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.

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. Continue reading

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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.

British-Nationalism

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.

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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

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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.”

 

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Jason Y. Ng’s Street-Level View of Hong Kong’s Year of Umbrellas

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Before my visit to Hong Kong in mid-October 2014, I was worried. The Occupy Movement was two weeks old and I’d booked a room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, site of the Xinhua News Agency Headquarters and de facto PRC embassy before the 1997 Handover. It was a building rich in somber history, where mainland officials had worked during the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 and Tiananmen protests five years later. The Cosmopolitan is located in front of a large cemetery, and to get to the rest of Hong Kong you need to take a tram or bus. But with the Occupy Movement in nearby Causeway Bay and Admiralty, the trams weren’t running and the buses were re-routed.  When I arrived, I noticed the irony of banners near the hotel celebrating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, which occurred just days after students in Hong Kong shut down major thoroughfares around government headquarters in protest. I had a more immediate concern, however, than politics: How would my husband and I get to my three book events without public transportation?

We ended up walking to Causeway Bay’s MTR station for some trips and leaving an hour earlier than usual when traveling by cab for others. It wasn’t a big deal for four days. But what surprised me most about the Umbrella Movement was that my local friends — in their 40s,50s, and 60s — all seemed fine with the disruption. They encouraged us to visit Occupy and see the tent city on what was once the main artery of Hong Kong Island.

This was not the Hong Kong I knew in the 1990s when I was in college and grad school, and later an editor in academic publishing. Back then very few Hong Kong residents cared about politics, my field of study. In fact, not a few acquaintances declared my studies a waste of time. If one was going to give up precious work time to earn an advanced degree, they reasoned, it should be in business or finance.  Protests weren’t unheard of in Hong Kong then. But the annual June 4 vigils in Victoria Park dropped from 150,000 people in 1990 (the first anniversary of the massacre, and my first year in Hong Kong) to 35,000 in 1995. I didn’t know anyone who went to the protests, or even talked much about them.

Two decades later, I found the atmosphere in Hong Kong drastically changed, as had the politics and Hong Kong’s relationship with China. I knew that students and other activists had taken to the streets in support of universal suffrage. But it wasn’t until I read Jason Y. Ng’s new book, Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered (Blacksmith Books, 2016), which was recently published in Hong Kong and is the first significant English language book on the 2014 movement, that I fully grasped all that is now at stake.

During the protests, Jeff Wasserstrom reported on the events for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He also revisited the movement in a commentary, written during a return visit to Hong Kong one year on, in which he reflected on what a difference the intervening 12 months had made.  He described a talk about the protest he gave at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival: “The intensity of the crowd’s interest was palpable — behind and informing all the questions and comments I received, including ones that challenged rather than supported my assertions, I sensed a genuine desire to think through the topic profoundly, and in a way that mattered.”

That also describes Ng’s book — thinking through the topic profoundly and in ways that mattered. Ng was a participant-observer. Although the Umbrella Movement is generally associated with student protesters, older activists, including legislators and clergymen, were also instrumental in starting it. Ng spent a lot of time in Admiralty, site of the tent city. He provided free homework assistance in English, essay writing, and law; he slept on the street and then returned to his law office during the day; his first-hand experiences of the Umbrella Movement bring his book’s pages to life.

Ng starts with a play-by-play account of September 28, 2014, when Occupy Central began. But he quickly moves into Hong Kong Politics 101, going back to the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the contract that set into motion Hong Kong’s handover to China on July 1, 1997. The political system in Hong Kong is odd, according to Ng, and I would agree. Of the 6.5 million residents at the time of the Handover, only 800+ people could vote for the newly created chief executive of Hong Kong, the successor to the old London-appointed Governors of the colonial system. Those numbers have both increased over the years: now Hong Kong has 7.2 million people, yet a mere 1200 people and groups elect the chief executive.

As Ng explains, the reason the Umbrella Movement blossomed was because in 2007 Beijing had promised Hong Kong residents that they would be able to choose their chief executive by direct elections in 2017 and that representatives in the Legislative Council, or LegCo, would be directly elected in 2020. But Beijing threw a curveball on August 31, 2014, issuing an edict on electoral reform stipulating that the central government would form a Nominating Committee that would, according to Ng, “nominate two to three candidates for the office of Chief Executive in accordance with democratic procedures. Each candidate must have the endorsement of more than half of all the members of the Nominating Committee…” So much for free elections: the candidates selected would surely be those most amenable to working with Beijing. It was this “8/31 Framework” that brought out student protesters a couple weeks later. Before a month had passed, the Umbrella Movement was paralyzing the central district, generating admiring headlines in the international press, and being denounced by Beijing as an illegitimate struggle creating “chaos” that was tarnishing Hong Kong’s reputation and bad for business.

Throughout his book, Ng writes about the different student groups involved, including both university and high school groups, and how there was never one single leader who could unify the protesters. (Joshua Wong, who has received the lion’s share of attention in the Western press, was one leader among many.) The author does a great job of outlining the structure of these groups and their leaders, and in a way that reads like a thriller.

The last part of the book includes an analysis of what went wrong, what went right, and what’s to come. The students and other activists Ng met were dedicated at first, but as time passed and the protesters and public opinion started to change, the lack of leadership left the struggle without a chance for the kind of success seen in places like Tunisia several years earlier, where protests brought changes in governing structures.

Politically, Hong Kong is unique, Ng stresses. It’s not a city-state like Singapore, and, he claims, only a tiny minority would wish it to become that. It’s also not like other big PRC cities: Britain and the Beijing agreed in the Joint Declaration that it could retain a great deal of autonomy for 50 years after the Handover, or until 2047. Hong Kong has its own currency, its own laws and courts, and its own regional government. Ng writes that the Basic Law, which protects these rights in Hong Kong until 2047, is vague when it comes to direct elections. It mentions one person, one vote, but doesn’t spell out how that’s to happen.

The year and a few months since the streets of Hong Kong were cleared have seen troubling incidents occur. A growing fringe element has turned to violence — against the government and mainland shoppers — although it receives very little public support. Five Hong Kong Chinese booksellers were abducted and detained in China at the end of last year; two held overseas passports at the time of their disappearance. The government has also made moves to repress discussion of the Umbrella Movement. When I contacted Ng, he told me that every one of the Chinese books published about the Umbrella Movement has been pulled from Hong Kong bookstore shelves — not just the ones that present the struggle favorably, they are not even stocking books that criticize it. “It is as if the Movement had never happened,” says Ng.

His publisher, Pete Spurrier of Blacksmith Books, had a difficult time securing a printer for Umbrellas, he says. He finally found a local one that would cooperate after two — one on the mainland, one in Hong Kong — had turned him down. But Spurrier never thought about withdrawing publication of Umbrellas in Bloom, which is the third book in a series of Hong Kong books by Ng.  “Mainland authorities won’t worry too much about English-language books ‘spiritually polluting’ China,” Spurrier wrote in an email to me . “But still, I strongly feel that freedoms only exist while people continue to exercise them. We have freedom of speech and freedom of publication in Hong Kong, but the moment we feel too scared to exercise them, then they are gone. So we have to carry on publishing.”

At the end of his book, Ng sums up what I’d been thinking in Hong Kong during the Movement. People born after the 1980s are engaged in civic life more than ever before, with record numbers of registered voters. They are forming political parties and running for public office. As Ng writes toward the conclusion, “the seed planted by the Umbrella Movement…has taken hold.” The next Chief Executive election will be held next year, and still only 1200 people and organizations can vote. I will be interested in seeing what politically engaged Hong Kong youths do in the coming year, and know that, whatever tack they take, I can count on Ng, an astute tracker of local politics, to weigh in insightfully on their actions in essays and perhaps even in an epilogue to a second edition of Umbrellas in Bloom.

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‘Ten Years’ — More than Just a Lesson in Despair

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

The more that I heard about the Hong Kong independent film Ten Years during the first months of this year, the more certain I became that I would need to see it. The film was made on a tiny budget, not just a single movie, but five films-within-a-film, each by a different director, offering a multi-sided dystopian take on what Hong Kong would or at least might be like a decade from now. Mainland censors were so worried that Ten Years would win a prize at the Hong Kong film awards — as indeed it did — that they decided to prevent the ceremony from being streamed into the mainland. And I learned that there were vignettes in the film that touched on the history of Hong Kong social movements, as well as brought in tactics associated with protest in other parts of the People’s Republic of China.

As someone who has been concerned with censorship and demonstrations throughout his career, who has often written about dystopian works (albeit more often novels than films), and who has written several pieces in recent years on inspiring and distressing Hong Kong events, how could I resist feeling duty-bound to see this?

I worried, though, that dutiful would be precisely the word for what I might feel while watching Ten Years. When I see a film, I like it to appeal to the cinema lover as well as the scholar in me, and I wasn’t sure this one would do both. So, once I got a copy of the film loaded onto my computer, I found it hard to work up the enthusiasm to actually start playing it, fearing that seeing it would not just be depressing but would seem like a chore. Thankfully, though, I was ultimately proved wrong.

This didn’t happen immediately. The first two section of the film, while having their merits, both felt a bit didactic. The opening segment, about an orchestrated act of violence designed to allow stringent security measures to be introduced, was well done but predictable. The second part, meanwhile, which offered a more surreal look at the disappearance of local culture, felt too self-consciously symbol-laden.

Then, though, the third segment began and I was won over completely. It focuses on the tribulations of a Cantonese-speaking taxi driver in a Mandarin-dominated Hong Kong to come, in which mastery of the language of power separates haves from have-nots as clearly as ethnicity and race can in other sorts of colonial or quasi-colonial settings. Bullied and finding it increasingly difficult to ply his trade, the lead character becomes a kind of 21st-century counterpart to the rickshaw puller in Lao She’s classic Camel Xiangzi. But the director steers clear of didacticism, skillfully using nice touches of intergenerational drama (youth are shown having none of the trouble switching into Mandarin that plagues their elders) and sly bits of dark humor (for example, when the driver’s GPS stubbornly refuses to recognize the addresses he gives it, due to his accent and use of the local patois) to keep us engaged with the story and caring about the character.

I made it through the first three segments on an early May domestic plane flight, but only watched the rest of Ten Years very recently. This was because, though I had initially planned to finish it the day after I had watched the first parts, I got an email from a friend right as I landed, in which she told me that there would be a fundraising screening of the film in London late in May when we would both be in the city, and suggesting we go to that. I liked the idea of watching the rest of the film, which has not been released widely yet, on a big screen, so decided to wait to see whether the fourth and fifth parts were more like the first and second segment or the more engaging third one.

As it turned out, the London screening was cancelled, and due to how filled my time in England was with events and research, I didn’t get around to seeing those last two segments until my plane ride back to California. This timing, as it turned out, was eerily appropriate. I left England on June 3 and began watching the final parts of Ten Years right around the point, Beijing time, when June 4, the date associated with the 1989 massacre, was beginning, and each of the last two parts provided appropriate food for thought during the passing of this highly charged anniversary.

The fourth segment, the most discussed and most controversial part of the film, deals with an act of self-immolation, suggesting that Hong Kong’s predicament may become more and more like that of Tibet. One thing that activists in this segment set in the middle of the next decade ponder when discussing self-immolation is whether previous Hong Kong struggles, such as those of these last few years, would have somehow been more effective and powerful if one or more participants in them had died.

The final segment, another very effective one, also made appropriate June 4th viewing, but it would have been even more apt to have seen it a couple of weeks earlier. This is because it includes youth brigades who bear a strong resemblance to the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, an event whose fiftieth anniversary was marked in mid-May. The difference between the youthful militants of this imagined future as opposed to the Red Guards of history is that, while the latter directed their iconoclastic energy not at things dubbed “bourgeois” or “feudal,” the former are shown lashing out against all that is seen as dangerously “local,” with a seller of carefully grown and healthful “local eggs” becoming a particular target of abuse.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the centrality of eggs in this segment until, after landing, I did some additional reading around about the film on the web and came to a smart review of it that Maggie Lee wrote for Variety. The “short’s egg motif,” she claims, “pays homage to Haruki Murakami’s manifesto about the egg that breaks against the high wall — a metaphor for the individual’s clash with the system.” Lee’s interpretation is open to debate, of course, but it struck me immediately as compelling, in part because in early June, I always think of a man standing his ground before a line of tanks, and Murakami’s line — “Between a high solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg” — captures so evocatively one reason that this Tiananmen image remains so enduringly powerful.

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Loving It or Listing It in China

By Austin Dean

A sure sign of adulthood is an interest in real estate. There comes a moment when you’re home with your family over the holidays, watching television with your mom, and think to yourself, “That was a good episode of House Hunters, but I can’t believe they paid that much for that house.”

Spending time in China only catalyzes this change, as it often seems that the entire country is participating in a never-ending conversation about real estate. At the individual level, your friends tell you about their plans to sell, buy, swap, and trade up, and question you about American real estate prices and practices: “How big of a house could I buy in San Antonio for $200,000?” (Don’t underestimate the soft power of the San Antonio Spurs.)

Everyone also argues about the big picture: Is there a real estate bubble? If so, what would that mean for the Chinese economy? Is the real estate developer Evergrande too big to fail? Why are Chinese companies buying so many trophy real estate assets abroad? Of course, like any question with lots of money at stake, people disagree.

Let’s actually elide these questions and talk about a related but under-explored area: interior decorating and home remodeling.

A few years ago, this was actually a big topic, and one framed around a very specific question: Why did Home Depot fail in China, and why was IKEA succeeding? One theory held that when you go to Home Depot “you’re asking for help to solve an existing problem that you have — you want to install a ceiling fan, you want to put new windows in or you want to build a deck.” But perhaps many Chinese were not that interested in solving those problems by themselves. As a Wall Street Journal headline put it “Home Depot Learns Chinese Prefer ‘Do-It-for-Me.’” IKEA, on the other hand, was selling an experience: that of walking through showrooms and trying out furniture, eating Swedish meatballs and lingonberry sauce in the restaurant, and piling one’s cart high with inexpensive knick-knacks in the marketplace.

Beneath the debate about the different fates of Home Depot and IKEA in China is a deeper truth: given the choice, most people would like to change something about their homes. That is where home remodeling TV shows come in.

One show, Jiaohuan kongjian (Switch a Room), concentrates mostly on decorating, with a few smaller projects requiring drills and saws thrown in for good measure. Somewhat surprisingly, it airs on the finance channel of Chinese Central Television. To use lingo people at the finance channel would understand, you get the idea that this type of show is outside the network’s “core competency.”

Each episode focuses on improving the look and feel of two apartments. Usually based in a big city — Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai — most of the apartments are pretty unremarkable: two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room. The people living in them often have a kid.

The show doesn’t do a good job fleshing out these people as characters. As Mao Zedong might say (and HGTV understands), a good home-decorating show needs “contradictions”: there must be tension and conflict, even if it’s only about what color to paint a wall. These contradictions, and how they get resolved, are at the core of any decorating show. It’s not really about the color of the paint, but the people making the decisions. Because the characters on Jiaohuan kongjian aren’t well drawn out and developed, you won’t find yourself hoping that the couple featured in the show end up with more light in their living room or a cool new dinner table.

The producers of Dragon TV’s Mengxiang gaizao jia (Dreams Transform a House), on the other hand, must have watched their HGTV, as they really know what they’re doing. Each episode usually begins with some kind of drama: a couple fighting, an accident, or problems with remodeling. It sells itself not simply as a decorating show, but a reality-decorating show. The remodel is simply a setting for the rest of the drama.

The other big difference is the homes themselves and what the renovators do to them. There are no cookie-cutter apartments on Mengxiang gaizao jia. Instead, as a real estate agent might say, the properties featured on the show have character: an old-walk up in Shanghai, a six-story house in Guangzhou, a Beijing courtyard complex. (Others, choosing a less charitable adjective, might say the houses are crappy.) The show is about major overhauls: ripping down and rearranging walls, changing the layout, and building a new house around an old frame. Naturally, this isn’t cheap. While Jiaohuan kongjian generally spends 20,000 yuan (about $3,000) on redecorating each place, Mengxiang gaizao jia spends a lot more, often between 200,000 and 300,000 yuan ($30-45,000).

Mengxiang gaizao jia also highlights the conundrums faced by ordinary Chinese. The show excels in giving the micro-history of a family, a house, and a neighborhood. In one episode, it chronicles the story of three generations of a family living in one quarter of an old Beijing courtyard-style house in the center of the city. Husband and wife, daughter and son-in-law, and granddaughter all crowd together in a 39-square-meter apartment. They don’t even have a proper bathroom. The son-in-law and the daughter actually have access to a much larger apartment in a different part of the city. So why are they living in such cramped quarters? The schools in that area of the city happen to be excellent. It’s a classic case of people living in a small, cramped apartment in a good school district (Xuequ fang).

The “contradictions” in Mengxiang gaizao jia arise both naturally and with the help of the producers. In the episode with the 39-square-meter apartment, a neighbor objects to many of the changes proposed by the person in charge of the renovation. And, as it happens, that person in charge is actually from Japan. As the Beijing couple note at the beginning of the show, how can a Japanese person redesign a home in China? The people have different styles of living! Now we have multiple layers of “contradictions” and a very watchable program. Naturally, the “contradictions” get worked out over the course of the episode. The neighbor backs down and the Japanese architect wins over the Beijing couple.

As Home Depot found out the hard way, China isn’t yet a nation of rehab addicts. But there are quite a lot of fixer uppers waiting for a property brother to come along and do a solid renovation. At the end, their owners will face that classic HGTV conundrum: love it or list it?

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Mao Badges — Red, Bright and Shiny (And Open to Every Form of Capitalist Speculation)

By Helen Wang and Paul Crook

In his new book, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976, historian Frank Dikötter devotes almost two pages to Mao badges. “By 1968, the national output stood at more than 50 million badges per month,” he writes, but even that “was not enough, and a thriving black market emerged to compete with the state.” He notes that there were “illegal markets” that were in reality “hardly hidden from view, a few of them attracting crowds of over 10,000 punters, spilling over on to the streets and blocking the traffic.” Even though “(l)ocal officials decried these capitalist activities as ‘extremely disrespectful towards our great leader’… there was not much that they could do, since Red Guards and other revolutionary organisations policed the markets.”

I’m grateful to Dikötter for reminding readers of the importance of Mao badges and drawing attention to the economic activity associated with them. They are objects I’ve thought about a lot, especially since the early 2000s, when the British Museum was offered a donation of over 200 Mao badges (duplicates from a private collection in China) and my Head of Department, after agreeing to accept the gift, told me to write a catalogue. At the time, the most relevant English-language sources were Bill Bishop’s 1995 M.A. thesis “Badges of Chairman Mao Zedong (毛主席像章),” the first in-depth analysis of Mao badges ever written in English; and Melissa Schrift’s book, Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge (2001), an anthropological account of collecting Mao badges. I consulted various other sources, including catalogues of Chinese collections of Mao badges, but these tended to take a huge amount of background knowledge for granted. My catalogue, Chairman Mao Badges. Symbols and Slogans of the Cultural Revolution (2008), was designed along the lines of a traditional British Museum coin catalogue, i.e. an object-based work that could be used as a reference guide. When I sent a copy to a Mao badge expert in Beijing, he wrote back, confused as to why the British Museum collected such material, and why it would go to the trouble of producing a catalogue of a collection that was, frankly, not very impressive. I explained that the British Museum was a museum of history, that these were historical relics of the 20th century, and that the catalogue was written so that non-specialist English readers could access the history behind the objects.

The British Museum collection of Mao badges currently stands at about 350 pieces. It’s part of the UK’s national collection of badges from all over the world. Since the catalogue of Mao badges was published, every so often I receive emails from people who have their own Mao badge collections, often numbering in the hundreds or thousands. One such person is Clint Twist, who, with only a little encouragement a couple of years ago, set up what is probably the first English language website devoted to Mao badges — and tweets a Mao badge almost every day @clinttwist.

More recently, I discovered that one of the British Museum volunteers, Paul Crook, had been a teenage Mao badge dealer in Beijing in the 1960s! Paul — who was recently interviewed by the BBC for a segment on posters from the Mao era — kindly agreed to talk about that time, vividly confirming Dikötter’s statement that “badges were the most hotly traded pieces of private property during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, open to every form of capitalist speculation.”

Helen Wang

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My parents were teachers at the Foreign Languages Institute in Beijing, and when the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, and all the schools were closed, they thought it would be a good idea to take us on a trip to England until it blew over. If nothing else, it would give my brothers and myself a chance to brush up on our English. But when we returned, the situation was even more chaotic than before.

I had just finished primary school and had yet to start middle school, so was “between schools.” Although drawn in to various activities, including a month’s work experience at the No 2 Machine Tool Plant (at the age of 13), I was often at a loose end for over a year, until schools started again for me at the beginning of 1968. So I just kind of hung around. I discovered a Mao badge market that was open a few afternoons a week. It was near the zoo, and the Russian Exhibition Centre it may even have been in the taxi yard opposite the zoo. There were about three or four places in Beijing which I frequented to trade Mao badges: there, Qianmen, and a couple of other places. Mostly I used to go the one near the zoo, and take my badges pinned to a piece of cloth. Some traders had their badges pinned to the insides of their Mao jackets, and would open out their jackets so people could see the badges.

The value of badges at these markets was never to my knowledge measured in money, but always in Xiao Maotou (literally: Little Mao Heads); a fairly plain larger badge might be worth 3 or 4, but at the top end some newly designed ones of good quality could easily go up to 20 or 30. The valuation fluctuated daily, so the shrewd dealer who could anticipate trends in the market could make quite a killing.

I never excelled in this, but engaged in a bit of “insider dealing” which brought advantage because, as a foreigner, I had access to the Friendship Store, which always had a supply of rather elegant badges that weren’t generally available. It began when a friend wanted me to buy some of those badges for him. I started out doing it as a good turn, but then got the idea of taking some advantage by asking a premium: to be given one badge I did not already have for every 10 badges I bought for people from the Friendship Store. This seemed a neat way to get round the handicap of my communist education, which had taught me I should not charge more for anything than I had paid myself. Still, when my father found out about my stealthy capitalist tendencies sometime in the summer of 1967, I had a stern lecture, and eased up. In any case, schools were starting up again soon after that, and the badge markets were clamped down on in ’68 or ’69.

The Friendship Store had a good stock of Mao badges, but here I had to pay for them in cash (7 to 8 fen for the plain Xiao Maotou; and 10 to 20 fen for fancier badges). My clients had a keen eye: they would distinguish between Beijing Maotou (Beijing-style Mao’s head, with softer lines) and Shanghai Maotou (Shanghai-style Mao’s head, with sharper lines). But what people really wanted to collect were the series of badges, and gather a full set, just like collecting sets of stamps. When young people set off to travel the country in search of new experiences and see places associated with Mao’s rise, they would collect badges wherever they went. Badges from the revolutionary sites of Yan’an, Gutian or Zunyi, had extra value, as they came from further away. It was a kind of revolutionary pilgrimage.

There were the army sets the basic one being the five-pointed-star badge above a bar badge reading Wei renmin fuwu (Serve the People). These were made in four batches, and it was desirable to get one from each batch. You could tell the batch by the number on the back of the badge.

Then the army, navy, and air force started issuing their own badges. And new stylistic variations crept in. And there were fakes of some of the particularly prized issues around that time too, in ’67-68, because of the margin they traded at: where one issue might trade at a mere 15 “small Mao heads,” another might fetch 20 or 30, or even more.

Then the ministries started competing on the badge front. And you got the nuclear works badges as well.

Sourcing was the key thing the geographical and political significance – things like the launch of the satellite in 1970, when they played the first lines of the music of the Maoist anthem Dongfang Hong (The East is Red).

The really big Mao badges I have are from 1969, and the time of the 9th Congress, when everyone made sure to wear nine badges. I think it was some time around then when Mao made his famous comment “Huan wo feiji!”(Give us back my airplanes!), having calculated that the amount of aluminum used to make badges could have made three planes!

I’ve still got about 400-500 badges, including a hundred from a US collector who wanted to swap his entire collection of badges for a chunky Korean War medal I had somehow acquired. He wanted it badly it may have been a precious metal one, and he may have got a good deal, but I can’t remember now.

Paul Crook

 

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From Sichuan to Shanghai: A Q&A with Marketplace Correspondent and Street of Eternal Happiness Author Rob Schmitz

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Rob Schmitz has witnessed enormous changes in China since he first lived in rural Sichuan twenty years ago. For the last six years, he has been based in Shanghai serving as a correspondent for Marketplace, a radio program produced by American Public Media that enjoys 12 million listeners each week, receiving multiple awards for his stellar reporting. His first book, Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road, was just released yesterday. Set along the shady street where he and his family live in Shanghai’s former French Concession, his book is one of the best I’ve read about China’s sweeping social and economic transformations. I recently caught up with him via email to ask the following series of questions.

Susan Blumberg-Kason: You served in the Peace Corps in Sichuan in the 1990s and returned to Chengdu for a year in 2000. A decade later you moved to Shanghai as the China correspondent for Marketplace. After you left in 2000, did you ever think you would live in China again?

Rob Schmitz: The Peace Corps planted the seed, and China has prominently figured in my work as a journalist ever since. During the decade following my service, I made numerous trips back to the country for a number of reasons. I shot documentaries in Beijing and Tibetan parts of the country for The Learning Channel and the CBC. I returned to report stories for NPR affiliates KPCC and KQED. I followed California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on his trade mission through the country. I led an educational tour of Yunnan province. When Marketplace posted their Shanghai Correspondent position in 2009, it seemed like a natural fit.

How well did you know Shanghai before you moved there with your family?

I’d visited Shanghai several times, but my stops were scattered over a 10-year period. Each time, the city looked and felt completely different. In retrospect, Shanghai was one of the world’s largest construction sites for the better part of that decade. When I moved there in 2010, I was accompanied by my wife and son, and the city was largely complete. Shanghai was hosting the World’s Fair, and I was starting a new life in China as a foreign correspondent.

In your reports for Marketplace, you have profiled the goings-on along the Street of Eternal Happiness. When did you decide you wanted to write a book and how did you choose to frame it as a profile of the people you’ve met on the street?

After you’ve reported on China for a while, you begin to show symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. Things change so quickly on the ground, and the economy is growing so rapidly, that a correspondent’s job can become overwhelming. I struggled with how to capture the impact of all this change on everyday Chinese, and that became the inspiration for the Marketplace series. I’d take a year to focus on everyday people who work and live along a single street – the street I live on – to tell stories about the profound economic and social changes taking place in 21st century China.

The stories began as local snapshots, but soon I realized my characters exemplified universal narratives that apply to all Chinese. These stories were fascinating, at turns heartbreaking, and full of drama. For example, CK’s quest to become a sandwich shop entrepreneur on the Street eventually broadened into a search for spirituality as he learned that China’s material culture left him empty and wanting. The character Zhao Shilin worked her way from factory worker to a successful florist on the street to provide a better life for her sons, but their status as migrants have heartrending consequences on how their lives unfold. I was writing not just about a single street in a single city, but about everyday Chinese and their worries, doubts, hopes, and dreams.

It wasn’t so long ago that Chinese residents were hesitant to speak with foreigners. Was it awkward at first when you asked to interview your neighbors for the book? Which topics were the most difficult to bring up with them?

I’m not only a foreigner, but a foreigner with a very large microphone. If that didn’t scare them off, then little else did. I told people upfront I was interviewing them for a series, and later for a book. Some politely declined, but most people I approached thought my work sounded interesting, and they were open to answering questions about their lives. I soon became intertwined in the lives of a few, traveling back to their hometowns, joining a Buddhist pilgrimage, attending underground church services, and tagging along on pyramid-scheme investment meetings. The experiences reminded me of Bilbo Baggins’s line in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” I obviously didn’t keep my feet.

Throughout the pages of Street of Eternal Happiness, you discuss the government’s campaign to promote high suzhi, a word describing people’s “quality” or level of education. You also write about the great influx of migrants to Shanghai (and other large cities in China) over the past two decades. What prompted the government to encourage its citizens to achieve high suzhi?

Elevating the suzhi level — or quality — of its people remains an ongoing goal of the Chinese government. In Shanghai, the campaign peaked during the run-up to the 2010 World’s Fair, which attracted millions of tourists. To prepare its citizens for being on the world stage, the city government published an etiquette guide entitled “How to be a Lovely Shanghainese” and sent free copies to my neighbors along the street. I consult my office copy whenever I’m in need of a good laugh.

Shanghai’s behavioral engineers left no stone unturned. They devoted sections of the guidebook to minutiae such as “How to style your hair correctly” and “How to properly sit.” A section entitled “eating at a lunch buffet” was one of my favorites: “Don’t dash for food.” “Wait for the host to announce that the meal has started.” “Adopt the strategy of going to the buffet multiple times.”

Clear rules were needed. Over the past two decades, nearly 300 million people moved from China’s countryside to the city. In fact, roughly 40 percent of Shanghai’s population comes from other parts of China. This incredible mass movement from farm to city happened so quickly that local governments struggled to ensure everyone plays by the same etiquette rules.

You mention in the book that this time in Shanghai parallels America circa 1900.

That’s right. Millions of immigrants from impoverished parts of Europe were streaming into Ellis Island, and, as it happens, etiquette guides were the most popular literary genre in America around that time, meeting a demand to fit in and to master the behavioral rules of their adopted homeland. The same phenomenon is repeating itself today in 21st century Shanghai, as millions of Chinese arrive straight from the farm, mingling with one another and with their urban countrymen in a big melting pot at the mouth of the Yangtze.

Circling back to your Peace Corps experience, you are one of a handful of former Peace Corps Volunteers in China to write books that introduce Americans to contemporary China. Was there something in the water back then that produced so many insightful writers?

I think it was a case of being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. Most foreigners in China in the 1990s lived either in Beijing or Shanghai, and had come to study Chinese, report on the country, or make money – sometimes all three. Those of us in the Peace Corps had come as volunteer teachers, we were sent to the countryside, and we spent the next two years in isolation, teaching – and learning from – our students and Chinese colleagues. This was before the Internet was available in that part of China, and calls back home were prohibitively expensive, so there were very few distractions in the way of soaking up the language and culture, and if you didn’t want to do that, you were going to have a pretty miserable two years, because the places we were sent to were remote and undeveloped. It was a sink or swim type of situation, and I think many of us dove in headfirst.