of the last couple of years?  Or did you view writing it as offering a chance to provide a different sort of explanation for Xi’s ascent?

Kerry Brown: Obviously we know a lot more about Xi Jinping and the contours of his leadership, his preoccupations, and driving vision now than we did in 2013-4 when I wrote and published The New Emperors. The mystery of his ascension to power, however, has not gone away. Xi was not a spectacular provincial leader – at least in terms of generating GDP growth. Nor was he a member of the A list of elite families – Bo Xilai really belonged to that class, with his father Bo Yibo a member of the so called “Eight Immortals” who had a huge impact on post-1978 China. The ways in which Xi Jinping has transformed into this seemingly all-dominating, all-powerful figure has been remarkable. It was hard to see this sort of drive before 2013. One thing I do wonder a lot about is what precisely the relationship is between Xi and the other so called princelings. In many ways, he seems to have attacked much of their vested interest, keeping the families of past leaders Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng under close tabs, and using the anti-corruption struggle to wrestle whole parts of the state sector away from their control. You might almost say that he is an “anti-princeling” leader, a much more populist politician, trying to derive his appeal and power to the public, and instill fear and obedience in the Communist Party leadership and membership through that.

The fact that Xi looks and sounds so authoritative, however, is also something we have to be a bit careful about how we interpret. Appearances can be deceptive. Making oneself the “Chairman of Everything” can simply hide feelings of vulnerability and weakness. The simple fact is that there are real limits to what Xi can do. Unlike Deng Xiaoping, whose reform and opening up pragmatism in many ways still shape China, Xi has not articulated a new body of ideas that are proving transformational – not yet, at least. This might happen, but it would need to be in the one area that Deng’s ideas did not touch – that of political reform. Here, of course, a Chinese leader can really reset the agenda. So far, Xi has made clear that he absolutely won’t countenance any competition from another organized political force with the Communist Party. So in many ways, despite the radical tone and feel of his leadership, he still operates within the template supplied by his predecessors.

Sticking with the connections between the two books, the earlier one used an imperial metaphor in its title, while this one employs one drawn from the corporate world.  Could you tell us something about the thinking between those two choices?

 Politicians everywhere like to create narratives and masks they can present to the world. Xi seems to me to be an ambiguous figure. The most difficult thing to work out is his relationship with the Communist Party of China. Is he its servant, or its master? People state that Xi is a modern Mao. But the China of Mao Zedong with its mass mobilization campaigns, utopian idealism, and separation from the rest of the world, is long gone. The memory of Mao’s China for Xi too would not be a happy one – he was living in the countryside for most of it, with his father under house arrest. The one thing that Mao does offer is the model of how a Chinese leader can emotionally connect with the people. But, of course, the danger is that a charismatic, all-powerful leader can also start to turn on the Party, in the way that Mao did in the Cultural Revolution.

Since 1978, the whole objective has been to ensure that this sort of elite leader domination never happens. Leadership has been institutionalized. Succession and term limits have been introduced. Collective leadership structures set in place. If Xi is indeed starting to dominate, and create a power structure parallel to, and one day possibly dominating the Party, then I am surprised that there has not been much more internal dissent at an elite level. There would be people in the Politburo and Central Committee who would see this as undermining so much work the Party has tried to do in the last four decades. So the imperial and corporate models of Xi’s power are trying to find some kind of model we can make sense of him within.

Switching gears a bit, a lot of commentators have played with the idea of imagining what a reanimated Mao would think of today’s China, and I recently wrote an op-ed that played this what if game with a focus on how the former leader might view his latest successor as head of the Communist Party.  What, though, would you think that Deng Xiaoping, if somehow brought back to life, would make of Xi and the way he is steering the country?

Xi has not contested Deng’s central ideological position. In fact, he has sponsored the development of the idea derived from Deng’s mantra of market socialism, which is that the market is essential for reform, in the 2013 Plenum. He has also stuck by the utter centrality of the Party in China’s political life, and the need to maintain openness to the outside world on China’s terms. I don’t see Xi as being anything except a faithful follower of Dengism. He has articulated his central goals within the framework set out by Deng. So if Deng were to magically rise from his grave and look at what Xi is doing, I don’t see what he would object to. He certainly wouldn’t disapprove of the harsh treatment of rights lawyers, nor the clampdown on corrupt officials, nor the tolerance of a vibrant non-state sector. For people’s hearts, Xi might use the resources that Mao gives – but for their heads, he seems to me a Dengist through and through.

A final question, which brings in the issue making the most headlines globally just now.  Given your assessment of Xi and sense of what makes him tick, how do you think he is likely to feel about the Brexit vote?  

Xi reportedly stated to David Cameron when in the UK last October that he did not support an exit from the EU. Part of that was self interest. A UK which was potentially adrift from the European financial market and open trade area becomes  a far less attractive investment and currency destination. The UK is the largest host of Chinese students in Europe, and one of the largest technology transfer partners. Exiting the EU makes life a bit more complicated for China, because unless the UK can arrange a deal which preserves the openness of these areas, China will presumably have to look for another launchpad within the EU main zone.

Politically, though, nothing that Xi will have seen of the chaos in the UK immediately after the vote on June 23 and the clear lack of a plan B by the politicians to deal with what was happening will have endeared democracy to him. But he might have been impressed by the fact that despite this, so far at least, the UK remained stable, people get on with their lives, institutions are still able to function. China of course would be far less robust in dealing with a crisis like this. But I guess Xi would argue that it would never end up in such a position in the first place.

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The “Inspector Chen” Poems: A Look at the Man and His Verse

By Qiu Xiaolong

As fans of the “Inspector Chen” novels know, the Shanghai detective not only excels at solving crimes and navigating the complexities of politically tricky situations but also writes verse.  Now, thanks to Qiu Xiaolong, a poet and translator (as well as a writer of mysteries), a collection of Chen Cao’s poems has become available.  Here we provide an introduction to the volume penned Qiu, who unquestionably knows Chen and his poetry better than any other person on earth does—or ever could—due to the crucial role he has played in chronicling the versifying sleuth’s cases and writings.

— Jeff Wasserstrom


Introduction to Poems of Inspector Chen

The poems in the present collection are compiled chronologically, to be more specific, in the order of their appearance in the novels in the Inspector Chen series. Less than half of the compositions in the collection appear in the novels, as fragments or whole poems, but even those published there in their entirety have been altered in small or substantial ways here.  Also worth noting is that some of the poems that appear in the novels could also have been written earlier, even in the days before Chen became an inspector.

Chen Cao started writing during his college years in the early eighties, a period sometimes described as a “golden” one for modern Chinese poetry.  After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, a considerable number of young people burst confidently onto the literary scene. But Chen is more of an accidental poet. While majoring in English and American literature, he studied with the well-known poet and critic Bian Zhilin (1910-2000), and handed in several pieces written as a sort of homework. With Bian’s encouragement, Chen had them published in Poetry and other magazines. In the meantime, he started translating T. S. Eliot and other Western poets, which added to his visibility in the circle.  While doing research for his thesis on Eliot, he fell in love with a young librarian named Ling in Beijing Library. Some of his early poems turned out to be idealistic in spite of the modernist influence.

It did not take long for a different tone to be discernable in his lines. He parted with Ling after learning about her father being a powerful Politburo member.  He was concerned about his possible loss of independence in the event of such a family alliance. Then, after college graduation, he was assigned by the state to work at the Shanghai Police Bureau, an arrangement which was taken for granted in the then government policy: people were all supposed to work in the Party’s interests regardless of personal preference.

He worked as an unwilling cop, initially, translating police procedures, composing political newsletters, doing all sorts of odd jobs. His poems grew somber, leading him to be viewed as a “Chinese modernist,” a politically negative label. His membership in the Chinese Writers’ Association helped little.  Among his colleagues, he was seen as an unorthodox cop not dedicated to his real job.

But another surprising turn intervened. The Party’s new cadre promotion policy came with an unprecedented emphasis on a candidate’s educational credentials, thanks to which Chen was chosen to rise in the ranks. There was whispered speculation about his off-and-on contact with Ling, with some saying this contributed to his ascension. He was admitted into the Party, given real cases, and rose rapidly in bureau.  As the head of the Special Case Squad, Chen was fortunate enough to find a capable partner and close friend in Detective Yu.  In the early nineties, Chen was made the Chief Inspector of the Shanghai Police Bureau. From then on, his investigations are represented in the nine novels so far in the Inspector Chen series.

Notwithstanding the strenuous caseload, he finds the police work widening the range of the poetic subject matter for him; case inspire him to compose lines in response to the unimaginable cruelties, irrationalities, corruptions, insanities as revealed in his investigations. In A Loyal Character Dancer, he comes to the crucial clue through a poem in the background of the educated youth movement; in The Case of Two Cities, a Prufrock-like parody helps to throw light on his predicament as a Party member cop; in Red Mandarin Dress, studies of comparative poetics lends insight into a complicated case; in Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, examining the pollution of the nature as well as of the human nature prompts Chen into a sequence with a spatial structure; and so on. In each and every Inspector Chen novel, poems are produced or recollected.

Chen’s style is shaped by his police work too. In When Red Is Black, he comes across an incomplete manuscript of classical Chinese poetry translation by an intellectual murdered during the Cultural Revolution. To keep his pledge to the dead, Chen edits the manuscript, adding in some of his own translations, and has this published. Inspired by this process, he also introduces into his own poems a sort of dialogue with the Tang and Song masters, and this interplay between ancient and present-day China and sometimes shows up in snippets of old poems being inserted into his correspondence.

In his line of duty, Inspector Chen has to walk a lot, observing, canvassing, and thinking, around the city of Shanghai, particularly in the old sections of the shikumen houses and narrow lanes, coming upon not just clues that aid his investigations, but also sights that spur reflection in this man who is an independent-thinking intellectual as well as policeman.  He jots down fragments in a small notebook, like the Tang dynasty poet Li He who rode around on a donkey, dashing off the lines whenever obtainable, and dropping them into a cloth bag for composition later. That adds a touch of “found poetry” to Chen’s work.

In the meantime, poetry proves very meaningful for Inspector Chen in an unexpected way. It is not enough, he always believes, to merely focus on whodunit; it is imperative for him to try to reach a comprehensive understanding of the social, cultural and historical circumstances in which crimes and tragedies take place. With the Party’s interest put above everything else—above law—in the one-Party system,  he cannot but face the dire politics involved in investigations, staring long and frequently into the abyss (which in turn stares back). There is no way of solving completely the conflict between a conscientious cop and a Party cadre, but poetry-writing comes to provide a temporary escape from the mounting frustrations involved in confronting this problem. He compares the momentary break to the Song dynasty poet Su Shi’s metaphor about staying on the moon, much higher, but also much too cold to stay for long, though a necessary change for the moment.  A poetic perspective help keeps him from identifying himself with the authoritarian system, so that he may sees things from a much-needed distance.

His rise in the Party system brings about change in his experience as a poet. As an executive member of the Chinese Writers’ Association, he is often chosen as a Chinese representative to meet with western poets and writers, and on one occasions, to lead the Chinese Writers’ Delegation abroad, an experience chronicled in The Case of Two Cities.  Chen has a poetry collection published, but he soon discovers that it is done through a large amount paid by a Big Buck (influential figure) associate in secret, something done to curry his favor in the omnipresent cobweb of connections in China. It comes as a terrible blow to his conviction about the relevance of poetry in today’s society.

During the period, changes also occur in his personal life. Like in a proverb, however,  things go the wrong way eight or nine times out of ten, which cannot but somewhat inform his poems. But a follower of Eliot’s “impersonal theory,” he insists on separating the man who suffers from the poet who writes. In that, Chen also benefits from a tradition in the classical Chinese poetics, in which love poems are read as political allegories through the persona of a unrequited lover. For instance, “untitled poems” by Li Shangyin, one of Chen’s favorite Tang dynasty poets, are often interpreted like that, the way John Donne’s love poems are read for the metaphysical significance.

Along with the spectacular economic transformation in China, the literary scene too is changing dramatically. Not like in the early eighties, instead of being fashionable or politically meaningful with the authoritarian government persecution for any independent voice, a poet like Chen becomes marginalized. In the increasingly materialistic society, less and less readers have the time or interests for poetry. People no longer take it seriously. Even with occasional publishing still possible here and there, it’s more like decoration than anything else.

But with so much happening in the contemporary Chinese society, Inspector Chen has no choice but to continue investigating—and writing. He is becoming over time both a more cynical and disillusioned cop and a more cynical and disillusioned poet. He still remembers what his later father told him, quoting Confucius: “Knowing it’s impractical—almost impossible—to do it, you still have to do what you should do.”