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.

Perfect Crime cover

Crime and Penmanship: A Q&A with A Yi

By Alec Ash

A Yi is a Chinese novelist with an unusual story. Born in 1976, he was a police officer until the age of 32, when he switched to writing full-time. Although he has published several story collections and novellas, A Yi is yet to break through into the mainsteam, partly due to his gritty themes. His first novel in English, A Perfect Crime, translated by Anna Holmwood, came out in June. Originally published in 2012 with the Chinese title “What Shall I Do Next?”, the story is of a provincial high school student who murders a female classmate. The narrator tells us dispassionately of his crime, flight, and trial, while everyone around him tries to make sense of what he did. It’s a short read that stays with you long after, and among the most thought-provoking new Chinese fiction I’ve read in a while. I asked A Yi a few questions to try and make sense of it myself.

ALEC ASH: Your novel A Perfect Crime is ostensibly a simple story about a criminal, but in the telling it raises much more complex social questions. What aspects of contemporary Chinese society did you want to reflect in particular?

A YI: Most importantly I wanted to reflect a kind of isolation. Solitude can be poetic in works of art, but in this novel it’s a more bestial kind of solitude, and hard to resist.

I started to collect material for the novel in 2006, when there was a criminal case in Xi’an: a high school student murdered a female classmate. While he was arrested and put on trial, he had a sangfroid that seemed beyond his young years. What he said was like he was talking in his sleep. No-one knew the true motive of his crime — not the police, the prosecutor, the judge, the journalists, the psychologists, or the public. Perhaps even he himself wasn’t clear about it. I tried to use a novel to answer that question: Why did he commit murder?

Did you arrive at an answer?

I think it’s because he wanted to break free of that solitude that is so hard to break free from. The ennui and the emptiness. He’s a student who left his hometown, a parasite living off his relatives in the provincial capital, without any way to fit into city life, or to return to where he came from. So how did he break free? He wanted to play a game of cat and mouse with the police. He runs, they chase. To bait the police into following him, he killed a victim whose death would bring about the outrage of society: a talented model female student.

And so the novel is indulging in an extreme kind of speculation. It can’t explain the true facts of the Xi’an case, but the detachment and solitude which the real criminal expressed is hard to forget. That isolation was embodied in his vacant and cool demeanor. He was indifferent to others around him, and indifferent to himself. I think that in China, even in the world, there are more and more people like that who are unfathomably banished from society and can’t find the sense of true existence that they seek.

What reader did you have in mind for this novel, and did you hope that reading it would change their view of society?

I wrote it for anyone who is willing to think about current Chinese society. I hope they will think about the world they live in, and their place in society. There’s no question that people’s place in their society is increasingly remote, low, and useless. And I hope that my readers can find a sense of heroism from ancient times, and not just be pitilessly manipulated by their society. To be creative. To be responsible. And not to become like the protagonist of the novel, a shameful reptile.

But in reality, more and more people are giving up their sense of self. I call this “passive transference.” In today’s society, so many people have mysteriously transferred their sense of self elsewhere, like they don’t need their own identity. My protagonist is a classic model of this.

In his indifference to his own fate, even his desire to get caught and prosecuted publicly, does he want to make a statement to the world?

He doesn’t want to express anything. His crazed behavior is also a kind of idleness. He’s too lazy to explain himself to others. That’s the most frightening of all. He doesn’t care about himself; he doesn’t care about others. He hastily finishes is own life, with no feeling or pity.

The novel strongly reminded me of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Was it an influence?

It was a huge influence. Before I started writing, I read Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and The Stranger by Camus. Meursault [the main character in The Stranger] was in turn influenced by the main character of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. And my own protagonist was influenced by Meursault. They are both indifferent to their fate, excessively cold and detached. But Meursault is fundamentally good and honest, or at least what emerges from his life is good and honest, while my protagonist is more malicious.

As I was working on the novel, I also deliberately re-watched the US film Taxi Driver. For a long time I’ve been obsessed about writing something with an existential timbre.

The last word the protagonist tells us in the novel is “Goodbye,” although the Chinese literally means “See you later.” Do you think this kind of character, or a repeat of the Xi’an case, could reoccur in Chinese society?

There’s a secret: I never gave the protagonist a name. I did that because I naively thought that if he didn’t have a name then he wouldn’t be easily copied. I was worried that this kind of story could spread widely. I came to write this novel through a real case — to sum it up, analyze it, conjecture about, and invent it like it was a new model of crime in China. He didn’t kill for money or sex, out of anger or hate, but only because of a kind of regret in his spirit.

Some people call me a prophet for this. After publication, every time a hard-to-explain murder case happened, some readers thought that I had prophesied it. One after another they @ed me on Weibo, calling to my attention every time there was a murder that reminded them of A Perfect Crime. But in reality I don’t understand this new type of murderer at all.

On a less moribund note, what are your thoughts on contemporary Chinese literature? Do you think mainland authors are capturing the true flavor of Chinese society?

Contemporary Chinese literature is in a stage of rapid development. In the last few years, writing alone still can’t guarantee an author can make a living, but they are getting more prestige. Because of that, there are at least no fewer Chinese writers. I’ve noticed there are more and more post-90s authors [born after 1990], and their writing is very good. Maybe the next great author will come from their ranks. If not, it will be from the generation born after 2000.

But Chinese contemporary literature at present is still breaking into its own society. I think there are some outstanding works, but so far none that have honestly reflected this society, or genuinely thought it through. The masterwork that will move a whole generation of Chinese, and express what they find painful to endure, has yet to be written.

This interview was conducted on email in Chinese and translated into English

 You can read one of A Yi’s best short stories, The Curse, in English here, translated by Julia Lovell.

Dragon Day

There Be Dragons

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Dragons and China. It’s the biggest fucking cliché. If you ever go looking for books about China, you know how many of them have “dragon” in the title? Like all of them, practically.

As soon as I read the opening lines of Lisa Brackmann’s new China-set crime thriller, Dragon Day, I knew I was going to enjoy it every bit as much as I had anticipated. At initial glance, the book indulges in the two ultimate China clichés — that “dragon” title and its red cover —but with those first four sentences, Brackmann delivers a big wink to her readers: Don’t worry. You might think you know what’s coming, but you have no idea.

This will come as no surprise to readers of the first two books in Brackmann’s Ellie McEnroe series, Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (which she previously discussed in a China Blog Q&A with Jeff Wasserstrom). Anti-heroine Ellie is a Percocet-dependent injured Iraq War vet who moves to Beijing with her husband, Trey, an employee at a Blackwater-like security firm. After Trey leaves her for his young Chinese mistress (speaking of clichés …), Ellie decides to remain in China because she’s as at home there as she is anywhere — which is to say, not at all.

Her attempts to build a life as an art manager in Beijing are repeatedly interrupted by murder, politics, and conspiracy. But while in other mystery series the protagonists’ tendency to stumble upon dead bodies can strain credulity, this same plot move seems natural in Ellie’s case: operating in a world of dissident artists and super-rich collectors, and with her lingering ties to the American defense apparatus, Ellie is surrounded on all sides by people who work in the shadows. Sometimes, murder is simply the only way they know to get the job done.

Dragon Day sees Ellie attempting to stay in the good graces of her biggest — and scariest — client, art-collecting billionaire Sidney Cao, who requests that she investigate a foreign “consultant” whom Sidney suspects is exerting an unhealthy influence over his spoiled 20-something son. Ellie wants nothing more than to complete this assignment with speed and diplomacy, but her hopes are quickly dashed when a young migrant woman turns up dead with Ellie’s business card in her pocket. Maneuvering between the Chinese authorities and the menacing members of the Cao family, Ellie soon finds herself in way over her head as she searches for the woman’s killer.

Ellie is not always a sympathetic protagonist. She’s wounded and closed-off, unable to accept the help that people offer. She should really be nicer to her mother, who has come to live with Ellie in Beijing. And she often makes the wrong choices, fully knowing that they’re mistakes but unable to stop herself. Still, I find Ellie — cynical, paranoid, and profane as she is — a compelling character with a unique voice.

Brackmann has stated repeatedly that Dragon Day is her last Ellie book; there is a limit to the number of times a character can be endangered before a series jumps the shark (see: Outlander), and she doesn’t want to risk reaching that point. And while I understand that, I know I’m not alone among her readers in lamenting that we only get three volumes in Ellie’s story. Dragon Day is a more than satisfying end to the trilogy, wrapping up many of the long-term plot threads while resisting the urge to give Ellie an uncharacteristically happy ending. Ellie, after all, would never stand for such a cliché.


A New Biography of China’s Imprisoned Nobel Laureate: A Q&A with Jean-Philippe Béja

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Rowman and Littlefield recently published Steel Gate to Freedom : The Life of Liu Xiaobo, a translation of Yu Jie’s powerful biography of a man with whom he has long been friends. Liu remains China’s best known prisoner of conscience — awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, he was unable to collect it due to his 11-year prison term for his bold call for expanded civil liberties. This new biography opens with an introduction by Jean-Philippe Béja, a leading French specialist on China, whose work often focuses on struggles for democracy. I caught up with Béja, whose recent books include The Impact of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Massacre (Routledge, 2011), to ask him some questions. (Note: as someone who has known Liu for decades and often interviewed him, Béja sometimes refers to Liu familiarly as “Xiaobo” rather than by his surname.)

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: What are the kinds of things this book will tell Western readers about Liu Xiaobo that they would not likely have come across before, if their previous information about him had come only from pieces celebrating his win of the Nobel Peace Prize?

JEAN-PHILIPPE BEJA: Despite the fact that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo remains quite unknown to the general public. I guess the biggest surprise will come from his personal experience during the Cultural Revolution. While it is described as a catastrophe in official discourse as well as in dissidents’ writings (including Liu’s), it comes out from the book as a period of freedom which provided this typical Northeastern lively youth with a number of opportunities to get into fights, and to assert his personality. This stands in contrast with the image of the thoughtful intellectual that came across in the 1990s, but it helps explain why he was not afraid of the provocations that later so shocked the progressive intellectuals used to political correctness.

Yu’s book also shows that Xiaobo was thrilled by all the crazes of the 1980s. Having become an ultra individualist in reaction to the “ultra collectivist” model imposed on youth by Mao in the 1970s, Liu tried everything: an admirer of Nietzsche, he seized every opportunity to assert his individuality. Besides — and this appears as a shock to Yu Jie — the young man who got married early was a strong believer in the sexual revolution that developed in the 1980s, a womanizer always surrounded by pretty young women. All these features remind the reader of Western 1960s activists. Except that, at the time, Xiaobo was not deeply involved in politics.

He changed after the June Fourth Massacre, which changed his life, and his role in China’s intellectual life. But this aspect of his personality, which is developed in Yu’s book, is more familiar to the public.

What do you think readers in mainland China who have only been exposed to denigrations of Liu as a traitorous and dangerous political figure (leaving aside the many who have never heard his name mentioned at all, as well as those who in critical intellectual and dissident communities), find most surprising to learn from this book? If, that is, they somehow got hold of Steel Gate to Freedom and perused it with an open mind?

They might be surprised to learn first of all that, within China, Xiaobo has not always been denigrated as a traitor. In the second half of the 1980s, he was very popular with students and young intellectuals who rushed to hear his presentations. The official media even published some of his provocative essays. But it is true that since 1989, he has been the target of official attacks.

I guess young people might be interested in the description of the 1980s intellectual atmosphere, that they pretty much ignore. They will also be interested in discovering the numerous facets of Liu’s personality, and will be impressed by his courage. His decision to “live in truth” whatever the consequences, will definitely appeal to the most politicized. But I guess that many a former “Little Emperor” — obsessed with career prospects and the will to make money — will find his idealism laughable.

How would you characterize the author, Yu Jie’s, goals in writing this account of his friend, which is clearly not meant to be a hagiography?

First of all, Yu Jie admires Liu Xiaobo, and is a good friend of his. I guess that if you write about a person who has decided to live in truth, you cannot depict him as a spotless figure. I think that Yu Jie wanted to show as much as possible the true nature of his friend’s personality, not neglecting its negative aspects. A literary critic himself who denounced the official Marxist literary theory, he was cautious not to paint the “typical character in a typical environment” (dianxing renwu, dinning huanjing) celebrated by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. In order to write Liu Xiaobo’s biography, Yu has traveled all over China to find people he had known at various stages of his life, despite the risks involved. Once he had been forced to go to the US, he interviewed almost all the Chinese people who had known him. I guess that to Yu Jie, the best tribute to his friend consists in giving a truthful image of his personality.

Were there new things that you learned from it, even as someone who has spent a great deal of time studying and writing about the events of 1989 and their legacy?

Yu Jie presents a very informative account of many stages of Liu’s life. During my meetings with Xiaobo, we mostly talked about politics and about developments since 1989, therefore I didn’t know much about his personal life before the Tiananmen protests. I learnt a lot on this subject from Yu’s book.

So far as the 1989 movement is concerned, I learned much less, but those parts of the book remain valuable. Yu’s account of the last days of the sit-in in Tiananmen Square is very detailed. I knew this part of Liu’s life story well from my interviews with him, and others who have studied the June 4th Movement will find much that is familiar in that part of the book as well. Still, it is interesting to see from it what Yu’s distinctive take on these events is, and he is an intriguing figure in his own right. His book also underscores the importance of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in the history of the PRC, and this, too, is significant.

Dragonfruit cover

Expat Identities

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

In my last China Blog post, I interviewed Hong Kong-based author Shannon Young, who talked about both her recently published memoir and a 2014 collection of essays she edited, titled How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia. That volume, Young explained, “gives a voice to the expat women who are often labeled as trailing spouses and dismissed,” their lives stereotyped as a parade of coffee dates, shopping expeditions, and yoga classes with other expatriate wives while their husbands work in government or business and their children attend international schools.

There are indeed plenty of women who move their families overseas at the behest of their husbands’ employers, though their lives are unquestionably more complex than the shallow vision I’ve just described. And there are also plenty of women who move abroad for other reasons: to learn a new language, to pursue their careers, to experience life in another country, or to leave behind an unsatisfying routine at home. Whether they live overseas with families, with partners, or alone, all expat women face a similar question, as Young writes in the foreword to Dragonfruit: “Who am I in this culture, this place?”

Some of the 26 women whose stories are included in Dragonfruit describe how they find freedom in their new homes. Sometimes this freedom is literal: Neha Mehta writes of feeling a greater sense of personal safety in Bangkok than she ever did in her native India, and of how this enables her to take public transportation and move about without her husband. For other women, freedom is figurative, as experiences abroad help them let go of lives that aren’t working for them anymore. In “Giving in to Mongolia,” Michelle Borok describes how at age 34, she took a vacation from her demanding job in Los Angeles to ride horses in Mongolia, where “I just got to be in charge of me, and I rediscovered how happy I could be with only myself for company.” No longer satisfied with her life in the United States, Borok moved to Mongolia and married a local man.

Many of the anthology’s contributors speak of being changed for the better by their time abroad, but Dragonfruit also includes essays on the difficulties involved in living overseas. Authors write of their struggles to communicate in foreign languages; to feel comfortable in settings where they don’t physically fit in; to navigate romantic relationships with partners who come from other cultures. And while moving to another country can feel like leaving behind “real life” at home, real-life problems — cancer, infertility, marriage troubles — don’t respect national boundaries.

One of the trickiest aspects of putting together an edited collection is achieving balance in the voices represented. Young writes in the foreword that she received 86 submissions for Dragonfruit and selected 26; of those, 13 essays are by women who live or have lived in Greater China (Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the PRC). Many of these essays — especially the ones by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, Kaitlin Solimine, Christine Tan, Jocelyn Eikenburg, and Susan Blumberg-Kason — are the ones I liked the most in Dragonfruit, though I’ll admit that I’m surely biased toward China stories, and also that I was previously familiar with most of those authors (and in a couple of cases, have met them in person). But while I enjoyed the China essays, I wish a greater range of countries were represented in the collection. Just as “there are as many kinds of stories as there are expat women” (in Young’s words), the size and diversity of Asia means that expat women living in its different countries will have very different stories to tell. Dragonfruit offers a taste, but I’d welcome a second volume that features a broader assortment of women wrestling with the eternal expat question: “Who am I in this culture, this place?”


Reading Material for the Rails

By Austin Dean

Chinese high-speed railway stations are overwhelming places, simultaneously cavernous and crowded. The main terminal usually spans one huge space with no divisions or branches. Look up to the ceiling and the station looks empty. But you shouldn’t do that. Down on the ground, there are people everywhere, and you need to pay attention to where you’re going.

Places to eat and shop line the edges of most stations, or fill the basements and second floors. You’re guaranteed to find two establishments: KFC and Starbucks. In China’s major cities, you’re never far away from fried chicken or coffee. In fact, at the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station there is a Starbucks on the second floor directly above a Starbucks on the first floor. As comedian Lewis Black once riffed, a Starbucks right next to a Starbucks is a sure sign of the end of the world.

There are also a number of clothing stores whose names don’t seem quite right, especially to people (like me) who don’t know much about fashion. Is Good Luck Gladius supposed to be a rip-off of a foreign brand, or a purely Chinese creation? It requires some research for me to find out it’s the latter.

The most interesting place, in my mind, is the bookstore.

As a general rule, if you’re abroad and can read at least a little bit of the local language, you should always pop into a bookstore when you come across one, regardless of whether it’s on a main thoroughfare or in a railway station. It’s fascinating to see what types of books are prominently displayed, and it increases your chances of having an interesting conversation with a local.

On a recent visit to the small bookstore in the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station, the first thing I notice are not books but people: a group of about 12 stare up at a television. Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese internet giant Alibaba, is giving a speech. With deep-set eyes and unrelenting intensity, Ma is a charismatic speaker, and his audience at the small bookstore is hooked. Beneath the television where Ma lectures about the secrets of success are collections of DVDs for sale, all of which feature other people likewise delivering discourses on how to make it big. They might know what they’re talking about — but they also look like hucksters. The box sets are quite clunky, exactly what you don’t want to lug around with you on the train. It doesn’t look like they’re selling well.

More than half of the small store is devoted to books about business, but there are several sub-genres. The first consists of translations of the same books you see in American airport bookstores. The top-ranked book at this outlet is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It. This prompts questions about who is buying this book and why — do travelers on Chinese high-speed trains think they lack self-control? But I realize it’s probably best not to probe this ground too deeply, the publisher likely just paid for the book to be prominently displayed. Another popular title is Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel. There are also a handful of books about Warren Buffet; the Oracle of Omaha is big in China.

The next set of books focus on similar topics, but are written by professors at top Chinese universities; volumes center on Jack Ma instead of Warren Buffet. One of these, Understanding the Chinese Stock Market, sticks out as quite ambitiously titled. Given everything thats happened in the Chinese stock market in the past two months, it’s a bold claim and one that’s surely outdated.

The most interesting Chinese business books to me are those that mask themselves as history books. One volume prominently featured in the store is Records of the Relationship between Government and Business in the Late Qing Dynasty. The point of the book is to understand the subtle (weimiao) relations between the government and the business community in historical perspective, with the goal of gaining greater insights into the situation today. This title must have found a wide audience — it is the second of a two-part series.

A number of other biographies cover similar strategies of making the past serve the present. One book promises to deliver the secrets of success from a wealthy entrepreneur in the Ming dynasty, Shen Wansan. Another book about Genghis Khan attributes the Mongol leader’s success to will power (yizhi) instead of wisdom (zhihui). A similar genre exists in America — How to Think Like Steve Jobs — but they don’t usually find inspiration in the 13th century.

Like a Hudson News shop in an American airport, the bookstore in a Chinese railway station is not necessarily the kind of place to find more academic tomes. But China always surprises.

Set between two books about the rise of China, I find a translation of The History of the American People by famed Columbia University historian Charles Beard. The Chinese translation juices up the title a little bit, calling it American History: From the Age of Wilderness to the Age of Imperialism. The Chinese publishers also build up the book’s pedigree: “Translated into over 30 languages” and “Over 100 million copies sold.”

But most of the people in the store weren’t interested in Charles Beard — Jack Ma was still holding forth on the screen.

Confucius Book

The Impact of Confucius: A Q&A with Michael Schuman

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Veteran Asia correspondent Michael Schuman, now living in Beijing, has reported from various parts of East Asia for a range of publications. He was writing for Time Magazine when I met him in Hong Kong several years ago. Confucius and the World He Created, his most recent book, was published by Basic Books in March. I caught up with him last month by email with a few questions about the philosopher who has come to intrigue him so greatly — and with whose life and ideas, he’s convinced, anyone interested in the changes taking place in East Asia should be familiar. 

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Let’s begin with a broad question: Why another book about Confucius? After all, there have plenty of translations of his writings. In addition, in recent years several scholars, such as Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson in Lives of Confucius and before that Annping Chin in The Authentic Confucius, have tried their hands at writing books about him aimed at least partly for general readers. What made you feel inspired to take him on as a subject — and what is unique about your approach to his life, work and influence?

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: My goal in writing Confucius and the World He Created was to explore the real-life influence Confucius has had on history and modern society. I thought there was a need for a book not just about the philosopher and the tenets of his doctrine, but also about Confucius’s impact — how the ideas and the legacy of China’s most famous philosopher have shaped the world we see around us every day. Some 2,500 years after Confucius first fashioned his doctrine, his ideas still hold tremendous sway in East Asia over how government treat their citizens, how CEOs manage their employees, how children get educated, how husbands, wives and children interact, and how people in the region see themselves and their role in society. We can’t understand East Asia today, therefore, without an appreciation for Confucius. That ranks the sage with Jesus, Mohammad, the great Greek philosophers, and the Buddha as one of the founders of human civilization.

Yet despite his role in history, I don’t think many in the West know all that much about Confucius. That, I decided, was actually quite dangerous. Amid the history-altering shift of power from West to East, enhanced knowledge of Confucius is critical for making sense of global affairs. China, South Korea, and other East Asian societies are wielding greater and greater clout in international politics and the global economy, and if Americans intend on dealing with the region’s ascent, we must become much more familiar with Confucius. Simply, we ignore Confucius at our own peril. It was important, I felt, to bring him to vibrant life, to introduce the sage, his teachings, and his impact through straightforward language and colorful anecdotes so any reader could understand the sage — and in the process, the world today and in the future.

I know from both your book and from a recent commentary you did for the Financial Times that you don’t accept Xi Jinping’s interpretation of Confucian thought. What do you see as the main misleading way some modern heads of state, from Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore to Hu Jintao and now Xi in the People’s Republic to Chiang Kai-shek on the mainland, have approached “Confucian” ideas of governance and rule?

Singapore’s Lee and now China’s Communist leadership have advocated a very self-serving reading of Confucian political doctrine. Their position has been that democracy is not universal as we in the West assert, that Chinese have a different political tradition — based on Confucianism — and that, therefore, Chinese societies are better served by top-down, illiberal regimes. Reading Confucian philosophical texts, you can see how Lee, Xi, and others have arrived at that conclusion. In Confucius’s ideal government, authority was to be held by one person: a “sage-king” who was so wise and virtuous that his rule would uplift the common man not just materially, but spiritually. Confucius also saw society as a hierarchy of superior-inferior relationships, in which people were to be deferential to authority.

Lee and Xi have latched onto these concepts to suggest that authoritarian rule is rooted in traditional Chinese culture. But in doing so, they sidestep some other, critical aspects of Confucius’s political thought. The perfect Confucian government was based on benevolence, not coercion. A truly virtuous ruler would have no reason to resort to force — the people would cherish his leadership and follow him willingly. Confucius is very clear on this point in the Analects.

For instance, an official once asked Confucius if he should kill all those who didn’t follow the proper path, “In administering your government, what need is there for you to kill?” Confucius responded: “Just desire the good yourself and the common people will be good.”

Elsewhere, Confucius also insisted that good rulers should be open to advice and criticism. In The Classic of Filial Piety, another important ancient text, Confucius recoils in horror when his interviewer asks if always being obedient was the way to be filial. Confucius said that a minister had a duty to “remonstrate” to his ruler to ensure good government.

However, President Xi today is intensifying a crackdown on dissent, freedom of speech, and civic action of all types. By Confucian standards, that means Xi is not a benevolent ruler. Xi desires absolute power for himself and his Communist Party and hopes to use Confucius to achieve it; the sage’s ultimate goal was to constrain absolute and arbitrary power. What Lee and Xi have done is twist Confucius’s teachings to make it appear the sage favored autocracy, when in reality he opposed it.

You emphasize the importance of going back to the Analects when assessing Confucius, so I’m curious about which translation or translations of them you relied on and why.

I relied on translations by James Legge and D.C. Lau, mainly because they are both widely available and read. I thought it was also important to use Dr. Lau’s version to get a Chinese perspective on the translation.

Finally, I’d like your thoughts on Qufu, the hometown of Confucius that I visited in 2014. What do you think the sage himself would make of the place in its latest incarnation as a tourist draw and pilgrimage site? 

My guess is that Confucius would be a bit horrified by how he is perceived and treated today. In the Analects and other ancient texts, such as the famous biography of the sage compiled by Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian, Confucius is often portrayed as humble and self-deprecating, always doubting his virtue and seeking more knowledge. I think he’d be mortified by the way in which he has been praised and venerated over the past 2,000 years. His embarrassment would be even more pronounced since the governments that have adopted him as a symbol, both in imperial and Communist times, take his name in vain. They claim to honor him but don’t abide by his principles.

Young Year of Fire Dragons cover

Q&A with Shannon Young, Author of “Year of Fire Dragons”

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Shannon Young doesn’t content herself to work in only one genre. I first came across her name last year when reading the personal-finance website, The Billfold, where she wrote about paying off nearly $80,000 of student debt in under five years (Young recounts a longer version of the story in her ebook, Pay Off). Not long after, I downloaded How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia  and realized that the same Shannon Young had edited the excellent collection of essays. Checking out Young’s website, I saw that she had also written short fiction about Hong Kong as well as a travel memoir about her trip to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But if none of the above titles pique your interest, perhaps you’d prefer a post-apocalyptic adventure story? Young can deliver that too: she’s currently publishing a trilogy called The Seabound Chronicles under the pen name Jordan Rivet.

Young, however, didn’t originally plan to spend her life writing; she wanted to be an editor. But after graduating from college in 2009, she found many of her plans upended. Publishing jobs were nearly impossible to find in the midst of the economic downturn, her student loans were looming, and she had fallen in love with Ben, a Hong Kong native whom Young had met while on a semester abroad in London. Asia offered the chance for both economic security and personal happiness, so Young packed up and moved to Hong Kong — only to see Ben suddenly transferred to London a month after her arrival. In a new memoir, Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong, Young recounts the ups and downs of her first twelve months in Hong Kong as she grappled with a life totally different from the one she had planned.

After reading Year of Fire Dragons, I interviewed Young by email, eager to hear more about her work and her experience as an expatriate woman in Asia.

MAURA ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM: I saw in one blog post you wrote that the working title for your memoir was Hong Kong Limbo. Why did that seem like a good title for a time, and what ultimately led you to change it?

SHANNON YOUNG: When I started writing this memoir, I didn’t know whether I’d be leaving Hong Kong at the end of the year or whether the central relationship in the story — and in my life — would work out. Limbo felt like an apt description. That year I learned a lot about living with uncertainty, something that was tricky for me because I always prefer to have a plan. When I signed my book deal, the publisher suggested that we go with a different title. We brainstormed together and decided Year of Fire Dragons more accurately reflected the sense of wonder that ultimately resulted from my experiences. In hindsight, it fits with the finished book much better than the working title I chose while living in the tension of that year.

You spent a lot of time (and money!) educating and preparing yourself for a career in New York’s publishing industry, only to end up a writer in Hong Kong. What’s the Hong Kong literary scene like? Who are some of your favorite local authors?

The literary scene is much smaller in Hong Kong, especially for those of us writing in English, but it’s also quite friendly. It’s easier to meet and get to know people working in all aspects of the industry than it would be in New York or London. Even though I’m a relatively new author, I’ve had the chance to speak at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and compete in Literary Death Match, which I may not have been able to do in New York at this early stage in my career. Some of my favorite local authors are Nury Vittachi, Jason Y. Ng, and Xu Xi. All three support the local literary scene in various ways, and they are genuinely willing to encourage and advise their fellow authors.

In addition to your own memoir, you’ve also edited a collection of writing by other female expats in Asia. How did you come up with the idea for How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?, and what do you hope to accomplish with the book?

Credit for that idea actually goes to Xu Xi, who suggested it to Marshall Moore at Signal 8 Press, where I had been getting some work experience. The topic was in line with my own writing and interests, so I jumped at the chance to edit the collection. The book gives a voice to the expat women who are often labeled as trailing spouses and dismissed. In fact, many of the women who move to Asia come by themselves for a multitude of reasons, and those who do accompany a spouse have experiences and challenges that are more nuanced than people realize. The collection includes expatriates from other Asian countries (a woman from the Philippines living in South Korea, for example) and members of the Asian Diaspora who identify as expats even though they look just like the people around them (such as a Chinese American woman living in China). The collection is a snapshot of the modern expatriate experience for women and demonstrates the vast diversity of challenges they face. I hope it also encourages those who are embarking on a life abroad.

Finally, if someone were traveling to Hong Kong for the first time and wanted some book recommendations from you, what would you suggest they read?

Martin Booth’s memoir of his childhood in Hong Kong is a great introduction to the city. It’s published under the name Golden Boy in the U.S. and Gweilo in Hong Kong and the UK. It gives a sense of the mystery and beauty of Hong Kong’s streets. For a more in-depth understanding of the city, I recommend Jason Y. Ng’s newest book of essays called No City for Slow Men. He’s a local who has also lived abroad for many years, so he offers a helpful “insider’s outsider” perspective for a newcomer. (For an “outsider’s outsider” perspective, visitors might enjoy Year of Fire Dragons.) And for those who prefer to get to know new cities through fiction, I recommend The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee or the classic World of Suzy Wong by Richard Mason.


Seeking Alpha in 1992 Shanghai

By Austin Dean

Recently in the main reading room of the Shanghai Municipal Library, the guy sitting next to me set up shop, though not to study or read. For most of the morning he had his eyes fixed on his laptop, keeping a close watch on the Shanghai stock market index and various individual stock prices. He looked about 19 years old.

Since last summer, it seems everyone in China has entered the market. As the Shanghai Composite Index continued to soar, it was too hard to resist taking the plunge, even as most indicators revealed an economic picture that was murky at best. By the start of this summer, the Shanghai market was up more than 100 percent since the last one; since the end of June the Shanghai index has fallen more than 30 percent from its peak.

Most theories about the market bubble connect back to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Take the CCP’s official nightly news show, Xinwen Lianbo. This program, the thinking goes, reveals important government policies that move the stock market.

As Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism newsletter and a close observer of the Chinese investing scene, noted on Twitter, a Chinese acquaintance said he was fully invested when the Shanghai index was at 4100 because “who dares insult the Party.” The implication was the Chinese Communist Party simply wouldn’t let the market fall below that point. And that is bascially what happened. After the Shanghai Composite Index dropped to a low of 3500 on July 8, the Chinese government rolled out a host of policies to arrest a further fall. China was “destroying its stock market in order to save it.” After a slight rebound that lasted three days, the Shanghai Composite dropped three percent on Wednesday , July 15, closing at 3805.

Even if you don’t watch the national news program, you are never far away from sources of investment advice in China, which in and of itself might be a sign of a frothy market: books, internet forums, WeChat groups, and word of mouth all tell you how to invest your money. The whole genre of investment advice in China has exploded since the reopening of the Shanghai market in 1990 (reopening because there was a stock market in Shanghai before the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. You can find more information on the performance of the old Shanghai stock market here).

The Market: The Kingdom of Psychology by Jin Xuewei, a self-taught investment guru, is one of the originals of the investment-advice genre. The book came out in September 1992; at that time the Shanghai market had been open for about a year and a half. Most of the book is a combination of practical advice — what types of information to read — and exhortation: “You are your own best financial advisor,” and, “You can only master the market by mastering yourself.” The most interesting part of the volume comes at the end, when Jin analyzed who was making money in the Shanghai stock market in 1992 and why they were able to do so.

The first group having success were “professional investors.” These weren’t Wall Streeters dressed in suits, but people operating in the shadowy and shifting grounds of the Chinese economy as it began to open up. They were huangniu — middlemen on the make always looking for an angle. Involved in enterprises of varying legality, they put a lot of the proceeds from these businesses into the stock market. The huangniu, in a nod to official communist rhetoric, brought to mind Shanghai traders in the “old society” (jiu shehui) before the establishment of the People’s Republic. The mythical and composite huangniu figure was “Yang One Million” (Yang Baiwan), a short, nondescript man in his 40s with a big belly who excelled at collecting and interpreting information and favored taking big positions in stocks with not that many shares available. By 1992, the author felt the huangniu were moving their money out of the market; they needed to diversify their investments and had an eye on other areas.

If you took a trip down to the stock exchange in the fall of 1992 (and you had to physically go there to trade shares then), you wouldn’t find many in the crowd fitting the description of huangniu. Instead, you would find lots of neatly dressed people sporting glasses and cultured looks: Chinese intellectuals, people who had attended university. For the past year and a half, some intellectuals had been in the market, but only in a secretive sort of way. Part of their hesitance was cultural. Chinese intellectuals, Jin wrote, had been taught to look down on commerce for thousands of years and did not want to be associated with the likes of the huangniu. Another factor was more practical: imagine if they saw someone they knew when going to trade stocks. How awkward! What would they say to each other back at their work unit?

But by the fall of 1992 this stigma had begun to fade. Intellectuals were doing well because they were hesitant and cautious by nature, only moving into the market when they understood what it was. Jin insisted that Chinese intellectuals — famous for empty talk (kongtan) and inaction — were making good returns in the market. Of course, there is an equally valid point about intellectuals as investors that the author ignored: an expert in one area might overestimate the transferability of that knowledge into a new domain. Conducting open-heart surgery does not have anything to do with picking stocks, but a hotshot surgeon might think it does. Apparently Chinese intellectuals in 1992 were immune from this psychological trap.

The third group of people able to make money in the market but faced the most risks and needed the most help — hence the purpose of writing the book — were the average investors. These investors did not have the connections and daring of huangniu or the caution and logic of the intellectuals. Their biggest enemy was themselves. Unfortunately, as Jin constantly reminded readers, the hardest person to control is oneself.

The final group Jin describes — a group that didn’t need his book to guide their investments — were the “mysterious institutional investors” (shenmi de jigou touzizhe). These institutional investors had lots of money and resources that usually came from public money (gongkuan), bank loans, or loans provided by a certain work unit (danwei). Jin didn’t come out and say it clearly, but the money and the personnel behind these institutional investors mostly traced back to the government. It paid to be associated with officialdom.

Jin Xuewei is still in the business of giving investment advice. On June 29, he posted a piece on his blog titled “Why I Say the Bull Market Isn’t Over.” Oops.

I hope the guy sitting next to me at the library wasn’t listening to him.


On Yan Lianke’s Fiction: Q & A with Translator and Literary Scholar Carlos Rojas

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Yan Lianke is an award-winning fiction writer in China, and has also been recognized internationally with the Kafka Prize, which honors authors for a body of work. He occupies a curious position in Chinese letters — he is typically unable to publish on the mainland, yet holds a faculty post at a prestigious mainland university. He has also been an outspoken critic of the toll that both official censorship and self-censorship take on the country’s authors.

One of his best-known novels is Serve the People!, a satirical work also available in English in Julia Lovell’s lively translation. Another one of his novels, Lenin’s Kisses, describes an idyllic Brigadoon-like village whose inhabitants, each handicapped in some fashion, but living contentedly in a self-contained community spared the ravages of Chinese revolutionary history. They are soon swept up into the machinations of a scheming official. Perhaps his most ambitious novel to date is The Four Books, a searing look at China’s Great Leap Forward famine, just published in English. The recently released English language edition of The Four Books benefits from skillful translation work by Carlos Rojas, who also provides a useful introduction, reprising things he did for the English language edition of Lenin’s Kisses.

I caught up with Rojas, who in addition to his translation work has published on topics ranging from the cultural history of the Great Wall to the fiction of literary laureate Gao Xingjian:

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Let’s begin by talking about the two Yan Lianke novels you’ve translated, Lenin’s Kisses and The Four Books. Both are experimental in form and wide ranging works, but my sense reading both in English is that the latter probably presented bigger challenges to you as a translator. Is that right? 

CARLOS ROJAS: Actually, from a translational perspective, Lenin’s Kisses was more challenging. Most of Yan Lianke’s works incorporate a certain amount of local Henan dialect, but in Lenin’s Kisses this constitutes a key element of the structure of the novel itself. Beginning with the work’s very first sentence, the novel includes countless footnotes explaining local words and phrases with which it is expected that the reader will be unfamiliar. The accompanying notes, meanwhile, include not only straightforward definitions but also frequently include lengthy discussions of character’s backgrounds and the history of village. One challenge, accordingly, was to come up with English words and phrases that would feature the same combination of familiarity and unfamiliarity as their dialectal equivalents in the Chinese.

The Four Books does present a similar set of challenges, however. For instance, one challenge was how to render the Biblical language that runs through the novel, and specifically how to retain the flavor of the Chinese-language version of this Biblical language in the original version of the novel. Another challenge involved negotiating the repeated shifts back and forth between the four manuscripts that comprise the novel, given that each manuscript is written in a distinct voice and plays a different role in the overall work.

In structural terms, both works are experimental in different ways. Lenin’s Kisses is more aggressively non-linear in its narrative structure, with the repeated jumps back and forth between the main narrative plane, and the lengthy endnotes, which often function as extended flashbacks where much of the narrative development takes place. The relationship between these interwoven narrative threads is rather complex, and it was an interesting challenge to make sure that all of the chronologies lined up correctly. In The Four Books, meanwhile, the narrative jumps back and forth between the three component manuscript texts, which are all truncated and composed for very different sets of objectives. But while it was somewhat tricky figuring out how to negotiate the relationship between these different fictional manuscripts, strict issues of chronology were not as much of a problem, since each of the four manuscripts proceeds more or less chronologically.

What is most distinctive to you about Yan as a writer, setting him apart from other Chinese authors you’ve analyzed or translated? And I guess linked to this, do you see Lenin’s Kisses and The Four Books as interrelated, broadly similar books, due to the gimlet-eyed view they both cast on the Maoist past, or very different, in that the former has more flat out farcical elements, while the latter takes bigger chances stylistically in weaving together four separate texts?

One of the things I like about Yan Lianke is that although there are a common set of concerns that run through all of his works (or at least his works since the mid-1990s), each of his novels tends to have a very distinct voice and narrative structure. While there are quite a few other contemporary Chinese authors who have been very experimental in their shorter works, many of them tend to adopt a more conventional narrative structure for their longer novels. In Yan Lianke’s novels, by contrast, structure consistently receives as much attention as content.

All of Yan’s works since the mid-1990s consistently engage with a set of sociopolitical issues relating to China during the Mao and post-Mao era, though often in very different ways. So, in this respect, I feel that all of his works from the past couple of decades are interrelated, and can be viewed along a continuum of literary expression. Part of the interest of his oeuvre, for me, is observing this negotiation between an attempt to explore a coherent set of concerns through an array of different works, and the ways in which artistic, political, and commercial factors have a differential impact on each individual work.

With respect to the specific comparison of Lenin’s Kisses and The Four Books, I think they both use a combination of realistic and fantastic elements to offer a commentary on contemporary Chinese society and recent Chinese society. The tone of The Four Books is somewhat darker than that of Lenin’s Kisses, but it too has its farcical moments. There is a cannibalistic theme that runs through both works — fairly literally in The Four Books, where the protagonist irrigates his crops with his own blood, and more metaphorically in Lenin’s Kisses, where the village of handicapped men and women are made to perform their disabilities for profit.

There has been a lot of discussion of censorship and Chinese publishing lately, both in general interest publications, including The New York Times, and in more specialized settings, such as on the Modern Chinese Literature and Culture list serve. Yan’s name sometimes comes up in these discussions, due to his unusual situation as a writer who has been unable to publish his recent works on the mainland and yet continues to live there and teach at a prominent institution. He’s also written powerfully about censorship and self-censorship. I’d like to invite you to jump into this ongoing discussion at any point. This could be to flag something particularly important that’s been said or written either by or about Yan, but could be something very different.

This is a long-standing issue, but the recent discussions you are referring to stems from a recent New Yorker article that quotes Eric Abrahamsen, a Beijing-based translator and editor, who is quoted as claiming that in contemporary China dissidents are jailed for their political activities, but not for their creative writing. In subsequent discussions on the academic list serve you mention, Abrahamsen explains that he feels that while “art may have political content, but it is not political speech,” and that “art falls apart for me the instant that the message (be that political, moral, religious, etc.) pokes through the artistic fabric of the piece itself.” He concedes that some jailed dissidents are in fact authors, but contends that their writing — from a purely literary perspective — is actually not very good, thereby further invalidating them as authors. (Abrahamsen was also subsequently invited to write an op-ed for The New York Times on this topic, which I have not yet had a chance to read since I am currently and China and do not have easy access to the Times and other censored websites.)

While I understand the general impulse that drives Abrahamsen’s intervention — namely, the fact that different types of public speech are handled very differently by the Chinese authorities — I think that the distinction he is trying to draw between literature and political speech is a deeply problematic one. To begin with, as Terry Eagleton argues in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, the very attempt to specify a discursive space as purely aesthetic and outside of ideology, is itself a deeply ideological (and, by extension, political) gesture. Furthermore, none of the authors and public figures under consideration engages in only a single kind of discourse, but rather they each express themselves in a variety of different ways, some of which may be perceived as more literary or political than others. So, to identify one subset of authors as being situated within the literary arena and another as being situated within the political arena is a radical oversimplification, even if the distinction between politics and pure art were a sustainable one in the first place.

Rather than a distinction between literary and political expression, I think that what we are observing is a phenomenon wherein different types of political expression are being treated differentially by the Chinese state. Some types of political expression (be they presented as literature or otherwise) are discouraged, but may have relatively minor repercussions for the authors themselves. Other types of political expression (again, be they presented as literature or otherwise) meanwhile, are dealt with much more strictly. China’s censorship may be in the process or undergoing a transformation, as Yan Lianke argues, from a “hard” censorship regime to a “soft” one (which uses a variety of approaches to encourage authors, artists, scholars, and others to voluntarily comply with the expectations), but I think it is essential to remember that the regime definitely retains a very “hard” edge — particularly when it comes to certain types of public expression.

Yan Lianke is distinguished, I think, by a determination to try to work within the mainland Chinese system, while at the same time having an aesthetic and political perspective that is not always welcome by the Chinese authorities (or by the Chinese publishing industry, which often preemptively anticipates how something might be received by the authorities). He is also, I think, quite willing to speak his mind on a wide variety of topics, and has a deep commitment to the social and aesthetic issues that he interrogates in his writings.

Finally, anything you are working on now, as a translator or as an author, that you are particularly excited about?

I am currently translating new novels by Yan Lianke and Jia Pingwa, and just completed a book-length collection of short stories of short stories by the Malaysian Chinese author Ng Kim Chew, which will be published by Columbia UP early next year. Ng’s stories are crazily imaginative explorations of issues of displacement and diaspora, and specifically the interwoven social, cultural, and political conditions that inform the status of Malaysia’s Chinese community. His stories are also very political in their own way, carefully exploring the contemporary legacies of the Malayan Communist Party and other mid-century developments. I have two co-edited volumes that will appear next year, including an Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures, which includes 44 essays exploring a variety of different interpretative methodologies and taxonomical considerations (including one chapter by Yan Lianke himself, on state censorship). Finally, my new book, Homesickness, on the use of discourses of disease as a sociopolitical metaphor across the Chinese long 20th century, came out earlier this year. I’m currently working on two new monographs: one on thematics of time and temporality in modern Chinese cultural production, and the other on the contemporary Hong Kong director Fruit Chan.


The Greening of Asia — An Interview with Mark Clifford

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Mark L. Clifford is executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council. Clifford’s impressive resume includes periods spent as the South China Morning Post’s editor-in-chief and as Asia regional editor for Business Week. He’s been based in Asia since 1987, when he moved to Seoul to serve as a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He chairs the editorial board and is a regular contributor to the Asian Review of Books. I caught up with Clifford via email and asked a series of questions about both his new book, The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency, and recent news stories related to the topics his book addresses:

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: What is your book’s biggest contribution to the debate on Asia and environmental issues?  

MARK L. CLIFFORD: The Greening of Asia looks at the key role that businesses are playing to solve Asia’s environmental emergency. Businesses have money, technology, and people — and they are set up to get things done, to turn challenges into opportunities. Government policies are, of course, critical — governments need to set rules. Individual efforts and actions by NGOs and other parts of civil society are important. But the uniquely positive role that business can play is too often overlooked. Through detailed case studies in a variety of areas, I show why businesses are making efforts in everything from renewable energy to greener cities and buildings to more sustainable tropical agricultural practices. Sustainable growth is not just feasible — if this is going to be the Asian century, greener growth is mandatory.

In a related vein, what sets your book apart most, whether in terms of approach or argument, from some of the other books that have come out in recent years?  Obviously, you are concerned with more than just China, but as books on that country are the ones I know best and perhaps of most interest to readers of this blog, how does your work diverge most from, say, that of Jonathan Watts in When a Billion Chinese Jump and Craig Simons in The Devouring Dragon? And do you draw heavily on those books or others published a bit earlier by people like Elizabeth Economy and Judith Shapiro?

China is key — it burns half of all the world’s coal and is responsible for almost one-third of global carbon dioxide emissions — and it is a big part of my book. Big as China is, it’s not all of Asia. My reporting spanned eight countries, from Japan to India to Indonesia — and, of course, China. I take the crisis as a given but try to point the way for a way out by looking at innovative, market-based solutions. Books by Liz Economy and Vaclav Smil lay the foundation for understanding China’s crisis, and Judith Shapiro’s China’s Environmental Challenges is a good up-to-date summary of many issues. Jonathan Watts’s book contains superb reportage that provides a vivid sense of China today. My book draws primarily on my own reporting combined with primary documents — and, of course, it is focused mostly on looking for solutions and looking at the ability of businesses to solve problems when the right economic and policy incentives are in place.

Since your book came out, there have been several news stories that have put Asia’s environmental challenges into the headlines, from the furor over the Chinese documentary Under the Dome, which Maura Cunningham wrote about for this blog, to reports underscoring that Delhi’s smog is even worse than the more commonly commented on Beijing variety. Could you comment on either of these stories, bringing in their relevance for your book?

Under the Dome was downloaded more than 300 million times during the few weeks it was available in China. [Note: 200 million downloads is the figure that is commonly used but according to our research it was more than 300 million]. This confirms the depth of public concern — and is a powerful reminder to Chinese authorities that they must meet public aspirations for cleaner air and a better environment. The revitalized interest in New Delhi’s air pollution is an interesting reminder that even in an open society, environmental issues are often fairly far down the list of issues that concern governments but that public concern can spike unpredictably. It will be interesting to see if India’s impressive investment in solar and wind reaches the ambitious targets set by Prime Minister Modi’s government — as well as the fate of his plan to dramatically increase coal production.

The Pope’s statements on climate change have also made news recently. Do you see his comments as being important in Asia, and, if so, in particular countries?

There is little debate about climate change in Asia, for there is almost universal acceptance that it is a serious problem. Asian countries like the Philippines — also the only majority Catholic country in Asia — are literally on the front lines of climate change, bearing the impact of more frequent and more severe storms. The Pope’s encyclical amplifies the sense of urgency, but it doesn’t have the same direct political impact that it does in, for example, the United States.

Word will come soon from the IOC on whether Beijing will be chosen as the host city for an upcoming Winter Olympics. Are there lessons about the environmental costs and issues associated with the 2008 Summer Games held in that city?

The 2008 Summer Games provided some interesting lessons. In 2008 there was a serious cleanup effort, one which showed the strengths and weaknesses of China’s top-down approach. Vehicle use was restricted, factories shut, clouds seeded — skies were reasonably blue, the rain fell at convenient times and it looked to many people as if the city had turned the corner and was about to embark on a path of more sustainable environmental policies. These hopes were dashed when it became apparent that the improvements were simply a matter of short-term measures. Shutting down factories and severely restricting traffic gave people a glimpse of what government was capable of. While the campaign raised awareness and was a short-term success, it didn’t create fundamental changes. Air quality has worsened dramatically. In recent years, China has implemented more sweeping changes, from extraordinary investments in wind and solar power to tougher restrictions on pollution sources in cities like Beijing.

Water is a key issue for the winter Olympics. If Beijing used the games to seriously reform its water policies, it would be a remarkable Olympic legacy.