SPOT-ON Writers:  Nolan  |  Klosky  |  Holt  |  Schmidt  |  Martinelli
Jackson  |  Spinney  |  Weeks  |  Kaul  |  Rodriguez  |  Allbritton

Trainspotting

Nov
27
2007

Not many people here in Beijing get my “Working Class” T-shirt, but the Chinese who do snigger. It depicts the logo of the country’s rail system, which evokes the nose of a locomotive, and reads “the working class”, who were once exalted the “locomotive of the new era” in Maoist song. Except the logo is upside-down on the tee and the English lettering underneath streams down, like paint too late to dry. The net irony is a harsh cut on old icons, but neatly sums up contemporary realities in Chinese society: The train has been rendered a “backwards” form of travel, while the working class lag at the bottom.

Last week, I ditched Beijing for the provinces with little prescribed purpose other than to re-educate myself about how people in other places live. The only way to ride was by rail. The flight to my destination in the southeast would have taken fewer than three hours and cost about $200 one-way for an economy seat, higher than usual because of the surging costs of oil. The train took 32 hours, but a ticket in the second-class berth, “hard sleeper”, cost around $60. So for a third of the price I traveled thirteen times as slow. But in the process I got a day-and-a-half stay at a hostel on wheels.

China’s long-distance passenger rail network, not unlike the United States’, is huge, old, sluggish, and seedy as a whole, and heavily underinvested and monopolized when compared to road and air transport. The train stations are underclass slums. But unlike in America, there is little doubt that the train’s going to be a mass form of public conveyance for the foreseeable future. Thus there is ample incentive to modernize. Just a few weeks ago, the country made its biggest single order of railcars ever from Bombardier, worth $1.5 billion. Then the state rail ministry announced it was taking its corporate arm IPO in Shanghai. It didn’t say what it wanted out of the initial sale, just what it needed: 12 billion yuan ($1.61 billion), to help pay for all the planned improvements.

But the nation’s rail system faces a problem similar to that confronting Chinese factories, gas pumps and power stations: price. Rail authorities have had a wretched time trying to elevate the service without alienating the masses. Tickets are fixed at unprofitably low levels, an old-school socialist badge of forbearance. Even small hikes can pinch the flow of migrant laborers, and a lawsuit over moderate rises led to a landmark public hearing on the issue five years ago. Bullet trains are overpriced. The industry is chronically corrupt and localized as well. Just to break world speed records, some critics charge, Shanghai built its Maglev line from Pudong International Airport that stops short of the traditional city center. This summer, a respected Beijing-based newspaper dished out the dirt on how substandard coal ash was used to cut costs on a new link between Wuhan and Guangzhou.

The longer I live in China, the harder it is at times to tell what’s exactly changing: the country or me. It had been five or six years since I’d remotely “roughed it” on a train. On one of my maiden journeys, in 1995, I had no seat at all; the whole way home from Inner Mongolia to Beijing, I stood, leaned, squeezed and finally grovelled (in halting Mandarin) for half a cheek of space in “hard seat”, the bowels of the train. By contrast, the only reason for an overnight train trip in February was because I couldn’t get a plane ticket. For that trip, I rode in the exec class, “soft sleeper”, which features four plush bunks, two each side, in locking compartments. On the way back to Beijing, I shared a cabin with three well-dressed reps from a quasi-private firm that audits China’s liquor industry. The designated baijiu expert, a middle-aged man, held forth for a half an hour on the bouquet of one particular national spirit; the beer expert, a woman, detailed improvements in filtering that were supplanting the notorious use of formaldehyde. These are the sort of travelling businesspeople you meet in soft-sleeper – when there are people.

But, the lower-class berths never fail to deliver a crowd. “Hard-sleeper” cars contain open-faced cubicles with bunks stacked three-a-side. After I boarded last week, the ice-breaking conversation with my new “roomies” concerned who had which bunk. The positioning is hierarchical in terms of price and convenience, and easily submits to Marxist reading. It’s one of those cases where the dominant are on the bottom. The disadvantage for the occupant is that he or she is obliged to support the less priviledged during the day, when they need a place to sit.

The topmost victims were a beefy guy from a small Fujian city who took his college-age sister to see the capital for the weekend. The middle bunker opposite me was a young Beijing woman travelling solo like myself. Based on nearness of age and angst over our common lot on the train, the four of us quickly bonded. Below us, we’d acquired two colleagues from a some sort of trading who mumbled among themselves about business, pausing to listen in on our conversation with emotionless stares.

The big talker was the Beijing woman. I didn’t catch her name but did get her year of birth – the Year of the Rabbit. For 32 hours, “Rabbit” filled the quiet left by the rest of us. She told us she was heading to the southeast coast for work, which was uncommon for an educated Beijinger. “I know – it’s usually the opposite,” she said. She was returning to her post of eight months in human resources at a Taiwanese-owned factory making leather bags. The job was banal but the pay was good and the hours short. The real reason she was going back, it later came clear, was love. Rabbit had a boyfriend.

The atmospherics of hard sleeper have not changed much in the past decade. Except what once was considered pure passé now seemed unintended kitsch, as it is when you return to Grandma’s house after a long-time absence. Embroidery embedded in mayonaisse green. Rounded windows with lace curtains, showing silhoutted scenes of bare-bellied goddesses at river’s edge. Aisle carpeting in a jazzy piano theme, all keys and notes. Over the loudspeaker, breathy Chinese pop played longer and louder than I had ever remembered.

Rail officials try to take advantage of the ennui. The same lifeless attendants who refill the thermoses with hot water, clean the trays of peels and shells, and push the boxed lunch carts are also animated hawkers. They peddle a diffierent cheap trinket every few hours: twist toys, glass-and-stone stretch bracelets that “relieve pressure” and “alleviate insomnia”, foot pads infused with gel that “massage as you walk”. The gregarious young female attendant in our car had a sales target of 100 yuan ($13) per ride, with no commissions. Nor she was she a life-time state employee – an increasingly rare breed, even on the trains. She had a three-year contract with a salary of about 1,000 ($130) per month (“It’s ‘take it or leave it’”). Her skin was sallow and clustered with acne by the nose. Soliciting a sale, she fawned on Rabbit’s clear complexion and shiny hair. “Heh,” Rabbit gloated, “I haven’t washed it in two days.” The attendant was embarrassed. “My face used to be like yours…before I joined the railroad.”

Generally speaking, I noted less smoking between cars, more business being conducted over the phone, and fewer parties of beer, cured meats and cards. No longer could I draw a crowd with a few phrases of Chinese. My fellow passengers were not peasants. China now is a nation of working class people more into themselves. But it’s still Kenny G who plays lullabye at night, and Kenny G who cockle-doodle-doos at dawn. His “Songbird” is the ultimate brain-washing song of post-Tiananmen era.

One is left to wonder: has China simply missed its enchanted age of train travel? By the time the boom allowed the first to get rich and travel in the style the jet-setters had left the station. Instead of rail travel, they hopped on planes, leaving the working class to their own devices. Today, China’s rails system is on track to look more like present-day Amtrak but with full trains and packed stations. If only it can build – or rebuild – a nice, fast, sustainable and safe system like Europe’s, it would be a sign that the working class is becoming a real middle class.

Posted by jansfield at 12:45 PM | Permalink

Fly on the Hall

Oct
26
2007

Suppress for a moment your Kremlinological curiosity over the newly designated next-gen leaders of China. Take a little break from the wonkfest of speculation over how the Communists will bid to expand “democracy within the Party” and practice leader Hu Jintao’s newly constitutionalized operating mode of “scientific development”. Difficult, I know.

But rest assured, despite the jacked-up global coverage the event now garners, the Communist Party Congress held last week – a mere twice-a-decade happening in the world’s second-most consequential country – broke no ratings records here in the Middle Kingdom, or anywhere. The stage-managed show of politicking, increasingly at odds with the frenzy in every other aspect of Chinese life, still stupifies the vast majority of the people. Only a minute fraction (folks like me) are totally titillated by the slightest aberration, that penumbra of tension and dissent presumably skulking behind the scenes of ritual unanimity.
And even that isn’t so thrilling. Compared to the grudge matches of the past, the internal discord at the top of today’s Party hierarchy is a pillow fight. Plus the Party is trying to put on a much folksier display. So rather than just look beneath the surface, I found it more refreshing to look at it. You could glean a lot about how Chinese system works on the inside today – or doesn’t – from the outer workings of the Congress itself. That said, media expectations going in, like the people’s, were low.
I was thus surprised right off the bat by the cell-phone short messaging. This was one of many new courtesies provided by the Party Congress press center, who entertained us like kids at daycare whenever the cadres were otherwise occupied. There was a surge in the number of delegate interviews granted on the sidelines, and a free buffet of juice and cookies. On the eve of the Congress, my mobile began to pulsate with incessant notes on the arrangements. One, received around nine or ten p.m., advertised a bus service running from the St. Regis Hotel right on up to the doorstep of the Hall, where security surrounding such events is off-puttingly heavy. The next afternoon, two large buses were parked outside the hotel. A grand total of three journalists got on, counting myself. The bus monitor from the press center was deflated.“We thought this would be a big help, especially for photographers and cameramen…Why so few of you?” Journalists appreciate advance notice, I told him.
But give the Party credit. In the dark old days, when its voice blared loud and clear, barely a peep was heard about certain congresses until the results were issued at the end. Today the Party buzz is comparatively muffled on a daily basis, so the Congress really cranked up the volume. The humorless faces of delegates on Central TV hovered Oz-like from digital big-screens at shopping malls. In turn, chain-stores hung banners saluting them (a reminder China’s rich bourgeois remain a colluder class). The opening ceremony had been televisied that morning, and after Hu Jintao delivered his “state of the Party-state” report, star CCTV interviewer Bai Yansong had Central Party school vice-president Li Junru in the booth commentating. Bai did a good job asking dull non-questions that appeared to come off-the-cuff. Li invoked Hu’s report in every answer.

To really get the populace riled up about a Party Congress nowadays, Beijing has to screw up their lives. That was the net effect, in any case, of the routine traffic stoppages to make way for the convoys of delegates, the added blocks on thousands of web sites and pre-Congress beatings of several dissidents. Beijing even ended up rerouting the annual international marathon. At Capital Airport, domestic airlines began closing their gates fifty minutes ahead of time, instead of the normal thirty. All to “ensure the big one,” or bao da – short for the security mandate to “ensure the 17th Congress is smoothly convened.”

What could go wrong, though? Official media had previewed Hu’s theoretical amendments to the Party charter weeks ahead of time. By the day before the opening, we were fairly confident of the new Politburo makeup, including the presumptive next party boss and premier, courtesy of scoops from Reuters and The New York Times. The assignments may change in future, but they were fixed for now. But it took a whole week, three days more than in 2002, to dispense with the proceedings and confirm the news. The party was bending over backward (by its standards) to project a sense of heightened openness and debate. I was a signal of the solidarity and policy consensus within the central leadership. But it’s also a sign of their weakening hold on the rest of the country, including their own rank and file.

At the Great Hall – for the first time in the Congress history – the 34 province and ministerial delegations were holding “open deliberations” over Hu’s political report. Most opened the floor to reporters’ question in the last half hour. That first afternoon, a third of them were in session, a rare opportunity for a self-guided tour. Ah, the mighty GHOP (as we call the superhuman pile). Never had I been able to cross through so many chambers and corridors. I began to roam. Under the dim glow of Soviet-era gilt candelabras, past frescos of mountains and streams, and into the chambers named for the provinces who meet within. Those of the province-level cities feature up-to-date murals of themselves. I got lost looking for Chonqing’s. But then one of the friendly lads in black tie, who double as hosts and security, approached. “Can I help you?” Guo Peijian, twenty-something, led me on a quarter-mile hike to the Chongqing Hall. Unsolicited, he offered, “I think this time we’re receiving the outside world with a more open state of mind.”

But who is “we”? Always a key question in the PRC. The next morning, not all passages were open. The Party had a full day of open deliberations planned. Too late for the bus (departure time: 7:40 a.m.), I tried hoofing it to GHOP by way of the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Only the army and police at most checkpoints leading to the Hall knew nothing of it. At the mouth of the tunnel closest to our designated entrance I was stopped by a green-uniformed PLA guard: “The People Liberation Army forbids entry.” He pointed me to the next tunnel down, where I was halted by policemen in blue. “There’s no open event today,” insisted one. They directed me to crosswalk directly from the Square, which was double-fenced off. There the guard rebuffed me.“Who told you to come here?!”. A chummy policeman finally got on his walkie-talkie to effort clarification. This became frustrating. “Wo kao…Wo kao,” the policeman cracked: “Friggin aye, Friggin aye!”. Finally he ordered the sliding gate open and dared me to cross. “I can’t tell you what will happen.” I scurried across the four-lane road like North Korean crossing the Yalu where the boy in black permitted me to pass without the slightest concern as to how I’d gotten there. On my way out the PLA guard who first rejected me asked me how I’d gotten in, and sympathized when I told him. “If you come back this way in the afternoon, I’ll let you in.” Not your typical PLA talk.

By Day Two the press center was sending mixed signals regarding press access. For “scheduling reasons”, an SMS abruptly annouced that morning, the Q&A portion of the deliberations would be cancelled that afternoon. But obviously we in the media were suspicious. Had delegates from the day before complained about facing sensitive questions? Too much breaking news from the finance ministers? Were elites popping in for Evening News soundbytes? I asked press center functionaries at the Hall that afternoon. They told me that ‘some’ delegations needed more time to discuss the political report in private, but others would indeed take questions. In the end, most of all of them did. Odd.

A coincidence in the schedule brought China’s two new leaders-in-waiting into the limelight at the same time. They presented a complex study in contrasts.

Liaoning province party boss Li Keqiang a long-time protege of Hu Jintao from his days in straight-laced Communist Youth League. Shanghai party boss Xi Jinping was identified with the rich and powerful interest group of Party princelings (the “GoP”). Xi was the son of a Revolutionary guerrilla and determined reformer who was persecuted thrice by Mao but pioneered the free-market laboratory of Shenzhen. Li was of simple peasant stock. Paunchy Xi had been sent down to the countryside and fought his way back. Solidly built Li started there and worked his way up. Li had been saddled with running tough-luck northern provinces; Xi married a patriotic pop star and“coasted” in booming areas along the southeastern seaboard.
Most important, Li was an uptight mystery man much like Hu; he was practically a Party nobody except that he’d emerged as Hu’s “clone” and ideal choice. Xi was the earthy natural; his status as a somebody had until recently ruled him out.

But now, due to high-level horse-trading and intra-party polling, that logic was subverted. The roles were reversed. Xi became the consensus candidate because he was regarded the most neutral. In the Liaoning Hall, Li sat hunched forward at the edge his seat; he was business-like, unhesistating, and spoke with a rote command of the issues. Here was a man who still had something to prove to people.

Meanwhile over in the Shanghai Hall, Xi, exhibited no such sense of urgency. Finally called on to field a question, he fumbled for words at first, then went on lengthily but listlessly, perhaps a sign of his was just passing through Shanghai (where he’d only been transferred six month earlier). He sat back, exposing acrylic white socks, short pant hems, and a few inches of fatty calf in-between: banishment to the countryside at a young age had left its mark. For a “princeling” married to a pop star, he’s as sweet potato pie as they come.

The media paired their performance as if to suggest they might end up vying power. But as Reuters noted, both toed the revamped Party line of rapid but better-balanced growth. “Scientific development is all about people,” said Xi. “We must pay more attention to people’s livelihoods … like disadvantaged groups, people in the countryside and others in difficult situations.”

It’s the message of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who Xi and Li respectively are now in line to succeed. Some China watchers have floated the notion that given the competition between two next-generation candidates it would behoove Party potentates to institute a more open and inclusive selection process at the next Congress, lest factional squabbling divide the Party. That appears doubtful. Hu’s feelgood doctrine of “harmoniousness” may be an impossible dream for Chinese society at large, but would appear to leave little room for infighting over – or amongst – the central leadership. It’s the warm fuzzy stuff of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard – as in, everything in moderation.

“It all the right words,” noted one Party newspaper editor. “So that there is little potential opposition to speak of.” But just to make sure congressional delegates would sign off on the proposed leadership lineup, Reuters reported, they were issued a warning intended to make sure they vote for the Politburo “candidates” on the ballots they were given.

At a lunch a couple days before the Congress concluded, a police chief in a small city not far from Beijing asked me my projections for the lineup that emerged. I told him what I’d heard and read in the Times and elsewhere. Under the influence of 104-proof baijiu, he read the entire Politburo reshuffle as he received it on his cell phone. It was exactly the same stuff.

“See, everything’s been set,” he boasted. Then, not noting the irony of his point, remarked: “But I’ll tell you, this time, the seal on information is tighter than ever.”

Posted by jansfield at 10:58 AM | Permalink

Mean Streets

Oct
9
2007

Here in the Big Dumpling, police have been keeping closer tabs on my kind. Twice in recent weeks we’ve had words over the phone. The problem has nothing to do with my work as a journalist. It has to do with the fact I’m a foreigner. And I’ve had house guests who are foreigners, too.

“Good morning, An Si Qiao!” Officer Zhang, of my neighborhood precinct, greeted me by my Chinese name when he rang. Officer Zhang is a rarity in this city: a clean-cut cop who’s helpful and friendly at all times. It was 8:30 a.m.on a Saturday.

“Those friends of yours who are staying with you,” he began. “You better bring them down to the station to register.” Old-school public security regulations obligate foreigners to register with local police on arrival in China, whether tourist or expat, hotel or house guest. Hotels take care of this for their guests. But never in ten years here had I been asked to. I couldn’t remember ever hearing of such a request. It happened that my American visitors were leaving that day, I assured Office Zhang. I lied by a day, more out of instinct than any real need or intent to deceive. Only later did it occur to me that for every day my friends had stayed unregistered, in theory, Officer Zhang could have assessed a 500 yuan fine. He himself never said so.

“Alright, alright,” he relented. “You know, I’m just doing my job. Those are the rules. But now we’re really cracking down.”

When China does crack down, enforcement tends to feel more like some sick form of entrapment. So it is now that the capital is ratcheting up enforcement of pre-existing I.D. constraints. The prime targets are foreigners who overstay their visas, work on tourist visas, or squat illegally, and/or push drugs, as in the case of a nightmarish bust in late September: some 30 African and Caribbean men, most of them innocent bystanders, were indiscriminately rounded up and whalloped. Public security authorities are also conducting spot visa and residency checks, and fining, detaining and certain cases deporting violators. They’ve tightened the type, terms and duration of the visas they issue as well. The main aim of the visa crackdown, as the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. embassy and others suggest, is to flush out troublemakers ahead of the Olympics next August. In response, the American embassy has reminded its citizens to carry their passports, as has long been required of foreigners. Like Officer Zhang said: Those are the rules. But right now we’re really cracking down.

A long lull in enforcement, followed by a bout of bureaucracy, intimidation, and brutality with an aura of protectionism, isolationism and xenophobia: sounds like a scheme for “homeland security“. Instead it’s the Olympics under the Party, a schizo set of circumstances that we might never fully grasp. It’s been some time since the foreigners in the Chinese capital have felt so closely watched. In that time the community has grown tremendously, though. So have the surroundings, for that matter. So it’s as though we’ve re-appeared on the radar without knowing or expecting it.

Well into the 1990’s, the foreign population in China’s metropolises was compact enough to feel ghettoized. As a resident laowai, a foreigner, you were geographically quarantined in designated dorms and compounds. You shopped for Western groceries at Friendship Stores. Western hotels were your oases. Traffic cops wouldn’t even bother with you. Practically every other non-Chinese face looked familiar. And the Chinese friendships you had felt closer and more precious, because the run of the masses seemed so inaccessible. They might hesitate to date you, for fear of being ostracized by their teachers, or to invite you back home for a meal, lest the neighborhood “granny patrols” were to cause a fuss. You paid higher admission prices at tourist sites, and unless you were of Asian descent, you “Big Noses” always stuck out. You, the tourist, were the attraction.

But in the most posh and powerful neighborhoods of China, in a numbing flash of five or ten years – it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when – the foreigner has faded into the crowd somewhat. The international community kept on bulging, and thriving. You got a full life of work and play. You got guanxi. You got an ayi, or two. Cross-pollination deepened. Mixed couples spawned mixed-blooded kids. “Sea turtles” schooled abroad muddied the “overseas Chinese” pool. Educating your kids presented a widening array of choices: international, Chinese, or some sort of fusion? Starbucks and sit-down toilets were no longer news. They were the norm. The natives, now far richer than you, fell in love with these urban trappings of yours. And you and the Western-minded avant-garde started regentrifying theirs, the old-city alleyways and Maoist factories. Your residential borders receded and a booming property market opened up. Ghettoization was no longer a cultural mandate but a cliquey lifestyle choice. You mothballed your state-planned compounds and spread out into de facto concessions, teeming with indistinguishable villas and condos, to the extent that those stately inner-city ghettos became desirable addresses all over again. No, you were not assimilated. But you began to feel that you could be anonymous, not just amongst Chinese society, but amongst your fellow laowai.


Today one thing unconditionally still sets you apart: your passport, of course. But you are not exactly a faceless migrant here on a rural hukou. You belong to an interest group of people representing countries who are trade partners. And in practical terms, it perhaps got easier for some of not to respect the law of a nation where the authorities are above it and the common people beneath it. Foreign companies certainly can’t get away with this. But many individual expats still feel that they can. They tend to be as blasé about the law as anyone else.

I should say “law”. For the problem, psychologically, is that it is still invoked and enforced so unevenly. Chinese law in action can be about as manic as baseball umpired with a moving strike zone. Advantage: offense. Porous, under-regulated markets generally play into the pockets of the players as well as local authorities, be it through taxes, bribes or gate fees. But enforcement tends to tighten up come crunch time. Then it’s time to let everyone know who is in control, and political diktats replace the old economic incentives with new ones (again, taxes, bribes, and gate fees, plus fines).

And right now is surely one of those times. Besides the Olympics next year, the 17th Party Congress, the most critical event in the country’s five-year political cycle, convenes next week. It seems a perfect time for an Olympic test run at cleaning up the activities of foreigners, as last year’s summit of African nations was to clear the clogged streets (no drug sweeps then).

What Beijing fears, most immediately, is having to deal with embarrassment. For it does not deal well. This summer, authorities were embarrassed when Reporters Without Reporters mounted a protest against the harassment of journalists near the Olympic headquarters. They were embarrassed when six Tibet independence activists rappelled from the top of the Great Wall of China with a 450-square foot protest banner reading “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008″. They continue to be embarrassed, though not nearly as much as five years ago, by Falun Gong. The movement has been dialing into Beijing homes with pre-recorded messages demanding China free the messianic rights defender Gao Zhisheng. (This annoys my wife greatly.)

So you’d think Beijing would make it easier for those foreigners who aren’t so “devilish”. But in many cases, routine compliance remains anything but. Foreign renters, for example, need their landlords to register with the local police. But many won’t cooperate, because if they do they’ll have to pay the taxes on the rent. This is how the American ex-roommate of a good friend got snagged in the visa dragnet.

One morning about three months ago, the roomie emerged from her apartment block to find three college-age kids standing outside. A young Chinese woman asked her for her passport. In her hand the woman had a name list of all the foreigners from the compound who were registered with local precinct. The roomie’s name wasn’t on it. The American explained that she had moved there not long ago. Next thing she knew she was down at the police station. For the better part of eight hours she was confined to a room that “looked like an interrogation chamber you’d see on Law & Order”. A policeman took her cell phone from her and used it to call her landlord. The policeman was cross with him. The landlord had to come down and pay his taxes on the rent before they would release her. The landlord apparently blew them off. They released her for an hour to find a motel to get legally registered, but didn’t give her her passport back. With only a copy of the passport, no motel would admit her. By late afternoon, her face was red from tears. Finally, the police decided to give her the registration form. “They said they never did that for anyone, but would make an exception in her case.” The landlord never showed up.

If Chinese don’t care about their own laws, how can you be expected to? That’s the attitude some foreigners take. Don’t ask, don’t tell. As opaque as this environment can be, you can always feign ignorance. And often, just when the public security organ starts to look like Stasi, it turns into Keystone Cops.

Take the story of an American buddy of mine, a beat-boxing poet type whom I’ll call G.G. In July, suddenly, G.G. fell off the map. He didn’t respond to repeated emails. His cell phone was off. Then one day his girlfriend, who is Chinese, finally sent a message to explain: G.G. was in police custody. It turned out that he had overstayed his visa by a while: 540 days or so. G.G. ended up spent three weeks in a prison where there was one floor for short-term inmates another for long-term. Meanwhile his girlfriend and others negotiated with police on his behalf. The U.S. embassy got involved at one point, to no avail. There was no question he was going to be fined the maximum (5,000 yuan) and deported. The question was how long it would be before he would be able to return. There was a sick twist. G.G. and his girlfriend were planning to get married the same day that he was apprehended. Civil Affairs agents processing their marriage application discovered his little visa discrepancy.

On the road to the airport to put him on a plane back to the States, the police returned my buddy’s cell phone, and we spoke briefly before he left. He wasn’t sure when he would be able to come back to China. “But I don’t know if I ever want to come back,” he said. “That was, like, the worst experience of my life.” Like, understatement of the year.

But by September, G.G. was back in Beijing. His girlfriend had found someone who could “gone through the back door” and pulled some strings with the police. Whether there was money involved in the exchange, I am not sure. But they agreed not to mark his passport with a deportation stamp. When he applied for a new visa, he got it. No questions asked. That, I guess, is love: something a little crackdown could never conquer.

Posted by jansfield at 1:00 PM | Permalink

Where Less is More

Sep
7
2007

A trend is a trend in China when it hits the radar of state radio. A few weeks ago, inside a taxi smushed in midday traffic, the voice of a Beijing radio announcer was heard holding forth on the advent of China’s le huo zu, or “happy living set”. A not-so-happy cab driver broke in from time to time, snorting expletives at other drivers. But from what could be heard of her giddy monotone, the announcer stated:

…le huo refers to a trend known in the West as LOHAS. LOHAS stands for for ‘lifestyles of health and sustainability’. So-called Lohasians (le huo zu) choose greener and more charitable forms of production and consumption than ordinary people in society. Often these people like to publicize their lifestyle. They feel that it is more suitable to the conditions of development in the 21st century…

She went on:

After yuppie, BOBO and so on, LOHAS is the latest Western buzzword to describe cosmopolitan lifestyles. In Chinese we call LOHAS le huo [lit. ‘enjoy living’], a transliteration that sounds similar to LOHAS. The meaning of LOHAS actually goes far deeper, however. As to who coined the term le huo, that is difficult to say…

Finally:

It is understood that currently in the United States, one of every four people is a Lohasian. In Europe, about one person out of three is. In China, this new force is getting stronger every day, though it can be associated with only a very small minority of high-income people with high levels of education…

And even they remain by and large foreign to the argot, an unscientific sample poll has since suggested. But high flyers here in the capital are definitely down with the concept. Key “LOHAS” into Baidu, China’s most popular homegrown search engine, and, sure enough, nearly 180,000 Chinese-languange entries crop up as of this writing, almost 20,000 more than two weeks earlier. Google.cn lists over four million. Chinese discussion of the term seem to have originated, as is common, in Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas communities elsewhere. But the majority of listings now come from the mainland, and date from just the past few months.

A LOHAS conversion of the masses? Domestic commentators are rightly unconvinced. But the standards by which they judge are notably high. Some present as LOHAS as a whole new life force, an enlightenment, a cultural revolution of sorts. Only a small number of observers characterize LOHAS as concretely as Wikipedia, which grounds the term firmly in its roots. LOHAS is sociologist Paul Ray’s neologism for the marketplace of companies and consumers who are motivated by health, environmental and Good Samaritan concerns, and try to practice “responsible capitalism” in response. In the U.S. alone, by the “conservative” estimate of Web forum lohas.com, this market segment is now worth over $200 billion a year. We’re talking about the full range of holistic niceties, from solar heating to aborigonal knitware.

Many of which are already growing industries here. But then again, what isn’t? Beijing’s uppity east side of Beijing is now home to a recently opened natural foods outpost, LOHAS City. I’ve just run into an ex-colleague whose friend, a young Chinese media exec, has drawn up plans for an e-magazine dedicated to everything LOHAS. Unfortunately for him, the domain name lohaschina.com, a largely undeveloped site, has already been taken. It belongs to New York-based houseware designers Bambu.

America is the “developed” market, China the “derivative” one. So the gimmicky phrases we at first adopt to describe cultural currents end up doing much more to drive the trends once exported to China. So it is with LOHAS in the booming metropolises. There the appeal is obvious right now, given the glaring ills of the country at large. Slums. Sweatshops. Smog. Sludge. E-waste. Ego projects. Cancer. Diabetes. AIDS. SARS. And now, worldwide, food and drug scares. Lead-lined toys. Toxic clouds and other ecological horror stories that are untold – because no one’s found them yet. LUAU – unhealthy and unsustainable – might be a better acronym to describe it. So China’s critics ask, with good reason, when the party will end.

The Party is not blind to this. It’s no coincidence that Beijing has been talking LOHAS in its own right for quite a few years now. Think “Green Beijing, Green Olympics,” a mantra of the 2008 Games. Think “Harmonious Society” and “Scientific Development Concept”, the two canonical watchwords of leader Hu Jintao. The terms are politically correct code for a more responsible and equitable kind of capitalism. Relief measures like the scrapping of farming taxes have helped. But on the whole translating Party prescriptions into effective solutions has proven a folly. Online, darkly humorous parodies of the Party catchphrases abound. When invoked by official organs, they tickle most people’s ears in ironically funny ways (if at all).

If Lohasian-style consumerism is to change China for real, the experience will be seriously painful for everyone involved. It will start with the panicked mommies and daddies of the world, Lohasian or not, who still depend on China’s cheap exports, and trickle down to foreign corporations. And then on to big Chinese manufacturers. And, finally to their sub-contractors and local government regulators, the most problematic link in the supply chain, more concerned with guaranteeing local jobs, tax bases, grey income and GDP figures than with “scientific development”. As for domestic consumers, oneChinese blogger forecast the trickle-down two years ago, borrowing from Deng Xiaoping’s call call for some folks to get rich first: “Let some of the people get LOHAS first!”

And LOHAS they’re going – to a point. While the Party broadsheets tout “scientific development” and “harmonious society”, China’s biggest mouthpiece of LOHAS and le huo is a glossy magazine publishing house, Trends Media Group, which among other things publishes Chinese language editions of a dozen big-name Western titles. In recent spreads translated from their English-language affiliates, they’ve advised readers to make some tough changes.

Harper’s Bazaar proposed “Life Detox”, a tattered all-white look comprising an LV jacket, a Valentino dress, and a Chanel skirt. Cosmo Bride prescribed “home spas” and yoga to relieve the pressures of wedding preparations. Good Housekeeping drew up solutions to “greener living”, such as fixing the leaky faucet and installing energy-saving light bulbs. Esquire covered the Hash House Harriers, that famed non-profit club for the “beer drinker with a running problem.” Autostyle previewed the BMW Hydrogen 7.

Someone at Trends must have noted the recurring theme of LOHAS. Two weekends ago, the group held its annual company soiree to mark the 14th annversary of the group’s founding. This year the was themed “Lohas Night” (le huo zhi ye). A friend who works as an executive with one of the magazines had an extra pass, and invited me along. His English first name, incidentally, is More (a derivation of his Chinese name pronounced with a Beijing twang). In proportion to age and height, More, go figure, used to be about the tubbiest Chinese person I knew. But in the last few years he has taken up lap swimming, and now there’s a lot less of More. His skin has gone bronze as well.

In conjunction with the anniversary festivities that night, August 18, Trends had asked readers online to pledge to go LOHAS for the day. They became eligible for a prize by entering into an agreement to abide by the following:

1) “…wear only natural fabrics (such as raw cotton or silk)”

2) “…not use plastic bags”

3) “…give family members a warm hug before leaving the house in the morning”

4) “…not smoke that day”

5) “…consume only organic foods”

6) “…make a warm breakfast for the family”

7) “…turn the air conditioner to 26C or higher

8) “…not drive that day.”

This I only became aware of during my subsequent research, not as a result of attending the party.

Trends had arranged for minibuses to the event, but like most other partygoers More and I drove. The party was held about 10 miles south of town in the development zone of Yizhuang, at a pavillion space on landscaped grounds around a sport stadium that had been put to little use. It served as the parking lot for the evening, while opposite a bridged country road cutting through the complex was the scene of the party. Arriving guests walked under this bridge. Atop it, a collection of local peasants gathered to observe the proceedings below. Security guards stood at attention in between.

More introduced me to one of Trends top executives. He took note of my part-time status as a U.S. media correspondent, and gripped my hand for a few seconds without shaking it. Then, unprompted, he delivered his own personal message of sustainability. “As you know the media in China exist in a unique environment,” he started. “We do the best we can to thrive in that environment.” Then he moved on to his celebrity guests.

Tempatures at cocktail hour must have exceeded 90-degrees. I went through half a stack of paper napkins wiping the sweat off my brow. So thank goodness for the air conditioning inside the pavillion.

Once inside, up on stage, a LOHAS propaganda programme got rolling. Like the Communist Party’s successive theories of modern socialism, le huo had to be unpacked for the masses. TV hostess Zeng Baoyi, daughter of a Hong Kong mob film star, broke it down into three axioms: Look Good. Feel Good. Do Good. Other stars were then called upon to explain these abstruse principles via personal testimonies.

As we ate a modern dance company of well-toned youths in ascetic garb danced “Water and Clouds”. Their sublime movements recalled “Mighty Aphrodite”, given the context of this ridiculous affair. Smokers congregated in the corners, while other Trends people busied about intra-company networking, and reporting on “Lohas Night” itself. Among them was Lu Ping, fashion and accessories editor for the Trends Web site Yoka.com. I asked the college graduate with pigtails and dark-rimmed glasses to give me her take on the le huo zu.

“Well, of course it’s still important to work hard and so on. But you shouldn’t kill yourself just to make money or get promoted to high post. There’s more to life.”

Like paper bikinis. These were worn by tall, healthy and sustainably lean models from New Silk Road, one of China’s elite agencies. They donned a complete line of concept wear crafted entirely from paper (pictures here). The coup de grace: a montrous ball gown made from enough material to print a full tabloid. It was white and black and, with Trends magazine pages folded in – read all over.

Posted by jansfield at 12:53 AM | Permalink

Making of a Chinese Bad Boy

Aug
8
2007

I happened to be at a restaurant back in Brewtown the night of the National Basketball Association draft in June, when my hometown Milwaukee Bucks made the problematic choice of Yi Jianlian. Smooth-cheeked and bright-eyed, the Chinese youngster, pictured on a big-screen, resembled a goofy kid trying on his dad’s suit. But when the Bucks called his number and the seven-footer stood up, he filled out every inch and flashed a Gioconda smile. His fans – and detractors – are still trying to decipher it.

Yi’s case encapsulates some of the ironic twists of China’s growth, the most basic one being this: For a small-market city like Milwaukee, Yi Jianlian is a miracle shot at the world’s biggest fan base. But to China’s hottest prospect since Yao Ming, Milwaukee signifies banishment to the countryside. Or so his handlers have led us to believe.

It’s easy to theorize why “Team Yi” – the assemblage of Chinese team bosses and American agents who represent Yi, but do not necessarily include him – bear a grudge. Their attempts before the draft to turn off Milwaukee, among other smalltown suitors, backfired badly. In terms of endorsement and sponsorship potential, the kid’s been married down. No matter where he ended up playing, he would be a megastar in China this coming season; no matter where, under NBA salary restrictions, his rookie contract would be about the same, as would the maximum amount ($500,000) his new club would be allowed pay his current team, the CBA’s Guangdong Tigers, to release him. What the draft really afforded Team Yi was a launchpad to tap new fame and fortune in the American market. But now the biggest bonus seems to be going to Old Mi-er-wa-ji (pron. “MEE-arh-wah-jEE”), as Milwaukee is transliterated in Chinese. Chinese media call it “Mi City” (密城) for short. The character for Mi ( 密) mean “confidential” or “secret”. Thus Milwaukee, to Yi and his compatriots, is the “Secret City”. For now it is.

To redress the market imbalance, Yi’s been a staunch holdout for six weeks now. His camp has expressed hopes that the Bucks would trade his rights to a big city club, a possibility the team has dismissed. “Team Yi” has lobbed a series of objections to Milwaukee. First they complained there was no Chinatown, in other words, too little Asian influence, too few Chinese fans, Chinese restaurants, even Chinese women. Then they said the Bucks’ lineup was too crowded with guys Yi’s size, making it tough for him to get the minutes he needs to develop (Truth is, he’s the only healthy power forward on the roster.) Finally they accused the Bucks GM Larry Harris of “breaking his promise” to visit with the Yi camp at an international tournament in Macau last week. (Harris has floated the possibility, but, according to the Milwaukee Journal, never promised.)

Alas Team Yi’s fighting a losing public relations battle. Virtually everyone, save Yi’s American agent and his Cantonese team – his biggest and most powerful stakeholders – thinks Yi should sign and suit up with the Bucks this season. NBA rules dictate that if he is to play in the league next year, he must. The 2008 Chinese Olympics squad clearly needs him, as well and Chinese basketball authorities granted him unprecedented permission to join the entire pre-draft road show, fully anticipating that he would. The vast majority of Chinese fans, Internet polls and bulletin board have shown, are vehemently pushing him to go to Milwaukee. The head of the Chinese Basketball Association even said last week he would travel there to help resolve the deadlock.

Not that Milwaukee wasn’t just as calculating and self-interested as Yi, a fact not lost on certain Chinese journalists and bloggers. Prior to the draft, Yi’s camp had barred him working out with the club, blacklisted Milwaukee along with the other teams in which they had no interest. But to no avail. These were the very American towns where the arrival Yi would mean the most.

No doubt he would adapt well enough to “Secret City”. That’s another much-hyped irony about Yi. He is by far the most Americanized basketball prospect ever to come out of the Chinese state system. Whether his years number 23, 21 or his listed age of 19 – a matter of much contention – he’s a product of a generation reared on McDonald’s, hip-hop, and thepatriotic fervor of an born-again empire. He’s trained and played in the U.S. six summers straight. He’s learned a good bit of English. Like the ball rats on the playgounds, he bumps, glides, and dunks (video evidence), finishes with authority, and stares down his foes. And he dons the baggy, fresh threads they wear.

It’s not a facade. As an adolescent, Yi hooped it up with his homies against his parents’ orders to stick to the books. Minus their permission, in 1999, he entered a three-on-three street-ball tourney in his hometown of Shenzhen. That’s how he was first discovered by Chinese coaches, unlike predecessors trained from Day One at the state sports schools. By 2003, Yi was hailed the “next Yao” by Time magazine, before Yao had even played an NBA game. Yao’s shadow has haunted him since. ‘Are you the next Yao?’ ‘Are you Yao Ming?’ Outside China, the profiles that have been penned suggest, these are the questions Yi gets the most. His answer’s always been an emphatic “no”. In a package on Yi previewing the June 28 draft, the Chinese edition of Sport Illustrated magazine observed:“In contrast to Chinese royalty like Wang Zhizhi and Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian looks more like a player from the streets of America.”

And, go figure, he’s been made to act like one too. That edition of Chinese SI is eerily prescient of the controvery now surrounding him. On the cover, Yi’s got the good-natured smile of a suburban American. But on the back, in a Nike ad, he’s a stone-faced bad boy. A trail of Chinese text runs down his face. The theme is “Faith and Doubt”:

Both will help me to keep on getting better. Believe me. I will struggle to meet expectations/

The doubts. I will prove them wrong/

Please continue to believe in me. Support me. Root for me/

You may doubt me, criticize me, go against me./

No matter what happens, I’ll get stronger/

June 28/

Just Do It [Swoosh]

So at least Yi’s living up to the type-casting of his sponsors, acting true to the cliches of his me-generation, playing the rebel without much of a cause. I asked an American marketing executive with years of experience in China’s sports industry about how life has imitated this ad. “Yeah,” he said. “But look at how it’s backfired. Something like ninety percent of Chinese polled are against what Yi’s doing” – by refusing to join the Bucks.
The domestic fan revolt is just as telling – rare for Chinese athletes dealing with foreign powers. The first basketballer to go to the NBA, Wang Zhizhi, had to get permission from his army team. Yao Ming had to deal with Chinese Basketball Administration (whom he once sued for violating his endorsement rights). Yi is blocked not by military men or politicians, but by businessmen. “The Chinese basketball authorities have become a lot more open in the past couple years,” says a sport editor of a major Chinese news magazine who has followed his case. “Now the rest is up to Team Yi.”

The Bucks didn’t quite get this. In another ironic twist, it’s the U.S. ball club that turned to official diplomacy, rather than the backroom bargaining of the free market that’s come to run China. Conveniently, the team owner, Sen. Herb Kohl, has been a friend of China. He has a record of generally supporting the country on key issues such as most-favored nation trading status, and the department stores that bear his family name are filled with wares made in Yi’s home province. Soon after the draft, Kohl personally wrote a letter inviting Yi to tour Milwaukee. Later, according to the sport marketing exec, the Bucks tried to use Kohl’s political connections to influence the Yi camp. “But they [Chinese officials] said, know, ‘Hey we don’t represent Yi Jianlian,’” says the exec. “The Bucks wanted to rattle some cages. But in China you got to know what cages you’re rattling.”

One of my oldest buddies in China, Hang Tian, is an artist of copious talents and oft-shifting passions. First he was a Blues musician, then a DV documentary maker, then a painter. Now he’s collecting pottery from the lost kingdom of Xixia and writing a book on the subject. There’s only been one constant. In the four years since Yao Ming entered the league, he’s been an NBA junkie. He rarely misses a Houston Rockets game on CCTV 5. Of Yi Jianlian, Hang Tian comments: “He says he’s not Yao Ming. He’s right. Yao Ming’s a giant. Yao’s can do things that are simply indefensible. Yi Jianlian has a good body and good talent, but a lot of guys in the NBA have similar assets. He’s not worth much yet. He’s got to go to the Bucks and prove his value first.”

That would seem obvious. But maybe that’s also why Team Yi – which includes William Morris agents – figures it can afford to mount this go-nowhere charade. The hype itself may be worth it. It’s a big gamble for a young player, but maybe one that will pay off, if Yi becomes more than just another drop of foreign blood in the league. The Milwaukee Journal put it fittingly with its headline the day after the draft: “International Intrigue.”

Now the question is how can Yi kowtow to Milwaukee crowd without his handlers losing face? My initial idea was to take the next Guangdong village about to explode over a corrupt land seizure and move its riotous peasants straight to the south side of Milwaukee. Give them green cards, restaurant licenses, and plenty of game passes. That might satisfy the demands of all parties invovled.
But later, on consulting with Hang Tian, we decided the best way out would be to fire Yi’s unpopular L.A. agent, Dan Fagen. Find the right fall-guy and move on. That’s the Chinese way.

Posted by jansfield at 7:19 PM | Permalink

The People’s Heaven?

Jul
17
2007

This government inspector did not have the manner of a man who was worked to death; he was apparently not haunted by a fear that the hog might get by him before he had finished his testing. If you were a sociable person, he was quite willing to enter into conversation with you, and to explain to you the deadly nature of the ptomaines which are found in tubercular pork; and while he was talking with you you could hardly be so ungrateful as to notice that a dozen carcasses were of passing him untouched. – Upton Sinclair, The Jungle.

That horror scenes from the Chicago meatpacking district in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a century old, might just as well depict the underbelly of China’s livestock trade today. And that duplicitous inspector? Sounds a bit like Zheng Xiaoyu, the inaugural commissar of China’s food and drug watchdog agency, who bit the bullet a couple weeks ago for taking bribes to let untested drugs off the hook. At least one of those medicines proved deadly.

American consumers should not be shocked to have to digest The Jungle all over again. For the West, yes, this is the epoch of go-go globalization. Yet China is in many ways still stuck in its gilded age. Its markets are bulging, yes. But petty entrepreneurs cheat while big businessmen and bureaucrats collude, covering up or playing down the dangers.

It’s more exasperating when you consider the change in fortunes behind this new reality. A decade ago some of us in the West were still worried about how we were going to feed China. Now we’re panicked about how China is feeding us. This turnabout is at the crux of China’s problem regulating food exports. And it is beginning to provide a window – and a lever – for influencing how China is regulated and governed.

From the (exploited) workers’ paradise Western nations reap both the profits and the plenty of exported goods that otherwise might not be quite so affordable. But at the same time we’re stuck with the pollution – of the food we eat and the air we breathe – from this cheap and under-checked flow. A bug from one Chinese producer can contaminate the whole global village. The world’s market is a jungle.

The trade and P.R. strategies the government has deployed in response to the recent global scare, with the aid of official media organs, have evolved to cover all the bases – internationalist, nationalist, and socialist. The message to the world and its media, in a nutshell, is this: ‘Hey, we’re working on it. So should you. Now back off.’
Less audibly, but more credibly, Chinese officials and academics offer the same explanation for the country’s defective exports as they offer for the country’s carbon footprint. It’s the “world’s factory floor” defense and it’s a cynical appeal to understand China’s “developing world’ status. It goes something like this: ‘You want more and more cheap goods faster and faster? Companies here produce them for you. Now you say you found a few bad apples in the batch? Some mislabeled chemicals? Coupla toy eyes that spray poison? With such massive change, such enormous demands, what did you expect?!!’

But food is still food and money is still money, and one is exchanged for the other. So alas, the U.S. possesses more leverage over how China makes its products than we do over how it burns its energy. Not since the SARS crisis have the global ramifications of a scare opened up such an opportunity, both abroad and within China, to influence the way the country is regulated and governed.

But it remains to be seen if our importers, for one, are willing to exert that leverage. The U.S. pushed and pushed to get China into the World Trade Organization and eliminate trade barriers. So why impose technical barriers now? The Democrat-controlled Congress stands poised to renew its legislative push for comprehensive Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL. But to many of the big lobbies, the New York Times suggests, , all’s pretty much cool as is. There’s no need for big change.

Pressure has, however, come from the international media. It took probes in papers like The Times and the unflinching coverage of the news wires to put China’s food and drug-making malfeasance on trial before the world. Now the government is cracking down. For weeks, Beijing accused its trade partners of protectionism for blocking the sale of toothpaste imports containing the toxic thickening agent diethylene glycol. Then last week, Beijing banned its own toothpaste makers from using it – all the while standing by its original position that the syrup was safe in small doses. In a ballsy commentary on the Washington Post site Post Global, Beijing-based journalist Wang Feng concludes:

I admit it may be an exaggeration to say that only a major international loss of face will make Beijing clean up its act. But as both a journalist and a consumer in a country where the public almost never learns the full story behind any scandal, I welcome the pressure and the subsequent change that such attention can bring.

So where are the muckraking Upton Sinclair-types of China? As noted elsewhere in recent weeks, the advent of the Internet and a tabloid press have produced quite a few. But the censors and other cadres have learned the art of damage control. They make sure that their reports do not pack the same punch as, say, the New York Times, the newspaper read by China’s most important customers: Western politicians and businessmen. Oftentimes, still, their reports do not emerge at all. Writing in the Asia Wall Street Journal, Kristin Jones of the Committee to Protect Journalists cites an absurd yet fairly representative example:

When Chinese reporter Zhou Kai discovered in April that patients in the city of Laiyang in Shandong province were receiving intravenous injections of counterfeit medicine, he managed to get inside a hospital to talk to the family and doctors of a comatose patient. Then he interviewed the deputy director of an apparently indifferent local Food and Drug Administration. But before his article could be published, the local Communist Party’s propaganda department got word of Mr. Zhou’s investigation.

In a move perfectly attuned to the current mix of Party power and capitalist sensibilities in China, officials from Laiyang offered an advertising package to Mr. Zhou’s employer at the major national newspaper China Youth Daily. The newspaper’s officially appointed management blocked the story from publication.

Dulled by censorship and dehumanized by all the other bad news out there, what seem matters of life and death to us can come off as stories of a developing country’s aches and pains within China. Mainland journalists who have been tracking product safety issues for years tend to frame the situation in stoically historic terms that often dovetail into the “world’s factory floor” defense.

“In the past, the country didn’t even have enough to eat, so who really paid much attention to food safety?” says Wu Guangqiu, a senior producer with China Central Television’s Weekly Quality Report, a long-running consumer watchdog show. “So food safety is really a process. It’s is very difficult to manage under the current ‘national conditions’.”

By national conditions, Wu may be referring in part to the one-party political system. But he won’t say that. “I feel our strength [as a media outlet] is quite great,” he says. “But it’s very difficult for us to uncover the full extent of an issue. This is a technical problem that exists all over the world, not just in China. Our analysis is meticulous but lacks the weight of evidence. We’ll expose one or two small companies but it’s much harder to report comprehensively.”

One writer and activist who goes for broke is Zhou Qing, who spent three years in prison for his publishing activities during the Tiananmen democracy movement. I profiled his newly released book, ‘What Kind of God’, on Newsweek.com this week. Originally published in a Beijing-based journal of reportage in 2004, it was shortlisted for the Lettre Ulysses prize for the genre in 2006. But the book version, according to Zhou, was heavily sanitized by its state publishers and under-promoted at the behest of the authorities.

Zhou’s pungent thesis survives implicitly in the satirical innuendo of the title, a play on the dynastic proverb “food is the people’s Heaven,” begging: “what kind of food?” The answer is unsettling: seafood fattened with birth control pills, pigs fed everything from strips of leather to banned “lean-meat essence”, and soy sauce flavored with shorn hair off the barber shop floor. All for the sake of lower costs and higher margins.

Zhou’s oeuvre reads much less like Upton Sinclair or the NYT than it does Michael Moore, and the diabetic author cuts an unhealthy figure to boot. One wonders what a symbol of his nation’s excesses he might become right now were that nation to have a free press.
In person, Zhou warns that his country’s food safety maladies are literally poisoning the ruling Communist Party’s chief source of political sustenance today: its success in feeding 1.3 billion people. Only most people have been so overindulged and under-informed, as he sees it, that they don’t really care that much. “Besides consumption, Chinese people have nothing else to do,” he says. “Everyone’s busy and blind.”

The Communist Party’s definition of human rights begins with feeding its people. And while food security may be no longer be the pressing challenge it once was, Zhou says food safety is. “An autocratic society’s legitimacy is based on lies and terror. The problem of food safety is a combination of exactly that, lies and terror,” he notes. “Just finding out food safety problems can make this autocratic society more transparent in general. But we really need international support.”

That’s because most Chinese can’t afford not to eat their country’s food. As a matter of fact, can we?

Posted by jansfield at 5:55 PM | Permalink

The West’s Test

Jun
19
2007

Exciting news: a pal’s become a pawn of Chinese “democratic” reforms.

I got word a couple weeks ago from the small city of Langfang, an hour’s drive from Beijing. There this friend heads up a division of the city’s livestock department. She also belongs to the Jiu San Society, one of eight little-known democratic parties formed prior to the 1949 Revolution that “accepted” the monopoly rule of the Communists. In return, their members, like women and ethnic minorities, have always been treated to a tiny fraction of seats in the government. Sounds like just another ruse of Maoist coalition-building, right? Except these days we’re seeing “non-Party” cadres gain promotions to higher-level posts than before. One of them was named the new science minister last month – the first to head a ministry. Word is that another could become the next health minister. As for our friend, she was named vice-chairman of a district-level branch of the People’s Political Consultative Conference – a mere talk shop in the twiggy legislative branch, though a prestigious and increasingly vociferous one. “A lot of people pay big money to buy these posts,” as this friend’s younger sis pointed out. “But Big Sister was hand-picked.”

Americans have come to think of China as the big “test case” of the axiom advanced by Francis Fukuyama and others in the wake of Soviet disintegration: that capitalism and democracy come about in symbiotic succession. China, it’s become popular to argue of late, has been failing this test. So are a lot of countries; so many that the theory itself may be failing.

Yet we continue to cling to it. It’s more than an axiom. It’s a cosmic ideal.

In fact, if you listen to the rhetoric of reform, China submits itself quite readily to the West’s test. In the 18 years since the government crushed pro-democracy demonstrations Tianamin Square, the Party has done a frighteningly good job of de-stigmatizing the concept of “political system reform”. Current Chinese leaders have had to learn to riff freely on the lexicon of the free world. “Democracy” is not nearly the unmentionable it once was. Rather, these leaders assert, it’s something inevitable.

But what kind of democracy? How fast? On whose terms? These are much pricklier questions. Party leaders have only tinkered with low-level elections, a few internal checks and balances, and other tokens of political pluralism – boosting the profile of democratic party technocrats like my pal, for one. The supremacy of the Communist Party remains a sine qua non making “inner-party democracy”, the most exciting plank of procedural reform, seem a paradox nonetheless.

So every time official rhetoric or semi-official debate heats up over democracy, China watchers take sides. The purists regard any conversation as meaningless innuendo, a striptease, designed to defer hardcore action. The romantics sees it as meaningful foreplay, a mood-setter, communicating the impulse, at least somewhere in Party-state, to take things to the next level. Truth is, the geopolitics of resurgent nationalism have become about as much of a stumbling block as the realpolitik of Party control. The liberal democratic models of the West are China’s suitors. And Beijing’s mandarins are stuck playing a highly self-conscious game of hard to get.

This summer, particularly, the West’s test – democracy, yes or no? – is playing on their psyche. Come autumn, Party will convene the most decisive event in China’s political cycle, the Party congress, held once every five years, which seals not only policy direction but also personnel shifts at the top. Paramount in the run-up to it are two questions: who will succeed Hu Jintao, who is slated to retire in 2012; and what reforms will mark his political legacy? The outcome of the congress will offer preview, and many expect the issues to intertwine somewhat over the next five years, perhaps in the form of electoral experiments at the Party’s highest echelons. For the leadership to be decided by 100 or 200 people rather than 10 or 20 – in China, that would be a genuine breakthrough.

Intellectual voices across the political spectrum are trying to influence the outcome of the coming congress. Veteran liberal scholars and newspaper editors are pushing hard for change, none harder, naturally, than the infirm who might not survive to see the next one. One of them is 72-year-old Wang Guixiu, a retired professor from the Central Party School in Beijing. In the Beijing Daily in May, he wrote:

For a long time now, we have been overly guarded or even terrified of the West’s “tripartite separation of powers”, and often have avoided mentioning “separation of powers”. This has given rise to the following understanding in people’s minds: political power in our party and government can only be centralized, not decentralized.”

“In fact, this is the ultimate misunderstanding…Marxism has never been opposed in general to separation of powers, and even less so rational separation of powers.”

“There are certain old or rigid views that only block development,” Wang told me recently, in a phone interview syncopated by his rib-wrenching coughs. Wang was hopeful the Party Congress would endorse deeper democratic reform within the Party. ”Naturally, I’m hoping that there will be more people appealing for that.”

But on the left are wary conservatives and diehard socialists. In the pages of the People’s Daily, they stand by the mainstream Party formulation of “socialist democracy,” which is best understood in precisely that sequence: the people’s needs – order, stability, material well-being – come before their basic individual liberties. It’s the Communist dynasty’s spin on the ancient Confucian credo of minben, which stresses the ruler’s paternalistic obligation to the people. Given the perilous levels of corruption and inequality China is grappling with, the lefties have a point. Intellectuals of the New Left, in particular, think the solution lies in taking back power from wanton “sesame officials” in the provinces.

There’s an emergent middle in the discourse as well. Moderate progressives are trying to build consensus and synthesize the divisive debate, in effect, by blurring the nationalistic stripes of democratization. At a press conference in March, Premier Wen Jiabao went to unusual lengths to call for “large-scale” reform. Capitalist societies do not enjoy a monopoly over democracy, human rights and a just legal system, Wen said. “They are common values pursued by mankind.” A known adviser to Wen and Hu, named Yu Keping, raised eyebrows earlier with a piece aimed at clearing the air. The title said it all: “Democracy is a Good Thing.” For Yu and Wen, the issue is when and how – not if.

The when and how of democratization is not just a developmental question but a semantic one. Democratizing the Chinese political system is going to require just the sort of theoretical breakthrough – and the corresponding gymnastics of propaganda – that Deng and his cohorts used to justify market reforms after Mao. But on the ground, China is doing a much better job at passing the West’s test: society is opening up with its markets – just not strictly within the guaranteed framework of political and legal institutions. People are asserting their power through less-than-guaranteed channels, the Internet particularly. The country is liberalizing, in this regard, by force of happenstance.

Case in point: Before a monumental new law to protect private property passed in March, leftist critics carped that it would only safeguard the rich and the crooked. But if properly enforced, it also should stop officials from illegal land requisitions – a non-stop source of social turmoil. Right after the legislature passed it in March, newspapers and bloggers alike swarmed to a “test case” – a couple in Chongqing who refused to vacate their condemned home, perched like a chimney rock in a canyon of construction. City leaders stepped in and a fat settlement was negotiated. In an interview, Liu Chun, director of the politics and law department at the Central Party School, cited the property as an example of Fukuyaman evolution.“The most direct motivation for legal and political reform is not a set group of leaders or decision-makers, but social and economic development.”

A few intrepid individuals within the system are making a difference, too, making my friend’s appointment a less trivial that it might have seemed just a few years ago. The state’s environmental watchdog, SEPA, has exploited “storms” of publicity in the state-owned press and unilateral policy directives to stop formidable polluters in their tracks. The rainmaker behind the relentless P.R. effort is deputy minister Pan Yue, a Tiananmen-era liberal who ironically was transferred to SEPA – then considered ineffectual – after he advocated speeding up democratic reform ahead the 2002 Party congress. “He was supposed to be sidelined,” a colleague of Pan’s told me recently. “No one expected he’d make SEPA itself a force for democracy.”

The latest case SEPA has taken up is that of the citizens of the southeast port of Xiamen, who two weeks ago led successful protest to suspend a huge petrochemical factory slated to move in just over four miles from the city center. The person who raised national attention to the project and led the fight to relocate was a woman named Zhao Yufen, a leading Xiamen scientist named and delegate to the CPPCC – the national-level organ of the body which my pal now represents.

Back in Langfang, I asked my pal what she thought about that case. She was impressed that someone in a position similar to hers could make a such a difference. Meanwhile she was preoccupied with more basic concerns. Her new sub-legislative post would pay her $130 less a month than she was making as a technocrat. She might not have as much time or freedom to do business on the side, either. But alas, her father had been a top local official in Langfang before her. She was urged by relatives to accept the honor and carry on the family legacy. “As my uncle said, it’s good for networking.”

Posted by jansfield at 3:44 PM | Permalink

Anatomy of a Quiet Scandal

May
31
2007

On May 17 at 11:01 a.m., your correspondent received a text message purporting to clear up a recent political intrigue in the capital. To this point, it hasn’t. And that is pretty much the point. Increasingly, China can be shamed into purging bad leaders. But the moral is still all too often lost in the non-transparent process of the purging. Does this condition signify a system disposing of its political waste in more enlightened ways, or less?

The cell-phone tip I got was unsolicited. It came from a well-connected source in the media industry who has proven reliable in the past. Written in Chinese, it read: “As of last night, former Press and Publication director Long Xinmin was under ‘double regulations’” – a form of house detention.

The message appeared to be news. Until late April, Long, as head of the government press watchdog agency, was the equivalent of chief executioner in China’s censorship apparatus. But after just 15 months on the job, he was unexpectedly reassigned to the Communist Party center of historical research – a far less glamorous post. In a one-sentence report, official media noted Long had retained his rank but gave no explanation for the reshuffle. The question, ever since, was why?

Americans have become used to regular Washington scandals that drag on without due justice or resolution: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is the latest example. But the lesson of wrongdoing generally comes clear either way. Not so in Beijing, where we often witness punishments of senior officials that are fast-tracked – or alternately, delayed for years – with but a smidgeon of the facts emerge about what exactly they did or how their cases were decided.

There are still clear-cut cases of old-fashioned draconian justice, mind you. Just yesterday, China sentenced the long-time head of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, to death for corruption and dereliction of duty. His trial came just as his bureau stank up the world with revelations toxic toothpaste in Panama and pet food in the U.S. Bad timing sealed his fate.

Without openness and due process, however, we’re often left to ask: what’s the – ahem – moral? The only lesson consistently learned is that the system is endemically unlawful, and “party politics” decides who is saved, and who sacrificed. Which makes the case of Long Xinmin an intriguing example of business as usual.
There were essentially three running theories, according to those I’d previously quizzed. The one the Western press led on was the most temptingly “democratic”. It had to do with government accountability.

In the months leading up to his transfer, the agency Long led encountered open and unprecedented defiance from veteran writers and journalists whose work it had banned, condemned or otherwise restricted. Their protest letters and behind-the-scenes accounts leaked onto the Internet – damning in a country long accustomed to policing speech mostly by stealth means.

The historian Zhang Yihe, whose books depict the Mao-era political persecution endured by her father and his contemporaries, had pressed a legal claim to repeal the ban against her. So when Long’s transfer was announced, headlines blared: Censor sidelined/sacked after book ban row. Not that Long was the bungling butcher at the eye of this particular storm – that honor fell to one of his deputies who remains in his post. Nor was Long the mastermind behind the orders – that was the party propaganda department, inspired by members of the Politburo. It would indeed seem a bit peculiar, from the party’s perspsective, to punish the censor over cases of censorship. At the same time, Long had gained notoriety as a minion of hardliners. The current party leaders have established new internal accountability regime intended to hold the ministerial yi ba shou – or “number one man” – responsible for embarrassingly big-time screw-ups, in this case letting news of actual censorship become known. Long might have been the fall-guy for this leaky mess. Ms. Zhang, a fine interview with London’s Telegraph, claimed no knowledge of the connection between her case and his. But she delighted victoriously in his removal.

Another theory, harder to diagnose and hence less-talked about, involved personal politics. Long, who built his entire career in the Beijing city media bureaucracy, is associated with Politburo members who owe their loyalties to former leader Jiang Zemin. The man who took Long’s place, an aging deputy named Liu Binjie, got his start in the Communist Youth League propaganda circuit, making him a protégé of China’s current leader, Hu Jintao. The theory is that Hu’s designs on consolidating his power might to some extent have motivated the swap, as has been supposed in the case of other senior personnel moves and corruption shakedowns. Hu’s aims may involve not only tighter political control but also personal confidence and a somewhat cleaner, by-the-book bureaucratic culture heading into a five-yearly Party Congress this year. But even if this theory held water, it would likely be a corollary factor to the other two.

The third theory was the least staggering – corruption. Hong Kong and Chinese-language media overseas quoted sources saying that Long, who served as Beijing’s municipal propaganda minister and vice-party secretary before become head press censor was also implicated in corruption probe dating back to that time. A week after Long was reassigned, his wife was reported to be under “double regulations” over her activities at a major state-owned company.

Party disciplinary agents typically use to hold state officials while investigating them. So the message that Long himself was under “double regulations,” would have lent credence to this lattermost explanation for his transfer. Your correspondent sent a message back to the source: Why the “double regulations”?

A reply came immediately: “Gehua Corruption Case”.

Beijing Gehua is an advertising, entertainment, and digital TV conglomerate linked to the Beijing city propaganda department. Its controlling shareholder is the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper group, the first state-owned media entity to list an arm on the stock market. But after an IPO in Hong Kong in late 2004, its reported net profits shrank by 99.76 percent in the first half of 2005, a tip-off that books were cooked beforehand. Within months, half a dozen of managers of Youth Daily were detained for economic crimes. According to the respected Chinese financial magazine Caijing, a contractual dispute between Youth Daily and Gehua hastened the dragnet. Details of Long’s involved are fuzzy, said the source. But his wife was a major player with Gehua. And from the IPO through the beginning of the graft case, “Long was the city propaganda bureau chief and party vice-secretary directly in charge,” said. Still, if his wife alone was found to be at fault – or if was protected by higher-ups – he could settle for being sidelined.

Funny thing is, unravelling the “reasons” for Long’s downfall might not tell us “reasons”. Under Beijing’s one-party system, enforcing justice is not a matter of transparency and due process but, bottom line, of sending the right signals to the right people. Zheng Xiaoyu’s sentence of execution – a response not just to corruption itself but the international headlines it generated – is a dramatic example. And, viewed in this light, the different theories about Long may in reality co-existently hold. Long’s could be in trouble for different reasons to different parties, all using his situation to telegraph signals to their constituencies. The lesson relayed to the public and the foreign press, is: the censor pays. To the party (hypothetically): the mismanaging, nepotistic official pays. To the factionally inclined senior leadership: the uncontrollable servant pays.

Of course this is all complicated by spin from different quarters. My attempts to confirm the tip hit a dead-end.

I asked a magazine publisher friend who’s a blood relation of a senior publishing official: “I don’t know. It’s not easy to ask.”

I pressed him. “No one’s saying! No one will say!”

I asked another publisher friend who previously told me he knew Long.

“If he was under double regulations, no one had heard about it. And I asked some people high enough to know.”

So I went back to the original source: “Are you certain?”

“Very certain.”

How do you know? “Heh…I had dinner with Liu Binjie (Long’s replacement). He told me. Liu was planning to retire soon. He never expected this.”

By this time, over a week had passed since this alleged dinner. I decided to ring the bureau of historical research, and got the number to Long’s office. When I called, a man answered. I told him what I’d heard.

“How is that possible? I am his secretary. He’s been coming to work all along. Where did you hear that?”

He said mumbled something to the effect of “all is normal” and hung up the phone.

Posted by jansfield at 12:39 AM | Permalink

Those Seeds Unsown

May
16
2007

After many inhospitably cold months, a regular visitor to the local cafe – an man of import we call ‘Zhang Zong’, or “Mr. Zhang” – the honorific ‘Zong’ denoting the boss of a company – arrived for tea. He ordered a pot of Oolong along with five cups.

Zhang – whose name I’ve changed – is the developer one of the fancy indoor fashion bazaars designed to succeed the shuttered Silk Alley. As always, he was dressed by the vendors who rent his stalls. His crisp white Oxford was custom-tailored, while shabby black cotton-blend slacks dusted by Spring’s gusts off the Gobi. In-between: a spit-shined pleather belt with a chintzy gold clasp. There were other markings of new money on Mr. Zhang and one stood out more loudly than his outfit: his entourage of young dames.

There were four: two in flower-printed summer dresses, with whom he cavorted incessantly; one college-aged with glasses, whom he largely ignored; and one in a low-cut halter top and tight jeans, to whom he deferred. Advertising a Fendi leather bag high atop her long crossed legs, she grilled me on questions of high importance. “When will the Starbucks move in, already?” And later: “Do you agree that eating fish makes you smarter?” revealing herself to be a ranking concubine in the harem. Later on, after Mr. Zhang led them off on a stroll, a fifth woman in a tight white sweats appeared – another girlfriend – and Mr. Zhang’s executive assistant. She’d come to pay the check.

A chat with Mr. Zhang almost always takes a hard and fast turn to the topic of women. The first time we ever spoke, ten minutes in, he asked in all seriousness: “Why it was that foreigners’ ideas of what a beautiful woman is are so different from us Chinese? For instance, you think your wife (who is Chinese) is pretty, but I don’t.”

This time around, I asked him about his new projects. He mumbled something about a new real estate development or two. Then, unprompted, he launched into an analysis of my marriage. Next he posited expanding his network of female companions over the Internet. “When a man reaches 40,” Mr. Zhang reflected, “his main occupation should be beautiful women.”

It’s no secret that the power of the purse in China today is in many cases literally that – and it better be a Fendi or an LV, the real article. Money buys sex. Money buys power. Sex corrupts power. Capitalism perverts communism. Such are the ways of the world.

But there’s a demographic glitch: women, in relation to men, are a dwindling resource. For every 100 girls born in 2005, the most recently published statistics show, there were 118 boys, compared to 110 in 2000. This is the outcome of a quarter century of the “one-child policy” compounded by the age-old predilection for male heirs and the much more recent availability of $2-a-pop ultrasound tests. The gender imbalance of newborns is worse in the countryside – more than 130:100 in some areas. That means 0.7 or 0.8 women growing up for every man. Meanwhile, rich older guys like Zhang got three or four or five.

The verandas and VIP clubs of oversexed dandies are only half the story. Villages of unsexed tillers are the other. All too rarely are the two juxtaposed. That’s probably going to change. China is projected to have 30 million unmarried men by 2020. That’s a lot of unsatisfied urge. Are the seeds of underclass unrest being sown by seed not sown at all?

Over 2300 years ago, the Confucian sage Mencius diagnosed the social problems of the sexually unfulfilled. Guaren you ji, Guaren hao se, King Xuan of Qi confesses in a memorable episode of the Book of Mencius: “I have a weakness. I lust for beauty.” To which Mencius replies that the ruler’s indulgence is not in itself a determinant of a regime in decline. Depriving of his people of the same joy, however, is. Mencius makes poetic allusion to the dalliances of another fabled king, but notes:

“At that time, in the seclusion of the house, there were no dissatisfied women, and abroad, there were no unmarried men.” Mencius’s conclusion: “If your majesty lusts for beauty, let the people gratify the same feeling. Then what difficulty will there be in attaining the royal sway?”

In other words, Mandate schmandate. The difficulty the Communist Party has today is not really a matter of spiritual pollution or moral decay. It’s a matter of demographics.

The irony is that country “values” only hasten the flow of the action toward the city. To start with, Chinese peasants unwittingly produce fewer women to marry off to their sons. Those girls who are born aren’t needed – or asked, really – to work the land. Instead, tens of millions head off to towns and cities to find employment. Many do stints as sex workers in bathhouses and salons, where the best money is made, and send cash home. That trade, of course, makes it harder for them to go home and get married. Those who stay behind and marry often suffer cruelly. Suicide – by swallowing pesticide – is the number one killer of young women in the countryside.

In cities, by contrast, people have been awakened more successfully to the equality of the sexes. So there are more women to start with. There’s also more mobility. A clever and pretty girl can graduate to lifes as mistresses. Urban mores being what they are, more sex equals fewer scruples: A woman who’s long since lost her virginity on the job may be more acceptable to a rich businessman than a poor peasant. And, of course, these women tend to look down on the men from the villages, who are still expected to save for years to build a house before they can take a bride.

This substrata of poor bachelors is often blamed for venting their hostilities. Tens of millions are itinerant workers are fuelling rising crime and violence in cities and towns. Back home in the villages their needs have created a black market for kidnapped brides. At Chinese universities, top rural scholars has morphed into campus killers on being rejected by co-eds they couldn’t afford to court. Others have morphed into serial murderers – China’s Jack-the-rippers – on discovering girlfriends were turning tricks. One Beijing taxi driver killed and dismembered four prostitutes, reported Xinhua News Agency, because they made money more easily than cabbies.

In a recent article about the gender imbalance and the potential fallout, Geoff York of Canada’s Globe and Mail draws an interesting comparison to the Nien Rebellion of the 1850’s:

After a series of failed harvests, the local inhabitants adopted a policy of infanticide, and eventually 25 per cent of the men were unable to marry because of a shortage of women. About 100,000 unmarried men formed bandit gangs, which merged into armies that tried to overthrow the Qing Dynasty in a war that lasted for years.

At the peak of the uprising, the population imbalance was 129 men for every 100 women, smaller than the gender gap that is already developing today on Hainan Island.

A real Chinese feminist movement could take on a violent streak as well. Yes, the Communist Revolution officially liberated China’s women, but only on Maoist terms – along with peasants and workers. The ideal woman was a de-sexed version thereof, another social producer in the worker’s paradise’s. The end of hardcore socialism and the beginning of free markets has forced them to fend for their own rights. But only in the past decade have modern laws come to shield those rights, in cases such as adultery and sexual harassment. And still, in reality, their burden of proof remains hard and heavy. The country’s carnal revolution has not a women’s lib movement made. Outside of state-sponsored women’s organizations and the academic and avant-garde arenas, politics and media controls impede attempts to mount independent, broad-based agenda.

Which helps explains some of the desperate outbursts we’ve witnessed in recent years. The “mistress killers,” a P.I. agency of jilted wives helping clients catch their rich and influential husbands, made national headlines back in 2004 – until authorities cracked down. A teenage made waves last year by documenting her deadbeat dad’s infidelities on her blog. She called him “worse than Xi Men Qing,” the anti-hero of the 17th century epic novel, The Plum in the Golden Vase in which the sadomasichistic merchant is eventually sexed to death.

But that doesn’t seem to deter our friend Mr. Zhang from taking his conquests online. When he asked me what new projects I had going, I told him I was writing for a blog or two. “Oh, I bet you have a lot of female friends online. That must be a great way to meet women.” Actually, in my line of blogging, anything but, I answered. He scowled. Then an idea came over him.

“You know, I should start a blog.” Again he made eyes at the two in the flower-printed dresses. “Why don’t you open one for me? For goods like myself to have a blog would be a real shame.”

Posted by jansfield at 4:45 AM | Permalink

The Drama of Dissatisfaction

Apr
18
2007

Phone chats with Ma Guangchen can be jarring; a throw-back to another era of Chinese political awareness.

A 25-year-old university grad, he pipes along in the feral cadences of a country boy. But his polemics smack more of an agent provocateur. The first time I talked with him, in late 2004, he described what seemed like seeds of revolution, and laced his rhetoric with references to Marx, Engels and Weber. He had been furrowing through vegetable patches and chicken coops around his native village in Shandong, gathering evidence of commercial “cooperative” farming gone exploitatively wrong. His disillusionment with these newfangled schemes was such that he had left home for a desk job in Nanjiecun, a neo-Maoist company town in China’s poor central plain that wears its well-hyped Communism on the kitschy labelling of its products.

“In some ways,” he said during out first chat, “this is no different from the problems Marx saw in Germany.” Or that Mao Zedong saw here in China. The Chairman’s research rants on his native Hunan province four score ago helped convince his Communist Party cohorts that in China, a Marxist revolution would grow best not amongst the proletariat – then barely existent – but the peasantry. These days, a new breed of peasant advocates like Ma beg an obvious question: is another revolution was in store?

Unlikely. For a long time, in fact, it’s been fashionable to cast China’s rural future in calamitous brushstrokes. Against centuries of peasant rebellions, this comes instinctively. The city-countryside divide, it is often reported, has become a “ticking time bomb”. Arable land is shrinking to “crisis” levels. The Gini coefficient, a measurement of income disparity is well above the 40% experts deem “alarming”. Because of it, villages are perennial “tinderboxes”. Protests, riots and other “mass incidents”, while possibly down in number in the past year, are high-impact “flashpoints” and “lightning rods”. Some of the most violent, of late, have occured in the most developed rural belts. This conjures Gomorric prophesies of the next revolutionary wildfire – or Great Leap Forward. Allegory is all too easy with something so big. Melodrama serves a greater good.

The reality on the ground, however, appears far more disjointed and less dramatic. Slowly, yet relatively steadily, the lot of most peasants has improved over the past 25 years. The number mired in poverty has dwindled, by official standards, by over 90 percent. Peasants have lost socialist birthrights like basic health care and education, but gained personal rights to freer markets and movement. Sure, if the government expanded those rights, allowing them to sell land and settle properly in cities, they would no longer be second-class citizens; the government could shift reconsolidation of agriculture into overdrive. On a daily basis, the most fractious rifts are distinctly intra-rural: between those peasants who’ve made it – as officials, entrepreneurs and oftentimes both – and those who haven’t.

Sure, China’s “food security” – for generation of leaders who can still remember nationwide famine – is a perennial concern. But the biggest hang-up facing a rural overhaul, for Beijing, is really urban. China’s mushrooming megapolises and satellite towns do not have nearly enough work to absorb of the 800 million peasants (let alone schools or other facilities). Nearly a fifth of them make it out of the village today, and many still go back for harvest season – around half the rural population continues to works the land. China’s
Fortunately for Beijing, until cities are better ready for them, Chinese peasants are well-used to being, well, peasants. Over time, anyone’s sense of any imminent crisis tends to deaden. Mine has through hearing and watching Ma Guangchen.

Ma’s upbringing doesn’t exactly fit the part of activist. He’s the descendent of a line of ruling cadres in a large village outlying the city of Weifang. The area, beginning in the early 1990’s, was the birthplace of a new government initiative to chanyehua, or industrialize, farming. Out of individual family plots, which were de-collectivized early in the era after Mao, farmers and agribusinessmen in Weifang had been building new economies of scale. The mild climes, the mineral-rich yellow soil and proximity to South Korea and Japan were all on their side. Weifang and other parts of province are becoming to peaches, pumpkins and poultry what the export beacons of Zhejiang province are to socks, leather shoes and disposable lighters.

Before I met him, Ma had spent time as a volunteer at the James Yen Institute in Hebei province, which specializes in training farmers how to grow more efficiently and gain vital information over the Internet. Recently I asked the founder of the institute, a top expert on rural issues named Wen Tiejun, his memories of Ma. Wen called him a “radical.” But not the kind you might think. Ma’s radicalism is not as organizer but as an idealist, possibly even more dangerous in thoughts, if not deeds. For, two and a half years since our first conversation, where he invoked Marx and by extension, Mao, Ma’s still at his desk in Nanjiecun. He’s still thinking nationally while trying and hoping to act very, very locally.

Last month, I called him to hear his latest outlook. It was, as expected, grim.

He had his heart set on a newly enacted law to revive the use of so-called Farmers Professional Associations, the distant descendents of China’s traditional farming guilds that were formed in the 1980’s, but largely fell fallow in the 1990’s. Only 2 to 3 percent were really functioning as of 2004, scholars from China and the U.S. found in a study. FPAs would help farmers do such things as borrow and pool resources to build huge greenhouses. But plans to revive them have yet to take hold, alleges Ma. He blames grass-root officials, many of whom have gone into ag businesses themselves. “FPAs run completely counter to their interests.” Officialdom also has lingering apprehensions over encouraging farmers to organize. “At all levels of government, no one is publicizing the law,” says Ma. “Peasants don’t even know about it.”

Another sore point is village elections, begun in the late 1980’s. Today village committees remain the only echelon of government in China generally elected by plebiscite. But there are constant abuses. The richest peasants often win by buying votes with “red envelopes”. “Whoever has money will become the Party branch secretary,” says Ma. Victory is rewarded with the opportunity for corruption: the business and land deals that seal the villagers’ fate.

The end of farming taxes, while a watershed and short-term succor to peasant households, has not been a godsend. The nature of rural corruption has changed, argues Ma, while the fragility of social service programs hasn’t. Higher levels of government – Beijing and the provinces – have been picking up an increasing proportion of the rural tab in recent years. “But oftentimes money is not the problem anymore,” says Ma. “It’s how it’s used.”

Back home in Shandong recently, the city of Weifang disbursed the better portion of 800,000 RMB to build a new supermarket for farming supplies. It was to be built on unoccupied village land, meaning all of the villagers stood to profit. Instead, the current party secretary, a fowl trader (pun intended), convinced higher-level officials to build the market on his very own land. “Very undemocratic,” says Ma.

Local authorities also don’t have the tax revenue they used to depend on. That has forced them to abide by a tighter degree of discipline, but also to find more elaborate ways around it. “Originally, [officials] might simply divert or seize funds. But they’re methods have changed. Now they’re more likely to collude with one another.” He has also seen doctors dispatched to new state-run medical cooperatives go their separate ways, because they figured out they could be earning more as individual businessmen than salaried under the co-op.

Ma’s beefs go on and on and he continues to obsess over finding the economic model that can deliver prosperity to the peasantry. He’s no longer quite so hung up on political ideology. “Any model, communist or capitalist, can have big problems. We just have to worry about solving our concrete problems.” Currently, he believes, the late-Soviet commercial model of Yugoslavia would fit. (It’s that bad.) He has his own ideas. He’s written proposals dozens of articles long. One, not so pastoral, would subsidize peasant farmers to move into large apartment blocks, thus reducing land use in their villages. “But it’s just an idea. I’d have to find funding.”

He hadn’t given up on the doomsday rhetoric, if mainly for effect. “As long as the foundations of inequality aren’t fixed, economic and social crisis can occur at any time.” The revolution, comrades, is only a day away.

Posted by jansfield at 1:40 AM | Permalink




Get Our Weekly Email Newsletter




What We're Reading - Spot-On Books

Hot Spots - What's Hot Around the Web



Spot-on.com | Promote Your Page Too

Spot-on Main | Pinpoint Persuasion | Spotlight Blog | RSS Subscription | Spot-on Writers | Privacy Policy | Contact Us