What’s Happening in Sichuan?

Posted on February 11th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

Since Wednesday the China commentariat has buzzed with a juicy bit of news: Wang Lijun, until recently the  Police Chief of Chongqing , appeared to defect at the United States consulate in nearby Chengdu. Later, we learned that Wang in fact did not defect but simply remained at the consulate for awhile before leaving “on his own volition,”. Wang apparently now is in Beijing’s hands; he is apparently receiving “vacation-style medical treatment” for stress.

Defections are rare in China, as the Communist Party imposes tremendous discipline over its members. But what makes Wang’s case even more unusual is the identity of his former boss: Bo Xilai. Largely unknown outside of China-watching circles, Bo is a veritable rising star in Chinese politics and has been widely expected to capture an elite seat on the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, China’s highest governing body.

Wang Lijun’s maneuver has raised a few questions. For one, what does it have to do with Bo? And more importantly, what will it mean for Bo’s future?

Bo Xilai isn’t just another Chinese official. His good looks and charismatic manner has made him popular in a country whose leaders are often faceless apparatchiks, and his crackdown of organized crime in Chongqing earned him plaudits in a society especially wary of lawlessness and disorder. Bo is also among the most prominent “princelings” in the Chinese government, referring to a political faction dominated by children of past leaders. In his capacity as Chongqing party chief, he also began a program to “redden” the city, re-introducing songs and slogans from the early Communist era and suggesting young urban-born Chinese serve in the countryside.

Bo’s vision of China- nationalistic, outwardly socialist, proudly “red”- stands athwart the country’s movement toward even greater economic liberalization. His appointment on the Standing Committee this fall would have vindicated his policies to a certain extent and implied its official approval (or else recognition that his views hold considerable sway in the population). If Bo is not appointed- perhaps due to this business with Wang Lijun- it’d be a repudiation of not only the official himself but also his vision.

At the moment such speculation remains premature. Wang Lijun’s antics over the past few days could have derived from other forms of political pressure. But it’s difficult to imagine this incident not reflecting on his former boss. Alas, we’ll have to wait for the new Chinese government to be introduced this autumn before we understand the real extent of the fall-out.

For additional information and commentary on the incident, please see:

ChinaGeeks for more links and analysis
Danwei on the birth of a new Chinese internet meme: “vacation-style medical treatment”
Danwei on a purported open letter by Wang Lijun
Commentary and a possible explanation by Chongqing-born blogger Xujun Eberlein.…

Why I Hate The Super Bowl

Posted on February 6th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 5 comments

Ah, Super Bowl Sunday. Time for over-eating, binge drinking, commercial watching, and other well-worn American pastimes. There’s a football game too, I guess. Oh, and Madonna.

Don’t get me wrong- I love football. For all of the justifiable criticism the game receives from foreigners (“why so many time stoppages?), American football is in my blood and I love the sport.

But I hate the Super Bowl. Why? These reasons.

  • The Game Is Played at a Neutral Site. One of my favorite aspects of sports is the phenomenon of the fans, rooting in near-unison for the home team, becoming a factor in the action on the field. Players across all sports say that a feverish fan base lifts the intensity of the game and thus propels them to play harder than they might otherwise would. In football, a loud stadium can disrupt the timing of  a play call, induce false starts and offside jumps, and lead to lapses in concentration. There’s nothing quite like it when an exciting moment lifts the spirits of 80,000 people all at once, or when a deafening silence envelopes the stadium as the visiting team scores a decisive touchdown. The Super Bowl, though, is played in a neutral site, usually in a dome, or in a warm-weather city. While partisans of both teams show up, quite a number of fans are there merely for the spectacle and have no emotions invested in the outcome of the game. As a result, the game feels more like an exhibition than anything else. It just isn’t nearly as much fun as the NFC and AFC Championship games that precede it.
  • The Game Is Played Two Weeks After the Previous Game. The NFL has gone backwards and forwards on this issue over the years, occasionally shortening the Super Bowl incubation period to one week. Recently, however, two has been the norm. Rather than build suspense, the delay deflates it. Half of the sport’s fans probably no longer care whether the New England Patriots or the New York Giants win the game- they’re just glad that the game is finally going to be played.
  • The Pre-Game and Halftime Nonsense. After an interminable period before the game of mandatory patriotic symbolism, the Super Bowl extravaganza takes on ridiculous dimensions with the halftime show, which usually consists of a washed-up performer hustled onto a revolving stage with two dozen backup dancers in order to perform three or four old songs to the delight of, oh, 250 million people or so. Football games take long enough as it is, so the forced entertainment just feels like a needless pile-on. That being said, the Super Bowl halftime show did introduce the delicious phrase “wardrobe malfunction” into the lexicon.
  • The Announcers. For whatever reason, Fox has bestowed its highest priority baseball and football games to Joe Buck, an announcer whose principle claim for the honor seems to be that his father was a beloved announcer before him. I personally detest Buck; he calls pivotal events with all the excitement of Ben Stein reading a stack of financial statements, and his insufferable, smug haughtiness makes you think a lot of people stole his lunch money growing up. Does he have something dirty on Rupert Murdoch? It’s only plausible explanation. Fortunately, this year the Super Bowl will be broadcast on NBC, a network that at least has the good sense to appoint the peerless Al Michaels to the task.

Part of the problem with the Super Bowl is its singularity. The baseball, basketball, and hockey championships are all best-of-7 series in which no single game (until the 7th) may necessarily decide the winner. Therefore, these leagues cannot inflate the importance of any single game with the vast quantities of muck thrown on the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, I propose the following changes:

  • Give home-field advantage to the team, in either conference, who finishes with the best regular-season record. Unfair to the 9-7 New York Giants that they have to play on the road against the 13-3 New England Patriots? Well- they shouldn’t have lost to the Redskins twice.  Playing on the road hasn’t stopped them from getting this far, anyway. This way, the fans will get back into the game, adding an intangible element that will make the game a lot more enjoyable. Plus, putting the game in places like Green Bay, Foxboro, MA, or Buffalo would add an intriguing possibility that inclement weather would be a factor.
  • Give the halftime show to someone who has had a hit record sometime in the last five years. This will never happen, because the NFL and NBC both know that nobody over the age of 22 will tune in to watch Justin Bieber or some other top-40 dreamboat sing at halftime. But Madonna? Seriously? She’d have been more suitable for the first Super Bowl that featured the Patriots, played in January 1986.
  • Reduce the gap between games to one week. Why drain the intensity with two weeks of preparation? The Super Bowl isn’t more grueling than any other game. Get it over with in January.

But, in the spirit of things I suppose I might as well make a prediction. 38-14 Patriots, Tom Brady MVP.…

Cyber-Flaneurs Are Alive and Well

Posted on February 5th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

Evgeny Morozov argues that the rise of Facebook and Google has fundamentally changed the way users experience the Internet, for the worse:

THE tempo of today’s Web is different as well. A decade ago, a concept like the “real-time Web,” in which our every tweet and status update is instantaneously indexed, updated and responded to, was unthinkable. Today, it’s Silicon Valley’s favorite buzzword.

That’s no surprise: people like speed and efficiency. But the slowly loading pages of old, accompanied by the funky buzz of the modem, had their own weird poetics, opening new spaces for play and interpretation. Occasionally, this slowness may have even alerted us to the fact that we were sitting in front of a computer. Well, that turtle is no more.

Meanwhile, Google, in its quest to organize all of the world’s information, is making it unnecessary to visit individual Web sites in much the same way that the Sears catalog made it unnecessary to visit physical stores several generations earlier. Google’s latest grand ambition is to answer our questions — about the weather, currency exchange rates, yesterday’s game — all by itself, without having us visit any other sites at all. Just plug in a question to the Google homepage, and your answer comes up at the top of the search results.

Whether such shortcuts harm competition in the search industry (as Google’s competitors allege) is beside the point; anyone who imagines information-seeking in such purely instrumental terms, viewing the Internet as little more than a giant Q & A machine, is unlikely to construct digital spaces hospitable to cyberflânerie.

But if today’s Internet has a Baron Haussmann, it is Facebook. Everything that makes cyberflânerie possible — solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking — is under assault by that company. And it’s not just any company: with 845 million active users worldwide, where Facebook goes, arguably, so goes the Internet.

Morozov’s argument seems to be that as more information becomes routed through Google and Facebook’s servers, we , the users, gain less access to the depth and breadth of the web as a whole. I’m not so sure that this is true.

When I started writing a blog, in the fall of 2004, I relied on far fewer sources of news and commentary than I do today. Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist. MySpace and Friendster did, but neither had a convenient mechanism for sharing links. Wikipedia was around but contained far fewer articles than it does today. Few sources of traditional media had a robust web presence, and the blogosphere contained far more heat than light. Simply put, there was just a lot less stuff out there to engage with, even with the highly fragmented nature of the web, and what did exist was  far less accessible than now.

I think Morozov has conflated industry consolidation with content consolidation. While similar in nature, the two are actually quite different: having fewer funnels through which we obtain information does not mean that the sheer volume of information will necessarily contract. For example, consider the book-buying industry. When I was growing up, people bought books from the two or three big-box retailers or from the numerous small, independent stores in their area. Now, almost everyone I know buys books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or occasionally niche outlets if any are available. Yet while this trend has worried preservationists nostalgic for the old order, the situation for the book-buying public on the aggregate has never been better. Consumers now have access to a wider range of books than ever before, at a fraction of the price (when adjusted for inflation). Amazing

So while I understand Morozov’s nostalgia for the bygone age of cyber-flanuers, the true belle epoque for the curious web surfer is now, even if we are all eunuchs in the court of Google and Facebook.


The Southern Tour and Deng

Posted on February 2nd, by matt_schiavenza in China. 8 comments

Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, an event discussed here by The Atlantic’s Damien Ma, might be the single most important event in recent Chinese history that nobody in the US knows about. For one thing, the idea behind it seems very strange to Westerners. How can a politician’s tour become a matter of such importance? As far as I know, no parallel event in American history has occurred. Could you imagine? Historians look back on Bill Clinton’s tour of McDonalds’ in Little Rock, Arkansas as a formative event in his presidency. Seems like a story out of The Onion, doesn’t it?

Yet the fact that an innocuous-sounding tour could reverberate so greatly is characteristic of Deng Xiaoping’s rule of China, a subject recently treated to a comprehensive examination by the Harvard Sinologist Ezra Vogel. Deng was never the president or prime minister of China, yet he was universally understood to be the country’s supreme ruler between the late-1970s and mid -1990s. A tiny, owlish man from rural Sichuan Province, Deng lacked the overwhelming charisma of his predecessor Mao Zedong, but played an equally consequential role in the history of the People’s Republic. Here are the five greatest legacies of Deng’s rule of China, presented in chronological order:

1. Reform and Opening 

This is the big one. Deng himself did not design the laws that liberalized China’s economy, but rather had the wisdom to implement experiments that were already taking place in the  country. These reforms were by no means inevitable; large elements of the Chinese leadership remained committed to the preservation of the previous order. Deng, with acolytes like Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang, understood that the Communist Party would lose the support of the Chinese population without overhauling the stagnant economy. And overhaul it he did. For the first time in the PRC, farmers were allowed to keep grain surpluses and trade them on a market. He established five Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in the southeast of the country, using them as laboratories of feverish capitalism. He killed the Cultural Revolution once and for all, allowing young Chinese to return to the cities and attend universities.

The results speak for themselves. In just over thirty years, economic reforms have transformed China from a largely rural, agricultural country akin to present-day North Korea to an economic powerhouse second only to the United States in gross domestic product. This change did not happen by itself, but rather was a consequence of conscious decisions made by Deng over the objections of more conservative forces within the Chinese government. Deng was the first leader to define a uniquely Sinic variation of Marxism-Leninism, a model later embraced by neighboring Vietnam and- to a lesser extent- Laos.

2. The Restoration of Ties with the United States and the Soviet Union

United States President Richard Nixon’s famous visit to the People’s Republic in 1972 occurred prior to Deng’s rule, when an enfeebled Mao Zedong and his servile premier Zhou Enlai still governed the country. Yet it was under Deng’s watch that Sino-American relations were finally normalized, with Washington recognizing Beijing- not Taipei- as the legitimate capital of China. Deng also became the first leader of the PRC to visit the United States–infamously donning a ten-gallon hat in Houston–and later successfully lobbied President Ronald Reagan to cease his flirtations with restoring diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

Later in the 1980s, Deng’s discussions with the reformist Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev led to a significant thaw in Sino-Soviet relations after nearly three decades of tension and hostility between the two sides. While Deng would later criticize Gorbachev for catalyzing the dissolution of the USSR, the Chinese premier’s diplomatic skill significantly improved ties with his country’s two greatest potential threats, a situation that has endured to the present day.

3. The Handover of Hong Kong

In most renderings of Chinese history, the British seizure of Hong Kong during the Opium Wars in the 1840s marked the beginning of China’s “century of humiliation”, a period in which the Middle Kingdom saw its sovereignty and territorial integrity whittled away by regular foreign incursions. In the ensuing years, while China underwent enormous internal upheaval, British rule transformed Hong Kong from a sleepy port town into a bustling metropolis and financial center by the 1960s. As such, Deng Xiaoping’s successful negotiations with former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over the fate of Hong Kong held tremendous symbolic significance for China. Hong Kong remained under British administration until 1997–the year of Deng’s death–and still retains its own laws, currency, language, and policy. Nevertheless, it is difficult to understate the importance that regaining Hong Kong represented for China’s national sense of pride and well-being. In a sense, the century of humiliation only truly ended with a stroke of Deng’s pen.

4. Tiananmen Square

Not all of Deng’s legacies are positive.  Student protests in China actually began in earnest in 1986 and continued intermittently over the next three years due in part to a disastrous economic decision by Deng to liberalize prices.  In 1989, as the world media descended on Beijing to cover a historic visit by Mikhail Gorbachev, the student demonstrations intensified, culminating in the imposition of martial law in the city and the massacre of many unarmed victims in the square and adjacent streets on the evening of June 4th. In the weeks leading up to the massacre, the Chinese government was divided between reformers who favored compromise with the students and hardliners who advocated a crackdown. Ultimately, Deng sided with the latter.

The crackdown damaged China’s international reputation, cost them a shot at hosting the 2000 Summer Olympics (a goal they later realized in 2008), and permanently scarred Deng’s record. Nevertheless, the incident ensured that whatever changes occurring within China would occur under the undisputed direction and guidance of the Chinese Communist Party. To this day, media criticism of the massacre remains prohibited in China, and in spite of occasional incidents (such as the recent flare-up in Wukan, Guangdong) the Party has not had to deal with a comparable challenge to its authority since.

5. The Southern Tour

Finally, we’re back to the Southern Tour. Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Chinese leadership waged an internal debate over the merits of economic reform, with some hardliners advocating a restoration of statist policies. Sensing his influence slipping, Deng embarked on his tour to show public support for the SEZ, implicitly signaling that the reform era was here to stay. Twenty years later, it’s clear that Deng’s vision has prevailed. Returning to a more doctrinaire version of communism is as unthinkable in China as it would be anywhere else in the world.

How do we assess the overall legacy of Deng’s rule? Through the prism of human rights, one could argue that Deng was a hero for helping lift so many Chinese out of poverty. On the other hand, his approval of a military massacre of unarmed civilians is objectionable by any reasonable standard. Due to reforms launched in Deng’s era, Chinese people may attend university, choose a profession, travel abroad, marry whomever they’d like, buy and sell real estate, open private businesses, and accumulate wealth. These rights, taken for granted by Americans, did not exist in China during Mao Zedong’s era. However, the Chinese remain deprived of the right to vote, to speak, assemble, and practice their religion freely, and to read uncensored news. Was Deng a reformer who simply didn’t live long enough to finish the job? Or was he simply a Party man who adjusted to changing circumstances? The answer, most likely, lies somewhere in between.


Assessing (Again) China’s Relative Power

Posted on February 2nd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Here’s James Fallows, discussing China:

In an article of my own in next month’s issue, and in my forthcoming book, I argue that China has too many things going on, and going wrong, within its own borders to have the time, energy, skill, or ambition for much of an “expansionist” world effort. From the outside, it looks like an unstoppable juggernaut. From inside, especially from the perspective of those trying to run it, it looks like a rambling wreck that narrowly avoids one disaster after another. The thrust of Mearsheimer’s argument is that such internal complications simply don’t matter: the sheer increase in China’s power will bring disruption with it. I am saying: if you knew more about China, you would be less worried, especially about military confrontations. He is saying: “knowing” about China is a distraction. What matters are the implacable forces.

Naturally, I think this view is wrong, or at least too mechanistic; and that while we need to think constantly and seriously about China, a “showdown” would be a result of miscalculation or recklessness on either side, rather than of unstoppable tectonic pressures. On the other hand, I completely endorse Mearsheimer’s (and Kaplan’s) view that we should have been paying more attention to China, and been less bogged down in the Middle East, through the past decade.

Fallows is responding to an argument made by the political scientist John Mearshimer, whose ideas about China were quoted in this Atlantic profile by Robert Kaplan.

In the past, Fallows has argued persuasively that Americans underestimate just how poor of a country China remains. Nobody would deny that China faces massive internal problems, including income inequality, official corruption, and under-development among many others.

Yet these issues do not preclude China from pursuing an activist, aggressive foreign policy. Beijing is fond of saying that its “rise” will be peaceful and that it respects the sovereignty of all other nations. But just think of how China has behaved in the South China Sea in recent years. In addition to trying to bully the Vietnamese and others over the Spratly Islands, there has been the fracas with Japan over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands. One could argue, I suppose, that these moves are defensive in nature and represent China’s legitimate territorial claims, but I don’t think the Vietnamese and Japanese, among others, will accept that at face value.

My guess is that Mearshimer is likely right- China’s growing military and economic strength will ultimately prove to be impossible to ignore, even if (as Fallows believes) internal problems act as a serious restraint on Chinese power. It’s just difficult to believe that a China with a big army, powerful navy, and a lot of central bank reserves will abet continued dominance of its geographic periphery by the United States.

Incidentally, for an encapsulation of why so many people dislike John Mearshimer, read Jeffrey Goldberg. I haven’t read The Israel Lobby and don’t plan to, but Goldberg’s histrionic reaction to everything Mearshimer (and Stephen Walt) publishes is ridiculous and childish.