Avoiding hate figures

March 17th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s common to talk about dictators’ personality cults, but maybe that’s just because they don’t work?

The second [reason China won’t follow Egypt] is the lack of personality cults, and of criticism of the top leadership. China’s done a very, very good job of keeping the foibles of the top leaders out of the public eye, for the most part; gossip about the central leadership and their families is extremely restricted. Without a clear dictator, there’s a lack of focus for rage.

This is tedium as insulation against protest. China’s got it, Europe’s got it, so does the world business elite if you want to count that as a regime.

Boxun, vector for Chinese jasmine copycats

March 12th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Blood and Treasure on who dreamt up the idea of importing the ‘jasmine revolution’ into China:

The messages are being circulated on Boxun once more, the overseas Chinese website which is something of a clearing house for anti-regime news, views and propaganda. This points to some individual or group from the exiled dissident community. The question then becomes why they haven’t identified themselves. There are all sorts of fractious, mutually competitive groups out there who would like to take the credit for starting something within China.

[yes, my procrastination time today is being spent paging through the Blood and Treasure archives. Can you tell?]

Wang Hui and plagiarism

April 20th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve previously mentioned Wang Hui, as a particularly interesting Chinese intellectual. Now he’s being accused of plagiarism — which might be politically-motivated, or could be a gase of someboy finding him with his pants down. Or both.

Chinese art in Germany

November 29th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Sign and Sight, in its weekly guide to the cultural pages of German newspapers, is keeping up a relentless focus on Chinese art. I’m struggling to figure out how much this is a reflection of a genuine trend in the German media, and how much it’s just the interest of S&S’s writers, editors or backers.

Qiu Xiaolong

October 16th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Qiu Xiaolong is a bestselling Chinese author of crime thrillers. But his depictions of Shanghai as a city of crime and corruption haven’t gone down well with the authorities.

Dai Qing

April 24th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

One name mentioned repeatedly, and respectfully, mentioned in China Pop is that of journalist [Dai Qing](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dai_Qing) (戴晴). Dai has written on many topics, including a book on the Three Gorges dam, which got her briefly jailed in the aftermath of Tiananmen. More recently she has criticized the Beijing Olympics, and is one of the signatories of [Charter 08](http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22210)
Trying to track down her work on the internet, I end up with:

  • A blog apparently once here, but now seemingly only available from archive.org
  • A handful of newspaper columns from the start of this decade
  • A profile of Dai from the Wall Street Journal (one of many, but mostly telling the same story so I’ll stick with listing one)

Book: China Pop

April 17th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Despite the column-yards given over to news from China, I often feel that the only stories I read from that country are ones about money. There are other, less business-oriented voices around — how could there not be, given the number of people constantly travelling to and from China — but you have to go and hunt them down rather than waiting for them to arrive on the front page.
So [on Cosma’s recommendation](http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/notebooks/china-today.html) I bought myself a copy of [Zha Jianying](http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/23/070423fa_fact_zha?currentPage=all)’s book [China Pop](http://www.nytimes.com/1995/08/02/books/books-of-the-times-now-china-has-its-soaps-and-celebrity-authors.html).
Written in 1995, this is a a tour of the Chinese culture industry – books, film, television, art and the press. Zha wisely avoids the temptation to cover everything. Instead she focuses mainly on her Beijing-intellectual friends, people she understands and who will be willing to talk with her. So we get telling pen-portraits of a handful of successful artists. There is the team behind TV melodrama Yearning (ke wang), a mix of highbrow writers such as Zheng Wanglong, who devoted their energies to building a chinese equivalent to Mexican soaps. Or there isChan Koon-Chung, one of the breed of ambitious Hong Kong media entrepreneurs trying to expand onto the mainland.
Many of Zha’s subjects are intellectuals who have consciously abandoned an inward-looking and elitist ‘avant-garde’ in favour of the mass market. It all sounds strikingly like Yeltsin-era Russia, where some professors become millionaire wheeler-dealers, while many of their colleagues end up bewildered and impoverished, unable to find a position for themselves inside a new world. Even as she focusses on the success stories, Zha does manage to point out the number who have lost their way.
What’s truly striking, though, is how dated the book feels. She writes of the fledgling contemporary art scene in Beijing; now, [artfacts](http://www.artfacts.net) lists 149 galleries there, and Chinese influence on the international world is growing exponentially. Equally, much of the media – the press, music, even porn – has been transformed beyond recognition by the internet. I’d love to see Zha write a similar book now, and capture what has changed in the past 15 years. Unfortunately her [latest book](http://new.artzinechina.com/display_vol_aid247_en.html) won’t help: she’s devoted it entirely to the 1980s.

More on characters

April 10th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

On that [debate](http://ohuiginn.net/mt/2009/04/character_assassination.html) about China returning to traditional characters: [Xinhua says no](http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-04/09/content_11157349.htm). And goes further:
>For the first time in nearly 20 years, China will issue a modified list of simplified Chinese characters in an effort to further standardize a language used by billions around the world.

Character assassination

April 6th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

My Chinese-language textbook tells me earnestly that:

The ultimate aim of the reform being carried out in the Chinese writing system is to gradually replace the ideograms with a phonetic writing system. Before this can be done, the characters should first of all be simplified and the number of strokes of the characters reduced so as to relieve much of the burden of both users and learners of Chinese

That’s undoubtedly somewhat over-optimistic; no wholesale conversion to pinyin is likely in the near future. But apparently in the 25 years since it was published, character reforms have not just slowed down, but are [under threat of being reversed](http://www.danwei.org/scholarship_and_education/simplified_traditional_charact.php).

At this year’s CPPCC session, representative Pan Qinglin submitted a proposal to abandon simplified characters in favor of traditional forms.

His reasoning:

  1. The first round of simplifications in the 1950s was accomplished too hastily, producing a result that betrayed the fundamental aesthetic and scientific principles underlying Chinese characters.
  2. They’ve outlived their usefulness, since flexible computer input methods have been developed that handle simplified and traditional characters equally well.
  3. Reviving the use of traditional characters would foster cross-straits unity by bringing the mainland in line with Taiwan, which still uses what are called “standard characters” (正体字).

Assorted arguments for and against are summarised [here](http://www.chinasmack.com/stories/return-to-complex-characters-proposal-netizen-reactions/). My – entirely selfish – reaction is to fervently hope that the simplified characters stay put.

Exporting surveillance

October 3rd, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

When Naomi Klein explored the Chinese surveillance industry earlier this year, she touched on the idea that Chinese companies are now trying to sell their surveillance equipment to the outside world.
True enough, but as she was writing for Rolling Stone she concentrated on possible exports to America. That’s a sideline: the US, with its own massive surveillance industry, needs no foreign assistance to spy on its citizens. The more interesting story is China’s growing exports of surveillance know-how to the developing world.
Thanks to Chinese technology even the smallest, poorest and most politically isolated nations are gaining the ability to conduct sophisticated electronic monitoring and censorship. That means above all Africa, but also perhaps Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet bloc.
Some specific cases have already been identified: Chinese knowledge has helped with internet censorship in Belarus and radio-jamming in Zimbabwe. Like there is more that goes unreported, both because of the secrecy involved and because there is no obvious Western angle for the english-language media.
More broadly, look at Chinese government documents. The primary official statement of its Africa policy is this document from 2006:

China will cooperate closely with immigration departments of African countries in tackling the problem of illegal migration, improve exchange of immigration control information and set up an unimpeded and efficient channel for intelligence and information exchange.

In order to enhance the ability of both sides to address non-traditional security threats, it is necessary to increase intelligence exchange, explore more effective ways and means for closer cooperation in combating terrorism, small arms smuggling, drug trafficking, transnational economic crimes, etc.

I don’t think I’m being too conspiratorial if I read into that an ambition to supply the backbone for surveillance across Africa.

March 21st, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

>So here’s a trick: A first step toward understanding Russia would be to read the press and academic accounts on China — and then substitute the word “Russia” for “China.” (This works in reverse as well.)
[New York Times]

Public intellectuals in China

March 13th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Public intellectuals in China are the subject of a fascinating article by Mark Leonard in this month’s Prospect. He namechecks several of them, but has no room to do any more than briefly sketch their ideas and outlooks. So in the interests of hearing from the horses’ mouths, here are links to what I’ve been able to find of their work in English…
Wang Hui is easily the most interesting figure mentioned. Wang has a few good articles in Le Monde Diplomatique [European views of China](http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/10/110.html) and on [political dissatisfaction in the 80s](http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2002/04/WANG/16310). But he is a literary critic by training, and what really caught my eye was ‘[Borderless Writing](http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~tnchina/commentary/wang2001.html)’. Framed as a celebration of the essayist [Yu](http://mclc.osu.edu/rc/pubs/yuhua.htm) [Hua](http://www.international.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=5470), this piece is mainly concerned with the role of the author: must she be a tortured soul, or is technical virtuosity enough? And how can literature be political without turning into punditry or social science. On the way he pulls in Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Borges and Isiah Berlin, and weaves in his own romantic rhapsody on writing:
>Writing is merely the power with which the writer is shaping himself. What is more important, however, is that writing is a way in which the writers open themselves up and entrust themselves to time and to fate. Writing is a struggle in which a writer is fighting against himself and where happiness and gloominess coexist together. Writing unites a writer with the world of fiction, brings oneness with reality.
This main source of Wang Hui’s reputation, though, is his 11-year stint (he was removed last summer) as co-editor of Dushu, one of China’s main literary journals. Dushu was founded in 1979, and initially focused on biographies of Chinese intellectualls. Over the 80s it developed more interest in European philosophy and critical theory, printing works by and about Heidegger, Foucault, Buber and Camus. When Wang and his co-editor Huang Ping took over in 1996, they gave it another push: towards the theoretical, the international and the political. It became a pillar of the so-called “New Left”, a movement which Wang (although he dislikes the term), [describes](http://www.cpiml.org/liberation/year_2004/october/Scenario_China.htm):
>Political democracy will not come from a legally impartial market, secured by constitutional amendments, but from the strength of social movements against the existing order. This point is central to the genealogy of the critical intellectual work that is now identified as a New Left
If you can’t get enough of Wang (I can’t), there’s a [long profile of him](http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/10/13/news/left.php) in the IHT, and he has at least one [book](http://www.amazon.com/Chinas-New-Order-Politics-Transition/dp/0674009320/ref=ed_oe_h/002-3568384-0240018?ie=UTF8) in English (reviews: [one](http://www.chinadevelopmentbrief.com/node/126), [two](http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B02E1D81F3EF931A35752C0A9629C8B63)), and there are [one](http://granitestudio.blogspot.com/2006/10/iht-wang-hui-and-chinas-new-new-left.html) or [two](http://uselesstree.typepad.com/useless_tree/2006/10/new_left_or_old.html)) interesting and (apparently) well-informed blog posts on him.
Many of the other intellectuals mentioned are economists, so I find it a little harder to figure out where they’re coming from. There’s Zhang Weiying, a member of the ‘new right’ who ‘thinks China will not be free until the public sector is dismantled and the state has shrivelled into a residual body designed mainly to protect property rights.‘ His own [page](http://www.gsm.pku.edu.cn/wuan1/e-wyzhang.html) lists many of his English-language publications.
Another economist is Hu Angang, author of [several English-language books](http://www.amazon.com/s?ie=UTF8&search-type=ss&index=books&field-author=Hu%20Angang&page=1) (google has an [extensive extract](http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Louqmn31NDwC&oi=fnd&pg=PP9&dq=%22hu+angang%22&ots=0cJ4ESoJVJ&sig=iObXuJMZ_5W7zVbB1uW4cYtInH4) from one). Has [several](http://www.imf.org/external/np/apd/seminars/2003/newdelhi/angang.pdf) [economics](https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1300/MR1300.ch6.pdf) [papers](http://www.handels.gu.se/epc/archive/00005194/01/gunwpe0236.pdf); his interests apparently center on economic history, measuring the extent and distribution of growth, and tax and development policy.
Foreign policy I find more comprehensible that economics, but I didn’t come across anything mind-blowing here. Zheng Bijian is a ‘liberal internationalist‘, he introduced the concept of [China’s Peaceful Rise](http://www.globalpolicy.org/empire/challenges/competitors/2005/09peacefulrise.htm) – that is, emphasizing economic and cultural power over military power, and taking a relaxed attitude to border disputes.
All of that sounds eminently sensible – and US-friendly enough for Zheng to develop ties to [RAND](http://www.rand.org/pubs/authors/z/zheng_bijian.html) and [Brookings](http://www.brookings.edu/press/Books/2005/chinaspeacefulrise.aspx). But [what I’ve found](http://fpc.org.uk/fsblob/664.pdf) of his [writing](http://www.digitalnpq.org/articles/global/32/11-07-2005/jehangir_s._pocha) seems worthy rather than exciting. Possibly he’s just too powerful to be interesting (He advises Hu Jintao, supervises the training of new officials, and runs the [China Reform Forum](http://www.chinareform.org)). Being inside the Chinese establishment must make it hard for him to express views far beyond the mainstream.

Yan Xuetong is more conservative (Leonard calls him a ‘neo-comm’). He writes on [China’s foreign policy towards major powers](http://www.spfusa.org/Program/av2002/oct2202.pdf), [The rise of China and its power status](http://cjip.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/1/1/5), [Missile defense](http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/npr/vol06/63/yan63.pdf) and [soft power](http://www.ccwe.org.cn/ccweold/en/journal/2/4ThePathforChinatoIncreaseitsSoftPower.pdf).

As for [civil society](http://www.asienhaus.de/public/archiv/focus11.pdf) and [democracy](http://zonaeuropa.com/20070412_1.htm), Leonard brings us Yu Keping. His views would be (or rather, [are](http://www.brookings.edu/press/Books/2008/democracyisagoodthing.aspx)) unsurprising coming from a European or American think-tank. He believes ‘democracy is a good thing’, but that it can only be introduced slowly. [This](http://globalization.mcmaster.ca/wps/Keping.pdf) looks (from skimming) to be one of his more interesting pieces: a survey of Chinese views of globalization.

I couldn’t track down work by everybody Leonard mentions. Either Fang Ning, Pan Wei and Chi Zhiyuan don’t write much in English, or their names are too common for easy googling. Not that I mind much; the rest of the names amount to days of reading.

The problem with free speech is the people listening

December 10th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

“In 1989, the [Chinese] government didn’t know why Tiananmen happened. Now, by reading the Internet, they know what’s going to happen. They know about movements in their infancy and they’re able to kill them when they’re still young”

…according to Chinese blogger Michael Anti. Ethan Zuckerman’s summary of a Berkman talk he gave has lots of other fascinating comments.

How Pakistan wins in Central Asia

November 9th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

Pakistan is quietly setting itself up to do very well out of Central Asia, slightly underneath the radar. Despite being a significant power it itself, militarily and population-wise, Pakistan’s playing the typical game of the small state. It’s piggybacking on the aspirations of China, America, and even India, being bankrolled and supported by them without ever quite becoming a client state.
###China and the oil
China is famously desperate for oil, and Pakistan is doing well by helping it get at what’s in Central Asia. At the core of this is [Gwadar](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwadar), a fishing village that Pakistan is furiously turning into a port and transport hub – funded by over $400m of Chinese money. It might be a [grim place to visit](http://www.time.com/time/asia/2004/journey/pakistan.html), but it’s also the site of a fascinating convergence of superpowers.
Remember the [oil pipeline through Afghanistan](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Afghanistan_Pipeline) – the one some people claimed was behind the US invasion of Afghanistan? That was going to end up in Gwadar – and still will, if it ever goes ahead. It might end up being extended at both ends, to Azerbaijan and India, with Pakistan sitting happily in the middle taking transit fees. If that pipeline doesn’t come off (building anything through Afghanistan seems pretty dubious), there’s another one waiting in the wings: the Iran-Pakistan-India gas route – which would again go through Gwadar.
China has been [considering](http://pakobserver.net/200609/04/news/topstories12.asp?txt=Gwadar-China%20oil%20pipeline%20study%20underway) building another pipeline on from Gwadar into China – and even if that doesn’t happen, they’ll be able to ship oil out by sea.
Meanwhile the Chinese are building one railway to connect Gwadar to the [Karakoram Highway](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karakoram_highway), have already [built](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makran_Coastal_Highway) a road linking it to Karachi, and are looking at linking it to Iran.
So, China gets a little more energy security, Pakistan gets road, railways, a new port, earnings from transit fees, and Chinese interest in keeping Pakistan stable.
###America and the Taliban
Then there’s America – an even clearer case of Pakistan selling off its foreign policy, but getting a good proce for it. In September 2001 Musharraf managed to spin Pakistan’s foreign policy 180 degrees, abandon the Taliban, and let the American army use Pakistan to invade Afghanistan. And boy, were they rewarded – with [money](http://www.guardian.co.uk/pakistan/Story/0,2763,984792,00.html), with [weapons](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A800-2005Mar25.html), with a [trade deal](http://www.bilaterals.org/article.php3?id_article=282) and with general support for the regime.
Pakistan can’t use quite the same approach to dealing with its greatest enemy – but even here there are pragmatic elements. It’s just that here Pakistan’s deal-makers are competing with the populists and the nationalists, and they only come out on top some of the time.
Let’s take the populists first. India-bashing always goes down well, and if there’s an election coming up the politicians will say some nasty things about India. But this isn’t all that important: sometimes politicians get boxed in by their rhetoric and forced to do something, sometimes talking tough affects the situation by itself – but in general, the grandstanding doesn’t amount to much.
More important is the body of nationalistic, paranoid, anti-Indian opinion which dominates Pakistans army and [intelligence services](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inter-Services_Intelligence). These are the people who got Pakistan involved in supporting the Taliban to provide ‘Strategic Depth’ – that is, having friendly space for Pakistan’s army to regroup in the face of an attack from India, and avoiding India and her allies encircling Pakistan. These people get nervous when they see India [stationing a dozen MiG-29 fighter planes in Tajikistan](http://www.tribuneindia.com/2006/20060422/main6.htm)
But then there’s the third group, who want to cut the same kind of deal with India as they’ve made with China and the US. That is, let India use Pakistan as a route to Central Asia (and Iran, in this case), and on the back of that get money and an Indian interest in keeping Pakistan stable. The big avenue for this is a proposed [gas pipeline](http://www.iags.org/n0115042.htm) running from Iran to India, through Pakistan. From that idea, it’s only a short step to getting India a share of what comes off any pipeline between Turkmenistan and Pakistan. When gas is involved, even the arch-enemy can be turned into a friend.
###Keeping everybody happy
It’s not easy keeping three superpowers in bed together, but Pakistan is navigating through the straits pretty well. The US didn’t like the look of China’s involvement in Gwadar – they saw it as a listening post and a way for China to project naval power into the Arabian sea. So they leant on Pakistan to push China out of the deal. What did Pakistan do? They raised the price of Chinese involvement, [demanding](http://www.india-defence.com/reports/1056) $1.5bn per year from Beijing. So Islamabad turns a conflict into a win: either China coughs up and they’re in the money, or they back out and the US takes over Gwadar (which they’d find useful for browbeating Iran and for supplying trops in Iraq)
When Pakistan chooses to defy the superpowers, it can, because every power involved has an interest in propping up the Musharraf government. Most obviously, the US is still relying on their support in the War on Terror. But nobody wants to see a nuclear power in civil war, and both China and (especially) India know that a disintegrating Pakistan is infinitely worse than a stable Pakistan.
###Going it alone?
Apart from being everybody’s accomplice, is Pakistan getting involved in Central Asia? Well, they’ve tried a little, but not enough for anybody to care much. According to [RAND](http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2006/RAND_MG440.pdf):
> In the early 1990s, many Pakistani firms and the Bank of Pakistan moved into the region expecting rapid liberalization and acceptance of their services. After attempting to conduct business in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for several years, many firms re-sorted to looking for an exit strategy.1
Pakistan’s government has made a few [attempts](http://www.jang.com.pk/thenews/apr2005-daily/29-04-2005/business/b2.htm) at promoting business in Central Asia, but it’s mostly trivia. In 2003-4, Pakistan’s exports to Central Asia and the Caucasus amounted to just 1.2bn rupees – or slightly over US$20m!
There’s no much worth mentioning militarily, either: Pakistan’s army may be the 7th largest in the world, but it’s pointed entirely at India. The ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence service) reputedly has agents all over the region, but they don’t exactly do a great deal. In the past they were accused of stirring up Islamist movements in Uzbekistan and elsewhere, but that was mostly a by-product of what was happening in Afghanistan – and has stopped since 2001 in any case. It doesn’t matter much, because Pakistan is doing far better from helping superpowers than it could do by itself.

History of printing

November 8th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

This post is brought to you by the awestruck feeling of finding yet another underexplored bit of world history….
We all know Gutenberg wasn’t the first person to experiment with movable type; it had been tried in China before. What I hadn’t realised was just how international the world was first time round.
One of the first examples of movable type comes from the [Tangut Empire](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tangut_Empire). They were printing in a [language](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tangut_language) unrelated to Chinese, written in a script inspired by Chinese characters – but with a set of 6000+ totally different logograms.
And some of the first texts that they tried to print like this were buddhist text translated from Sanskrit (possibly via Tibetan).
So: this culture created a writing system inspired by the Chinese, a religion from India, and out of them developed movable type 400-odd years before Gutenberg. Impressive, no?
But, there’s a flaw. Movable type makes a lot less sense with 6000 characters than it does with an alphabet of 30-something. So for the most part, they just printed by carving wood-blocks, one per page. So when they created a Tangut version of the [Tripitaka](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tripitaka), the Buddhist scriptural canon, they used 130,000 blocks. Most of them are now in London or St. Petersburg, having been raided by people like Aurel Stein. Here are some papers on Tangut history and language.

[The picture is a fragment from a written Tangur text of the Platform Sutra, taken from the British Library]

Memes: toxic in China

November 7th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

Remember the Free Hugs meme? Somebody in Australia started hugging people in the streets, it spread to Russia, Italy, Taiwan, Korea, Poland, and pretty much the rest of the world.
Then, some people in Shanghai tried it – and were promptly arrested

Shanghai Free Hugs

Before the arrest, presumably

The huggers were released after a couple of hours, but still: a big ‘meh!’ to the Chinese police
[cross-post from livejournal]

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