China and its Discontents

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Air-Sea Battle: A Dangerous, Unaffordable Threat

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Below is a cross-post of an essay I published in The Diplomat.

It is an obvious statement that war between the U.S. and China would be catastrophic, wasteful, and a colossal failure of both countries’ grand strategies. The consequences would be difficult to quantify — massive repercussions to the global economy, loss of life, and possible escalation to nuclear war. Neither the U.S. nor China could possibly “win” from such a war, at least using any rational definition of victory.

How then has this reality affected debates over Air-Sea Battle (ASB)? Proponents of ASB are careful to note that war with China is unlikely and unwanted, and that ASB exists to deter war with China. But these studied responses paper over some logical problems with the battle concept.

One major assumption proponents make is that ASB is the only deterrent that will prevent a revisionist China from attacking first. Under this calculus, perceived intentions are often ignored. As the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ Andrew Krepinevich writes in one of the first public reports on ASB: “While both countries profess benign intentions, it is an old military maxim that since intentions can change overnight—especially in authoritarian regimes—one must focus on the military capabilities of other states.”

But one doesn’t have to rely on Chinese intentions to assess how competing strategies would alter its strategic calculus. For China, a more limited U.S. strategy such as a Sea Denial campaign or T.X. Hammes’ Offshore Control would make war a failure before it began:

  1. A U.S. blockade and other war-induced economic crises at home would severely reduce the Chinese industrial capacity and mobilization, and force China to back down before it started to affect the popular legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Interdicting shipping along the Malacca and Sunda Straits, and in the Indian Ocean, would cut off about 80 percent of China’s oil imports, or about 45 percent of total supply. Remaining overland pipelines could also be targeted. This would leave the PLA with limited domestic production, 90 days worth of oil in their Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and severe rationing among the Chinese population. The PLA would be able to survive with that level of supply, but Chinese industry would grind to a halt.
  2. In wartime China would be surrounded by U.S. allies (Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and Taiwan) and states hostile to Chinese ambitions (Vietnam, India). If China attacked first, China would lose any propaganda/psychological campaign targeting international public opinion.
  3. A2/AD is a strategy aimed at degrading an opposing force as it reaches closer to the Chinese mainland—not projecting power. If it started a war it would not have the capabilities to finish it and break out of a crippling blockade.

These factors all suggest that a more limited military strategy towards China would be sufficient. More limited military strategies look especially desirable when one considers the high-risks of ASB. ASB, and particularly its long-range strikes deep within the Chinese mainland, are highly escalatory and offer no good way to end a limited war. In all likelihood, an emphasis on long-range strike platforms would result in a long-term arms race that would culminate in warfare with more expansive aims far out of proportion to those desired. The U.S. should not under any circumstances directly contest the CCP’s control of the Chinese state, the PLA, or its nuclear forces (i.e. the command and control structure) with long-range strike platforms. This would “back them into a corner” and spin the conflict off into an extremely dangerous, unpredictable direction.

These platforms­ — especially Prompt Global Strike, the Long-Range Strike Bomber and other classified programs — are wasteful in a time of steep defense cuts. In planning for the China scenario, the U.S. should be focusing on acquiring weapon systems that have low-visibility, low-escalation potential, high-survivability, and high-deterrence value, which would allow the U.S. military to conduct a blockade (lower-end surface combatants sitting outside of China’s reach) and deny the PLA Navy the ability to sail in their neighborhood (Virginia-class submarines).

The impulse to plan for and win a decisive, high-technology war against China represents a basic bias within the US military: as former PACOM commander ADM Timothy Keating remarked, in reference to China, “[PACOM] must retain the ability to dominate in any scenario, in all environments, without exception.” This is understandable because it is the job of the military to decisively win wars. But this also often leads to a confusion of ends and means, and a focus on military victory to the detriment of achieving political aims. This is why it is the job of Congress and the White House — the elected political leaders — to set political constraints on the use of military force. As Amitai Etzioni points out in a recent article in the Yale Journal of International Affairs, neither the White House nor Congress has done due diligence in reviewing ASB or opened up the necessary public debate regarding actual strategies toward China.

But the U.S. military has another, less recognized bias, and it’s the same one that has infected much of political science as an academic discipline over the past couple of decades. Just as many political scientists have embraced scientism, favoring quantitative approaches, statistics, and models over the study of ideas, people and cultures, many strategists have embraced a kind of fatalistic, geopolitical game theory. This approach treats military capabilities as the only relevant facts, as if you could plug every opposing weapons system into a computer and derive the perfect strategy. This is a form of hubris that B.H. Liddell Hart rightly criticized when noting how the psychological influences on warfare show that mathematical approaches to strategy are “a fallacy” and “shallow.”

To be fair, ASB is not mainly being driven by such a highly quantitative approach; rather, ASB has its roots in Net Assessment, which attempts to be a more holistic discipline. As Paul Bracken puts it, Net Assessment tries to “model simple and think complex,” thinking about the balance between two countries not only in terms of capabilities, but also doctrine, psychology, and the like. It is neither an art nor a science, but perhaps a mix of both.

But strategists could push the bounds of their imagination further. George Kennan, for example, strongly believed that the best foundation of strategy and diplomacy was not social science but history, art, and literature. This led him to be more humble about the limits of what strategy can accomplish. As John Lewis Gaddis quotes George Kennan: “Strategy [is] ‘outstandingly a question of form and of style.’ Because ‘few of us can see very far into the future,’ all would be safer ‘if we take principles of conduct which we know we can live with, and at least stick to those,’ rather than ‘try to chart our vast schemes.’”

This is exactly how we ought to be thinking about the prospect of a Sino-U.S. conflict. This is especially true because, as Avery Goldstein argues in recent articles in International Security and Foreign Affairs, the most pressing Sino-U.S. strategic problem is not the threat of war decades away, but the current danger of crisis instability creating a conflict spiral.

Having fought two wars in the last decade that diminished its national power, and now facing sharply contracting defense budgets for the foreseeable future, the US cannot blindly step into another major conflict. It needs to adopt a conservative strategy, that keeps its means within its limited ends, and thinks about “principles of conduct,” not “vast schemes,” by which a war with China can be avoided.

Ideological Contradictions on Tiananmen Square

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"Hold high the great flag of socialism with Chinese characteristics, under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping theory, the important thought of 'Three Represents,' and the Scientific Outlook on Development, and firmly and steadfastly advance on the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics, so as to build an all-around moderately-prosperous society and continue the struggle."

“Hold high the great flag of socialism with Chinese characteristics, under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping theory, the important thought of ‘Three Represents,’ and the Scientific Outlook on Development, and firmly and steadfastly advance on the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics, so as to build an all-around moderately-prosperous society and continue the struggle.”

When Western political commentators speculate on whether Xi Jinping could implement political reform, they are really asking whether or not Xi Jinping can successfully deal with Mao’s legacy and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy in the context of a modern, state-capitalist country. This is tricky because Mao’s legacy and the CCP’s legitimacy are inextricably linked—pull on one thread of the “Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong” formula and the entire apparatus could come crashing down.

The slogan shown, displayed on Tiananmen Square last November after the CCP’s 18th Party Congress (from a picture I took at the time), takes pains to include the ideas of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, but makes no mention of what is supposedly the foundation of the CCP: Maoism, Marxism, and Leninism. Marxism and Leninism have always been in the Party Constitution; Maoism was added in 1945, and taken out only briefly after Stalin’s death when some CCP leaders were afraid of replicating Stalin’s personality cult around Mao. Maoism was added back in after those leaders were purged. But now the CCP can’t be bothered to include these three in a propaganda outlet in one of the most visible spots in the country, right in front of Mao’s Mausoleum.

The sign is symbolic of an unsolvable paradox—the CCP is undermined by an ideological platform completely contradicted by its current economic and social systems, but it cannot change its ideology without the party losing its monopoly on power and the cadres losing their wealth and influence. That’s why it’s unlikely the CCP will reform politically until it is inevitably forced to change.

David Brooks’ Specious and Trite Op/Ed on Chinese Education

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David Brooks wrote an embarrassingly clueless New York Times op/ed a couple days ago comparing Chinese and American learning styles, making conclusions that wouldn’t line up if you had even spent a minimal amount of time in the Chinese educational system. Brooks seems to think that the Chinese educational system exists as some sort of Confucian utopia:

“Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.”

But in reality this doesn’t reflect modern Chinese education at all. Education in China today is more free than it used to be but it is still heavily influenced by Mao: education’s purpose is largely defined as fulfilling a set of political goals, not cultivating virtuous individuals. Kids grow up with explicit “values lessons” in elementary school, but instead of cultivating a love of learning and a sense of citizenship, they learn obedience to authority and rote memorization. Then when they get to high school and college they transition to political education emphasizing traditional Marxism-Leninism. I suppose this is one kind of moral outlook, but normatively it certainly isn’t one that I would establish in schools.

The structure of the system itself squelches creativity and independent moral thought: the gaokao (the national standardized college admissions test) is morality-free, largely cognitive/instrumental, and serves as the main admissions standard, thus eliminating more whimsical criteria like admissions essays. Once students get into college, they must choose a major (often in a technical field that they are not interested in) and are never allowed to switch majors. Furthermore, they face academic dishonesty at all levels: among students and among faculty (hardly encouraging of independent thought!). Finally, no actual Chinese student would define their learning goals the way Brooks does. Brooks likes to think Chinese students emulate the Confucian ideal:

The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.

But in fact almost every Chinese student will tell you they work hard in order to a) Satisfy parental expectations, and b) If they’re a male, find a good job so they can buy an apartment and a car, get married, and support a family, or if they’re a female, attract a husband who will support them. This is but one more example of what Wang Hui calls “the de-politicization of politics”: “commercial logic is replacing political reasoning, a developmentalist discourse is replacing political participation, and a restructuring of interest relations of capital is replacing a debate on political values.” Framing education first as a method to drill in obedience and second as a way to create happy capitalist pawns strengthens the power of the CCP twice over.

A friend of mine describes what is most disappointing about this op/ed, however: “In the usual tunnel-vision view of the West as Wall Street and Hollywood, the whole tradition of moral learning going back to Aristotle and Aquinas is overlooked.” One would think that, even though David Brooks is no China expert, he might have a pretty good understanding of pedagogy and the philosophy of education in the West. The inculcation of virtue has been one of the principle pedagogical aims of education in the West all the way up until being deemphasized in the second half of the 20th century. In my view, while Confucianism has historically emphasized virtue, the virtues taught in the West have generally been normatively superior (this is especially true of the concepts of citizenship taught in Western public school systems–systems that are under attack in the U.S. by low funding and voucherization). I agree with Brooks that a moral impulse in education is good and that we should re-imagine what it means to teach citizenship today, and even that Confucianism might have something valuable to teach us in this regard. But he is completely wrong in looking to modern China for inspiration.

“Black Jails” a Stain on China’s Legitimacy

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Earlier last week, major news outlets in China reported that a Beijing court had, for the first time, sentenced 10 Henan provincial authorities to jail for illegally detaining petitioners who had come to Beijing to air their grievances. Many China watchers, including myself, were surprised and happy to see China move in the right direction of strengthening the rule of law and depoliticizing the judicial system. The next day, however, the news was retracted; apparently no court in Beijing had made any such ruling.

The end result was quite a disappointment, especially because this brief moment of false hope is but one in a long string of depressing incidents. The illegal detention of petitioners in ‘black jails’ has long been an acute problem in the nation’s capital. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, millions of people utilize the petition system in China, often because of land disputes in which local officials illegally confiscate land and then sell it to developers for a kickback. Petitioners also seek redress of grievances against a number of other issues, including environmental damage, police abuse, and even rape. Petitioners begin with the local petition office, and if that is unsuccessful, they gradually make their way up to the provincial and national level offices. It is unknown how many people make the journey to the State Bureau for Letters and Visits every year, but it is probably in the realm of 100,000 people. Once there, many of the petitioners are ‘grabbed’ by provincial authorities and imprisoned in ‘black jails,’ before being sent back to their hometowns. The Chinese government officially denies the existence of black jails.

The problem for the CCP leadership is that much of their legitimacy in the future will rest on the government’s responsiveness to the concerns of the average citizen. But provincial authorities and the judicial system have time and again failed to live up to any minimal standard of justice. It is widely understood in China that the government and the courts serve to uphold the interests of the rich and powerful. In the past few months (and as I suspect into the next few years), “rule of law” and reforming the judiciary have been buzzwords not just among Western China experts but among the Chinese elite themselves. But this case only serves to illustrate the vacuity of official promises to reform.

I hope that I am wrong. I hope Xi Jinping and the Politburo Standing Committee make concerted efforts to crack down on the egregious abuses of power among provincial and local officials, and to provide real justice for those (mainly indigent) citizens who spend a small fortune to come to Beijing to plead their cases, only to be imprisoned and turned back. But in a system in which every instrument of power, from the military, to the state, the media, and the courts, are designed to serve the political interests of the party, how could it be otherwise?

Written by Will

December 10th, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Review of “A Contest for Supremacy” by Aaron Friedberg

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Want to read the ultimate hawkish view of the US-China relationship? Read Aaron Friedberg’s recent book, “A Contest for Supremacy.” Throughout the book Friedberg emphasizes that the US-China relationship is inevitably heading down a dark road, that China is forsworn to become a hegemon and direct competitor, and that US policy is currently overweighted on the side of diplomatic engagement rather than military balancing. For a man who wants more balancing, his book is seriously unbalanced. What follows is not so much a review, but a list of grievances, in no particular order. Here’s what’s wrong with the book:

  1. Underrates internal threats to China’s rise. Friedberg mentions them briefly (demographic problems, impending environmental catastrophe, failing economic models), but doesn’t let them get in the way of predicting a Chinese juggernaut. Friedberg also sketches some possible Chinese futures, concluding that a truculent, hyper-nationalist China is more likely than either the status quo or democratic regime change. Granted, I agree with him that a hyper-nationalist China is more likely than a peaceful democratic China, but a more likely scenario than either is a future where China’s internal problems derail any of the global ambitions he ascribes to it.
  2. Mistakenly casts Chinese foreign policy thinking as more or less monolithic. Yes, no Chinese political leader currently or will likely in the future call for the demonopolization of the CCP’s power. But beyond that, there is serious political disagreement within the CCP. Economic and political reform are not settled within the party. Neither is foreign policy. The very lack of any coherent grand strategy (which Friedberg mentions) should tell him this.
  3. Underrates human leadership as making a difference in the US-China relationship. Is foreign policy merely the product of impersonal, historical forces, or can individuals play a role in shaping history? Friedberg seems to believe almost entirely in the former. I think this does not accurately reflect reality. Automatons don’t make foreign policy, human beings do.
  4. Unnecessarily combative and essentially labels everyone else defeatist appeasers. Seriously, he labels everyone who disagrees with him with these sorts of names. It’s unnecessary, especially because it’s not true. Probably no one he attacks would argue that the US shouldn’t maintain its qualitative military edge; the debate is in how to do this. He derides the idea that Sino-US cooperation can be borne on the back of issues like climate change, trade, etc. Why not? These are legitimately problematic issues, and we need China’s help to solve them, or else we are screwed. He doesn’t even mention climate change in his last chapter.
  5. Makes assertions about hypotheticals that are ungrounded from reality. Friedberg does this all over the book. The basic model is: what if China becomes a global superpower, projecting force all over the world to secure its interests, while the US de-arms, weakens, and appeases China according to our worst neoconservative fears? These are not credible hypotheticals, and they lead to baseless fear-mongering.
  6. And finally and most importantly, he underrates the effectiveness of current US policy. Throughout this entire book, Friedberg ascribes no less than the future collapse of all US interests related to China and the Asia Pacific to the Democrats and the current administration’s policies. But Democrats are not the feckless appeasers Friedberg is crudely making them out to be. Of course, just shortly after this book’s publication, the Obama administration announced the pivot/rebalance to Asia. But many of the policy proposals Friedberg advances, including the development of Prompt Global Strike and the Next-Generation Stealth Bomber, have been in the pipeline for a long time. And to be quite honest, the rebalance is not so much a quantitative shift as it is a qualitative shift; the difference is a matter of emphasis, not really a matter of resources. With or without the rebalance, US policy towards China continues a long tradition that has not been upset since the Tiananmen Massacre. It’s worked surprisingly well, and is a sound strategy going into the future.

Friedberg miscalculates both American and Chinese strategy. Engagement and balancing are not goals in of themselves; they are means to an end. That end is a peaceful, strong and rising China that is integrated into the international system. He pays lip service to this, but advocates absolutely zero proposals to make China as it is today more integrated. Everything he proposes is designed to deter the Chinese from overturning America as the global superpower. But this is also a miscalculation of Chinese strategy. China doesn’t want conflict with the US. It’s not building a military that can project force globally. It is developing relatively limited capabilities that would defeat adversaries in a Taiwan conflict and deter an American attack against the mainland. Is this going to change in the future? Very unlikely. China’s integration into the world economy, and its dependence on the US Navy to secure trade and energy shipments, make the calculus fall far in favor of peace and development. Conflict on any mass scale would cause chaos and misery for the Chinese people (think about how current CCP leaders shudder when they hear the words, “Cultural Revolution”). The CCP could very well lose power because of it. And for any foreseeable timeline into the future, the PLA would lose any conflict with the US military. Hands down.

Official Reaction to Wen Jiabao Scandal and Ningbo PX Protests Illuminating

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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.

The CCP Leadership in Three Sentences

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The Financial Times recently published a brief profile of Liu Yandong, the Politburo’s only female member and unlikely contender for the Politburo Standing Committee. I applaud Leslie Hook at FT for writing an article that not only sheds light on Ms. Liu but also the CCP promotion system. Although her appointment is unlikely (especially given that the PSC will probably shrink to seven members), the following observations apply to the entire CCP:

In the same way that premier Wen Jiabao – known as “Grandpa Wen” – is the comforting public face of the Communist party when natural disasters strike, her carefully managed public appearances reveal a knack for appealing to the masses.

And then further down the page:

The Communist party rewards officials who keep a low profile and take few risks, an art that Ms Liu has mastered. So, it is almost impossible to deduce what policies she – or any of the other potential new standing committee members – advocate.

CCP leaders and the entire CCP promotion system value empathy as artifice, an opaque decision-making process, and a complete lack of imagination, creativity, or risk-taking. I can’t imagine attributes less suitable to tackle China’s problems. The economy isn’t just slowing down–it is also in need of a complete overhaul if it is to successfully transition to the innovative, developed economy that the CCP wants to achieve. But leaders with personal qualities such as these don’t reshape an entire system–they tinker along the edges while everything crashes down upon them. That’s a danger to China, and the world.

EDIT: Lesson learned, I should have waited a bit before publishing, because otherwise I would have included this incredible article by Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times making a very similar argument. I particularly loved (or was despondent over) this quote:

And Liao Jinzhong, an economist at Hunan University, worries that much of the spending is misplaced. “What we really could use is a functioning sewage system,” he said, speaking from his sixth-floor apartment in a crumbling faculty building that has no elevator.

Written by Will

September 26th, 2012 at 11:06 pm

What about the Chinese Leadership Scares Me? This.

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Dr Zheng believes that the leaders who promote a nationalist discourse are not driven simply by a cynical search for legitimacy. He argues the top Chinese leadership has internalised nationalist views – and the rather paranoid opinion of foreign powers that goes along with them. In a fascinating passage, he quotes extensively from leaked discussions held among the country’s leaders, in the aftermath of the Nato bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Even in private, none of the leaders accepted America’s explanation that the bombing had been an accident – all saw it as a deliberate challenge to Chinese national honour, and some saw it as a plot to provoke and undermine China.

This from the Financial Times, reviewing Never Forget National Humiliation, by Zheng Wang of the Whitehead School. The existence of the “Century of Humiliation” in the national political discourse is obvious to any observer of China. It is to some extent “true” (however one defines that term–although it of course does not define the modern international system), and it seems a natural reaction by the political elite to the perceived sense that the CCP is losing legitimacy after the evaporation of any cohesive ideology and elimination of the Cult of Mao. What else could credibly replace socialism or rationalize the continuing necessity of CCP rule? It is one tool in the vast array of propaganda and educational materials available to the CCP. I had previously thought, as the article mentions, that of course the CCP elite understands the “Century of Humiliation” merely as a tool to preserve both their institutional political power and personal perquisites.

But if the CCP elite believe it writ large? Then the U.S., and really the world, have some serious problems on their hands. If this is true, there can be no set of arguments in favor of China’s ultimate integration into the current internationalist system that would convince the Chinese. If this is true, what you read in the Global Times and in incendiary PLA publications really do reflect what the Chinese leadership thinks. Of course, there are many examples to the contrary: most famously, Zheng Bijian, and indeed, many official statements coming out of the mouths of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.

I will have to read the book itself to get a more thorough understanding of the argument (and I would like to know how the author got leaked politburo discussions following the Belgrade bombing–maybe the same source as the Tiananmen Papers?). Even taking the point at face value, like any political system, it is impossible to conceive of the CCP in monolithic terms–there are factions of leftist conservatives and liberal reformers, cultural internationalists and nativist reactionaries. But if accurate, this argument might truly represent a profound ideological undercurrent driving US-China conflict, one that, even if not shared by all Chinese leadership, can do significant damage to prospects for peace if propagated through internal CCP training, rectification, “struggle sessions,” and self-criticism.

Last Train Home

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I just watched “Last Train Home,” a movie by Lixin Fan. It was incredible–encapsulating all of the themes of modern China into a simple story about a migrant couple working in Guangzhou and their children back at home in their rural village. This is a story about 留守儿童 (liushou ertong–left behind children) and their parents. First, there are the obvious themes of industrialization, globalization, and the ripping apart of traditional family norms in search of a better life. There’s also an indictment of American consumerism (represented by the ridiculous-looking stacks of jeans the parents and later their daughter make in Guangzhou–the factory manager also makes jokes about size-40 Americans). The movie goes one step further, however, in following through in the implications of a broken family life, which not only results in predictably rebellious and unstudious children, but also in its own form of mindless consumerism and despiritualization.

But what comes most clearly across is a sense of despair at being a cog in a giant machine. The movie’s most gripping scene is a depiction of the family struggling to get on the ‘last train home’ for the Chinese New Year, waiting for nearly a week amidst a crowd of thousands outside the train station. The paramilitary police step in to help the local police in riot control, erecting barricades and managing unrest in the crowd. At one point, a father attempts to climb the barricades, saying that his daughters are lost on the other side, but is stopped by the police. Upon being stopped, he tells the paramilitary policeman, “Today you work behind the fence. Tomorrow, you’ll be standing here in my shoes.”

Is there a better sentence that sums up modern Chinese life? The migrant workers fighting to get home and see their families are stuck in this machine that does little for them; the police officers are stuck in their positions and can likewise do little to affect the situation. One senses that there’s an invisible presence hovering over every scene of the movie–the Communist Party. The CCP isn’t mentioned once throughout the entire movie–not as the grandmother is describing her life during the Cultural Revolution, nor as the workers complain about the trains and their lot in life. This is probably a good thing, because the movie is after all really about the migrant worker family. But the CCP is there, standing behind that invisible fence.

Written by Will

August 18th, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Review of “China in Ten Words,” by Yu Hua

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I just finished reading Yu Hua’s latest novel/memoir, “China in Ten Words.” What a book. It’s one of the best China books I’ve ever read, and it’s banned in China (which is one of the reasons why it’s so good). The book, with all of Yu’s polemics and invective, is an astonishingly effective evisceration of any legitimacy to which the CCP still desperately clings. If I were to make an analogy, Yu Hua’s latest book vs. his previous novels is like Tian Zhuangzhuang’s movie “Blue Kite,” vs. Zhang Yimou’s adaptation of another Yu Hua novel, “To Live.”

The premise of the book is self-explanatory: Yu Hua surveys modern China by looking through the lenses of ten words, from “People” and “Leader” to “Revolution,” “Grassroots,” and “Bamboozle.” But the method by which he does this is creative and emotionally resonant. Each word is mainly a jumping off point for Yu’s childhood memories of the Cultural Revolution. The beginning of the book in Chapter 1 (“People”), with his memories of the Tiananmen Massacre,  are the least distressing, most innocent parts of the book. Surprised? I was too. By the time we get to “Revolution,” present-day forced evictees are throwing Molotov cocktails at the demolition crews and burning themselves to death, and childhood Yu is admiring his older brother for making the teacher cry while other teachers backstab each other and engage in class warfare-style schadenfreude. In “Disparity,” young Yu and his buddies mob and beat a villager to crack down on the illegal sale of food-rationing coupons; the villager had been saving the coupons for his wedding. Yu explains: “We got a kick out of bullying those weaker than ourselves, believing too that we were performing a public service.” (149) Space-Time and the normal associations between youth and innocence have been overturned. Yu’s reminisces bring us into the thick of what seems like some tragic nightmare that belongs to some other reality, that “Romantic and absurd comedy/cruel and all too realistic tragedy.” (116-117)

Yu’s message gradually unfolds as we progress from word to word: that modern China and the CCP are still best explained by the Cultural Revolution; that China is still stuck in a middle-school mentality of bullying, senseless brutality, and anarchy. Furthermore, this backwards political system has birthed a deformed, inane popular culture where “copycats” and “bamboozlers” are celebrated. The implication is that China’s corrupt political system keeps the country stuck in a post-modern moral and spiritual confusion that the West can at least confront with a common moral vocabulary, strong critically-minded education system, and history of democratic governance; the average Chinese citizen has none of these resources.

This message is brightened by a few brief moments of light, mainly the parts where Yu describes how reading and writing lifted his psychology out of the mind-numbing senselessness of the Cultural Revolution. Another anecdote about how the town morgue was his only refuge as a child is oddly calming. But he mainly focuses on just smashing the CCP’s legitimacy to smithereens, especially with this perfect description of modern China:

“What is revolution? The answers I have heard take many forms. Revolution fills life with unknowables, and one’s fate can take an entirely different course overnight; some people soar high in the blink of an eye, and others just as quickly stumble into the deepest pit. In revolution the social ties that bind one person to another are formed and broken unpredictably, and today’s brother-in-arms may become tomorrow’s class enemy.” (137)

If it’s any consolation, Yu ends by saying, “A bamboozler is quite likely to end up bamboozling himself or–in Chinese parlance–to pick up a big stone only to drop it on his own foot.” (221) I think if he were to make it any clearer that he hoped the CCP would bamboozle itself, this book would not only be banned but Yu Hua would find himself “disappeared.”

Written by Will

May 8th, 2012 at 2:08 pm