Americans In China

Posted on June 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

There are hundreds of thousands of expatriates who live in China, but the vast majority are there temporarily. There are businessmen there on assignment, students committed for an academic year, Peace Corps and VSO volunteers, young English teachers, freelancers, and the odd vagabond. If you count only those who live permanently in China, with no immediate plans to move back to their home country, the expat population is far smaller. Outside of the major cities, it is rare to meet expats who have lived in China for more than five years. Even in Beijing and Shanghai, long-term “lifers” are not common.

But they do exist, and in this week’s episode of This American Life, Beijing-based journalist Evan Osnos profiles one of Beijing’s most noteworthy foreign-born residents, Kaiser Kuo. The whole episode is worth a listen.

Along similar lines, Stan Abrams has an excellent post discussing expat assimilation in China. And finally, here was my own less serious attempt to tackle the subject back in 2009.…

Urbanization, Growth, and Hukou Reform

Posted on June 24th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

Photo by Flickr user “diametrik” under a Creative Commons License.

East Asia Forum has a good article outlining why urbanization, in and of itself, won’t be enough to drive consumption growth in China. Here’s the key takeaway:

Upward mobility through migration to the city is largely blocked by the hukou barrier. The notion that urbanisation is the path to prosperity is premised on most migrants’ being able to move up eventually. To follow that path, China will have to start treating rural migrants as equals in the city by granting them urban hukou, so they can enjoy the same rights and opportunities as natives.

Beijing has toyed with hukou reform for years, so a gradual phase-in seems likely. Urbanization, above all else, is the key to the survival of the Communist Party. Migration to cities provides a justification for China’s investment-driven growth model by masking waste and inefficiency. For all of Premier Wen Jiabao’s talk of re-balancing the economy, the investment-driven approach is in place because it suits the Party’s political needs, not the other way around. China will no doubt continue this approach until it stops working, so tackling income inequality through hukou reform is thus a win-win for both the government and the newly urbanized poor.

In the long term, though, urbanization entails a potential threat to Party control. China’s numerous “mass incidents” typically occur away from the spotlight in the country’s countless small towns and villages, and are almost always in response to localized corruption. Urbanization will lead to the gradual consolidation of the Chinese population in increasingly larger towns and cities, leading the population of smart phone wielding, Weibo blogging, university educated Chinese to grow. While much of China’s urban population is satisfied with the status quo, the increased connectivity of the population heightens the risk that a localized incident might spiral out of control. Don’t think the Party leaders haven’t thought about that.


China and Soft Power

Posted on June 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a talk held at Asia Society between Orville Schell, Roderick MacFarquhar, and Ian Johnson on the future of China’s political model. The three men, to put it mildly, possess an enormous reservoir of knowledge of China, and their insights into the country’s politics were very interesting indeed.

One subject that the three brought up was China’s soft power, or to be precise, its relative lack of it. For those who have better things to do than study international relations theory, “soft power” refers to a country’s influence that isn’t diplomatic, economic, or military (“hard power” in other words). For example, the U-571 submarine was once part of Germany’s hard power. The Hollywood film U-571, in contrast, is part of America’s soft power.

China has the world’s second largest economy, strong and growing military clout, and diplomatic influence beyond its own backyard. When asked to cite examples of its soft power, Johnson came up with the many Confucius Institutes scattered throughout the world, while Schell mentioned the large and growing number of people worldwide who study Chinese. I can think of a few others that they didn’t mention. There’s Chinese food, for one. Kung fu. Calligraphy, as studied independently of the language itself. For the philosophical types there’s Taoism and Confucianism.

What’s interesting about these examples, though, is that they’re relics of ancient Chinese civilization. Examples of soft power from contemporary China are less obvious. China doesn’t have a Google, Sony, Daewoo, Maersk, Christie’s, or Tata. Falun Gong, an indigenous Chinese spiritual movement, is strictly forbidden in the country. Many of China’s best writers are exiled, best artists are hounded by the police, and bravest political thinkers are imprisoned. China’s best basketball players are selected due to their height, plucked from school, and groomed in state-run academies.

It’s tempting to dismiss these issues by saying that in a developing country with huge environmental and demographic problems, soft power isn’t important. Nobody cares that Laos, for example, is short on it. But Beijing has clearly made a concerted effort to promote its soft power. Just consider the incident involving English-language broadcaster Yang Rui, which I discussed in an earlier post. CCTV News was designed to be China’s answer to al Jazeera. Instead, it has turned into just another vehicle for state-fed propaganda.

China’s experiment with authoritarian state capitalism has had many successes, to be sure. It is a very good system for driving investment-led growth, for implementing huge infrastructure projects, and for transforming a destitute agricultural society into a manufacturing giant. Where it fails is in nurturing innovation, artistic expression, and world-class brands. In short, the secret to China’s success in accumulating hard power is the very reason why its soft power lags so far behind.




Tiananmen, Then and Now

Posted on June 8th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 5 comments

A few days ago marked the 23rd anniversary of the government massacre of unarmed protesters near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. As in past years, Hong Kong residents gathered in Victoria Park for a candlelight vigil. The United States government urged China to release Tiananmen’s political prisoners. China told the United States to mind its own business. As to the event itself, Beijing remained silent. And with that, everyone moved on.

Although the annual reaction to Tiananmen Square has not changed, the global context surrounding the massacre surely has. On the hot summer night when PLA tanks rolled through Beijing’s streets, the Communist world was on the verge of collapse. Eastern European countries had begun to break away from the Soviet Union, and by the end of the year the Iron Curtain would be gone. The USSR itself was teetering under reforms implemented by then-Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Earlier in the decade both China and Vietnam defiantly broke with Communist orthodoxy by embracing elements of a market economy. These events may not have constituted “The End of History”, as Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay predicted, but most believed that 1989 marked a decisive turn toward the American-led global order.

So while Tiananmen Square represented a jarring setback to this glorious march of history, the event seemed to be death throes of a dying regime. But the Communist Party lived on. In the 1990s, China continued to grow at a breakneck pace, leading analysts to predict that the growing middle class would soon demand more political rights. It didn’t happen. When the Internet reached China that decade, soon spreading throughout the country, analysts predicted that the medium would lead to the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party. That didn’t happen, either. Gordon Chang’s “Coming Collapse of China?” Nope.

This isn’t to say that these factors- a growing middle class, increased Internet penetration, disgust with corruption- won’t ever erode the Party’s grip on power. In fact, I believe they eventually will. But it’s striking to see how the narrative surrounding Tiananmen Square has adjusted to China’s rise.  Check out these comments by Eric X. Li, a prominent Shanghai venture capitalist and a cheerleader of the regime:

That {Tiananmen Square} uprising was decisively put down on June 4, 1989. The Chinese nation paid a heavy price for that violent event, but the alternatives would have been far worse.

The resulting stability ushered in a generation of growth and prosperity that propelled China’s economy to its position as the second largest in the world.

Rather than the massacre symbolizing the last, desperate act of a dying empire, Li gives it credit for China’s continued growth! This opinion, it should be noted, is not universally held. But it is an important barometer for how much of the world now sees Tiananmen Square- as a decisive act by a strong government undeterred by quaint, Western notions of human rights. This viewpoint was unthinkable in 1989.

That year, China was just another destitute Communist country that had just managed to stave off the inevitable collapse of its government. In 2012, this same government represents an alternative model to Western market capitalism and an inspiration to developing countries worldwide. Even those who detest Communism and fear China’s rise admire the country for its perceived willingness to take decisive action in the national interest.

In 2035, 23 years from now, I imagine that people will still gather on June 4th in Hong Kong to remember Tiananmen Square’s victims. But only time will tell through which prism the rest of the world will view the event.