Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe that it’s already 2013. (Where did the time go? I have so many appointments!) Once again, as always, I want to thank all of you for reading and for your e-mails and Facebook comments. It’s truly a pleasure to have so many thoughtful people to correspond with.
As 2013 comes, I do have a few changes to announce. Next week I will begin work as an Associate Editor with The Atlantic, helping to shape the website’s already-excellent China coverage. To say that it’s a privilege to join The Atlantic- a magazine I first began reading as a high school student more than fifteen years ago- would be a tremendous understatement. Needless to say, I am very excited to get started. The new job also brings me to a new city, Washington, where I’ll be based for the foreseeable future. As a person who loved every minute of life in New York, having to leave the city is certainly bittersweet. However, DC is a fine place in its own right and I’m looking forward to exploring its streets, restaurants, museums, monuments, and parks.
As for this site, I will be continuing to blog in some capacity, so stay tuned! In the meantime, I hope you all enjoy a great start of the year.
Eli Bildner of Tea Leaf Nation has noticed an interesting rhetorical shift in Chinese discourse: people have begun referring to themselves as “taxpayers”:
Over the past year, the word “taxpayer” (nashuiren or nashuizhe) has appeared with increasing frequency on Chinese microblogs and websites, yielding almost 12.5 million results in a search on Sina Weibo, one of China’s most popular microblogs. And just like in the United States, many Chinese “taxpayers” are hardly satisfied with their government’s fiscal record.
In a post last Friday, one Chinese microblogger (@Dvampire-MrFox) excoriated government officials who played hooky from work after China’s National Day vacation. “This is our money as taxpayers!” he wrote. “What are we paying them for?” Posting later that day, another microblogger (@薇薇-伍月) criticized the city of Zhengzhou’s poor record in providing housing for migrant workers: “Where the heck is our taxpayer money going?” she wrote.
This is a trend worth noting for two reasons. First, the Chinese government will begin to rely more heavily on income tax revenues in the coming years, mostly as a way to secure an alternative source of financing. Compared to developed economies, China has a relatively low tax base, but as more of the population surpasses the minimum income threshold the percentage of Chinese who pay income taxes will rise.
Secondly, the public has become increasingly intolerant of corruption and has begun to express more concern about how, exactly, their tax dollars (tax yuan?) are being spent. The brand-new Xi Jinping regime has already begun an anti-corruption movement, but there’s little reason to think it’ll ultimately prove effective absent systemic political change.
It might be tempting to say that “taxpayer” is just a word, one likely imported by a Chinese person who became familiar with the American usage and thought the term would apply quite nicely in China. But words matter. Throughout recent history the Chinese have mainly regarded the government in a paternalistic way, but should the paradigm shift and people consider the government to be working for them, with their money, the consequences could be significant.…
Will Moss at Imagethief has a funny, poignant post announcing his departure from China after eight years. I particularly liked this part:
For an increasingly cosmopolitan and globally interconnected country, China isn’t really a place encourages foreigners to settle down. In fact, it goes out of its way to keep us at arm’s length. I should make a collage out of eight years of temporary residence certificates arranged around the confession I had to sign for registering my son’s birth with the police a few weeks late. Economic migrants bleed across the borders in search of something better, and perhaps some Vietnamese mail-order brides wind up here for the long haul, but in general foreigners don’t immigrate to China. We just visit, sometimes for a very long time.
Will raises an interesting question- why don’t more foreigners immigrate to China? Policy, of course, plays a large role. Here is a partial explanation from a Brookings Institute study:
The Chinese government is inexperienced in the administration of international migrants and falls short in its laws and policies relevant to transnational immigration. This is especially true with respect to the granting of “eligible status” to immigrants, which is still under strict policy control. There is a very limited quota of Chinese “green cards,” or permanent residence permits for foreign citizens, and applications for such permits are usually influenced by politics: they are primarily issued for “international friends” of the Communist Party instead of for international immigrants. Current immigration policy also tends to encourage accepting immigrants who are highly educated and can work in high-tech or bring large investments with them, as China already possesses abundant labor resources.
But Will’s piece- as well as similar articles by Mark Kitto and Charlie Custer- are getting at another question- why do expats decide to leave China after a lengthy stay? Why not just settle in the country permanently? As Will says, hardly anyone stays forever; even Sidney Rittenberg left. But he also adds:
We leave. That’s what we do. But just because leaving China is normal doesn’t mean something isn’t going on. Among my friends there has been a tangible change in mood in the last couple of years. A sense of excitement about being here that endured for many years has in many cases given way to a sense of weariness or indifference. The most common reaction when I tell people my company is moving me back to California is, “you’re so lucky!”
I’ve noticed a similar pattern with my own group of expat friends from China. Most of us came when we were fresh out of school, living frugally and happily with only English-teaching jobs to tie us down. But as the years passed, our roots in China deepened. We found careers and relationships and bought books and furniture and took trips around the country by air, rail, and bicyle. We learned the language and met the locals and ate the food and drank the beer and accumulated a fine list of “China stories” to entertain our family and friends back home.
As long as our lives were simple, China was perfect; it was inexpensive, exciting, challenging, and full of opportunities. But with life’s progression came complications. Friends who started small businesses complained endlessly of government interference, unscrupulous partners, and lousy employees. Friends who started families worried about air pollution and food safety regulations. Some of us looked at high-level career opportunities in the country and found them curiously lacking; whatever happened to the China of limitless possibility that we had told our friends back home about?
Then there was the question of assimilation. The Chinese are wonderfully hospitable people, but, as Mark Kitto says, you can never be one of them. Did I want to spend the rest of my life in a country where I would always be regarded as an outsider, no matter what I did about it? I recalled living in Italy as a college student and finding, after six months or so, that my identity as an American had become irrelevant. I was just a friend, a roommate, a classmate. In China I never got to that point, even after six years, and I realized toward the end of my stay there that I never would.
And so I left. The circumstances weren’t terribly dramatic. I had been accepted into a grad school program and felt it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Some of my other friends left around the same time, too. Others stayed. Eventually, I imagine that just about all of them- almost to the very last one- will find their way home.
But, like Will says, it means nothing at all. Occasionally I get e-mails from readers who are contemplating moving to China to teach. I’ve encouraged each and every one, without exception, to go. China remains an amazing place to live, even if, ultimately, your stay will simply be a very long visit.
Matthew Yglesias has a good post at Slate putting China’s growth- and current slowdown- into some perspective. Toward the end, he lays out the bullish case for China’s interior:
My bull case for China would be that for all the rapid catch-up growth the PRC has seen there are still enormous region-to-region gaps. That means that even if Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta have run out of room for further catchup, there’s still enormous scope for interior regions to catch up with the prosperous coasts. We know that existence governance institutions were good enough for coastal China to do a lot of catch up so why shouldn’t they be good enough for the interior to catch up with the coasts?
In response, Max Fisher writes that developing China’s interior depends on developing export-oriented industries and/or encouraging domestic consumption. This is basically correct, and it’s worth explaining why in more detail:
For one thing, it’s unrealistic to expect China’s interior to ever approach the prosperity level of the coast. After all, Kansas and Arkansas have always been poorer than New York, and will likely always be. The inherent economic advantages to being on a coastline aren’t going to go away. The more realistic goal, then, is whether inland development can occur quickly enough to offset the slowdown affecting China’s coastal region. I believe it can, for the following reasons.
First, the infrastructure in China’s inland regions- think Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan- remains in dire need of upgrades. Rural parts of these provinces lack access to decent roads, for one, and there are severe deficiencies in electricity and plumbing. China may have built a handful of sleek airports in recent years, but a quick visit to the countryside reveals just how much work needs to be done. Beijing can continue investing enormous sums into fixed assets without experiencing the kind of diminishing returns evident in developed economies, something that will keep GDP figures high.
Second, China’s economy is so fragmented that its inland regions are best seen as part of other regional economic networks. The southwestern provinces may face logistical challenges in terms of trans-Pacific shipping, but they are better positioned for trade relationships with countries like Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Xinjiang has the advantage of being next to the energy-rich Central Asian republics, while parts of northern China are best suited for trade with Russia. Obviously, this won’t amount to more than a small fraction of China’s trade to Europe and North America, but it does represent a viable export strategy for these regions.
Third, reform of China’s antiquated hukou laws would spur urbanization in the inland provinces, as rural Chinese from Sichuan and Hubei will migrate to cities like Chengdu, Chongqing, and Wuhan. China is often thought to have a large number of “mega cities” but given the size of the rural population, the number and size of these cities should be much higher. And they will be, as I believe that hukou reform will happen sometime during the Xi/Li years.
Eventually, China’s economy will reach a point where political corruption becomes too big of a problem to ignore. But that point, I believe, is not imminent simply due to the enormous potential of inland development.
First, a brief update from New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Much of the flooding, infrastructure damage, and electrical blackouts avoided my part of uptown Manhattan, and as a result we’ve emerged relatively unscathed. Thank you to friends and family who wrote expressing their concern- I appreciate it!
Here’s a roundup of some of the more interesting China stories of the past week or two:
- Evan Osnos of The New Yorker on what the likely fallout of the Wen Jiabao story will be. Evan’s takeaway? The fact that the story isn’t surprising doesn’t mean it isn’t newsworthy.
- On the subject of Wen, the Useless Tree writes that the Chinese Prime Minister has failed the Confucius test.
- NPR’s Louisa Lim profiles ex-government official Bao Tong, a former secretary to Zhao Zhiyang and a leading critic of the Communist Party’s grip on power. Bao says that “there’s no ideology, there’s no socialism, there’s no communism. All that’s left is power.” Sounds about right to me. In June, Ian Johnson wrote a similar profile of Bao in the New York Review of Books. Both are worth reading in full.
- John Garnaut compiles the A to Z of Chinese politics for the Sydney Morning Herald. This is an excellent, succinct primer of what the key issues are in advance of the 18th Party Congress.
- A Chinese student at Hampshire College writes about how living in the United States has turned him into a Chinese nationalist. This goes both ways, for sure- I remember angrily defending American politics- even George W. Bush!- to critical Chinese friends in the aftermath of the 2004 election. It’s remarkable how living abroad can intensify feelings of national identity, even though most people travel to, at least ostensibly, gain a different perspective.
The New York Times‘ revelation that the family of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao controls assets worth as much as $2.7 billion does not, at first glance, seem to be that big of a story. After all, earlier this summer Bloomberg reported that Vice President Xi Jinping- soon to be anointed as China’s next head of state- was also fabulously wealthy, and people in both China and abroad reacted with a collective shrug. Just about any political figure in China with a national reputation has cashed in handsomely, something that everyone in the country knows.
What has been interesting, however, was Wen’s reaction. According to this LA Times report, the Prime Minister’s family has retained legal representation and has begun to refute the story, and the Times‘ site has been blocked in China for the first time in several years. This reaction has contrasted with the usual Chinese approach, which is to release a terse statement accusing the foreign media of interference or, better yet, of hurting the feelings of the Chinese people. What makes this case any different?
First, Wen Jiabao isn’t just an ordinary Chinese politician. While President Hu Jintao has the charisma of a garden gnome, Wen is one of the few Chinese leaders who generates genuine public affection. Following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Wen rushed to the scene and, referring to himself famously as Grandpa Wen, exhorted the area’s children to persevere. Even my most cynical Chinese friends, whose regard the Communist Party resembled mine toward stinky tofu, were moved by the Prime Minister’s grace. The foreign media has always appreciated Wen’s candor in describing China’s economy as “imbalanced” as well as stressing the need for political reform. And Wen’s past association with the reformist Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, the only one of China’s top leaders to oppose the Tiananmen Square crackdown, further cements his image as a relative liberal in China’s political scene.
Wen isn’t a soulless technocrat like Hu Jintao. He isn’t the privileged son of a Party legend, like Xi Jinping. He isn’t an ambitious, attention-seeking mandarin like Bo Xilai. His public persona conveys dignity, modesty, urbanity, and grace- all qualities the Chinese once associated with the beloved Zhou Enlai. Being just another greedy functionary in the increasingly lucrative Chinese kleptocracy doesn’t mesh with Wen’s carefully constructed image.
In Wen’s defense, his family members were more responsible for the asset grab than he was, as the Times‘ article so skillfully lays out. But the story serves as yet another example of how easily politicians enrich themselves in China, and how divisions between the “public” and “private” sector are largely meaningless. Wen Jiabao’s legacy may be that, for all of his supposed intentions, he was unable to change this basic calculus.…
Sex is everywhere in China. Every city of a certain size is teeming with “adult product” shops selling sex toys and condoms, while every third barbershop, massage parlor, and karaoke hall operates as a front for prostitution. At bars throughout the country, nubile young women serve beer dressed in skimpy mini-skirts, while nightclubs feature go-go dancers gyrating wildly to pulsating, suggestive pop music. Wealthy men in China’s cities keep young women- known as er nai- as mistresses, providing them with an apartment and an allowance in exchange for sex and companionship. Male guests at hotels are offered prostitutes in semi-discreet telephone calls, and business deals often include sexual services as part of a sales pitch.
Sex is also nowhere in China. Students learn little about relationships, intimacy, and contraception in school, as the Communist Party believes that these subjects distract students from their studies. All healthy men and women are expected to marry, and remaining single past one’s late twenties typically results in intense family pressure to find a match. Gays and lesbians are not exempt from this expectation, and have often resorted to sham marriages in order to present a respectable face to their families. Chinese men retain a traditional desire to marry a virgin, and as a result Chinese women will go to great lengths to restore their hymens in order to erase their sexual histories. Open, frank public discussions about sex, once non-existent, remain taboo for much of the population.
These contradictions are unsurprising in a country like China, where life behind closed doors differs so greatly from external appearances. To be fair, China is hardly the only country where official attitudes about sex lag behind those of the general public. The United States, for instance, touts its “Puritan ethic” while producing the lion’s share of the world’s smut, filth, and garbage entertainment. Interestingly, however, Chinese attitudes toward sex do not resemble an arc bending toward more tolerance and liberalism but rather have fluctuated wildly throughout the country’s history. As Richard Burger tells us in his fine new book Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, attitudes toward homosexuality in ancient China were so tolerant that the concept of sexual orientation didn’t even exist; a man was expected to have male as well as female lovers over the course of his lifetime. In fact, Burger argues convincingly, homophobia only emerged in China with the arrival of Western Christian missionaries in the 16th century. While Europe was suffering through the Middle Ages, China enjoyed a golden age of culture and society, producing erotic art and literature that is read and admired today. Burger, who authors the popular China blog The Peking Duck*, weaves through this history nimbly, livening up his historical survey with bright, lively prose.
As the twentieth century dawned, Shanghai had such a reputation for licentiousness that it earned the nickname “The Whore of the Orient”, while concubinage remained a common practice in both rural and urban parts of the country. Yet by 1950, when Chairman Mao Zedong and the Communists consolidated control over the entire country, the Chinese government banned prostitution, closed bars and opium dens, and vowed to eliminate vestiges of China’s tawdry past. During the Cultural Revolution, men and women were discouraged from pursuing romantic relationships and regarded love as a bourgeois conceit; in photographs from this era, it can be difficult distinguishing between the sexes due to the uniformity in clothing and hairstyle. By the time Deng Xiaoping assumed power in 1978 and launched market-driven reforms, the Chinese population had as little regard for sexuality than any population in the modern world.
That, as any visit to the country instantly makes clear, has changed. Modern China is a defiantly sexual place- perhaps not on par with Brazil or France, but certainly more than your run-of-the-mill Communist state. Young Chinese people increasingly express their sexuality, have relationships with whomever they want, and find information about sex at the click of a button. Will this progress be erased by a reactionary regime eager to preserve traditional Confucian values? Perhaps. China’s young, however, are increasingly exposed to a global popular culture in which sex is entwined with freedom, individuality, and choice. Burger’s book contains many examples of heartache and tragedy, but ends on a hopeful note. In the United States, after all, only thirty-five years separated the Stonewall riots from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. We’re used to changes happening in China at warp speed, but Sex in China gives reason to believe that the remarkable advances may only just be the beginning.
*Disclosure: Richard is a friend.…
One of the most curious facts about China’s current leadership is is comprised almost entirely by engineers. This thought-provoking Facebook post by Kaiser Kuo reminds us that the academic disciplines of the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo are: hydraulic engineering, electron tube engineering, geological engineering, electrical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, geophysical engineering, chemical engineering, and law.
By contrast, here is the distribution of the seven men Reuters reports will comprise China’s next Standing Committee: chemical engineering, law, history, math, teaching, economics, and economics. As a caveat, Kaiser notes that Zhang Dejiang’s economic degree came from a university in North Korea, so he probably isn’t going to be quoting Milton Friedman anytime soon. But this change seems significant. Will it have any effect on policy?
Deng Xiaoping’s accession to power in 1978 transformed China’s government from being primarily ideological to being primarily technocratic, and engineering seemed to be an appropriate background for dealing with China’s immense developmental challenges. Much of the work of the Chinese government was simply building the country up from its destitute, agricultural base. With China now the world’s second-largest economy, though, a government run by social scientists may be better equipped to manage the country’s increasingly complex relationship with the outside world. An engineer may know how to build a railroad, but can he also manage a central bank? Perhaps yielding to economists and lawyers is the change China needs.
However, while the changing academic backgrounds of China’s incoming leaders presents an intriguing story line, there’s less there than meets the eye. China’s top political leaders are all “career politicians” rather than actual working professionals, and reaching the pinnacle of the Communist Party requires years in the trenches. President Hu Jintao, for instance, made his reputation as a no-nonsense Party chief in Tibet in the late 1980s and other leaders similarly got their start in minor outposts far from the center of power. The idea that an ordinary citizen can vault to high political office in a short period of time is totally alien to China, as I discovered when Chinese friends found the idea of a “Governor Schwarzenegger” totally incredulous.* Not having popular elections frees the Communist Party from worrying about disruptive upstart figures of the sort that routinely win elections in places like The Philippines, Haiti, or Argentina.
*To be fair, so did a lot of other people.
As a result I’m skeptical that China’s new leaderswill govern any differently simply because of their social science backgrounds. Political constraints within the government prevent any one leader from exercising too much influence, and what one chose to study as a young man tends to matter very little in later life. When George W. Bush was running for president in 2000 for instance, much was made of the fact that he attended business school rather than law school and would thus govern in the style of the “first MBA president”. When all was said and done, Bush’s graduate school experience turned out to be one of the least meaningful aspects of his presidency. The same, I suspect, will be true of Xi Jinping and his Standing Committee colleagues.…
Princeton Professor Aaron Friedberg, one of Mitt Romney’s principal advisers on China, has an op-ed claiming that President Obama’s China policy is a massive failure. Basically, his arguments are that a) Obama’s strategic pivot to Asia is seen as aggressive by China, but b) China still thinks the US is in decline and weak, because c) the US cannot compel China to do its bidding in North Korea and Iran, and d) China seems to insist, oddly enough, on having its own relationships with other countries. President Romney, on the other hand, will rectify these problems by balancing the budget and reducing the US national debt. He also will compel China to behave more in line with US interests. How? Friedberg doesn’t say, but I’m sure we’ll find out once Romney wins the election, since that seems to be how he reacts whenever asked for specifics.
About the only concrete policy proposal we’ve heard from Governor Romney himself is to label China a currency manipulator on his first day of office. In theory, this will open up the possibility that the US will penalize China for its malfeasance. In practice, this will accomplish nothing except to annoy China and elicit an outraged communique warning Washington not to meddle in Chinese affairs. The renminbi will continue to rise against the dollar, albeit slowly. China will continue to finance US debt. American consumers will continue to buy cheap Chinese exports. As Kurt Vonnegut might say, so it goes.
For all intents and purposes, US policy toward China will scarcely change no matter who wins the election. Friedberg no doubt knows this, but as Romney’s “China guy” he still has to pretend otherwise. In general, though, his op-ed refuses to consider that China might have different strategic interests to the US, or that an American presidential administration has the tools to change these interests even if he wanted to. This is a dangerous viewpoint in general, and one that is unfortunately prevalent in US politics.…
President Obama and Mitt Romney will debate for the third and final time tonight, focusing exclusively on foreign policy. As usual, I expect most of the questions to be about the broader Middle East, particularly Libya, Syria, and Iran. China is too important not to be mentioned, but I suspect that most of the questions will revolve around Mitt Romney’s silly assertion that he will label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. I hope I’m proven wrong.
If I were to moderate this debate- and time were of no essence- these would be the questions I would ask about China:
- Governor Romney, you have said that you will label China a currency manipulator on your first day in office. What do you expect this move will accomplish? Aren’t you afraid of economic retaliation from China?
- China is widely expected to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy some time in the next fifteen years. Would it be acceptable for China to become the world’s pre-eminent military power? If not, then why?
- Some have argued that China’s continued stockpiling of US debt is a reflection of our economy’s underlying strength, not weakness. What would your response to this assertion be?
- Would you be willing to cut or reduce military ties with Taiwan in exchange for Beijing’s diplomatic cooperation on North Korea?
- President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton played down China’s human rights abuses during her first visit to the country in 2009. Has this approach been successful?
- Should Japan be permitted to revise its constitution to re-instate offensive military capability in light of China’s rise?
- Since Richard Nixon first went to China in 1972, successive American presidents have maintained a policy of engagement with the country. However, China remains an authoritarian state with a dismal human rights record. Is it time to re-think this strategy?
Some of these questions are more suitable for graduate school blue book exams than a presidential debate, sure. But it’d be nice to hear what the two major candidates for president think on the more abstract, long-term issues facing the Sino-American relationship. Instead, we’ll get the usual triviality. Oh well- at least it’s better than the lack of public political discourse in China itself.…