THEY have fired diplomatic rows and auctions reaching as high as $40m. They have inspired an exhibit by dissident artist Ai Weiwei, as well as a tepid action film starring that born-again Chinese patriot by way of Hong Kong, Jackie Chan. They were even once cheekily offered up in exchange for Tibet. Now the bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit—part of a collection of 12 Chinese-zodiacal figures looted when foreign troops burned the Yuanmingyuan imperial gardens outside Beijing in 1860—are coming home at last.
They had long languished in the collection of Yves St Laurent, a French fashion magnate. A sale planned by Christie’s auction house for 2009 was botched when the highest bidder, a man named Cai Mingchao, refused to cover his bid: for “moral and patriotic” reasons, he said. Now a French billionaire, François-Henri Pinault, whose family owns Christie’s, has stepped in, having announced earlier this month that he will take on the two statues as losses, in order to donate them to the government of China.
The Chinese media and online commentators praised Mr Pinault for coming to his senses, but they were also quick to cast doubt on his apparent altruism. Mr Pinault’s announcement came during a first state visit to Beijing by the French president, François Hollande. Mr Hollande is seeking to repair ties with China that had become frayed under Nicolas Sarkozy.
The coincidence, if it was one at all, was so striking that the state-owned Global Times took pains in an editorial to refute popular claims that the bronze heads had been thrown in to sweeten a deal between the Chinese government and Airbus to buy 60 new planes.
Mr Pinault might seem to benefit by the show of goodwill. His family owns Kering, formerly called PPR, a conglomerate of luxury brands that includes Gucci. According to the Wall Street Journal, mainland China accounts for close to 10% of Kering’s total worldwide business. And finally, it was also just last month that Christie’s became the first international fine-art auction house to win a licence to operate in mainland China.
Coincidence or not, one might well wonder why the fuss. The bronzes possess little artistic value. Nor are the heads even of Chinese provenance; in all likelihood they were the creation of an Italian Jesuit, Giuseppe Castiglione, who had been charged with designing a Western-style palace in a small corner of the Qing emperor’s gardens. It is the ruins of Castiglione’s palace that have become the iconic symbol of the foreign armies’ wanton destruction of Chinese cultural artefacts. Such was the scale of looting on the day the palaces burned that even the emperor’s kennel was up for sacked for booty. One of the purloined pups went to Queen Victoria, as her share of the plunder. To mark the occasion, she named her new pet “Looty.”
All that is left where the Yuanmingyuan imperial gardens once were is a cluster of columns and foundation stones. These have long served as mute reminders to patriotic Chinese of the terrible period before the imperialists were driven out. Orthodoxy marks the end of the disgrace at 1949, with Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party’s founding of a New China. In recent years, the ruins have been turned into a “Patriotic Education Base”, with exhibits and placards detailing the Chinese people's struggle against imperialist oppression. A show for young children features puppets and Chinese dwarfs posing as “foreigners”, complete with yellow wigs, playing their role in the epic battle for the palace.
They may not be worth $40m on their artistic merits, but foreign possession of the bronzes has remained a potent emblem of China’s past humiliation. According to China Radio International, the return of the rat and the rabbit to China mean that seven of the 12 looted bronzes have now been returned. The ox, tiger, monkey, pig, and horse are in the possession of the China Poly Group. The dragon head is reportedly in Taiwan. The whereabouts of the other four bronzes—those of the snake, sheep, rooster, and dog—are unknown.
(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)]]>
ON MAY 1st, the Coconut Fragrance Princess, a former cargo vessel refitted as a cruise ship, docked at Haikou on the southern island of Hainan after a three-day cruise to the Paracel islands, the first of many expected Chinese excursions to the islands. The Paracels have been occupied by China since a brief war with South Vietnam in 1974, but are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Thanh Nien News, a state-run Vietnamese newspaper called the trip “the latest in a series of unilaterally provocative actions in the area”.
Nearly 300 people paid up to 10,000 yuan ($1,600) each to sleep three nights on a bunk bed in single-sex cabins. Only Chinese citizens who had passed strict political and medical checks were permitted. Foreign reporters were excluded. One Chinese newspaper reported that many of the “tourists” were the bosses of mainland companies, and that many more were Hainan provincial officials. But among those disembarking, many said they were simply tourists, looking for a novel way to spend a holiday. They said they visited two small islands where they were greeted by a handful of fishermen peddling over-priced lobsters, and spoke of armed guards on deck on the lookout for Vietnamese fishermen or naval vessels.
Last July, Beijing upgraded to the level of city the local government that “administers” the Paracels and the Spratly islands and surrounding ocean, based on the largest of the Paracels, Woody Island. Only a few hundred people live permanently on the island, which has its own runway (see photo).
Chinese media have called the Paracels “China’s Maldives” and local media reported Sansha’s mayor, Xiao Jie, saying the cruises “can be a declaration of sovereignty via tourism.” The next cruise, set for May 13th, is already fully booked. Provincial officials looking for a tourism boost will have to steer carefully through politically sensitive waters. And whether the trips prove an economic boon to the region is not yet clear. But, one disembarking passenger said he was happy to have seen the “pristine waters” around the Paracel islands before they become polluted by fellow Chinese tourists.]]>
CHINA’S internet users can quickly form a mob. Leaders sometimes have to decide equally fast whether to block calls for justice or accede to them, sometimes by throwing an official to the pack.
On May 3rd one online movement added an unusual twist: taking its case to the American government by setting up a petition on the White House’s official website. More than 135,000 people have signed, demanding that President Obama “investigate and deport” a suspect in the unsolved case of the poisoning of a university student in China in 1994.
The case involves Zhu Ling, then a promising student at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Ms Zhu was believed to have been poisoned with thallium, and has been incapacitated and brain damaged ever since. A then-roommate of Ms Zhu was questioned about the case and released. She has long asserted her innocence, but for years complaints have circulated online that she was protected because of her family’s political connections, and that she is now living in America under an assumed name. The petition has gained support as a result of moving footage of Ms Zhu’s life posted on the internet, and through the urging of Chinese celebrities such as Yao Chen, an actress, who has tweeted about it to the 45m followers of her microblog.
In recent days Chinese internet users have begun to petition the White House on other issues; for instance, asking President Obama to “remonstrate” with China over a proposed paraxylene chemical plant in the south-western city of Kunming, where thousands of people staged a protest on May 4th. Others are more frivolous, asking America to send troops to liberate Hong Kong, or that the official flavour of tofu be designated as sweet rather than salty.
The petitions obviously have no legal force, but they reflect a popular lack of faith in Chinese justice and the seductive soft power of America. China has a petitioning system of its own, but those who use it are often threatened or detained.
The official Chinese reaction has also been revealing. On May 3rd censors blocked searches and censored posts about Ms Zhu’s case, but as the online furore grew, the floodgates were opened. On May 7th Global Times, a state-run newspaper, wrote that the White House cannot be China’s foreign petition-office but that, in the internet age, cases such as Ms Zhu’s “need not be covered up”.]]>
OUR briefing on the Chinese dream in the issue of May 4th raised a few eyebrows (such as here on the Atlantic Wire) with its assertion that President Xi Jinping’s adoption of the term “Chinese dream” might well owe something to its earlier use by Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times. Below is a more detailed explanation of the reasons behind our hypothesis.
Mr Friedman, of course, was by no means the first to discuss the idea of a Chinese dream when he raised the topic in a column published October 2nd. At least as long as China has had a fast-growing middle class and a booming economy, the term “Chinese dream” (or “China dream”) has surfaced repeatedly in commentary about China’s rise. It has featured in Western book titles such as Joe Studwell’s “The China Dream: The Quest for the Last Great Untapped Market on Earth” (2003); “The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World's Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You” by Helen Wang (2010); and “The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future” by Gerard Lemos (2012). Books published in China include “The China Dream: China in Peaceful Development” by Li Junru (2006); and Liu Mingfu’s “China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era” (2010).
So why pick on Mr Friedman? It might not have occurred to this correspondent to make the link had it not been for several hints of one in Chinese-language articles published by media closely aligned with the central government or the Communist Party’s Publicity Department (which is in charge of propaganda). As a blogger for Foreign Policy noted, it did seem bizarre that Mr Xi (pictured above) might have had Mr Friedman’s musings specifically in mind. But the official adoption of a catchphrase so clearly based on an American term (there being no other globally recognised dream other than the American one) was already unusual enough in the history of Communist Party sloganeering. The Chinese media’s own repeated references to Mr Friedman in the context of Mr Xi’s dream seemed an added dimension of oddity in an already peculiar story.
Xinhua Daily Telegraph, an organ of China’s state news agency, published an article December 7th, about a week after Mr Xi brought up the Chinese-dream topic during a visit to the National Museum. Written by three Xinhua News Agency journalists, it began with the observation that: “Some points in time are out of the ordinary. The morning of November 29th was just such a special juncture.” That was when Mr Xi delivered his unscripted remarks on the dream to a gaggle of reporters and museum workers (yet another unusual dimension: Chinese leaders are not known for developing grand ideas on the hoof). Having summarised Mr Xi’s oration, here’s how the article went on:
“Will the next Chinese leader have a dream that is different from the American dream?” [a paraphrase of a line in Mr Friedman’s column]. In a year of political transition, the world’s gaze is focused on the east. On the eve of the 18th [Communist Party] congress [at which Mr Xi had been appointed as party chief two weeks earlier] the American columnist Thomas Friedman wrote an article devoted to analysis of the “Chinese dream” titled “China Needs Its Own Dream”. It expressed the hope that [the dream would be one that] “marries people’s expectations of prosperity with a more sustainable China”. Suddenly the “Chinese dream” became a hot topic among commentators at home and abroad.
“Everyone is talking about the Chinese dream. I believe that the greatest dream of Chinese people in modern times is of the great revival of the Chinese nation” [a quotation from Mr Xi’s speech]. On November 29th General Secretary Xi Jinping clearly expounded on the meaning of the “Chinese dream” and made a clear response to the world.
The article could have pointed to many a discussion in recent years of Chinese dreams, but it chose Mr Friedman’s. Mr Xi himself appeared to be suggesting that he was talking about a recent upsurge of discussion. The Xinhua Daily Telegraph’s article did not mention this, but before “everyone is talking about the Chinese dream” he also said the word “now” (现在 ). (For the full text of Mr Xi’s remarks in Chinese, see here.) It was only after this reference to the public debate that Mr Xi went on to give his own views on the topic.
Mr Friedman’s article had indeed drawn some attention, at least in the official media. A translation of it appeared October 11th in Reference News, the country’s biggest-selling newspaper. It was cited in the headline and text of an article published by the State Council Information Office November 5th: “The foreign media endorses China’s sustainable development: notes on the “harmonious and happy Chinese dream”. On November 12th, three days before Mr Xi took office and while the 18th congress was still under way, Oriental Outlook (a magazine published by Xinhua) adorned its cover with the words "Chinese Dream" ("中国梦") as well as “dream” in English. The related series of articles inside was prefaced by a note from the editor. It began:
The 18th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party convened November 8th. “Does the next generation of Chinese leaders have a ‘Chinese Dream’ that is different from the “American Dream"? Because if the next government’s dream for China’s emerging middle class—300 million people expected to grow to 800 million by 2025—is just like the American Dream (a big car, a big house and McDonald’s Big Macs for all) then we need another planet.” This was a question raised by one of America’s most influential media figures, Thomas Friedman.
Mr Friedman, then, was front and centre of Chinese media discussion of the Chinese dream in the days leading up to Mr Xi’s speech. Oriental Outlook’s cover package referred to no writings on the topic other than Mr Friedman’s column. (Quotations were altered to omit Mr Xi’s name: his impending elevation was still technically a secret). It may well be that the column happened to coincide with independent plans by Mr Xi to develop a Chinese-dream theory. (Its message that China should have its own dream certainly dovetailed nicely with Mr Xi’s nationalist bent: there has been no repetition by Mr Xi of anything like the “one world, one dream” slogan that China devised for the Beijing Olympics in 2008). But a link with Mr Friedman is hard to dismiss.
The Chinese media have continued to suggest one, albeit obliquely. Frontline, a magazine published by Beijing’s party committee, began an article January 7th with what has become a familiar juxtaposition:
At this time, we are being bathed in the brilliance of the dream.
On October 5th 2012 [sic] the famous American columnist Thomas Friedman published an article called “China needs its own dream”. This “Chinese dream” would be different from the “American dream”; [it would be one that] “marries people’s expectations of prosperity with a more sustainable China”.
On November 29th General Secretary Xi Jinping, on a visit to the ‘Road to Revival exhibit at the National Museum, said: “Everyone has their own ideals and pursuits, and everyone has their own dream. Now everyone is talking about the Chinese dream”.
Globe, a magazine published by Xinhua News Agency, discussed the Chinese-dream idea in an article March 13th; one day before the National People Congress (NPC), China’s legislature, appointed Mr Xi as state president. Again it began by summarising Mr Friedman’s views. It went on:
Without a doubt, realising the “Chinese dream” of the great revival of the Chinese nation has become the best response to Friedman.
On April 8th China’s ambassador to Romania, Huo Yuzhen, wrote an article on the Chinese dream for a local newspaper (carried here on the Foreign Ministry’s website). It too cited Mr Friedman (and, apart from Mr Xi, him alone):
The two meetings this year [the NPC and the concurrent Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference] marked the start of a new journey towards the “Chinese dream”. President Xi Jinping made an important speech at the closing session of the National People’s Congress. It set out a roadmap for attaining the “Chinese dream” and called on the 1.3 billion Chinese people to realise the “Chinese dream” of a powerful and prosperous country. This expressed the aspirations of every Chinese in the country and the consensus of all the country’s ethnic groups.
What is meant by the “Chinese dream”? The American expert Thomas Friedman once wrote an article saying that China needed its own dream and not a dream forced on it by the Americans or Europeans. President Xi Jinping said that achieving the great revival of the Chinese nation was the greatest dream of the Chinese people in modern times.
The Chinese media’s adulation of Mr Friedman well predates the advent of Mr Xi’s dream. A Chinese translation of his 2007 book on globalisation, “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century”, was a bestseller in China where readers lapped up its praise of China’s economic achievements (critical comments were omitted in the Chinese version). It has been reprinted numerous times, most recently in March. Another book co-authored in 2011 with Michael Mandelbaum, “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back”, has been a hit too, says Xinhua. Its theme of China’s rise and America’s decline fell on appreciative ears. The Chinese media appeared to appreciate his column in 2006 suggesting that Chinese growth needed an environmentally friendly “green cat” element: a play on Deng Xiaoping’s maxim about it being irrelevant whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. (“Green cat” gained no traction as a slogan, however).
Wang Yang, a Politburo member who was appointed as vice premier at the recent NPC, is a big fan. In his former job as party chief of Guangdong province he is said to have ordered officials to read “The World is Flat”. Global Times, a Beijing newspaper, said last year that Mr Friedman’s name had also become widely known among Chongqing’s 31m-odd people thanks to Mr Wang’s endorsement of “The World is Flat” during his earlier service in that region.
It may never be known what was going through Mr Xi’s head when he brought up the Chinese dream at the National Museum. This correspondent found a couple of references to dreams among the exhibits, but not to a “Chinese dream”. Liu Mingfu’s book may have helped lodge the idea in Mr Xi’s mind, but the official media have avoided playing up any connection with that work—probably because it is seen even by Mr Xi as a touch too nationalistic.
As a footnote: internet censors appear to have blocked access in China to our leader on Mr Xi’s slogan (though curiously not to the briefing). Mr Friedman’s column is blocked too, as is the rest of the New York Times website, in apparent retaliation for the newspaper’s coverage of the wealth accumulated by the family of the recently retired prime minister, Wen Jiabao. If Mr Xi’s dream includes a looser grip on the media, word has yet to trickle down.
(Photo credit: Jewel Samad/AFP)
Suppose that the Chinese dream were to become something very much like the American dream, wherein the prosperity of happiness-pursuing individuals is paramount. One might begin by observing that Chinese society is not what it used to be. Forget the shiny image of a country where rapid state-led development has helped raise hundreds of millions out of poverty; where the promise of material progress steels people to manifold hardships; where optimism is endemic. Rather, few Chinese benefit from the opportunities economic growth creates. Inequality, suicide, prostitution and other ills are pervasive. Parents struggle under the burden of inflated school fees. Medical costs are so high the old and unemployed cannot afford to get ill. Optimism has faded.
These are the grim outlines of the picture drawn by Gerard Lemos, a British sociologist, in “The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future”. Gloom is applied liberally, often in broad brushstrokes. “Anxiety and resentment are turning people inward; the Chinese are being consumed by anomie, a listless sense that life has little meaning,” as he wrote in the New York Times. Mr Lemos’s thesis is provocative but ultimately unconvincing.
The book’s main claim on being read has been sandwiched unfortunately between a good deal of dispensable material at the beginning and relatively recondite musings towards the end. These middle chapters concern a questionnaire that Mr Lemos conducted in 2007, when he was a visiting professor in the smoggy western mega-city of Chongqing. He wanted to uncover the concerns of “ordinary people”. With official blessing—though at times dodging officials’ meddling—he garnered answers from 1,427 Chongqingers. (Incongruously, a table that breaks down the cohort by age implies there were 1,428 respondents).
Mr Lemos posed four simple questions to his respondents: who are you; what event changed your life; what is your biggest worry; and what do you wish for? Adding context from secondary sources, he details the worries this exercise revealed. Prominent among them are the poor provision of health care; financial insecurity; pollution; and strained family life (the one-child policy features prominently).
The problem is that such findings, though supposedly startling, will surprise few readers who are versed in recent writing on China. The author conducted a separate study in Beijing, apparently soliciting similar responses. What is more astonishing is that Mr Lemos took so long to write up the results in book form. Fresher surveys might unveil worries about other issues, such as food safety and corruption. (And perhaps most striking of all, the infamous Bo Xilai and his scandalous downfall might have played a role in the analysis that followed.)
Annoyingly, the text is peppered with anonymous quotes which are often repetitious, taken from the survey responses. This makes for a bitty reading experience. The book’s greatest defect however must be the skewed survey sample on which Mr Lemos builds his case.
Participants came from three sociologically specific parts of a single city. Many were laid-off factory workers and recently urbanised peasants whose land had been gobbled up by the expanding city. The voices of the losers in China’s drive towards modernisation deserve to be heard (though both country dwellers and economic migrants are made to be notably silent here). It would be surprising, however, if they did not tell a dour tale. The book’s sweeping argument about Chinese society therefore stands on shaky foundations. It is based on results from his own questionnaire in Chongqing, after all, that the author is able to assert that for most people, the Chinese dream of “security, prosperity and stability” died soon after it was stirred by economic reform in the 1980s. This seems far overstated.
Dreams make for inherently insubstantial subject matter. For what it’s worth, this writer’s instinct is that the Chinese dream is changing, not ending. Most Chinese still aspire to, and toil for, a brighter future. Certainly, they are clearer than earlier generations about the trade-offs involved. As the Chinese become richer, many are less willing to suffer adversity stoically. But their complaints have not yet coalesced into widespread despond, or to a collapse of faith in the future. Or am I just dreaming?]]>
THE long winter is over, the smog has relented, for a few days at least, and now it’s festival season in Beijing. Large crowds are taking advantage of the May 1st holiday sun to see the Midi and Strawberry music festivals, both held far out on the outskirts. Home-grown acts share the stage with international guests; an opening night saw a Chinese punk band, New Pants, which was formed in 1996, warm up for Scottish rockers, a band called Travis. Later in May there is to be a folk festival, one electronica festival at a waterpark—and another on the Great Wall.
But the music scene isn’t just for fair weather. All year round, genres and their associated subcultures, from post-punk to hip hop, attract young Chinese and expats to venues scattered around town, including the mosh-pits of Mao Livehouse, in a central hutong district that has been called Beijing’s Brooklyn (think Williamsburg or Bushwick), or the more experimental XP, which is tucked behind a roasted chestnut stand. And while the capital is a hub, the spokes reach Shanghai, which is home to its own distinctive and thriving scene, and also to inland cities, such as Wuhan, Chengdu and Guangzhou.
So far, so what? Alternative music in China is not, as some descriptions of it would breathlessly declare it, the outlet of anarchy that some have been awaiting ever since Cui Jian, a rock musician, performed to the protesting crowds on Tiananmen square in 1989. “A Chinese youth with a mohawk, tattoos and heavy-metal T-shirt!”, goes the cliché, sometimes tokenised on a book cover—“Revolution is surely next.” Nor are these subcultures singularly “Chinese” in a musical sense, to say nothing of being about China. “You would never ask an American, German or English [band],” said Michael Pettis, owner of XP, “why don’t you sound more like you’re supposed to.”
But there is a Beijing sound nonetheless, notably in punk and rock genres. It derives its freshness in part from the sudden exposure of new influences that Chinese musicians have experienced over the past few decades. In the 1990s, a new generation was introduced to foreign music on cut-out or remaindered dakou CDs, which had been discarded as surplus only to be snapped up and sold on the Chinese black market. Now you can search for almost any song on Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, or Xiami, a music-streaming website and app, and play it for free.
Of course, the vast majority of what’s being listened to on the mainland is less post-punk, more Avril Lavigne. Because of its limited audience, with few exceptions no one can make a living out of alternative music in China (the piracy doesn’t help either). Liu Xinyu, the lead guitarist of a psychedelic band called Chui Wan, earns his keep fixing self-service ticket machines in a Beijing railway station. In the station, he says, he occasionally bumps into other bands as they go travelling on tour.
Music subcultures are nominally subject to the same censorship and strictures as any other cultural endeavour in China, but they are often too small to attract real notice (and it is easier for those who sing in English, not Chinese, to escape notice). The content and spirit are seldom overtly subversive, but they can express frustrations common to this stage of China’s development. For many in the generation born after the 1980s, it has become a natural way to rail against a vapid consumer culture, of a sort that is now familiar to most of the world, or to break free of a restrictive education system and the careerist rat race.
Which are, after all, hardly unfamiliar grounds for youthful anxiety. That China now has as broad a range of music genres as anywhere in the West is not proof of its exceptionalism, so much as another example of how a more open cultural environment has made way for greater varieties of individual expression, of hopes and vexations both particular to China and universal.
IT IS a time of great change in the Chinese army, or at least China’s Communist Party leader and commander-in-chief, Xi Jinping, is hoping so. Beginning on April 28th military vehicles began sporting a new type of number plate. By May 1st they all should. Mundane though it sounds, the switch has been hailed as a turning point for the armed forces. The state media have published pictures of soldiers receiving red-ribboned new plates and holding them as if they were prizes.
The army’s own mouthpiece, the People’s Liberation Army Daily, has explained why (here, in Chinese, with a photograph of a very happy-looking recipient of a new plate). The people, it said, were expecting that the plates would symbolise a “new start” for the armed forces’ public image. This, it admitted, had taken a hit thanks to rule-breaking involving military number-plates. The newspaper did not confess that such behaviour had become rampant. The affixing of military plates to luxury cars, the use of such plates by civilians and the cavalier disregard of traffic rules shown by drivers of military-plated vehicles have become major causes of public resentment of the armed forces.
Mr Xi, who took command of the army in November, has made cleaning up its image, and that of official-car users generally, a priority. In December he said government vehicles should be treated the same as private ones on public roads, and should set an example in obeying traffic rules. The army quickly followed up with orders that control over the use of military vehicles and their plates be tightened in order to “protect the army’s good image” (here, in Chinese). A year-long campaign was launched to spruce up military driving habits.
Vehicles with military plates have long been kings of the road. If their drivers break any rules, civilian police rarely dare to stop them. They are exempt from tolls and parking fees. These privileges, and the aura of omnipotence that they convey, have made such plates highly coveted among non-military officials and members of the public. At least until recently, some managed to obtain genuine military plates through back-door connections. Others bought fake ones on the black market. In recent years growing numbers of luxury cars have been seen with military plates; their users (both military and civilian) doubly reinforced in their self-esteem.
In a widely publicised case in 2011 a farmer was sentenced to life in prison for using military plates on his two lorries. This allegedly enabled him to evade tolls totaling 3.68m yuan (about $600,000). Very unusually, the case aroused widespread public sympathy for the plate abuser. Many saw him as the underdog: a man who had found a neat way of avoiding business-crippling road tolls, which in China are among the highest in the world. After an outcry on social media, another court found that he had dodged less than 500,000 yuan in tolls and reduced his sentence to 2 ½ years (nevertheless, as a spokesman for the Supreme People’s Court revealed that year, the faking of military plates had been costing the country 1 billion yuan annually).
The public has been far less forgiving of other plate offenders. Early this year a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Yu Jianrong, used his account on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like service, to encourage people to submit photographs of luxury cars with military plates. As Global Times, a Beijing newspaper, reported, Mr Yu received pictures of Bentleys, Maseratis, BMWs and Land Rovers. Tales spread through social media of such vehicles parked outside upscale entertainment venues. The government’s news agency, Xinhua, acknowledged that the plates problem had aroused “public anger”.
The new plates are intended to curb this anger by making it more difficult to get hold of real plates (they are not to be used on luxury cars, or on cars used by civilian officials even if they hold concurrent military posts), and more difficult to fake them (they have embedded electronic chips that can be detected at toll booths). But scepticism is in order. Earlier campaigns to tighten control over military license-plates, including complete changes of plates (the last one in 2004) have had little long-term impact. Even the official media have aired a few doubts (such as the Global Times, here). As long as military vehicles are granted privileged treatment by police, demand for the plates will remain and dangerous driving will continue.
(Picture credit: AFP)]]>
WHEN Stephen A. Schwarzman, chairman of Blackstone Group, a private-equity firm, announced in Beijing on Sunday the $300m Schwarzman Scholars programme to send students to China to study, it was a testament to China’s place in the world as a new centre of gravity. Its gravitational pull on corporate money is already fearsome: Behind Mr Schwarzman himself, a long list of companies and individuals with substantial business interests in China have lined up to contribute to the programme: Boeing, an airplane maker; Caterpillar, a maker of bulldozers and excavators; BP, an oil company; and several large banks.
Schwarzman Scholars will fund scholarships beginning in 2016 for 200 students a year from much of the world to attend classes at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, the alma mater of President Xi Jinping and of many other top leaders (Mr Xi sent a letter to the announcement ceremony). The scholarship is to fund the studies of 10,000 students over 50 years.
In ambition and scope Mr Schwarzman seeks to draw comparisons to the Rhodes scholarship. Cecil John Rhodes, an English-born South African diamond magnate, established his scholarship to send students to the then-centre of the world, England (it still sends 82 students a year for two-year stints at Oxford University, long since England ceased to be the centre of the universe).
Mr Schwarzman says people know very little about China, and this ignorance is not an option anymore. It is unclear how well his scholarship will rectify that trouble. The students will take classes in English together in Schwarzman College, which will be a new building on campus for the programme. The cloistered setting for the scholars might limit how much they learn about China, though it will surely encourage camaraderie among this new elite group of China-watchers. The idea is that in 30 years’ time, the president of the United States will have been on a Schwarzman to Tsinghua, instead of a Rhodes to Oxford.
Mr Schwarzman has gathered big names to be advisers on the programme, including former prime ministers of countries (such as Tony Blair) and former American secretaries of state (such as Henry Kissinger) and two former American secretaries of the treasury. Some of these advisers know China well (and have business interests there), as does another of his donors: the foundation of Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York. Mr Bloomberg’s global financial media company has run into problems in China since publishing a story last year about the wealth of relatives of Mr Xi. It is unclear if this sort of olive branch to Mr Xi’s alma mater will help, but anyone who knows China would say it can’t hurt.
(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)]]>
AFTERSHOCKS, landslides, and shortages of relief supplies are hampering rescue efforts in China’s south-western Sichuan province two days after Saturday’s strong earthquake, which killed at least 186 people and injured thousands.
State television showed vivid images of rescuers working frantically—some with heavy equipment and others with bare hands—in the stricken area. Most of the damage was centred on Ya’an, a city of 1.5m located 140km (90 miles) south-west of Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu.
The earthquake was of magnitude 7.0, according to Chinese seismology officials, and struck just after 8am Saturday local time. The United States Geological Survey measured its magnitude at 6.6. Its epicentre was just 85 km away from that of a May 2008 earthquake that had a magnitude of 7.9 and a death toll ranging from 70,000-90,000 according to different estimates.
The official Xinhua news agency said that within 38 hours of the main tremor, more than 1,700 aftershocks had struck the area, posing additional threats to damaged structures and to rescue workers.
A main road was reported cleared by Sunday evening, restoring access to affected areas that had been cut off from aid.
Occurring in nearly the same place and at nearly the same time of year, Saturday’s earthquake triggered inevitable comparisons to the 2008 disaster. It has also evoked a similar official response. Like his predecessor in 2008, China’s new prime minister, Li Keqiang, promptly visited the disaster area.
"The current most urgent issue is grasping the first 24 hours after the quake's occurrence, the golden time for saving lives, to take scientific rescue measures and save peoples' lives," Mr Li reportedly said on his plane en route to the area. Officials say that in addition to food and water, they have distributed tens of thousands of tents, beds and quilts.
As in 2008, ordinary citizens have contributed their own efforts to the relief work. State television and foreign media reports say many have been going on their own into the disaster area to donate supplies.
Google, an American internet company, has also provided help, in the form of an online “person finder” tool where people can either seek or provide information about people in the area. The company says it is already tracking about 1,100 records.
An important and controversial element of the aftermath to the 2008 earthquake was the large number of children killed in collapsed school buildings. Parents and activists complained bitterly that corruption was to blame for the fact that school buildings were among the most shoddily built and quick to crumble. Within a year of the 2008 earthquake, officials acknowledged that 5,335 students had been killed or gone missing. Activists claim to have documented thousands of additional cases.
There has yet been little reporting from the Ya’an disaster area about how schools fared in comparison to other buildings. But such reporting is certain to emerge soon, and certain to attract a lot of attention.
(Photo credit: STR / AFP)]]>
Did Xi or didn’t Xi? What do you want to believe?
CHINA’S president, Xi Jinping, began his time in office insisting that officials do away with red-carpet treatment when they travel. His speechmaking has been more plain-spoken and direct than his predecessors. Some people have started thinking he has a common touch.
So it meant something on April 18th when a Hong Kong newspaper reported that Mr Xi had, like a commoner, taken a taxi ride in Beijing incognito in early March, when he was already party chief and shortly before he took the presidential title as well. When Xinhua, an official news service, later declared the story false, that meant something too. People wanted to believe the story. Remarkably, some believed that Mr Xi would do such a thing. That would have seemed impossible under Mr Xi’s immaculately charmless predecessor, Hu Jintao.
According to a since-retracted report in Ta Kung Pao, a pro-Communist Party newspaper in Hong Kong, on March 1st two men climbed into Guo Lixin’s taxi a bit north of Zhongnanhai, the vermillion-walled compound where China’s leaders reside. In the passenger seat, the report said, was Mr Xi, though Mr Guo did not know it until his ride returned small talk about Beijing’s pollution with a suspiciously well-informed lecture on the topic.
When Mr Guo realised who it might be, he says the man told him, “You are the first driver to recognise me in a taxi.” When the purported Mr Xi alighted at an official hotel, his unidentified companion paid 30 yuan ($4.85) for a 27-yuan ride (tipping is not customary in China). The newspaper published a special web page to accompany the story online, including photographs of the driver with calligraphy allegedly written by Mr Xi that read “plain sailing”.
The story spread quickly on the internet, meeting with a mixture of scepticism and wonderment, but seeming to lean heavily toward the latter. Xinhua briefly confirmed the story, citing Beijing traffic authorities and Ta Kung Pao, and major foreign news organisations, including the New York Times, reported the story (The Economist came close to doing so as well). Hours later Xinhua announced the story was false.
What really happened then? Perhaps that matters less than what people want to believe. There is precedent for such mythmaking in China. The Qianlong emperor is said to have taken similar trips outside the Forbidden City in the 18th century. His companions were said to tap their knuckles on the table in subtle kowtow when the emperor, like a commoner, poured them tea. Whether or not the tale is true, it is the legend that has survived.
(Picture credit: AFP)]]>
WITH a population of 320,000—just one tenth that of the Beijing district where it keeps its embassy to China—Iceland has recently become an object of inordinate interest to Chinese policymakers. The two nations signed a free-trade agreement on April 15th, China’s first with any European nation. But with the inherently tiny potential of Iceland’s market, and the lack of any roundabout low-tariff access to other European markets through this deal, trade alone cannot account for China’s infatuation with Iceland.
The more likely attraction for China is access to improving shipping routes through the Arctic as that region warms due to climate change. Last month, one of China’s top experts on polar policy predicted that, by 2020, as much as 15% of his country’s trade would move through the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route. Even if that estimate is exaggerated, there is no reason to doubt that continued shrinking of Arctic ice cover will enhance the area’s importance.
Like South Korea and Japan, China hopes next month to be approved for permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, an eight-member intergovernmental body that seeks to co-ordinate policy for the area. But according to Linda Jakobson, the director of the East Asia programme at Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy, China’s Arctic aspirations have “evoked the same kind of concern, even anxiety, that throughout history has accompanied the rise of a large power.” Those concerns, she writes, were aggravated by the “aggressive posture of China’s representative” five months ago at the council’s observers' meeting in Sweden.
An odd-looking effort by a Chinese developer to build an “eco-golf course” and luxury resort on a 300 square km tract in Iceland’s desolate north-east corner also aroused suspicions about China’s strategic intentions in the region. The logic behind the proposal to create a haven of solitude and clean air for wealthy Chinese visitors failed to convince Icelandic officials, who did not agree to waive restrictions against foreign ownership of land.
The new trade agreement, signed during a five-day visit to China by Iceland's prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, will result in the waiver in coming years of most tariffs in the two countries’ bilateral trade, which last year rose to $424m, by Iceland’s reckoning.
But for China, the ability to import more Icelandic fish with lower tariff duties would seem to pale in comparison to the importance of enhancing its influence in the region.
According to Anne-Marie Brady, an expert at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, current arrangements leave China shut out of multilateral decision-making about the changing Arctic environment. The desire to have a greater say, and assert its legitimate interests in the region, she recently wrote, is behind a curious new bit of official phraseology. China’s own experts have taken to calling it a “near Arctic state.”
(Picture credit: AFP / Wang Zhao)]]>
Since the Tiananmen Square protests 24 years ago, party leaders have been torn over how to deal with Hu’s legacy. His portrait had been carried aloft by students calling for freedom and democracy, yet the party itself had laid on a grand funeral for him in the Great Hall of the People. Hu had been forced to resign as party chief in January 1989 for being too soft on an earlier wave of student unrest, but he had remained a member of the ruling Politburo until his death. He was one of the party’s revolutionary veterans: difficult to forget entirely no matter how much some hardline leaders wanted to in the wake of Tiananmen.
As memories of the Tiananmen upheaval faded, party officials began to loosen the strings on public homage to Hu. In November 2005, on the 90th anniversary of the late leader’s birth, a symposium was held in the Great Hall of the People to mark the occasion. In 2010 an article by Wen Jiabao, who was then prime minister, appeared in the party’s main mouthpiece, the People’s Daily. In it Mr Wen spoke of “cherished feelings” for Hu swelling up in his heart “like a tide”. Mr Wen had worked closely with Hu. So too had China’s then president, Hu Jintao (no relation). After Hu’s death they continued to pay private respect to him by visiting his widow during the lunar new-year holiday. China’s recently appointed leaders, President Xi Jinping and his prime minister, Li Keqiang, have regularly done the same. But none of this behind-the-scenes rehabilitation has led to the public resuscitation of Hu's reformist political agenda of the 1980s.
This year’s anniversary of Hu’s death has seen controls ease a little further. An article in Jiefang Daily (here, in Chinese), a party-run newspaper in Shanghai, said it was especially important now to recall Hu’s legacy because of similarities between the challenges he faced in his reform efforts and those China was grappling with today. Then, as now, these obstacles were “colossal”, the article said, and equally required a “liberation of thinking”. In China today, it said, the difficulties involved an even bigger “clash of interests” than they did in Hu’s time. The article said there was an “urgent need for healthy forces within the party to forge a new consensus on reform”. The article was written by Zhou Ruijin, a now-retired newspaper editor who helped Deng Xiaoping defeat a conservative backlash against economic reforms in the early 1990s.
China Newsweek, a Beijing magazine, marked the anniversary of Hu's death by publishing an extract from a 2008 book written by a senior Chinese journalist recalling how news of Hu’s death was released by the official media. It gave a description, rarely seen in the Chinese press since 1989, of the demonstrations that were sparked by the announcement. It said students filled the square, carrying banners in praise of Hu such as “Fighter for youth, leader of democracy”.
But the authorities remain anxious to prevent discussion of Hu from igniting debate about the Tiananmen protests. The media made no mention of the eventual crackdown on June 3rd and 4th, 1989, during which hundreds of people were killed by troops. On Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter (which is blocked), searches for the words Hu Yaobang produced only a message that the results could not be shown because of “relevant laws and regulations”. Many users evaded such blocks by using his initials in Roman letters. Their messages in (disguised) praise of Hu often displayed symbols of burning candles.
The 25th anniversary next year of Hu’s death and of the Tiananmen crackdown will make it particularly difficult for the authorities to keep discussion of the two issues apart. Since Mr Xi came to power there has been no indication that he wants a re-evaluation of the official verdict that the unrest led to “counter-revolutionary rioting” that had to be put down with force. This year, as usual, relatives of those killed were given warnings not to take part in any commemorative activities during the Qingming festival in early April, when Chinese traditionally honour the dead.
(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)]]>
I should point out that China's service sector (which includes transport, wholesaling, retailing, hotels, catering, finance, and real estate among other things) is still unusually small. In other economies at China's stage of development, services typically account for about 55-60% of GDP. Prices for services have also been rising faster than industrial prices, contributing to the shift in their favour.
I should also point out that both sectors are highly seasonal, with services typically peaking in the first quarter and industry peaking in the second. So industry (which includes construction, mining and utilities, as well as manufacturing) may bounce back in April, May and June. Nonetheless, the industrial eclipse is edging a little closer. China's collars are turning white.
* To be spuriously precise, services accounted for 44.99% and industry 45.02%.
WE EXPECT of bureaucrats that they should be irrepressible paper-pushers. In Hong Kong however, government officials seem to have taken this venerable pastime to a dystopian extreme. They’ve been making their records disappear altogether.
For instance in 2003, barely two years after the government stirred controversy by barring a group of Falun Gong practitioners from the territory, the immigration department had lost each and every document related to their denial of entry. Also in 2003, in a malpractice lawsuit against the city’s hospital authority in the wake of the SARS epidemic, it came to light that various records about public health at the time were simply unavailable. In 2009 a judge looking into a case of unauthorised surveillance by the city’s anti-graft body was told that the records relevant to his investigation had all been destroyed.
To top off what has become a missing decade or so, in 2011, when the government moved its headquarters to the Tamar complex, the site of the former Royal Naval base, a mass of paper records that, were it to have been piled up as a tower would have stood nearly three times higher than the city’s second-tallest building, were shredded summarily. And the government admits as much.
All these disappearing acts have been abetted by the absence of an official archives law. Or so argues the Archives Action Group, which is trying to get some sort of records legislation passed in Hong Kong.
“Increasingly, after the handover there has been a lack of interest in records management,” says Don Brech, a trained archivist who is one of the group’s co-founders and also the founding director of the city’s existing government-records service.
In 1987, a decade before the handover, Mr Brech was appointed to lay the groundwork for a citywide records system. His work was supposed to ensure the smooth transfer of colonial records from British hands to Chinese, when the government based in Beijing assumed sovereignty. That was a big job, Mr Brech says, and he did it without the support of any legislation.
Even Macau, the other former colony on the mouth of the Pearl river, which went back to China in 1999, has an archives law on the books (which confounds every local intuition about which of these two neighbours has its act together, legally speaking). In mainland China, the National People’s Congress passed archival legislation in 1987, stipulating stiff penalties for the destruction of records. Many archives over there are closed to the public, true—but the law that protects them is administered scrupulously.
Considering that Hong Kong has been ruled successively by two countries known for their meticulous archival systems, it is especially baffling that its officials should have paid so little attention to their record-keeping. At present it is up to individual departments and statutory bodies to decide whether to save records or transfer them to the city’s government-records service. Records can be disposed of, or lost, with impunity.
The archivist-activists’ other lament is that it has been difficult to rally public support to their cause. Archives (or the lack thereof) tend to be rather remote from most Hong Kongers’ daily concerns, according to a local think-tank, Civic Exchange, which has published two extensive reports on this issue.
Indeed, angst about the sorry state of the archives has been concentrated mainly among the academic, not to say esoteric. Some historians have experienced difficulties locating archival documents, but they are not a clamorous constituency.
Politically speaking, it does not have to be this way, according to Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, a member of the Legislative Council (LegCo) and a political scientist who teaches at a local university. He thinks the archivists’ cause could be better pitched to capture the interest of a distractible public.
“It is all about the right to know,” says Mr Chan. “The demand for legislation can be linked up with transparency, accountability and better governance, and that’s what most Hong Kong people want.”
As a specialist in post-communist Europe, Mr Chan has done extensive research in many Eastern-bloc archives. He has been impressed at the good shape in which they are kept, and appalled that post-colonial Hong Kong’s archives should be a void by comparison.
Mr Chan is waiting his turn to propose a motion for debate at LegCo later this year. This has been tried before, but to little avail. In November 2011 another legislator who belongs to the Archives Action Group tabled a motion to enact an archives law. It drew tepid support, but half of LegCo abstained and one member voted no; it failed to pass.
There are hopeful signs. In January the city’s ombudsman launched an investigation into the government’s records-management system. The Law Reform Commission of Hong Kong, appointed by the executive branch, has asked a committee to look into drafting an archives law. Prior to actually introducing the debate to LegCo, Mr Chan says he’s going to commission a poll to gauge public sentiment. The first step towards stanching the flow of Hong Kong's records into the abyss will be to see that the public starts to mind their absence.
(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)]]>
EVERY week, you may be pleased to learn, we publish a China section in The Economist. In addition to what you can find right here on Analects, there is always that packet of pages and usually a few other China-related articles in other sections and blogs. To help readers find all our China coverage in one place, each week (or so) we round up links to the Sino-centric articles that appear in the weekly newspaper and elsewhere on our website.
This week there were in effect two China sections: one of the regular sort and another, several times longer, in the form of a Special Report: China and in the internet (see a list of all its constituent articles in the right-hand sidebar of each). There was a recorded interview with its author that ran separately and there will be further "China and the internet" features appearing over the course of the next week, online, not to mention an ongoing debate over the seriousness of industrial cyber-espionage to relations between China and America. Here, then, for rest of the week of the April 6th issue:
In the China section, a lead note explains that official figures showing a sharp drop in China’s murder rate are misleading
A fatal landslide in Tibet raises questions about a rush for the region’s resources
An update to the China-v-Apple story, taking on the larger theme of protectionism and a discussion between two of our correspondents on the same and more
The leader on North Korea concludes with advice for its sole ally
And over at Banyan, the blog, our eponymous columnist spares a few Qingming thoughts for part of Singapore's Chinese heritage. (He took up some of the same themes in this week's column too.)
And then let's catch up on some of our reading from that week before the Easter and tomb-sweeping holidays, shall we? From our other blogs:
At Prospero, a new generation is shunning the conservative state-run publishing houses and finding freedom online
Graphic detail notes that several of Asia's economies have set records for long-run growth. Guess who won in the 30-year category?
Schumpeter took a look at the causes of Suntech's demise
In the section itself a look at the figures suggests that consumption in China may be much higher than official statistics suggest
China has become one of the largest producers of bibles in the world
Hong Kong's foreign maids cannot become permanent residents of the SAR
And finally, don't forget the Science section from the week of March 23rd, wherein Chinese palaeontologists hope to explain the rise of the animals]]>
Read the special report on China and the internet here
WU LIANGLIANG went to hospital on March 1st with a tickly cough. After a number of hours hooked up to a saline drip, the 27-year-old pork butcher went home. When he still felt poorly a few days later Mr Wu returned to hospital and was diagnosed with a pulmonary infection. But then instead of recovering, as was expected for a man his age, Wu’s condition worsened rapidly. On March 10th, he became the second person known to have been killed by H7N9, a novel strain of avian flu not previously seen in humans.
There are now nine identified human cases of H7N9 in the Yangzi delta region, which includes Shanghai, three of which have been fatal. The most recent death reported, announced on April 3rd, was a 38-year-old chef, surnamed Hong, who died in late March. Mr Hong worked in Jiangsu, the province next to Shanghai where four of the other people who contracted H7N9 live (a nearly real-time map endeavours to track the cases). The remaining cases are all in critical condition, but in general they have not deteriorated as swiftly as Mr Wu did. A 35-year-old woman in Anhui province is still alive 22 days after she first became ill.
Many questions surround H7N9’s origin, pattern of infection and treatment (there is no vaccine). Early analyses of the genetic sequence of the virus, which the Chinese authorities have shared with the world, suggest that a familiar strain of avian flu has mutated. Previously infectious only to birds, H7N9 appears now to be able to bind with mammalian cells, making it possible to jump from chickens to animals such as pigs. The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains that that there is no evidence of ongoing human-to-human transmission. If the virus were well adapted to jump between humans, the thinking goes, clearer evidence of transmission would already have emerged among the victims’ close contacts.
Anne Kelso, director of a research centre that collaborates with the WHO in Melbourne, said that while it is too early to make a comprehensive risk assessment, the overall picture of H7N9 is unlike any bird-flu virus previously examined.
“In particular, apart from the H7 and N9 components [the proteins it wears on its outer shell], the other six components of the virus are from a very different source”, Ms Kelso said. She calls the phenomenon “reassortment”: “There has been a mixing of at least a couple of other viruses previously, to create this new virus.” Unlike other strains that ravage poultry, such as H5N1, which has also killed 360 people worldwide since 2003, H7N9 seems to be imperceptible in its animal hosts. China’s ministry of agriculture is yet to find the strain, either in birds or other livestock.
In the absence of a known source, speculation is rife among Chinese citizens, who tend to be especially sensitive about the risk of pandemic since SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) broke out, ten years ago. On Sina Weibo, China’s largest microblog network, millions are talking about it. After it became known that Mr Wu was a pork butcher, users drew parallels to the 16,000 dead pigs that were found floating in tributaries of Shanghai’s Huangpu river in recent weeks. One user, Fen1234, told his 44,881 followers that
Shanghai’s hygiene and disease-control departments had 20 days to detect the virus and claim the announcement was not delayed, but just one day to prove there is no connection to the pigs floating in the Huangpu.
In contrast to plodding management at the time of the SARS crisis, while 349 people in mainland China died of the disease, the government has been relatively forthcoming with information about H7N9, ever since the announcement of the first human cases on March 31st. Experts, too, are in effect soothing public fears that there could be an outbreak on the SARS scale. Zhong Nanshan, a director of the Chinese Medical Association and a hero from the time of SARS, said that the two viruses are “very different”.
At Jingchuan wet market in Shanghai, Wu Desen, the father-in-law of the second H7N9 fatality, leans against his shuttered pork stall. On April 3rd, the wet market—so called because of the live, sometimes splashing, produce—is bustling with locals haggling over pork ribs and trotters.
The elder Mr Wu hasn’t opened the stall where his son-in-law once worked since the family learned the truth about his death. For 20 days they thought Wu Liangliang died of simple pneumonia. They only learned it was H7N9 watching the news on television.
Mr Wu says he won’t fight the Fifth People’s Hospital over the misinformation. But he is adamant that Wu Liangliang picked up H7N9 at the hospital, despite the municipal government’s conclusion (in Chinese). Mr Wu claims that his son-in-law was treated in the same department as the first known H7N9 case, an 87-year-old man surnamed Li. “[Wu Liangliang] was hospitalised in the morning of March 4th, on the same floor as the family whose father [Mr Li] died of the virus that afternoon,” he says.
Mr Li first visited Fifth People’s on February 14th with his two sons. All exhibited flu-like symptoms. Since Mr Li’s death, one son, a 55-year-old, has since died and the other recovered. At the time H7N9 wasn’t identified as the cause of illness in either of the two younger men, but their cases are now being reinvestigated.
(Picture credit: AFP)]]>
ON MARCH 25th, Global Times, a state-run newspaper, reported that a kindergarten teacher in Hebei province had been forcing pupils who misbehaved to drink their own urine as a punishment. The accused teacher has denied the reports, which are only the most recent in a series of allegations of child abuse at Chinese schools. Microbloggers are incensed.
In one of the most widely discussed cases, in October 2012 Lin Junyan, a mother in the city of Wenling, in Zhejiang, found a photograph online of her five-year old son’s kindergarten teacher picking up the boy by his ears. The teacher looks like she is enjoying his pain as he screams.
Other photographs, apparently from the same kindergarten, show children in stress positions or with their mouths taped shut. Yan Yanhong, a 20-year-old teacher, was vilified by the public for having carried out the abuse. She defended herself to local media by saying they were all in “fun”. Other images of abuse have been caught on film, aired on local-news programmes and then spread around the internet.
In 2005 the All-China Women’s Federation, a state-controlled body, issued a report on child abuse that was sponsored by UNICEF. It found that almost half of current university students had suffered physical abuse as children, from a sample of 3,500 who were surveyed. The violence they had suffered often took place in schools, where teachers were the principal perpetrators. There are no reliable nationwide statistics on the frequency child abuse in China. But the number of reports that appear in the state press—and are disseminated widely by social media—demonstrates a growing awareness of the practice. And with the awareness, a new intolerance for it; attitudes towards corporal punishment are changing. The practice now looks to many like a real problem.
The spread of “black” or unregistered kindergartens is partly to blame. China’s preschool capacity has been stretched thin and reputable kindergartens have become unaffordable for many families. (The teacher pictured above is working as a volunteer, with the children of migrant workers who cannot afford private tuitions.) Many schools cut costs by hiring untrained and unlicensed teachers. Ms Yan, the 20-year-old who was teaching kindergarten in Wenling, serves as a prime example.
Microblogs have played a major role in stirring new debate about child abuse, which was rarely discussed openly in the past (as about so many other things too; see this week's special report). Last year China Daily, another state-run newspaper, said there were more than 4m microblog-posts concerning cases of child abuse.
Despite their being condemned by public opinion, even serial wrongdoers often walk free. The police detained Ms Yan but then she was released without charge. Critics say China’s laws for protecting children are flawed in that they refer only to abuse by the family, not by teachers or anyone else for that matter. Prosecutors must also prove that physical harm has been done—which means that any and all abusive acts that cause no lasting, visible damage go unpunished. To fix this, the Shanghai Women’s Federation has proposed that China’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress, introduce a definition of child abuse into the criminal code. In the uproar that followed Ms Yan’s release more than 20,000 "netizens" participated in a straw poll in order to vote in favour of a prohibition on child abuse.
Ms Lin has since decided to pay 4,500 yuan ($725) a term to send her son to a better kindergarten, compared with the 1,980 yuan ($320) she paid at the school where her son was allegedly abused. “In Chinese families, children are carefully treasured and even spoiled,” she explains. “How can I let a stranger hurt him?”
(Picture credit: AFP)]]>
Update (April 1st, 10pm GMT): Reacting to the repeated attacks, Tim Cook, Apple's boss, has apologised to the firm's Chinese customers. "We are aware that a lack of communications...led to the perception that Apple is arrogant and doesn't care or attach enough importance to consumer feedback," Mr. Cook wrote in the letter, which was published on the firm's Chinese website. "We express our sincere apologies for any concerns or misunderstandings this gave consumers." He vowed to improve Apple's customer-service policies.
APPLE and China seem a perfect fit. Both are secretive autocracies that have produced spectacular economic results and technological marvels—but only for those willing to abide by the strict rules imposed within their great firewalled gardens. Apple is one of China’s most successful brands and China one of Apple’s most important markets.
So it is quite surprising to see the American technology firm come under repeated attack in recent days by mouthpieces for the state and Communist party. On March 15th, World Consumer Rights Day, a much-watched annual programme on CCTV, the official broadcaster, attacked Apple’s policies and practices in China. The suggestion was that the greedy firm treated locals as second-class citizens. This week, the People’s Daily, a party mouthpiece, launched a series of vitriolic attacks that accused the firm of “unparalleled arrogance.”
It is not unusual for foreign companies to come under occasional attack in China. Sometimes, this is well deserved—as when, last year, KFC was exposed for supply-chain lapses that led chickens of dubious quality to be served in its restaurants. But the CCTV exposé, which discussed warranty-repair policies, did not find anything remotely as rotten at the core of Apple’s China business. So what is really behind all this?
One possibility is that the attacks are being orchestrated by a commercial rival that could gain from Apple’s misfortune. A number of celebrities rushed to join the CCTV attack on Apple by posting rude comments on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. One of them, known to be a paid spokesman for a rival smartphone manufacturer, made the mistake of including in his Weibo posting the instruction to post the attack at a certain time—making clear that it was not written by him. Embarrassing, to be sure, but that does not prove a firm was behind this—especially since the other celebrity attackers are not thought to be on a rival’s payroll.
It seems more likely that Apple is the target of an officially-sanctioned attack, but which bit of officialdom might be pushing it remains unclear. Some think it might be a shakedown by CCTV, in order to encourage Apple to advertise on its channels. Others think that it is the vanity of bureaucrats at work. The ever-arrogant Apple may have failed to kowtow to the right officials in Beijing.
But what if Apple were merely a convenient whipping boy? Some think that this recent skirmish is in retaliation for foreign powers’ attacking Chinese firms abroad. The EU, for example, is currently taking a hostile stance towards China’s solar exporters. And American politicians have all but declared war on Huawei, a telecoms giant that stands accused—on no public evidence, it must be noted—of spying for the Chinese state.
It is just possible that the attacks on Apple are a prelude to pushing foreign firms out of the Chinese mobile-phone market. That seems ridiculous, given how popular Apple’s operating system and Google’s Android are in China. However, an official white paper did recently make the extraordinary claim that China’s reliance on Android was dangerous. The country’s censors or security enforcers may want to promote domestic operating systems that they can more easily penetrate, monitor or control.
There is another, even more troubling, theory that could explain the bizarre and unexpected attack on Apple this month. Taken together with other recent tirades against foreign firms like Volkswagen, this could mark a radically different approach to foreign companies being tested by China’s new leadership. Such sabre-rattling could be seen, on this view, as the natural complement to the belligerence seen over the Senkakus and in other military matters.
Truth be told, nobody outside the official inner circle has a clue what is really going on. The only certain thing is that the famously aloof technology firm is surely paying attention. “China is currently our second-largest market,” Tim Cook said to Xinhua, the official newswire of Chinese propagandists, before the attacks. He then perhaps tempted fate by going on: “I believe it will become our first. I believe strongly that it will.”
(Picture credit: AFP)]]>
CHINA may have a new president in Xi Jinping, but it is China’s new first lady, Peng Liyuan, who has been making the headlines this week. It certainly helps that Ms Peng, 50, was already a celebrity. She been a fixture of Chinese television since the 1980s, famous for her soaring renditions of patriotic folk songs, which she performs wearing her army uniform. It is rare to have a first lady who looks like a model but is ranked as a major-general.
Chinese social media, notably Sina Weibo, has been buzzing over Ms Peng’s wardrobe. Despite censors’ attempts to suppress the conversation (the site currently blocks searches for Ms Peng’s name) Weibo users and online shoppers have been dissecting photographs of the first lady accompanying her husband as he makes his first trip abroad as China’s new leader. Copies of her overcoat, handbag, scarf and shoes appeared almost immediately in online stores. Commenters praised the first lady for choosing to wear Chinese brands rather than draping herself in foreign luxury labels.
She is also well-known for championing social causes, especially public health. Last year the World Health Organisation named her as a “goodwill ambassador” in the fight against tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. While her husband met with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, in the past week, Ms Peng visited children in a Moscow orphanage.
Ms Peng’s high profile marks a contrast from that of her predecessors’. Hu Jintao’s wife often accompanied her husband abroad, but otherwise kept rather quiet, dutifully posing for pictures while remaining a mostly silent supporter of her husband’s career. The wives of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin appeared even less often in public and rarely travelled overseas with their husbands.
This reluctance to give wives too prominent a place in national politics has deep roots. Chinese history is littered with cautionary tales of women who were allowed to become too close to the centre of power. More than 2,000 years ago, the Empress Lü Zhi, a widow of the founding emperor of the Han dynasty and mother to his successor, ordered a rival concubine’s to be dismembered alive and thrown into a cesspool. The act so traumatised the empress’s son, the new emperor, that he withdrew from public life and effectively allowed his mother to rule in his place. Empress Lü was accused of killing another claimant to the throne by having forced him to drink poisoned wine, a method of murder which might recall a more recent scandal. Gu Kailai, the wife of Chongqing’s deposed party secretary, Bo Xilai, was often portrayed as being a ruthless and ambitious woman. Ms Gu is currently in prison for the 2011 poisoning of a Briton, Neil Heywood.
Then there is the inimitable Empress-Dowager Cixi. The widow of the Xianfeng emperor and the mother of his only son, Cixi came to power in a coup in 1861. For the next 47 years she was one of the most powerful women in the world, ruling as the regent to a series of young and ineffectual emperors. Historians still blame her—perhaps unfairly—for single-handedly bringing about the demise of the Qing empire.
Similarly, Jiang Qing, the fourth (or third, depending on how one is keeping score) wife of Mao Zedong took the fall, along with three of her cronies, for causing the Cultural Revolution. Like Peng Liyuan, Jiang Qing rose to prominence first as a singer and actress. Unlike Ms Peng, Madame Mao was universally feared and reviled. She was convicted along with the rest of the “Gang of Four” in a 1981 show trial. She had once famously referred to herself as Chairman Mao’s dog. “When he said, ‘bite,’ I bit.”
While there is likely some truth to each of these stories, Chinese history can seem awfully quick to paint powerful women as ruthless and immoral. Take for example the Tang-dynasty Empress Wu Zetian. In the dynastic histories, her ascent to becoming the only woman in Chinese history to sit on the Dragon Throne is a lurid tale of sex and murder. But even her critics begrudgingly admit that she was a competent—if occasionally ruthless—monarch.
Whatever its historiographical merits, with this background there was cause to wonder how Mr Xi would handle the fame of his wife once he ascended to the top spot. As late as 2007, Beijing wags would still refer to Xi Jinping as “Peng Liyuan’s husband.” As Mr Xi consolidated his position, Ms Peng’s star seemed to fade slightly, as she slipped into semi-retirement. Some see her re-emergence as part of an ongoing attempt to humanise the Chinese leadership. (In interviews, Ms Peng has described her husband as a simple man who enjoys carousing only occasionally, with close friends.)
In this, Ms Peng would have less in common with the infamous Madame Mao than she does with the wife of Mao’s arch-enemy, Chiang Kai-shek. In 1927, Generalissimo Chiang married Soong May-ling, the daughter of one of China’s richest men and a sister-in-law to Chiang’s mentor, Sun Yat-sen. Nine years younger than her husband, Ms Soong was a devout Methodist, educated in America, who spoke fluent English. She was cosmopolitan, beautiful, and charming—three words that would never be used to describe her notoriously aloof and prickly husband.
Like Ms Peng today, Madame Chiang added a touch of grace and beauty to a regime sorely in need of both. She made an impression on everyone who met her. Life magazine dubbed her “the most powerful woman in the world”. In 1941 she became the first Chinese person (and only the second woman) to address both houses of the American Congress. A speaking tour of the United States drew thousands of people eager to catch a glimpse of the glamorous wife of China’s wartime leader. So famous were her charms that when she met Franklin Roosevelt in the Oval Office, he reportedly asked that a card table be place between them—just in case.
As China looks for new ways to boost its soft power abroad, Peng Liyuan could well follow in Ms Soong’s footsteps. As one Weibo user remarked, “Finally. We have a real first lady.”
(Picture credits: AFP and Wikimedia Commons)]]>
In the second part of our interview with David Shambaugh, he explains China's long-term foreign-policy ambitions]]>