A Skeptical Note

Posted on October 30th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 2 comments

We liberal Americans of Kunming are getting mighty excited about the election, given that everyone and his mother expects Barack Obama to win. A good friend of mine, John, wasn’t so sure. He’s in his 60s and has lived abroad much of the last 40 years after growing up in Georgia and North Carolina. To talk to John is a pleasure; he’s had such an interesting life, and always has a thoughtful perspective on just about any subject under the sun. He alone was skeptical about Obama, and made a apocraphyl comment about the election.

“Man, I just don’t know. I bet there are going to be a lot of people who intend to vote for Barack Obama that will change their mind the second they walk into that booth. They’ll see his weird name next to McCain’s, and while they’re not gonna know why, they’ll just be unable to pull the trigger.”

He went on: “I used to know a lot of black guys who went up North after growing up in the South. They’d all say that the racism was worse in the North, which surprised me. The reason why, they said, was that in the South you knew people were racist. It was plain and open and you could incorporate it into your life. In the North, people swore they weren’t racists, but deep down, they were- and that was more difficult to deal with.”…

Can You Be My Friend?

Posted on October 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 3 comments

The other day I walked into a little 烩饭 joint near my office for lunch. The place was chock full of young Chinese people, most of whom students from the nearby high school. As I took my seat, I took out my iPod and book and waited for my 宫保鸡丁炒饭. A second later, a guy in his early 20s came and sat opposite me. He said, “Excuse me? I want to improve my oral English. Can we be friends?”

My response:
“Can we be friends? Heh Heh…well, I suppose in a technical sense it would be impossible to rule out. I’m sure that, given a certain set of circumstances, we could, yes, become friends. But I think you mean that you want us to become friends immediately. That, my friend, is an entirely different matter.”

“What constitutes a friend?” I continued. “Perhaps one with whom I have things in common, or perhaps one whose personality attracts me. Given that I’ve only just met you and don’t even know your name, it is simply premature to ascertain whether we have what it takes to make it as friends. I take it that you, unless you somehow have been stalking me, also know nothing about me. Therefore, in a logical universe you too would deduce that becoming my friend would be impossible to tell at this point.”

“But there’s something else. You don’t have to know me. All you know is that I am white, and you made the (understandable) assumption that I speak English. Congratulations, you guessed right. I do speak English, and what’s more, I’m even a professional teacher with experience teaching people just like you. But friends? I strongly suspect your only motive to be my friend is to improve your English, and, to quote many an ex-girlfriend, I feel used. Would you approach me if I looked Chinese? Would you pursue this line of inquiry if I were Russian? Or French? Aren’t you discriminating against all the other people in this restaurant on the basis of their nationality? In fact, wouldn’t it be likelier that you would have more in common with them, both being from the same city?”

“In fact, I’m just like you. Just another guy living in Kunming, trying to make a living, trying to get ahead. That I’m foreign matters little- we’re just men, you and I. I’m sure you have many friends; people who like you because of your personality, wit, or whatever else. I have many friends too. I don’t choose them because of their skin color, or ethnicity, or native language. I would find that troubling, wouldn’t you? So no, sir, we can’t be friends. Not just yet, anyway. Perhaps if we meet again, doing something of mutual interest, a friendship could blossom. But by forcing the matter, you’re making it less and less likely that I’ll give in. I’m sorry”

In fact, as you probably have guessed, I said none of this. I made a feeble suggestion that he place an ad looking for an English teacher, to which he nodded but appeared not to understand. I then repeated my suggestion in Chinese, which he understood, but ignored. He then asked me for my phone number.

These situations are always awkward. He seemed like a nice, harmless guy. Furthermore, I confess that I take advantage of my otherness here in China when convenient, so perhaps I’m being hypocritical here. Then again, it’s difficult to live in a place in which your very otherness is your most salient characteristic. If combating that means disappointing a brave young person, then well..so be it.…

The Two Kunmings

Posted on October 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life, US Politics. No Comments

A friend of mine recently told me that, if the US presidential election were decided amongst American expats in Kunming, Obama would win by about a 10 to 1 margin. I thought about it for a minute, and then disagreed. “You’re forgetting the people on the other side of town,” I said.

Unlike cities like Shanghai or Shenzhen, there are very few foreign businessmen on fixed contracts living here. Most of the foreigners can be broadly divided into two camps: the Christians and the Bacchanalians.

I, it goes without saying, am firmly planted in the latter camp. This has little to do with my actual religious beliefs (I’m an atheist, for the record) but more to do with my lifestyle. The foreigners whom I know and see regularly typically hang out in one neighborhood, filled with restaurants, cafes, and bars. Most are single, though some are married. None have small children. Most are between 20 and 40, though there are some in their 50s and 60s. Most drink, some heavily. Many smoke. Some do hard drugs, others don’t. Most enjoy smoking cannabis. Most are left-wing. Few are religious. Most are well-traveled, well-read, and sociable conversationalists. Some are obnoxious and disagreeable.

Many of the expats I know seldom stray far from this scene. Several live, work, and play within a 2-mile radius of Yunnan University and venture out only on special occasions. These are the Bacchanalians.

Yet there’s another tribe, if you will, that also lives in the city. Most of these people inhabit the more modern apartment complexes in the city’s northern end, or around the western part of the second ring road. I would guess that the median age would be about the same as in the Bacchanalian tribe, but most in the Christian camp are married with children. Life is centered around church, and a couple of cafes/restaurants in their neighborhood. Unlike the hangouts around YunDa, these watering holes do not serve alcohol and prohibit smoking. While the Christian types work and study with the Bacchanalians, they tend to keep their distance from us. They are mainly conservative politically, temperate, and non-smokers.

When I first arrived in Kunming I wanted to do an investigation of the Christian community, as many of them are quietly (and illegally) missionaries. The ones I met were polite but extremely cautious; they understood that they had to shield their religious activity somewhat from authorities. The writing project got nowhere, perhaps because they could smell my skepticism of their life choice. One of the challenges of being a journalist is covering a story in which one feels a strong emotional pull. I believe that moving to a foreign country to spread religion is deeply wrong. It disgusts me that people think that the Chinese to whom they proselytize are somehow in need of spiritual salvation. What arrogance!

That, I suppose, is what keeps the two camps so far apart. And with an election on the horizon, this sort of tribalism will be evident.…

Hu Jia Hurts Whose Feelings?

Posted on October 26th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World, Chinese Internal Affairs. 1 Comment

Hu Jia, an AIDS activist currently imprisoned in China for the crime of subversion, was recently awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament. The Chinese government was displeased, reverting in their criticism of the award to their usual tropes of “interference in domestic matters” and “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people”.

The former critique is misguided (at best) but the latter is just ridiculous. How, exactly, could the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese be hurt by this award? Hu by all accounts is a patriot in the best sense; he exposes the corruption, malfeasance, and inadequacies of his government. To my knowledge, he has never personally attacked Chinese people, has never resorted to violence, and has never caused the 老百姓 any harm.

Descriptions of China as a totalitarian police state are overblown, but the government still demands utter fealty to the policies of the Communist Party. In fact, the concept of “patriotism” in China is still tied to party loyalty, regardless of how the said party governs. Hu Jia doesn’t demand the violent overthrow of the government; he merely wants it to operate better. Rather than hurting the feelings of Chinese people, I suspect many who know of him regard him, silently, as something of a hero.…

Notes and Thoughts

Posted on October 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Me, US Politics. 3 comments

Yikes…an e-mail from my sister reminded me that I’ve been silent in this space for a bit longer than usual. Apologies! Work has been busy and I’ve been occupied by other things, but keeping fresh content on this site remains a priority to stay tuned.

Before I write about my trip (I’ve got a bit more research to do still- bear with me), I’ll share a few news and notes for my remaining faithful

– A couple people I know in Kunming have expressed the conventional wisdom that the Colin Powell endorsement is really bad news for McCain. I’m not so sure. Do people really pay attention to endorsements? And for that matter, do people really pay attention to Powell?

– Certain Republicans believe Sarah Palin is the second coming of St. Ronald of Reagan, which to me sounds more like wishful thinking on their part than anything else. “There were doubts about Reagan’s experience too!” they cry. Were they? This is before my time (I was safely inside my mother’s womb when the Gipper first assumed office), but Reagan was a major figure within the Republican Party for at least a decade and a half prior to the 1980 election. Palin was plucked from almost total obscurity. Four years before he bested Carter, Reagan led an insurgency in the 1976 GOP primary that nearly knocked off sitting President Gerald Ford. Four years ago, Palin was the mayor of an Alaskan town smaller than the average Kunming housing complex.

You can fault Reagan for a lot of things (and believe me, I do) but he was at least a plausible choice on a national ticket. Palin, alas, is not.

– The presidential race appears to be tightening and will likely continue to do so. Then again, Obama must be pleased that McCain is pinning his presidential hopes on Pennsylvania, where he trails by a dozen points. To my pessimist friends (and father)- remember that Obama is
a) ahead in the polls
b) way ahead in cash-on-hand and
c) has a much better ground organization than McCain

– Interesting things are happening in China now on the economic front. Housing prices have begun falling. The government is worried about slower-than-expected GDP growth. They’ve also announced that by 2020, all Chinese will have nationalized health care. Will the US have that by then? Don’t hold your breath.

– I just finished reading Paul Theroux’s newest travel piece, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, in which Theroux retraces the route undertaken in his first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar. When the latter book was published, Theroux was a struggling writer in his early thirties with a crumbling marriage and two small children. Now, revisiting these places in his mid-sixties, he is happily remarried and financially secure.

Along with Theroux, the land and people have changed too; return visits to Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were ruled out, while Vietnam has been transformed from a war zone into a thriving and peaceful nation. Theroux visits a few new places; the oil boomtown of Baku, Azerbaijan, the bizarre totalitarianist hell of Turkmenistan, and the ruins (both ancient and modern) of Cambodia.

His observations, while trenchant, betray a fundamental bias against places undergoing major economic change. He finds India’s status as the world’s call center an affront to the ancient land’s charm, while simultaneously praising war-torn Sri Lanka for its desultory sameness. In Kunming, Theroux spares only a few paragraphs to my adopted home, revealing his evident disgust that the Chinese revel in newfound prosperity.

These criticisms aside, there are many wonderful parts of Ghost Train. I loved his pithy description of the uptight Singaporeans, as well as his wonderment at visiting magnificent Istanbul and meeting the great Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Some critics resent Theroux’s use of visits with fellow literati in his works, but I find these to be quite charming. In addition to Pamuk, Theroux sees the late Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka and both Murakami and the travel writer Pico Iyer in Japan.

All things aside, Theroux’s fluid writing style and observant eye are evident throughout, and I recommend the book to anyone keen to lose themselves on the vast Eurasian landmass.

OK…time for sleep as I have made the masochistic decision to wake up in six hours to go swimming. Ahoy!…

Two New Blogs

Posted on October 10th, by matt_schiavenza in Useful Links. 1 Comment

Two new additions to the blogroll:

1. Sinoscape- this is the blog of my friend and roommate Matt Burton, an Australian who has lived in Yunnan for more than three years. Matt’s a very good amateur photographer and he already has uploaded quite a few great photos of the province and of China at large. Well worth a look both for photography buffs and people interested in seeing what China looks like, particularly in more rustic areas.

2. South of the Clouds- this is a blog by a friend of mine, Jeff Crosby, who has lived and worked in China since 2000. Jeff is a professional translator/interpreter who also has extensive knowledge of China’s burgeoning arts scene. Jeff and I went on a recent cycling trip together (more on this later) with two other friends, so check his site for his account of our trip.…

The Road to 538

Posted on October 9th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

This year, to quench my thirst for constant political news and updates, the website FiveThirtyEight has become my primary source. Nate Silver, who earlier in life created an accurate and valuable system of predicting baseball statistics, runs 10,000 simulations each day based on an aggregation of polling numbers. Here are some of his findings on the state of the race:

1. Obama is projected to win 347 electoral votes to McCain’s 191.
2. Of the 10,000 electoral simulations, Obama wins 90%. This is his “winning percentage”.
3. Obama is projected to win the popular vote, 51.9% to McCain’s 46.5%. The remaining 1.6% will go to minor party candidates such as Libertarian Bob Barr.
4. The Democrats will earn a 58-42 lead in the Senate, assuming Joseph Lieberman continues to caucus with them. They will likely gain seats in Alaska, North Carolina, Oregon, New Hampshire, Colorado, New Mexico, and Virginia that are currently held by Republicans. To gain 60 seats, the Democrats must win in Minnesota (where comedian Al Franken is neck-and-neck with Senator Norm Coleman) and Mississippi (where ex-governor Ronnie Musgrove slightly trails Senator Roger Wicker). The odds of Democrats controlling 60 seats is currently about 20%.
5. McCain is unlikely to win any states that John Kerry carried in 2004. His best chance is in New Hampshire, where 538 gives him a winning percentage of 14%. Obama has a better than 50% chance to win the following Bush states: Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Nevada, Ohio, Florida, and Missouri. In the former four, his odds increase to better than 80%. The candidates are closest in Indiana, Missouri, and North Carolina. True long shots for Obama are West Virginia, Georgia, and Montana.

Some caveats, before Obama voters get too excited. Three things could tighten the polls:

1. A major foreign policy event, particularly one involving terrorism, in which McCain shows leadership.
2. The “Bradley effect”. That is, voters may tell pollsters that they support Obama, but will actually vote for McCain due to racial reasons.
3. The natural tightening of polls as election day approaches. This happened in both 2000 and 2004.

Let’s be frank. McCain is in deep trouble, as Nate says.…

Uighurs To Be Released From Guantanamo

Posted on October 9th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

An important story

The Uighurs are among the silent victims of the Global War on Terror. In 2001, the Chinese government used the aegis of the GWOT to round up Uighur dissidents, most of whom had a tenuous (if best) link to global jihadism and were simply agitators for Uighur autonomy. Those that strayed into Afghanistan were rounded up by the US, shipped to Guantanamo, and let to rot. Now, these Uighurs will be released into homes in the Washington DC area, close to the White House that conspired with Zhongnanhai to fuck them from afar.…

Mao and an Important Milestone

Posted on October 9th, by matt_schiavenza in Books, Chinese Internal Affairs. 1 Comment

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I recently finished reading Jonathan Spence’s brisk biography of Mao Zedong, published ten or so years ago. Unlike other biographies, Spence kept his focus narrow; he merely documented Mao’s life and eschewed long ruminations on his legacy. Spence also conveys a sense of who Mao was as a person, analyzing his poetry and his personal relationships with family members. The result is an impressive achievement- a biography of a towering figure that barely exceeds 200 pages.

One complaint, though; Spence spends an inordinate amount of time discussing Mao’s early years and seemingly sprints through the period in which Mao actually governed China. By the time Mao climbed Tiananmen in 1949 and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the book was nearly two-thirds done. Significant events such as the Cultural Revolution are only fleetingly mentioned.

I suspect Spence did this intentionally; much has been written about Mao’s years in power, while comparatively little is known about how he got there. Yet the transition between young idealist and bloated dictator wasn’t explained as seamlessly as it should have been.

The most interesting part of the book, to me, was a description of how Mao fomented a cult of personality as early as the late 1930s. Then in his mid-forties, Mao was ensconced in a Communist base camp in Yan’an, Shaanxi Province, where he simultaneously fought the Japanese occupation and the rival Nationalists. During these years, Mao studied Marxist dialectic and began elucidating his own interpretations of the doctrine, focusing on the need of rural reform. He wrote extensively and had his men read and study his works. Several of the key players in Chinese history- Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Lin Biao- were present with Mao at this stage.

Spence’s discussion of the Cultural Revolution did include one interesting nugget. Mao, then in his seventies and increasingly feeble, initially intended the chaotic street scenes to last a mere four months. By the end of 1966, he had lost total control of the situation even as his people marched around chanting his name. In his later years, Mao expressed contrition for the damage done, as well as bitterness toward his fourth and final wife, Jiang Qing, whom China has blamed as the Cultural Revolution mastermind.

For a man of extreme intelligence, energy, and charisma, Mao’s understanding of the wider world hardly exceeded that of a typical Hunanese peasant of his time. He traveled twice to the Soviet Union (once to meet Stalin) but otherwise never left China. He studied Russian and English but mastered neither, and during his meetings with foreign leaders he remained totally reliant on his more cosmopolitan advisors. Under Mao, it is easy to see how China slid into autarky, closing itself from the outside world.

The funniest section of the book was an account of Mao meeting Richard Nixon for the first time. The American president awkwardly tried to praise Mao for his lifetime achievements, while the mentally ill and erratic Chinese dictator brushed these encominums aside. In a sense, Mao and Nixon could have had a lot to talk about. Nixon, of course, came from rural California and resented the snobbery of more cosmopolitan Americans. He was intelligent, driven, and ruthless, but later was undone by his paranoia and thirst for power. The same could be said of Mao, born twenty years earlier and in entirely different circumstances.

Speaking of Mao, Tim Johnson notes that the era in which he governed China has now been eclipsed in length by the current era launched by Deng Xiaoping. Later this year marks the 30th anniversary of Deng’s rise to power and the subsequent transformation of China.…

Town Hall Debate

Posted on October 8th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 3 comments

I’m watching the town hall debate between McCain and Obama right now on the New York Times, though my curiously fluctuating internet connection has made this experience more frustrating than it ought to be. With five minutes left and my internet pretty much kaput, I’ll make it as much of an informed comment as possible.

Both candidates predictably used the debate to rephrase and expound upon their campaign stump speeches. If this meant ignoring or sidestepping audience questions, then so be it. I can’t blame either candidate for this, as a format that discourages candidates from exceeding 90 seconds in their responses doesn’t allow for much thoughtful conversation. Or any conversation, at all. The most frustrating moment that I saw was when moderator Tom Brokaw admonished the candidates for actually engaging each other in a back-and-forth rather than sticking to the colored lights that indicate time.

Obama didn’t stumble during this debate, and at first blush I would say that he acquitted himself rather well. My favorite Obama line: “countries in economic decline have never, in history, maintained military superiority”. From a political standpoint, his blunt declaration that he will kill Osama Bin Laden and “crush” al-Qaeda was unusually bold for a Democrat.

McCain didn’t stumble, either, and he wisely allowed his sense of humor to shine through. On matters of substance, he really tried to position himself again as a maverick Republican, repeatedly stressing his deviations from Bush-Cheney policy and reminding voters that he hasn’t always been very “popular”. However, McCain failed to win this debate decisively, which is what he had to do in order to change the momentum of the race.

Also, I don’t think the townhall format did the aging Senator much of a service. When approaching voters, he appeared hunched-over and doddering, in sharp contrast to the tall and graceful-seeming Obama. His poor posture, pale skin, thinning white hair, and reedy speaking voice are all drawbacks, particularly on a subconscious level. The last two septuagenarian presidential candidates, Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan, were robust and youthful-looking for their age. McCain isn’t.

In any event, let me re-state my caveat; I didn’t watch the entire debate, so I could have missed something quite relevant. However, my gut reaction is that this debate won’t change the election dynamic. Good news for Obama.

UPDATE: Having watched more video clips and read more analysis of the debate, I believe the exchange between Obama and McCain over Iran and Pakistan was very deftly handled by Obama. McCain, known as a hawk, oddly criticized Obama for his mildly bellicose comments regarding Pakistan. He cited his political hero, Theodore Roosevelt, and admonished Obama for not “speaking softly and carrying a big stick”. Obama instantly turned these words against McCain, citing the latter’s embarrassing “Bomb bomb bomb Iran” comment as well as serious statements regarding North Korea and Iraq. McCain, sitting on his stool, looked chastened and mustered only an uneasy smile. A good moment for Obama.…