Monday, December 28, 2009

Liu Xiaobo

Regardless of what you think of the process Liu Xiaobo is going through right now, the Christian Science Monitor's recent piece on the story has to stand out as some of the worst reporting on it thus far---at least in terms of the headline chosen, "Will West's Criticism of China for Jailing Top Dissident Backfire?"

The title refers to a long-running debate in human rights circles, both within China and abroad, as to the best way to support individual P.R.C. prisoners of conscience. NYU's Professor Jerome Cohen provided a thoughtful take on the topic a while back in the South China Morning Post (available via CFR here).

I don't blame the Monitor for trying to add to the debate. The problem is that they added zero. Evidence for the "backfire" thesis? One single quote from Tom Doctoroff, "the Shanghai-based Greater China CEO of US advertising agency JWT," who says you get the best results on human rights (his specialty I'm sure) through behind-the-doors conversations. Oh yeah, a real reliable, independent source with NO business interests whatsoever in China of all places...

Then, the reporter gets some good responses from Teng Biao, Josh Rosenzweig over at Dui Hua, etc. Except none of them deal with the issue of backlash and publicity / versus quiet.

Again, may just be bad work on the part of editor. But a serious question like this deserves better.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More on the G-20

On the other hand, here's an interesting take on the G-20 protests from Pittsburgh labor historian Charles McCollester. He recalls earlier protests in the city that descended into violence. And he describes the varied reactions of residents to today's demonstrators.

McCollester also argues that the Pittsburgh leadership doesn't want green manufacturing because it doesn't want manufacturing, period. It wants to continue to be "green" more through an absence--of industry and a troublesome working class--than through starting anything new.

Friday, September 25, 2009

G-20 protests

I've had fantasies elsewhere on this blog of teabaggers getting their comeuppance from rowdies of our own with fists and I've just barely held myself back from rooting for anti-racist rioters in Lund, Sweden.

I'm also disappointed by the media's unwillingness to take anarchists seriously. If students and professors in my international affairs classes were comfortable with the idea of states weakening and CEOs replacing or at least joining elected governments as the big players on the world state, what's so outlandish about horizontal, non-state structures that serve local, long-term needs, not short-term profits? Such a system existed in the Middle Ages, after all, when guilds controlled cities and princes had to ask permission to enter.

But the self-centered-ness of some of the G20 protesters is hard to escape. In their videos, posted at G-finity and elsewhere, the police are dehumanized from the get-go and are fought in an almost ritualistic manner, despite officers' working class roots. Local residents sympathetic to the anarchists are interviewed, but mostly as a sort of loyal workers' chorus. Sort of like, "See? They like us!"

I know that this grassroots support for anarchists can be genuine. At an anti-death penalty rally in Columbus, Ohio many years ago, the family of the condemned man in question spoke movingly afterward, away from the main event, about the support they had felt from those "masked bandits" (or some phrase to that effect). Leftists---not just anarchists, but the ISO and Socialist Alternative activists known from campus campaigns---often put down real, productive roots in urban communities. This dynamic was hinted at in a superficial way during the Reverend Wright controversy last year.

Nonetheless, there's a forced feeling to the thing in Pittsburgh, at least the marches with black banners and trash cans. As if it's time to search for a new mode of resistance.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Palin in Hong Kong!

Sarah Palin stunned Hong Kong with her BRILLIANT analysis of the global financial crisis and Sino-US relations the other day.

Not only that, she brought COMPLEX issues down to earth, down to "Main Street, USA," as she repeatedly put it, before a crowd of businesspeople carefully screened for pesky journalists (but not carefully enough--the AP slipped through). I mean, only a "Main Street" person would care about such a PRESSING, ABSOLUTELY DEVASTATING issue as intellectual property rights, right? Or eliminating capital gains taxes and estate taxes for the wealthy?

And Palin showed a knack for Daoist mental puzzles with her claim that only the unbridled market could fix problems in the long run and that government meddling caused the financial crisis. Deepening the puzzle into a sort of puzzle within a puzzle, she singled out one kind of meddling for particular rebuke, namely the sort of government action that, well, left the market unbridled. As Palin said, because the government intervened to not intervene in housing markets in particular, "Speculators spotted new investment vehicles, jumped on board and rating agencies underestimated risks." Damn socialism! Death panels!

Amid all this heady discussion, though, some of which, I must admit, went over my head, as it did over the heads of some attendees, who, heads exploding with new ideas, walked out, Palin touched on one issue that left me genuinely puzzled. This was the issue of, as she put it so eloquently, "the protest of... Chinese workers throughout the country," which, she said, along with the protests of Tibetans and Uighurs, "rightfully makes a lot of people nervous."

Her focus on workers was, of course, no surprise. She highlighted Joe the Plumber during the campaign, remember (OK, maybe he qualifies more as "petit bourgeoisie" or "would-be-petit-bourgeoisie-if-he-can-ever-buy-that-business"). Republicans, moreover, have a proud tradition of staunch support for the rights of working people---in other countries.

But Chinese workers, as Palin must know, are protesting against market policies that have shut down their plants. In some cases, they are quite explicitly calling for more government intervention in their workplaces, in the form of wage and hour law enforcement, of all things, or the investigation of occupational illnesses.

Surely, by Palin's logic, China's workers are clearly in the wrong.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

More on tires

I'd like to add to my previous post. Some, like Adam Bobrow, have responded to Obama's tire tariffs with considerably more nuance than the critics I mentioned earlier. They have done so from a perspective of a "comprehensive" approach to trade liberalization, one that tries to make the loss of certain industries in the U.S. and elsewhere more palatable through job retraining programs, improved social safety nets, etc. Basically, Jagdish Bhagwati's line (a loyal Democrat, by the way).

But these people miss a crucial point: old-fashioned, nuts and bolts industry is good to have in ANY country, not just the "developing world." Every state will, naturally, find a different mix of sectors most suitable to its conditions. However, manufacturing, through its bringing together of large groups of people in one place, through its job stability, and through the satisfaction and pride it brings by creating something concrete, builds communities in a way that no "service" employer---whether a fast food restaurant, a call center or a hair salon, a white collar consulting this or that, a do-good NGO or whatever---ever will.

Obama's action against an "import surge" (not "dumping," as I wrongly implied in the previous post) may be procedurally just---the P.R.C. agreed to the U.S. retaining its Section 421 provisions when it joined the WTO. And it may also be substantively unjust to Chinese workers. But is also only fair to American tire employees and to hopes for a healthy nation on this side of the Pacific.

It's bridging these two fairnesses, of course, that is the biggest obstacle to solidarity between U.S. and Chinese workers.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Tire tariffs

America's recent decision to impose tariffs on Chinese tire imports isn't as clean-cut of an issue as either its supporters or detractors make it out to be.

First of all, there is nothing inherently "good" or "bad" about tariffs, protectionism, free trade or any other buzzwords of the moment. As Korean economist Ha Joon Chang has amply demonstrated, on their ascent to power, every major industrial state (yes, including Britain) protected key markets and opened them, tightly guarded intellectual property rights and wantonly violated them, and welcomed FDI and restricted it.

The winners and losers in each trade dispute vary, but it would take a market fundamentalists of a utopian variety to argue with a straight face that under absolute free trade "everyone is a winner." A little like some peppy grade school teacher saying that in sports everyone wins because it makes everyone healthy and fills everyone with team spirit. Really? Even the guy who hates to play sports? Or the one who broke his leg? Maybe a bad analogy...

Back to the dispute at hand... some criticize the Obama administration's penalties as "political." As those who make such criticisms tend to make an ostentatious show of noting that few (if any) tire companies supported the tariffs, it is clear that the heart of their argument is this: captains of industry are legitimate actors in trade decisions and not by any means "political," but unions, specifically the United Steel Workers, are not. Unions---and voters more generally---are just interest groups, goes the logic, the sort of folks who are "pandered" to by venal politicians.

On the Chinese side, there's a fair case, too, though. Many in the P.R.C. were rightly angered by the concessions that former Premier Zhu Rongji made to get China into the WTO in the 1990s, concessions that came from a Clinton administration that bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia around the same time. It is precisely these special conditions that allow the Obama administration to hit China on tires (and steel pipes and other stuff)... but not hit similar "dumping" by other countries.

Young Chinese nationalists do their countrymen a better service by fighting imbalanced treaties---as their forebears during the May Fourth Movement did 90 years ago---than they do by whining about media coverage or defending Chinese colonial policies toward ethnic minorities.

So, where do I fall? Fair to protect your workers (on both sides). Nothing right or wrong inherently about protecting this or not protecting that industry. But unequal treaties are lame.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Chinese women pilots

Whatever else might be said about the Chinese revolution, it certainly succeeded in furthering gender equality. Can the same be said for China's market reforms?

The Western media likes to carry articles about plucky female entrepreneurs and abandoned baby girls. The message: capitalism has pushed women ahead, but old, feudal attitudes persist.

However, a counter-narrative is that women made great strides under communism---hanging power lines, taking on leadership roles in communes, and, famously, flying planes---and they are now being pushed into lesser roles, valued for their beauty or home-making skills more than their physical strength or politics.

Into this debate drops an article from the English-language version of Global Times, which reports that women fighter pilots will be given "new flight suits especially designed for the female."

I would guess that the old Mao-era flight suits were baggy things, basically the same for men and women (someone can correct me on this). Are the new, form-fitting versions a sign of progress? What narrative do they belong to?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Burma refugees

We don't have all the information we need--and it's disconcerting that journalists have been turned away from the areas affected--but it seems that China has been handling the stream of refugees from Burma very well. If this is indeed the case, it could serve as a new model for China's relations with its more troubled neighbors: focusing on human needs, on the immediacy of suffering brought on by war, human rights abuses, crime, and environmental devastation, as much as settling old border disputes (as important as that is), building security frameworks like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and reassuring small-time elites.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Chen Yun

I've begun reading Prisoner of the State at last. The person who has impressed me the most so far in it--and I'm only about halfway through--is Chen Yun. He comes across as one of the more principled characters with whom Zhao Ziyang tangles.

Comrade Chen is famous for resisting the excesses of Maoist economics, arguing for light, consumer-oriented goods when the country was going all out for steel (at least that's what I recall from history textbooks... someone correct me if I'm wrong). But he clearly wasn't a market zealot. Throughout Prisoner of the State, which is centered on the 1980s, Chen calls for restraint, blocking lucrative deals with foreign companies but grudgingly going along with other of Zhao's schemes when the logic of reform is inescapable.

In other words, Chen really meant what he said to Mao and to Deng alike: private enterprise has its role, but it is a secondary role to government. Agree with him or disagree with him, Chen kept true to his own experience and instincts, at a time when it paid off big time to toe the prevailing line. And when it was dangerous not to do so.

In contrast, I find myself repeatedly uncomfortable with Zhao's market fever. Of course, the market must have felt refreshingly bold only a little over a decade after the Cultural Revolution. But was ceding a large section of Hainan to a private developer, as Zhao tried to do, really so visionary?

Some people are revered by later generations not because they were always right, but because they took the right stand at a crucial moment. Zhao certainly did this when he refused to assent to the martial law declaration in 1989. For that he deserves all our respect.

More on Tonghua

It is a little strange to see battles over privatization in China again in 2009. The feeling is like the late 90s / early 2000s, when thousands filled the streets of Daqing, Liaoyang and elsewhere, playing the Internationale on boomboxes and demanding accountability from corrupt managers plundering state assets.

I would have guessed that the country's migrant workers, who have been laid off by the tens of millions since the onset of the global financial crisis, would be at the heart of labor unrest this year. Yet, once again, the socialist heritage and tighter organization of state-owned enterprise workers has once again pushed them, not migrants, to the front.

The scene is different this time around, though. Crucially, at least in the most high-profile cases, the workers seem to be winning. Linzhou Iron & Steel in Anyang City, a state-owned steel mill in Henan, just shelved privatization plans after thousands of workers protested and took an official hostage. This follows the capitulation of bosses and local authorities in Jilin after workers killed an executive of Tonghua Iron & Steel Works in a riot.

While I was in China recently, Xin Jing Bao, did an interesting series of stories about the background of the Tonghua riots. Among other things, it interestingly noted that police were focusing on finding which workers put up posters urging a protest... really, that was most important? Not who killed the boss? An interesting insight into the mindset of some authorities.

Anyway... it remains to be seen whether the tactics and plain sense of self-worth and of social justice possessed by SOE workers will have any impact on China's working class as a whole.

P.S. I'm afraid that on re-reading my previous post, I realized it was rather repetitive of points I've made elsewhere. It also owed itself to my exchanges with Woodoo and others over at ChinaGeeks.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tonghua vs. Urumqi

The Tonghua Steel violence is getting much more detailed, rounded coverage on the mainland than abroad. Why does this fact matter? After all, lots of things are reported better by Chinese, whether online or through outlets like Southern Metropolis Daily, than by foreign reporters, who tend to get to stories late and present them piecemeal.

Well, compare the Chinese reaction to workers rising up against their factory's privatization and killing their boss in this instance to the reaction to Uighurs rising up against Han domination and killing Han civilians. is going after the NY Times right now for captions in a slide show about Urumqi (lousy captions, admittedly, but does anyone even read captions on slideshows?). CNN has been hit again for when it uses the word "riot" and when "protest." Chinese campaigns for Kurdish independence to get back at Turkey for criticizing China's treatment of Uighurs are being chatted up (not out of any real sympathy for the Kurds, sadly). Yada yada yada....

In other words, the focus in terms of Xinjiang is all on whether folks abroad are being sensitive enough to violence against the powerful by the weak and whether the authorities in the form of the police are being respected. Kind of like using the Watts riots as a starting point for a discussion of the plight of the white man in America. I'm exaggerating, I suppose. Poor Han who moved to Xinjiang seeking a better life must also be classed among the "weak." But the point is that few Chinese netizens are using their excellent cyber detective skills to dig into the origins of the Urumqi riot or the casualty figures.

Simultaneously, though, the Tonghua incident is getting thoughtful analysis like this one translated by ESWN:
A big thing occurred at the Tonghua Steel today. I will say that it is a big thing only, because I don't know if it is a good thing, a fortunate thing, a bad thing or a tragic thing. A life perished under the hands of countless number of workers, and that person was the newly appointed Tonghua Iron and Steel Company [head] Mr. Chen who came from the Jianlong Group.

Violence involving minorities engenders a knee-jerk rallying around the flag and the majority ethnicity. Violence involving workers and bosses or rich kids with sports cars and poor students or officials at a massage parlor and an employee... seem, on the other hand, to engender sympathy for the underdog and suspicion of authorities.

This is sad in a way. But it's also heartening that social justice claims have such a pull. No one is rushing to play things at Tonghua Steel down in the interests of China's image. There's anger and confusion, instead. Natural emotions. And hopeful.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Un-reconstructed colonialists debate constitutional details on PBS in support of a coup and the abrogation of sections of the Honduran constitution

So, former ambassador Roger F. Noriega is on PBS right now saying that there is a virtually unanimous consensus in Honduras that Zelaya needed to be ousted... unanimous among politicians. Then, he says that the OAS should not only back off its criticisms of the first coup in the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War (if you don't count the last Mexican election), but should also answer for allowing the governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua to come to power or something like that. And that we should stand by Hondurans (again, the unanimous politicians, presumably, not the people out protesting in the streets) in preserving "democracy" there.

Meanwhile, after accusing Zelaya of violating the constitution, the interim coup government has eliminated whole sections of the constitution, namely the right to protest, freedom in one's home from unwarranted search, seizure and arrest, freedom of association, guarantees of rights of due process while under arrest, and freedom of transit in the country.

Why is the media presenting this as a fifty-fifty equation?

Sure, the right wing should be able to make its arguments. But it should do so with a common understanding, as there is in the case of the rigged Iranian elections, that they have other interests at stake, namely undermining a leftist resurgence in Latin America, preserving exclusive political systems in the region centered around a small, landholding elite, and dashing the hopes of workers and farmers for a different order. If it's clear that that's what they want, and not some abstract constitutional principle that their fascist buddies are in the midst of trampling, then they can say all they want as far as I'm concerned...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

More democratic now or then?

I've been reading Anita Chan, Richard Madsen and Jonathan Unger's expanded edition of Chen Village Under Mao and Deng. Throughout, I've been struck by how incredibly participatory governance in rural areas was during the Mao era.

Of course, it was a participation driven by the great tidal waves waves of mass campaigns, each of which left behind new victims in addition to the pitiful villagers of "bad" class backgrounds, who were hauled out and made to pay for their pre-revolutionary crimes again and again and again with every movement. And freedom of opinion, while unleashed in a devastating way during the Cultural Revolution, was on the whole much more restricted than today. The book vividly depicts the fatigue that constant mobilization created in ordinary people, a fatigue that ultimately overwhelmed their faith in the Party in many instances.

But compared to the unaccountable rural officials, opaque finances and land battles one reads of every week these days in the Chinese press and in books like Zhongguo nongmin diaocha or the research of Yu Jianrong, the battles of Maoism seem remarkably evenly fought, with leaders rising and falling, agricultural brigades and teams forming the centers of lively debates, and farmers jumping on evidence of corruption.

Those aren't particularly original insights, I suppose, but they've pushed me beyond my skepticism of calls for further privatization of land to think about what kind of arrangement, exactly, would be best for China's farmers. Yes, village elections should be strengthened (and matched by livelier People's Congress elections at the township level, as well as direct elections for township chiefs). But how to ensure that production, too, is guarded by laobaixing?

ALSO: On an unrelated topic, I haven't read the whole of the Washington Post's take on the battle over healthcare reform within the Democratic Party, but I must say---and, again, this isn't fair having not read the whole article---that the opening strengthens charges that the paper tends to see everything as a beltway power battle in need of "moderate" compromises, rather than as real issues. I mean, really? Baucus and health reform groups should be natural allies and are hurt by silly efforts by "outsiders" to impact legislation? Huh?

Monday, June 22, 2009

The New Left--what a relief

Popular online forums give the impression that ideology in China is sharply divided between "liberals" who champion political liberties but uncritically praise the U.S. and free markets, on the one hand, and, on the other, "leftists" (more accurately described as populist nationalists or fascists) who lash out at foreign critics, while maintaining an ambiguous stance on social justice, waffling from social darwinism ("the weak must suffer for China to get ahead") to outrage at the arrogant rich.

It is therefore refreshing to read the essays of Chinese thinkers who espouse a more true leftism, with nuanced views of the country's socialist past, salvaging successes from the Mao era like rural health care but not whitewashing the brutality of the Cultural Revolution; concerned about the corrosive effects of commercialism and social stratification; and driven by a real passion for democracy--but adamant that democracy must be truly popularly based, not a game for the well-educated.

Wang Hui, the editor of Du Shu, in particular, makes powerful arguments. He describes as self-serving those liberals who champion freedom of speech and rule of law but seem unexcited about local elections and positively hostile to the idea of greater democracy on factory floors.

Wang is clear that markets are not "natural" but the result of decisions, ultimately enforced with guns: "All-out marketization in China did not originate from spontaneous exchange but from acts of violence--state repression of protest." The protest Wang refers to is, of course, the one that resulted in the June 4, 1989 crackdown, violence which, according to him, not only crushed the Tiananmen students' campaign for democracy but also ordinary people's resistance to price reforms (reforms pushed, incidentally, by Zhao Ziyang, who ultimately lost power because of his unwillingness to back martial law against the protesters).

Not content to keep things on a domestic scale, Wang continues:
... the Open Door policies of Deng Xiaoping demanded a much deeper insertion of China into the world market. How did that happen? A key step in the process was China's invasion of Vietnam in 1978--the first war of aggression by the PRC after 1949. The only reason for this otherwise senseless attack on a small neighbor was Deng's desire for a new relationship with the United States. The invasion was offered as a political gift to Washington, and became China's entrance ticket to the world system. Here too violence was the precondition of a new economic order.

I don't know that there's any consensus that a desire to please the U.S. was "the only reason" for Deng Xiaoping's decision. China waited until after it had resumed diplomatic ties with Washington before it launched the invasion, suggesting that Beijing was actually worried that America would not support the violence--but then, I'm no expert on these things.

However, I admire Wang's stubborn humanism, with his insistence that liberalism doesn't offer an easy ticket out of China's dilemmas and that authoritarianism and unfairness must be dealt with together and are equal challenges.

Again, I can't recommend Chaohua Wang's collection One China Many Paths (from which the quotes above come) enough! It places Wang Hui alongside thoughtful liberals like Zhu Xueqin, who acknowledge the dangers of China's rising inequality, as well as people like Gan Yang, who argues for national elections as a means of creating national cohesion and checking local despots. The book is a good survey of debates from the 1990s to early 2000s---and a good corrective to the blues one can get reading too many blogs.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran and Tiananmen

Obama's cautious approach to the Iranian protests, refusing to "meddle" in the election but voicing concern about violence against demonstrators, makes sense for the reason that he gave at a press conference today: a more assertive stance is "not productive given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations...."

However, looking ahead, Obama would do well to remember another piece of US foreign policy history, namely America's relationship with China in the months and years immediately following the Tiananmen massacre.

In 1989, Bush the elder did not allude to past US intrigues as a reason for a less forceful stance on the events of June 4. In fact, he didn't really do any explaining. He simply at once condemned the crackdown and assured China (privately, via Brent Scowcrowft, at first) that relations, while bumpy, would continue more or less the same.

This double-message is praised in foreign policy circles as the perfect balance of principle and realism, but it led to a zig-zag, confused few years of Sino-US relations. Bill Clinton bluffed that he would tie trade with the P.R.C. to human rights progress, then flipped over to the other extreme and rammed through PNTR.

The effect was to make clear that America only deals with rights when it has less pressing matters on its mind (something Hillary Clinton reiterated recently on her first trip to China as Secretary of State).

Chinese dissidents abroad are brave but their prescriptions often seem out of touch with reality at home. Not so Yang Jianli's advice last year. In an interview with Foreign Policy, he said:
Many people wrongly assume that pressuring the Chinese government on human rights triggers ill will toward Americans on the part of ordinary Chinese citizens. In fact, it is the United States’ constant seesawing that reinforces the popular belief that Americans only act for their own material gain. The lofty statements followed by inaction have led the Chinese people to conclude that some American politicians, scholars, and businesspeople are hypocrites. Their self-imposed censorship when dealing with the Chinese government is disappointing. I have never opposed trading with China, but I cannot support a policy that is so wholly inconsistent.

Obama would do well to heed Yang's words when approaching Iran in the months and years to come. Not "meddling" is fine, whether literally or rhetorically, and there's no reason to cut dialogue entirely with the Iranian government if the current movement fails. But the U.S. should continue to be clear with the Iranian people about what calculations it is making and it should continue to speak clearly about its own ideals and not pipe up or quiet down depending on the winds of war and money. It should also be ready to make some sacrifices for democracy in Tehran.

UPDATE: The more I think about it, the more I think Obama should begin doing more.

Liu Yongyi's dismissal

China Labor News Translations has just put up some material on an interesting and extremely frustrating situation:
The story of Liu Yongyi, trade union chairperson of the Guangdong Trade Union Building workers’ union, [who] was fired after pushing too hard for workers’ interests is a familiar one; this sort of thing happens every day in China. What makes this story particularly galling is that the hotel that Liu works for is not only directly owned by the GDFTU, but is also where actually occupies the same building as the trade union’s office. This has led many to ask the question, if unions cannot operate without fear of illegal retaliation by management in companies owned by a trade union, where can they? The answer has to be, nowhere.

CLNT has usually maintained a tone of cautious optimism about the prospects for the All China Federation of Trade Unions as an avenue for worker mobilization. That last sentence in the quote above thus has a particularly strong kick to it.

The fact that Chinese media have gone to town on the story is hopeful. If anything good comes of this, it is that the public will now have been given one more lesson on what a union is and isn't (or should and shouldn't be). Unfortunately, unlike other episodes, this one might not serve to raise people's expectations of the ACFTU---and thereby force better performance---but instead could merely deepen cynicism and disengagement.

On a different note, I've just started reading One China, Many Paths, edited by Chaohua Wang. Really interesting and much recommended.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New rules for courts re: mass incidents

China has just asked courts to help prevent protests. On the face of it, this seems like another outrage in a long stream of reversals of progress on rule of law by the new, Wang Shengjun-led Supreme People's Court. And that's how a Forbes article sees the situation:
According to the internal handbook of the Chinese communist government, China's legal system is defined as its exclusive tool to safeguard one-party rule. This week, to make this clearer to potential troublemakers, Beijing asked courts across the country to help curb rising workers' protests.

But it's not clear that Forbes is entirely right. I don't mean they're wrong. I mean the facts just aren't all in yet.

Specifically, the new rules call for a) tracking trends in labor disputes, b) thinking about the broader social consequences of cases involving big companies, c) more mediation and d) more coordination with local governments.

There's nothing wrong that I can think of with item "a". Presumably plenty of countries' courts take note of patterns in the cases they receive. But "b" could both mean adopting measures, as the American government has (though not through court rules), to tide over weakened but "too big to fail" corporations or... it could mean protecting companies from workers' cases if it seems like those cases could spread. As China Daily says:
In Fujian and Guangdong provinces, recent disputes over such issues involved hundreds of workers dragging companies to court.

"It is very important to handle such cases carefully as some large enterprises have divisional companies across the country. Court decisions in one place might lead to mass incidents in other places," Liu told China Daily.

Item "c" is also troubling. Neighborhood mediation committees in particular, which are used to sorting out domestic disputes and the like, are ill-equipped to handle labor law questions and liable to simply split the difference between employers and employees.

Finally..."d" does give pause rule-of-law-wise. Not sure what it would mean in practice, though.

"You want my vote, I want yours"

The last few moments of this video are beautiful. Specter is going on about different jobs he's brought to Pennsylvania and people keep interrupting him about the Employee Free Choice Act. As TPM reports:
"You want my vote, I want yours," heckled one of the activists....

"I understand your job's on the line," Specter told the crowd, which shouted back, "your job's on the line!"

The point is not that Specter is a complete scoundrel and that he's getting his comeuppance---he's not a scoundrel, really. It's that labor is finally asking politicians for a straight answer: do they support a conscious, assertive working class or do they just want to create jobs and pay lip service to a dying movement? It's moving.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Iron Man II

I commented earlier on the return to Chinese pop culture of "Iron Man Wang Jinxi," the famous Daqing model worker whose life is depicted in a new movie hyped by a whole special section of Workers Daily.

It seems like the section was more than a coincidence.

Now, the paper is reporting on screenings of the film by local branches of the All China Federation of Trade Unions. After one such event in Fujian, Workers Daily says that workers were moved by the "spirit of Iron Man" to "join in the construction of Haixi." Apparently, Haixi is a new economic zone with special "fiscal system, tax and industrial policies" designed to attract Taiwanese investment.

It seems cynical in the extreme to use a hero of a what Ching Kwan Lee calls the old "socialist social contract" to promote an SEZ. But there might be something else at work here: a bid by the ACFTU for relevance by appealing to a time when it enjoyed the trust of workers. Given the alternatives---the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, etc.---this might not be such a bad thing.

Friday, May 29, 2009

In-depth reporting

I've often felt that the problem with foreign journalists in China is not that they have an agenda (as Chinese right-wing / nationalist, ahem, "left wing" netizens claim), but that they just don't have a lot depth and go for cookie cutter stories. Custer at ChinaGeeks makes this point well in regards to newspapers' constant comparisons of any protest in China to Tiananmen. Part of the issue, I think, is that reporters don't stay in the P.R.C. (or anywhere) long.

I remember meeting a photographer who was taking a language program with me in Beijing in 2006 who had just been transferred there from reporting on Iraq. She was sure she'd be headed elsewhere in a bit over a year. How could she find much to photograph beyond the obvious? I expect she delivered a number of shots of police in front of the Forbidden City trying to cover her lens with their gloves. Or chic young people walking past police. Or old buildings contrasted with a racy ad.

Each reporter / photographer goes for the big arc---"China's no longer like it was under Mao! Believe it or not, it's gone capitalist, but it's still authoritarian! Who would have guessed?"---for a year, then, if they are there longer, they start to get into the details. But before they're too far into the details, they're gone.

Blogger Michael Anti is trying to change this, but for Chinese reporting on the world, not the other way around. His website Zhongheng Zhoukan or "Far and Wide Journal" has reporting from Chinese stationed around the world (countries are organized by their flags on the main page).

Anti told Danwei, "My intention was to organize an independent professional analysis group consisting of journalists, scholars, columnists and students, who will continue to research on a single country, area or topic for years. Every week, we publish online a collection of their political analyses. It's a kind of civil think-tank on international politics. We offer Chinese media readers an alternative option from lazy translation or nationalist propaganda."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fair enough

From the Wall Street Journal:

China said in a document putting forward its demands for December climate talks in Copenhagen that developed nations must cut their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2020 from 1990 levels.

China is also asking rich countries to donate at least 0.5% to 1% of their annual gross domestic product to help poorer countries cope with climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, it said in the document, which was posted on the Web site of the National Development and Reform Commission, the economic policy-making body that governs China's greenhouse gas emissions policy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Health care II

I just came across Asia Health Care Blog via Dan Harris at China Law Blog. It's a good introduction to the many different ways that China could sort out the issues I mentioned in my last post on the topic. But it lacks the sort of moral urgency I'd like. If someone knows of a good, Chinese Paul Farmer, someone who sees health care as a struggle and denial of medical attention as a systemic cruelty... then let me know.

Monday, May 11, 2009

U.S. imprisonment of journalists

As Iran releases U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi from prison, Glen Greenwald makes some strong points about American imprisonment of journalists:
Saberi's release is good news, as her conviction occurred as part of extremely dubious charges and unreliable judicial procedures in Iran.... But imprisoning journalists -- without charges or trials of any kind -- was and continues to be a staple of America's "war on terror," and that has provoked virtually no objections from America's journalists who, notably, instead seized on Saberi's plight in Iran to demonstrate their claimed commitment to defending persecuted journalists....

Beginning in 2001, the U.S. held Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj for six years in Guantanamo with no trial of any kind, and spent most of that time interrogating him not about Terrorism, but about Al Jazeera. For virtually the entire time, the due-process-less, six-year-long imprisonment of this journalist by the U.S. produced almost no coverage -- let alone any outcry -- from America's establishment media, other than some columns by Nicholas Kristof (though, for years, al-Haj's imprisonment was a major media story in the Muslim world)....

... the U.S. continues to imprison Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer for Reuters, even though an Iraqi court last December -- more than five months ago -- found that there was no evidence to justify his detention and ordered him released. The U.S. -- over the objections of the CPJ, Reporters Without Borders and Reuters -- refused to recognize the validity of that Iraqi court order and announced it would continue to keep him imprisoned....

A Nexis search for "Roxana Saberi" reveals 2,201 mentions in press reports, virtually all of them in the last two months regarding her arrest by Iran. By stark contrast, a search for "Ibrahim Jassam"... produces a grand total of 71 mentions.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Health care

Way back when I studied abroad in Beijing in 2001, I did a little "research project" on health reform in China. My professors put me in touch with some talkative retirees and gave me newspaper articles to read (which was difficult back then, given my limited Chinese level). I came back with a glowing report on the future of the country's health system and was told I was being too optimistic, which I obviously was... I just hadn't been given the right resources.

A couple years later, a friend of mine in the countryside was surprised to be charged somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 RMB for his daughter's broken tooth to be fixed. This was a couple times his monthly earnings. Another person I knew, an urbanite, had to pay extra under the table for his mother to get proper hospital treatment. These people's experiences with price-gouging and corruption, I discovered, were not unique (see this article in China Elections and Governance and this one in The Telegraph). When SARS swept through, the disease showed how dangerous China's system or lack thereof could be: people carrying SARS were shaken down for money and turned away in some instances, at least initially.

Obviously, the Chinese health system, like America's, is in need of a fundamental overhaul. Especially in rural areas. And it seems like it will, at last, get some changes in the near future (see USA Today's recent, surprisingly in-depth article). The details of the current plan pretty much mirror the plan that I read about way back, eight years ago: individuals will pay a certain amount, their employers and local government will kick in some, and the central government will pay the remainder.

This sounds fine on the surface, but the balance is, in fact, skewed: local governments are responsible for 60 percent of the funds. They simply cannot pay this, having already tried out random taxes, land seizures and other methods to raise cash, all with socially destabilizing consequences. Academics like Christine Wong have written about how what was essentially a progressive tax in the Mao era (with localities and enterprises sending all their profits into the center and getting back more or less what they needed to catch up to other areas) evolved into a regressive system, whereby poor areas pay for growth in Beijing and Shanghai, leaving little left over for an ever-increasing number of mandates: to provide education free, to reduce pregnancies, to build hospitals, etc.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that some are calling for more private solutions, a la the American model. I hope no one pays attention to these voices. This would only lead to more corruption and less responsibility. What is needed is a national, socialized system... but I don't envy anyone trying to put it together.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Ah, that's all that was needed

Southern Metropolis Daily reports that the city's cheng guan, low-level public order cops who bust roadside vendors and are roundly hated by the public, have changed... the color of their uniforms.

Internal propaganda

When I was last in Beijing, I noticed the same glowing, digital ads projected inside subway tunnels that appear out of the darkness as you enter and exit some stations in Washington, DC. Michael Zhao has a piece on the phenomenon in Forbes magazine that explains how the human eye "animates" a string images, how a company called Beijing Topflash Media is pushing this stuff, etc. All interesting. But I was most struck at the time by the content of the advertisements.

As further proof that the main target of Beijing's rhetoric on Tibet is not the outside world but the Chinese people, the ads were all for a new production of the People's Daily website devoted exclusively to Tibet, Zhongguo Xizang Wang. They weren't very stylish ads--no animation, at least not any that I remember. But they drove the thing home. Upon returning to the States, I looked for Zhongguo Xizang Wang.

I found it; it is here.

And it is much more sophisticated than any of the clumsy pronouncements China makes to the outside world about the T.A.R. The site has heartwarming stories on Chinese young people volunteering in Tibetan schools, a section on Tibetan culture (dancing, of course), articles on concerns in France that H.H. the Dalai Lama's visit there will strain Sino-French relations, and, last but not least, a book corner that highlights a series of conspiracy / history / drama books that I saw everywhere in Chinese airport bookstores: Xizang Mima ("The Tibet Code").

In comparison, updates on the Chinese Embassy's website in DC come across propagandistic and flat, full of quotes from foreign folks in support of Chinese policy, like the sections in Chinese and Vietnamese museums highlighting gifts from abroad. It is as if the Embassy posts don't receive any real effort, like they were just put there to show someone that they had been put up. Which is the point.

While China would like to change hearts and minds abroad, its purpose in exposing "the Dalai clique" to the world is mostly to seem consistent to home audiences. Boring? Yes, but fiercely the same. Sticking up for the nation in hostile settings. Sticking up by being its same, old, boring self.

Saturday, May 02, 2009


The picture above was taken from Cardozo High School, looking out over Washington, DC, this evening. The view is much cooler than what my camera phone captured.

Up the hill, you can see layer upon layer of the individual, quirky row houses that define the city, while to the east the new convention center, a (largely successful) attempt at economic rejuvenation via corporate blahhh, pops up out of the skyline. To the west, the Washington Monument rises---state power and glory. The dome of congress, to the east again, brings up images of urban decay from a decade ago: power lines, a lone smokestack and broken roofs with the old dome rising behind them, like a "decline of the West" reverse of the old-versus-new snapshots people love to take of Shanghai skyscrapers rising from quaint lanes.

It seems like an enormous challenge to create a community out of all this, one that pulls off an opportunity structure dynamic enough to invite the input (and challenges) of new demographic groups, that generates enough wealth to feel like it has some momentum, and that moves toward the end point of absolute equality without losing vernacular beauty.

A couple articles over the past few weeks highlight the difficulties of keeping all these plates spinning. The NY Times has a depressing piece on the betrayals of India's traditional Communist Party in West Bengal in its pursuit of growth. And an article by The New Yorker compares the competing visions of egalitarianism born out of Smyrna, Tennessee's Nissan plant, on the one hand, with its "team" feel and management eating in the company cafeteria, and the UAW-negotiated labor relations that built Detroit, on the other.

Friday, May 01, 2009

May Day

May Day is upon us and, with the global economic crisis reminding everyone who didn't know it already that Wall Street excess isn't a soft, win-win engine of growth, the streets have been especially lively this year. See BBC's video of protests in Turkey, the Philippines, Germany and Russia here.

Few remember that the holiday was originally designated by the Second International as, in part, a day of remembrance for the Hay Market martyrs, anarchists who were tried and hanged largely for their political beliefs after a bomb was thrown at police by an unknown individual during a peaceful protest in Hay Market Square in Chicago in 1886.

The protest in Hay Market Square had been called in response to police shootings during a previous rally outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co's factory. That rally, in turn, grew out of a nationwide mobilization for an eight-hour day. Wikipedia has the full chronology here.

Though it seems a little silly, I am particularly impressed by the mustaches and beards of those radicals of times gone by (see the photo above). Their facial hair speaks---at least I think---to their close association with their time and place, a contrast with some radicals today who make a point of distinguishing themselves from their milieu. Orwell had some choice words over half a century ago on this subject:

The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that Socialism, in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle classes. The typical Socialist is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years' time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white- collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting....

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.
One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured 'Socialists', as who should say,'Red Indians'. He was probably right--the I.L.P. were holding their
summer school at Letchworth.

I'm not on board with all of Orwell's stereotypes ("Quakers" and "feminists" and "Red Indians" don't seem particularly wacky to me). And making fun of counterculture has gone a bit too far nowadays, with jokes about the 60s and 70s covering over the serious questions raised by communes, anti-war and anti-nuclear advocacy, drug experimentation, etc. But Orwell, a socialist himself, had a point.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Poland is banning all "authoritarian" images from clothing. That means, specifically, that I won't be able to wear my Che T-shirt there, as Che was a communist and communism as a whole is now not allowed as an element of Polish fashion... unless, I suppose, the designer can avoid the label of "propaganda" by putting an asterix next to, say, a hammer and sickle, with a note describing the horrors of the gulag or the limits of Cuba's parliament or the shortcomings of a command economy or something.

Are Trotsky and Stalin memorabilia to be treated the same, though? Are there gradations to Poland's rules? If so, are the gradations based on the degree of political liberalism espoused by a given communist luminary, i.e. could I wear the T-shirt of a political reformer like Gorbachev or Zhao Ziyang? Or are the rules based on theory versus action, i.e. could I wear a T-shirt with Marx and Engels or Gramsci but not Lenin? Was Lenin a complete authoritarian or did his successors just mess things up? What is Poland's verdict on the Cultural Revolution---democratic excess or authoritarian purge?

Wait, isn't banning certain political images... authoritarian?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sign of the times

The All China Federation of Trade Unions-affiliated Workers Daily carried the headline above in an issue I picked up on a plane in China. The bold text reads (roughly) "Closely Unite Ourselves with Enterprises." Which, coming from a trade union, is disappointing.

On the surface, this sentiment is not that far from the thinking that lies behind the United Auto Workers' recent concessions: the economic crisis changes everything. But the UAW's concessions were concessions, and extraordinary ones at that, not a reversion to established form, as in the ACFTU's case.

The second part of the headline is more interesting: "Shaanxi Union Deeply Advances 'Mutually Agreed Upon Actions.'" "Mutually agreed upon actions" (gongtong yueding huodong) is the rallying cry of a new, national program by the ACFTU, wherein, according to a recent proclamation, the union will "both protect employees' rights and promote enterprises' interests" (see this article).

In a conversation with a Chinese union organizer recently, I got a sense of how this kind of engagement can, sometimes, pack a punch, when the whole idea of real unions is new: the company hashes out a collective contract and then finds the workers helping with efficiency in other areas; the company then sees the union as a real force of its own, capable of sticking up for workers and pulling things off production-wise that even the company can't. A different sort of dance follows.

But that's all premised on the rights-protection portion of "mutually agreed upon actions" having some substance.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Iron Man returns

I will do a bunch of posts in a flurry soon (I've been out of the country and they've backed up). However, before I do anything that takes much thought, I thought I'd plug the upcoming film "Tie Ren" ("Iron Man"), which is slated for May Day. A section on the project has been set up at Workers' Daily here.

Basically, "Tie Ren" is about the great Daqing "model worker" Wang Jinxi, known as "Iron Man Wang Jinxi." With state-owned enterprise workers facing new pressures (see the recent CLB report on lessons not learned from the first round of SOE reforms) and jobless migrant workers returning to the countryside by the millions, it is the perfect time for a tribute to labor as a pillar of the country.

The fact that the film is being advertised as a part of the PRC's 60th anniversary celebrations is important---viewers will be reminded that the country was founded in part to further the interests of working people.

Some may also be reminded of the great wave of strikes that hit the northeastern rustbelt in 2002, during which several hundred beleaguered oil workers gathered to protest at a statue to Iron Man Wang Jinxi in Daqing (thousands more may have joined them if not for local government threats). As Timothy Weston writes in "The Iron Man Weeps", workers in Chongqing that same year hoisted a banner that read, "Iron Man, Iron Man look back, corrupt officials are at your back. Iron Man, Iron Man look ahead, your kids live by begging."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sympathy for rebels

I wonder if Tibet isn't achieving a certain subversive chic in China, even as it is the subject of intense fury from young, nationalist bloggers.

My evidence is anecdotal: Cui Jian's use of Tibetan music during his allegedly anti-Olympics concert (though why, exactly, the concert was "anti-Olympics" beyond that some German reporter said so, I don't know) and Zheng Jun's new comic book about a heavy metal "Tibetan Rock Dog" playing the underground Beijing music scene.

So... this "trend" might not be a trend.

But, if it is a trend, it might be meaningful. Think of the U.S. counterculture's embrace of the Zapatistas in Mexico or, decades ago, the FMLN in El Salvador and Sandinistas in Nicaragua (or those Che Guevara T-shirts that adorn many backs, including that of this writer).

Chinese interest in Tibetan culture can often be filed in the "noble savage" category of admiration, just like sympathy for Native Americans in the U.S. But if resistance, too, gets respect, even a little bit, then things are different.

That was true in the United States, as well, when supporters for Native Americans lashed out against settler atrocities over a century ago--to the point that some citizens grumbled that Indian atrocities weren't getting enough attention--or, more recently, backed up the American Indian Movement's quest for greater autonomy.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Wonderful news

The FMLN has won El Salvador's vote. The victory was deferred a couple decades. And it grates to read old, 1980s U.S. war criminals now taking credit for the country's democratic transition after they backed up the killers of three U.S. nuns, at least a thousand farmers in El Mozote, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and countless others. But so it goes and it's incredible to see El Salvador show where its heart has always been.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mountains and valleys

I've been trying to find this quote from Mao about leveling the mountains and filling in the valleys, but Google keeps giving me articles like "What is the clinical significance of an elevated platelet MAO level?" Anyway, it wasn't a very appropriate analogy, or at least not one that would bring a lot of converts to what I'm writing about... which is that I'm excited about Obama's proposed budget, or at least the way the NY Times describes it:
The Obama budget — a bold, even radical departure from recent history, wrapped in bureaucratic formality and statistical tables — would sharply raise taxes on the rich, beyond where Bill Clinton had raised them. It would reduce taxes for everyone else, to a lower point than they were under either Mr. Clinton or George W. Bush. And it would lay the groundwork for sweeping changes in health care and education, among other areas.

More than anything else, the proposals seek to reverse the rapid increase in economic inequality over the last 30 years.

About time! That's what I've really been wanting all these years. Foreign policy and all that is important, but I really want someone to stick it to the rich people... and get things back to the WPA days.


That's a bit rash, but my main thing is that Clinton never cared about inequality. He cared about the little guy, sure, but not inequality. If Obama does, then I'm more or less satisfied.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Clinton bungles it

I've gotta say... Clinton did fine in terms of setting up the right relationships in China, with the government and with ordinary people, but I don't get why she had to talk about human rights the way she did.

If she wanted to focus on global warming and treasury bonds, she should have done just that and not even mentioned rights. Instead, Clinton went out of her way to frame rights as a sort of dead-end and distraction, so that the next time they have to come up---such as in the event of more brutality in Tibet---they will be dismissed as the sort of chatter that only occurs when there's nothing else more important to talk about or as a formality demanded by narrow-sighted interest groups at home.

Instead, Clinton could have pushed rights out of the on-again, off-again US-China "human rights dialogue" (scrap the dialogue if need be) and made them a normal part of other discussions. Environmental discussions, for example, could include the rights of the poor to safe water or of environmental campaigners to freedom from intimidation. Economic discussions could include the plight of workers.

Of course, such an expanded conversation would inevitably touch on America's misdeeds. Which would be perfect. We need someone to say that closing Guantanmo is good but closing the Bagram air base would be better. One of the best things about the human rights reports that the U.S. produces about China is that they often draw a Chinese response criticizing the U.S. It's a healthy exchange. Now it needs to be expanded, not shunted off to the corner.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bring in Barghouti

If they could get Barghouti back in there... from the Huffington Post:

Marwan Barghouti is the most popular Palestinian leader since Yasser Arafat. He has spent the last seven years in an Israeli prison after being convicted of playing a role in attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.

A lifetime member of President Mahmoud Abbas' venerable and corruption-riddled Fatah movement, Barghouti is seen as perhaps the group's best chance to restore its eroded credibility. Many Palestinians _ and some Israelis _ see him as the only figure capable of bridging the myriad rifts among Palestinians and leading them toward their long elusive dream of statehood.

Barghouti is a secularist who works with Islamists. He supports negotiations with Israel, speaks fluent Hebrew and has Israeli friends, but he built his reputation through anti-Israel diatribes during the second Palestinian uprising.

I don't profess to being an expert on any of these things, but this man has always impressed me. It seems that Israel has kept him under lock and key precisely because he WOULD make a good negotiating partner. Israel will probably never come to an internal consensus that it is ready for a serious peace effort, but maybe having Barghouti on the scene will force things forward.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Charter 08

My main problem with Charter 08, beyond the stuff about privatizing SOEs (which won't win over many northeastern rustbelt workers) , is its fixation with settling on a single account of the past.

The Chinese constitution begins, "China is one of the countries with the longest histories in the world." It then dashes through imperial glory, humiliation at the hands of foreign powers and the partial triumphs of the Republican era before concluding:
After waging hard, protracted and tortuous struggles, armed and otherwise, the Chinese people of all nationalities led by the Communist Party of China with Chairman Mao Zedong as its leader ultimately, in 1949, overthrew the rule of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism, won the great victory of the new-democratic revolution and founded the People's Republic of China. Thereupon the Chinese people took state power into their own hands and became masters of the country.... The living standards of the people have improved considerably.

In an almost perfect reverse, Charter 08 lists the same historical episodes but concludes:
The Communist Party of China seized control of all organs of the state and all political, economic, and social resources, and, using these, has produced a long trail of human rights disasters, including, among many others, the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957), the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960), the Cultural Revolution (1966–1969), the June Fourth Massacre (1989), and the current repression of all unauthorized religions and the suppression of the weiquan rights movement. During all this, the Chinese people have paid a gargantuan price. Tens of millions have lost their lives, and several generations have seen their freedom, their happiness, and their human dignity cruelly trampled.

But in truth Chinese peoples' experiences run a wide gamut between the two narratives above. Why set the record straight and risk only setting it straight for a few people?

Of course, Charter 08 is important not because of its specifics, but because so many people felt comfortable signing it at all. Their courage speaks to a rising current of dissatisfaction among elite intellectuals (who have been bribed and coddled by the CCP since 1989), to the limits of technocratic authorities to inspire citizens, and to a changed balance of power between the Chinese government and its people.

The government's high-profile attacks on the document--Jia Qinglin's article in Qiushi, Hu's confusing statements about not "wavering" (bu zheteng), and Peking University's call for students to boycott Charter 08--have been combined with a curious reticence to hit the actual signatories, aside from a handful of people like Lu Xiaobo. The state simply can't do as much as it once could.

So, even if the broad masses of Chinese have not yet heard of Charter 08 and even if young nationalists are incensed by the document's mild references to a "federated republic," the document stands as a testimony to a changed environment.

For better takes on the document than mine, see Rebecca MacKinnon's post and Ronald Soong's response.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Victimizer complex

Several countries are routinely said to have a "victim complex." Top among these are Russia, Israel and China.

I wonder if the phrase is misplaced. A more accurate substitute might be "victimizer complex." Putting the emphasis on countries' overreactions to difficult circumstances (i.e. victimizing someone else) rather than their feelings about the past would, first of all, take away the snide undertone of the current expression, which dismisses Russia's suffering under market "shock therapy," China's century of foreign domination, and Israel's memories of the Holocaust with a curt "that's all in the past; get over it." Instead, old pains would be dealt with on their own terms, as real--but not as an excuse for the present.

Second, "victimizer complex" would draw into the same rubric a wide variety of countries that share key traits with the three mentioned above, but that are usually not cited in the same breath--Turkey and the United States, for example.

What traits exactly are we talking about? Basically, an attitude of, "Yes, I am taking tough measures with X, but I am against the wall and that's all X understands--wouldn't you do the same? Who are you to judge, anyway, as you didn't go through Y like I did? Get out of the way."

The frightening thing about this attitude is that it is gaining currency among young people.

Chinese barely old enough to remember June 4, 1989 are confident that the students and workers in Tiananmen Square (and elsewhere) were not only wrongheaded--they surely were about at least some things, as participants in any movement are--but required a full military clampdown. Tibetans are similarly seen to be resistant to reason: "Why do they stray from cute religiosity to messing with politics and questioning China's obvious generosity?" As a country that has long dealt with foreign interference, the reasoning goes, China must respond in a tough manner or fall apart... "Wouldn't you do the same? Didn't the U.S. do just this in [insert an inner city race riot or battle with Native Americans]? Don't judge us."

In Israel, the Palestinian resistance, in its many forms, is not just a reminder of Israelis' past victimhood. To say so is to cheapen a very real victimhood and to confuse the mentality behind the IDF's recent, bloody assault on Gaza. Palestinians are, rather, seen to require tough measures almost genetically. And the defense of this idea, the defense of the ability to be a righteous bully, has become something of a badge of pride for the country, at least in international relations. You hear it, again, not only from hardened generals but from otherwise optimistic liberals in their 20s who are excited about "change"--but supportive of Israel, whatever it does, maybe especially if it is bloody.

Youthful Russians rally to Putin, meanwhile, arguing for hard measures, extra-constitutional measures, to be taken against sinister civil society groups and against Jews and against those stubborn partisans of Chechnya. The same goes for Turkey and its treatment of the Kurds. Again, young people are at the forefront, waving Turkish flags in the streets, angry at a new Turkish leader who is judged to hold an insufficiently hardline attitude toward minorities. And, of course, we all witnessed a "victimizer complex" in the U.S. after 9/11, when sympathy for bombed Afghan villagers was regarded to be only a few shades distant from treason. It was a matter of faith--and one that more than a few college kids propounded to me--that a scorched earth campaign against bin Laden was a duty. And a duty that was almost relished.

The hopeful note in all this is that those with a victimizer complex feel the need to explain themselves. In fact, the whole thing is about explaining oneself.

This points, naturally, to a deeper discomfort. And it is better for someone to be right-wing, maybe, in their youth and to work through it, to turn around, than it is to settle into a satisfied nationalism at the age that a person normally enters policy-making.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration II

It's been easier for me to say I "love" other countries--I don't know how many times I've said "I love China" and meant it--than saying I love the United States. The phrase has always stuck in my throat because it has seemed to stand in for a denial of the deep problems in the country: its imperial role in the world and its contradictions of class and race at home.

But today, walking and waiting and listening for ten hours in the cold, I got a lot closer to that commitment. Obama has put things back on track, allowed caring about a place where I've grown up to be a struggle, not a done deal--and celebrated that struggle.

The sign in the crowd on the Mall that brought me closest to tears was one that read, "Martin!! We've made it to the top of the mountain."

We may not have quite made it there, but this campaign and the courteous, excited, open-hearted crowd that has descended on Washington, DC give me some hope. And make me think that while allegiance to one nation-state over another is, from a long view, ridiculous, investing in something local, in the ins and outs of making somewhere you, well, love what it should be is a pretty noble cause.

Monday, January 19, 2009


DC is once again filled with excitement--a wonderful rush of humanity that I associate more with New York than Washington. Buses from out of town are dropping off crowds of excited but solemn school kids. Older black women are taking in the city in small, talkative groups. MLK Day volunteers, inspired by Obama's call to service, fill care packages for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and hand out energy efficiency kits and install solar panels in struggling neighborhoods (I got to see Steven Chu that way!). Troops closer to home guard intersections around the Mall, drawing the most appreciation (and impromptu group photos) that a domestic deployment has probably ever felt.

I've been taking pictures of all the Obama images and slogans about the city. There are stencils of "No Drama Obama" with his face on telephone poles (probably dating from the campaign), invitations to a national "hip hop caucus" during the inauguration weekend, a neon "Obama '08" design on an old firehouse, an all-Obama souvenir store on U Street that is absolutely packed with people, an "OBAMA" ice sculpture in front of Uncle Ben's Chili Bowl, Obama flags hanging from some stores and cars, cardboard Obamas for picture poses everywhere, guys hawking blinking Obama gear out of vans, and, of course, thousands of people festooned with Obama buttons and with a certain design of Obama stocking caps in black with red, white and blue writing.

For a little bit, I was starting to feel uncomfortable with it all--personality cult, drifting away from policies, etc. But now I'm cool with it. On a practical level, this thing has to take on the feel of a national, historical event for the president to pull off all he needs to pull off in the next years. The big inaugural concert yesterday, with its sea of upbeat people laughing and dancing as easily to Garth Brooks as Usher felt like what it was: an American celebration. That Franklin Mint TV ad for an Obama commemorative plate seems like as good a campaign ad as any, with its waspy white father proudly adding the plate to a bookcase full of military histories and a model cannon (at least I think there's a model cannon in there).

And old blocs have to be broken and realigned. That's why I don't feel as angry about Rev. Warren speaking tomorrow as some. We have to mix up the Christian right, harness its redeeming qualities, restart discussion---OK, we don't agree on abortion, but how will we reduce teen pregnancies?---and let the diehard rightists skulk away. If we don't, our national discussions will forever be sidetracked.

But, more importantly, it's fine to celebrate. It was a long campaign and we pulled of something unexpected and incredibly good. Really, really good---a candidate we're actually excited about, who has brought out tremendous good in people.


I do need some sort of understanding that progressivism lies behind all this. Biden gave as good of a reassurance on that front as anyone could give when he simply reminded the crowd at the inaugural concert that DC's architecture was built with the skill and sweat of workers and that work must be respected. That's it. He gave no context, no mushy stuff about all getting along. He just said that. It matched his pick of Jared Bernstein of EPI for his economic advisor. It also matched Hilda Solis for DOL, of course. It didn't match Larry Summers (though he has come a long ways on income inequality since the Clinton years) and I need a reassurance that Summers' outlook won't dominate that of the Bernsteins and Solises of the administration.

Labor will be where the Republicans, dazed by a total defeat, try to rally. They've already done so on the auto bailout and the confirmation of Solis. At their heart, Republicans agree with each other on employer-employee relations more than they do on just about any other issue. And they still think collective bargaining is, basically, foreign, sneaky, frustrating. Workers' rights seems like as good a place as any to tell them we're ready to talk, that we can hear them out on their values rhetoric, that we have an inclusive, forward-looking idea of America---but that they are no longer boss and that, for that matter, bosses are no longer boss. It should be where bipartisanship for its own sake ends.

But, for now, we can celebrate.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Cluster bombs

There is mounting evidence of cluster bombs being used by the IDF on Palestinians. This is far, far beyond the pale, especially in Gaza, one of the most crowded places in the world. As Gideon Levy writes, "Nobody is coming to the rescue - of Gaza or even of the remnants of humanity and Israeli democracy."