China and its Discontents

Archive for November, 2012

SOEs Must be Reformed, But Whither the Political System?

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The new leadership has just as many ties to state-owned enterprises as the old. The brother of Li Keqiang, who is expected to become the prime minister, is one of four deputy directors of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration. With 98 percent of the Chinese market for cigarettes, the state-owned tobacco administration generates taxes and profits that total 7 to 10 percent of the entire revenue of the central government, according to a report in October from the Brookings Institution in Washington.

This from an article on China’s SOEs by Keith Bradsher in the New York Times. This is an insane method of revenue collection. In contrast, the U.S. federal government relies on tobacco taxes for about 0.2% of its total revenue (of course individual states make much more revenue from tobacco taxes, but it’s generally not more than 4-5%). I think it is inevitable that the new PSC will undertake some form of economic reform, particularly of SOEs, if only because such economic reform has precedent and many influential backers. I don’t see a great chance of real political reform, however. The fact that people like Jiang Zemin and Li Peng still have major influence and are sitting on the dais while Hu Jintao delivers his work report signals to me that no individual, however well intentioned, can have much of a liberalizing influence on the Chinese political system in the near future.

Written by Will

November 10th, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Mao: “cryptic, cavalier, and arguably deranged”

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I’ve been reading a series of articles over the past week for my Post-1949 Modern Chinese History class, written by my professor himself, focusing on Nanjing’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution, including the January 1967 failed power seizure. The details are more complicated and confusing than I could possibly have ever imagined. I am having trouble making sense of the various actors and plot twists, but that is partially the point. Occasionally sections jump out of the page for being unintentionally hilarious:

 When Mao spoke about Nanjing during this period his utterances were cryptic, cavalier, and arguably deranged. In a meeting with military commanders on July 13 he said,

“Don’t fear chaos, the more chaos there is, and the longer it goes on, the better. The more chaos goes on, there always emerges a hall of fame, and things will clear up. No matter how chaotic, don’t be afraid. The more afraid you are, the more demons will appear. But no matter what, don’t open fire, whenever you open fire its no good. It’s not possible to have nationwide chaos. Wherever there’s a pustule, there are germs, so they’ll always pop. The chaos in the streets of Nanjing is really fierce, the more I see the happier I get. The more chaotic it gets the more there is a third faction that opposes civil war, opposes armed conflict, and that’s great! (Zhang Chunqiao interjects: “Some say the third faction will take a third road”). What third road is there! Everyone should unite, criticize, you should guide them!” (Mao Zedong 1967).

I’ve said this many times, but it’s worth saying once again: if this is the kind of material that is available now, think what will happen when the party collapses and the archives are opened up.

Written by Will

November 7th, 2012 at 11:39 pm

The Hope Still Lives and the Dream Shall Never Die

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Below is a speech I gave at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center election party this morning.

Four years ago in the summer of ’08, I was an organizing fellow on the Obama for America campaign in the Manchester, NH field office (organizing fellow being a glorified name for an intern). I wouldn’t even turn 18 until that October, and it was my first campaign. It was an exciting time for a young person to be involved in politics. The most poignant time came that June, when I staffed the first joint campaign event between then candidate Obama and then gracious loser Hillary Clinton, in aptly named Unity, NH. Unity is one of those bucolic and placid rural little towns everyone thinks of when they think of presidential campaigning and New Hampshire. It has about 500 people, and about 3000 showed up for the event. Of course it was all grand political theater, if the name didn’t tip you off. A giant 50 foot American flag framed the two erstwhile competitors as they walked in for the benefit of the tv cameras. David Axelrod was standing on a grassy hill 20 yards away wearing shades, talking on his cell phone and surveying the situation. U2 was blasting on the sound system. Obama and Clinton were wearing the biggest grins of their careers, as if a grueling primary campaign had not just ended.

In that moment, I understood why people persist in working in such a blighted field as politics. The energy of the crowd and the magnetism of the speakers fed into each other in a kind of feedback loop. It was all a bit much for a very young 17-year old who, by the way, had not even started college yet.

About an hour after the event, after Obama and Clinton had left and a sudden rain had driven away the crowds, we were left to clean up. I remember walking up onto the stage, sitting on what seemed like a sacred stool, and looking out over the podium at an impossibly still scene, the same place an hour earlier that was full of such raw emotion. It felt good.

Four years later, the US and the world feel like a very different place. There’s a sense that America is searching for something that it lost, a common purpose, perhaps. Some of us feel that we’ve been collectively scarred and made impotent by the hollowing out of the American economy, ineffectual institutions, and debasing of a sense of community from a different age. But I have a feeling that America has experienced these kinds of problems before, and gotten through them. In fact, we even have a name for this continuous process of lament followed by renewal in American history: the jeremiad, named after the Biblical prophet Jeremiah. After every period of excess, we’ve always returned to the moral center, relying on traditional American values to move forward.

Some people might critique the campaign process as overly emotional. They want to rationally and logically vote for every candidate. But in a very important way, the campaign, as irrational as it is, is necessary. In the parlance of the Obama ’08 campaign, it gets us fired up, ready to go. This sort of emotional appeal represents a form of idealism that lifts us up out of the morass, and gets us working on the substantive stuff. At least in my own life, the naïveté has hopefully diminished somewhat but the optimism has never retreated. And in the words of Ted Kennedy, “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Written by Will

November 6th, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Official Reaction to Wen Jiabao Scandal and Ningbo PX Protests Illuminating


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has hit some serious speed bumps in the run-up to the 18th National Congress and the highly anticipated transfer of power to Xi Jinping and a new Politburo Standing Committee. The New York Times published an investigative article exposing Premier Wen Jiabao’s estimated family fortune of  $2.7 billion, and over the past few days, protests and riots have erupted in the coastal city of Ningbo over a toxic PX (paraxylene) chemical plant.

While both are serious sources of instability, the CCP’s public responses to each have differed in important ways. As for the Wen Jiabao scandal, both the English and Chinese versions of the New York Times website were quickly blocked in Mainland China. All search terms relating to the story, including Wen’s name, have been blocked on popular twitter-like service Sina Weibo and negative references to Wen have remained sanitized from the search engine Baidu. Lawyers supposedly representing the Wen family issued a strong statement condemning the New York Times article and rebutting particular facts, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the article “blackens China’s name and has ulterior motives.”

Meanwhile, the official reaction to the Ningbo PX protests has been quite different. Although Public Security Bureau (PSB) riot control squads were out in force using tear gas and batons against the crowd and making arrests, the city quickly folded Sunday evening, declaring that it would stop the PX plant from being built. Online, first person accounts of police brutality and rumors of a Ningbo University student death were suppressed; Sina Weibo even blocked photo-uploads from local Ningbo IP addresses. But the story was not censored to the same degree as the Wen Jiabao scandal. The Ningbo protests are being talked about and photos do circulate on Sina Weibo and elsewhere. The central and local governments want everyone to know that the issue had been resolved: the official announcement was trumpeted nationwide through the People’s Daily and to foreign audiences through the English-language Global Times.

What accounts for this considerable difference? In one case, the news has been thoroughly cleansed from the Internet as to make it impossible to even hear of the news. In the other case, the most egregious examples of state malfeasance have been removed, but the story itself remains. In the case of the Wen Jiabao scandal, the New York Times reporting strikes directly at the legitimacy and authority of the CCP; it goes to the very top. But cases like the Ningbo PX plant can serve as outlets for popular discontent without directly challenging the authority of the CCP.

As Rebecca MacKinnon argues in her recent book “Consent of the Networked,” netizens in China can bring attention to social injustice and can even have an impact on government policies; but ultimately these cases can serve to bolster state legitimacy when the CCP is seen as resolving the problem. There has been a raft of environmental protests recently that have been resolved in similar ways: the Shifang copper plant protests in July, Dalian PX plant protests in August 2011, and the Xiamen PX plant protests in 2007, among many others. The environment is not the only issue handled with relative kid gloves: the Party also emphasizes efforts to fight corruption in cases where the target of an anti-corruption sting is an expendable cadre; food safety is handled much the same (see the death sentences handed out as a result of the melamine tainted-milk scandal). And of course, nationalist protests are skillfully manipulated to further particular narratives and claims to legitimacy.

Hardly any of the actions of the PSB or the Propaganda Department are completely predictable during times of protest and damaging news, but there is a recognizable pattern. The Wen Jiabao and Ningbo cases are indicative of a larger truth: Chinese real-life activists and ordinary netizens are occasionally able to affect real social change in China, but they do so within the confines of acceptable political dialogue that the CCP has already laid out for them.