Blase About Censorship

Posted on July 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 4 comments

The Great Firewall of China has switched into high gear. First, Twitter went dark, undoubtedly a consequence of the recently tweeted demonstrations in Iran and Beijing’s subsequent fears that they could be replicated in Urumqi. Then, Twitter’s social networking cousin Facebook got the axe. What are we to do?

In the past I’d have likely written an angry cri de coeur outlining my objections to China’s persistent internet censorship. These objections largely have not changed. What censorship of this sort represents is a government in fear of its own people. As long as the population is reminded of its own powerlessness to exact change, it will carry on the nation’s business of getting rich. And so it goes.

What has changed is my own reaction. I have a virtual private network, a Firefox plug-in, and the URLs for several web-based proxy services that all overcome the firewall. Using the internet as normal would not have presented much of a problem at all for me.

Yet I find myself too lazy to do so. I still get on Facebook sometiimes, but find that I don’t miss it. Ditto Twitter. When blogs I read became firewalled, I cease reading them without much consternation.

Bear in mind that I’m a heavy internet user who regularly- or obsessively, depending on one’s point of view- used Facebook and Twitter. Having restricted access hasn’t really bothered me much. I’ve just gotten over it.

Which is why, ultimately, the firewall in a country like China works so well. I used to think that once the Chinese had easy access to virtual private networks, they’d render the firewall moot. Now I’m not certain anyone cares enough to bother. When sites get blocked, the Chinese population seems to shrug its shoulders in unison and moves along.…

The Folly of the Axis of Evil

Posted on July 17th, by matt_schiavenza in History, World Affairs. No Comments

In reading this wonderfully erudite and interesting essay about Iran by the British writer Martin Amis, this passage jumped out:

In 1997, the regime felt confident enough to sanction the surprise victory of President Muhammad Khatami, who won by the same landslide margin of 69% in a joyous election that no one disputed. Khatami, a cleric, had nonetheless far stronger liberal credentials than the technocrat Mousavi (who, during the Iran-Iraq war, was well to the right of Khamenei). Lovingly hailed as “Ayatollah Gorbachev”, Khatami was soon talking about the “thoughtful dialogue” he hoped to open with America. It seemed possible that international isolation, which so parches and de-oxygenates the Iranian air, was about to be eased.

Everyone understood that this process would take time. In June 2001, Khatami was re-elected with a majority of 78%. Seven months later came George W Bush’s “axis of evil” speech (one of the most destructive in American history), and the Tehran Spring was at an end.

Ah, the “Axis of Evil” speech. I remember watching it, live, from a television set in Italy, and realizing with a sudden jolt that Bush didn’t know what he was talking about.

Quite a few people might say, “Duh, Bush was clearly an idiot from the moment he took office,” which is undeniably true. Yet after the national trauma of September 11th, I allowed myself to believe that Bush would rise to the moment, unite the country, and help us defeat this frightening new adversary. I wasn’t alone- Bush’s approval ratings in late 2001 approached 90 percent.

Other people turned on Bush after the invasion of Iraq, or when the occupation of Iraq began to go badly. Some didn’t turn on him until his second term, when his breathtaking incompetence shone forth in high-definition relief. But me, the “Axis of Evil” speech was my “wait a sec” moment.

Think of the repercussions. First, the speech led to the subsequent sorry prelude to the Iraq War,  launched 14 months later. Secondly, labeling North Korea in the group managed to effortlessly roll back diplomatic progress with the hermit kingdom. And of course, as Amis mentions, the damage done to Western rapproachement with Iran was incalcuable.

Not only did the “evil” remark deflate the reformist movement’s momentum, it also slammed the door shut on possible Iranian cooperation in the war against al-Qaeda, the group we ostensibly wanted to eradicate. In the weeks after 9/11, Iran quietly approached the US with help against their common enemy. The US said thanks, but no thanks, preferring to keep all of our enemies lumped together in the same bunch.

In the halcyon days after 9/11, Bush’s ardent supporters publicly thanked God that he was president. His shellshocked opposition didn’t disagree. With historical hindsight,  we can conclude that having such a buffoonish idiot in office during a national crisis amounted to extraordinarily bad luck on our part.…

China Underground- Everyone’s Wasted!

Posted on July 11th, by matt_schiavenza in Books. 6 comments
Chinas Tawdry Underbelly

China's Tawdry Underbelly

No country in the world conjures up the image of ‘the masses’ quite like China. News stories about China invariably contain stock footage of thousands of black-haired men and women walking on crowded city streets, as if the population were a billion-strong army marching lockstep under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party.

Foreigner conversation overheard in China reinforces this monolithic stereotype. People are fond of referring to the Chinese when making sweeping characterizations. These include gems like ‘The Chinese don’t listen’ and ‘The Chinese don’t build things right’. Some of these characterizations are positive, but for the most part the Chinese exist as a large, homogeneous bloc in the eyes of most outsiders.

Zachary Mexico’s book, China Underground, attempts to undermine these stereotypes by portraying fifteen-odd Chinese individuals whose lives defy convention in one way or another. These individuals include the muckraking journalist, the Uighur guitar god, the slacker in Dali, the precocious young prostitute, and several others- each in one way or another exemplifying the complexities of modern Chinese life.

These vignettes, when considered together, paint an interesting picture of the Chinese underbelly. One of Mexico’s strengths is his ability to elicit candid assessments from his subjects, several of whom are initially reluctant to meet with a foreign writer.

Mexico’s writing style won’t win any awards, but his prose reads smoothly, if the speed in which I finished the book is any indication. He could have used a better editor, though. Mexico’s assertion that the China-Vietnam skirmish in 1979 resulted from the Sino-Soviet split- an event that occurred 19 years earlier- goes against much of the scholarship I’ve read on the subject.

In addition, Mexico explains who the Uighur people are- several dozen pages after devoting an entire chapter to a Uighur guitarist living in Shanghai. These chapters were clearly written separately and then welded together at the end. I would have appreciated a more seamless transition between them.

China Underground also seems to focus on the type of Chinese people Western people like to imagine comprise the whole country. A clear example of this phenomenon is the overachieving student at Qinghua University. The student, whom Mexico describes as a meek girl, speaks at length over how much superior American tertiary education is to its Chinese counterpart

His other subjects likewise seem designed to elicit great sympathy from a Western audience. There’s the journalist who agitates against state control of the media, the gay man stymied by China’s conservative sexual mores, the restless minority angered by the government’s treatment of his people.

I’ve no doubt that these people exist; however, they seem to reinforce rather than challenge Western stereotypes about China, as if to say that the only ‘underground’ that exists in the country is pro-Western, anti Party.

If anything, there are a number of so-called ‘underground’ people who would also have made interesting subject matter in Mexico’s book. How about the large numbers of fenqing, the ultra-nationalistic young Chinese who dominate political chat rooms? Their place in Chinese culture may not warm the hearts of idealistic Western observers, but they represent a fairly significant chunk of the population. There are other figures, too, including the increasingly vocal left in China that has sounded calls for a return to a more socialistic value system.

Instead, Mexico prefers to focus on the more tawdry side of Chinese life; a great deal of his subjects seem to be carousing, drug-addicted bohemians. These tales are entertaining enough but ultimately say little more than that the Chinese like to party, too. No one who has set foot in this country for longer than a few months would find these examples the slightest bit noteworthy.

Ultimately, though, China Underground succeeds in entertainment, the sine qua non of successful literature. Readers should keep in mind that his description of underground life in China reflect the author’s biases far more than an accurate representation of the actual situation.…

Xinjiang and Twitter

Posted on July 7th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Current Events, Me. 6 comments

I’ve long been skeptical about the role of Twitter in fomenting political change. Skeptical until this Xinjiang uprising, that is.

Before the Chinese government blocked the service midday Monday, I read two eyewitness reports, saw several photographs, and read several articles about what had happened. Keep in mind that I follow only about 100 people. The amount of information that I received gave me a more comprehensive picture of what is happening in Xinjiang than any one newspaper article possibly could.

Will anything change in Xinjiang? My guess is no. The Chinese government is masterful in blaming all minority uprising on evil elements from abroad, maintaining with cynical consistency that the vast majority of Uighurs are truly happy with Chinese dominance and only a few ‘rotten apples’ ruin it for everyone else.

Yet access to so much information, at the very least, improves everyone’s bullshit detector. …

The Incredible Shrinking Opposition

Posted on July 6th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. No Comments

One by one, President Obama’s potential Republican rivals are being dispatched like video game villains.

To wit:

Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, delivered such a feeble rebuttal to Obama’s quasi-State of the Union speech that he has since shrunk back into anonymity.

Mark Sanford, governor of South Carolina, hiked the Appalachian Trail

Jon Huntsman, governor of Utah, was dispatched by Obama to Beijing

And now Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, resigned her position and gave a weird, rambling speech that seemed to indicate we won’t have Sarah Barracuda to kick around anymore.

Added to Newt Gingrich, whose aesthetic appeal is only slightly greater than the amphibian he’s named after, and Jeb Bush, whose last name is unfortunate, and the list of plausible Republican leaders seems small indeed.

Sure, it’s early. There are also others I haven’t mentioned: Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and of course former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. These three have certain things going for them.

But there’s nobody with even the remote stature of Obama. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Al Gore. The Democratic ‘bench’ is just much deeper nowadays, which provides no small succor to a Dem like myself who only recently had to endure Rovian delusions of ‘generational dominance’.…

Soft Power Still Counts

Posted on July 3rd, by matt_schiavenza in World Affairs. 2 comments

Near the end of an interesting article about Russia’s unpopularity among its neighboring countries, Ellen Barry explains the nub of the problem:

Herein lies the problem: Russia’s appeal to them just does not sound very seductive. Ideally, it would present an attractive model for its neighbors, politically and economically. Young generations would learn Russian because they wanted to, and the post-Soviet alliances would be clubs its neighbors are lining up to join.

In political science parlance, this is called ‘soft power’, and is a power well-worth remembering by present and future great powers.

Consider the question of Iran. American neo-conservatives have predictably bleated on about how the US and Obama, needed to ‘do’ something to assist the demonstrators.

What they fail to realize, time and again, is that any American military action against Iran would unite the country against us and dampen any possible spirit of political pluralism in the country.

Iranians are often cited as having the most pro-American population in the Middle East. If this is true, then our popularity assuredly stems not from our belligerence but rather the relative openness of our political system and our cultural vibrance.

Fortunately, Obama seems to understand this- hence his caution during recent events. Being a bully- as Russia is finding out- doesn’t pay off.…