Sunday, September 24, 2017

Five books that will help you understand modern China

Reading books about China can become quite addictive once you get started. There are lots of them, and many are just run of the mill. There are some however that can really give you fresh insight into how this confusing country works. Below are five I would recommend to anyone interested in modern Chinese politics and society.

China Alone: the Emergence from and Potential Return to Isolation by Anne-Stevenson Yang

Anne-Stevenson Yang is an American lady who has spent most of her life in China since the mid-eighties, working as a journalist, executive and researcher. She writes about China perceptively and knowledgeably, giving an overview of the political-economy's current woes, from real estate to government debt. She also provides an insightful description of how the country is run, explaining for instance about the networks of "red princelings" that act as intermediaries between the different government departments, in spite of their lack of formal positions in the bureaucracy. Finally she takes a broader view to look at where China is headed. The old model of development has outlived its usefulness, she argues, and China may well be heading back into isolation and insularity. Only real systemic change can break the cycle of opening up to the outside world and then closing down again.

China's Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know by Arthur R. Kroeber

This book provides an excellent overview of all of the salient facts about the Chinese economy in every sector, from agriculture and industry to finance and real estate. Without getting excessively technical or falling into too much detail, it gives the reader a realistic picture of the economy's strengths and weakness, and how they link to the political system. It avoids being too catastrophic, for instance it gives little credit to the idea that China is set for some kind of terrible financial crash due to the real-estate bubble popping or a credit default. At the same time it also avoids the silly triumphalism of certain works about China, arguing that the talk about China becoming a hub of creative innovation is basically hot air, and will remain so as long as the political system doesn't loosen up.

Gao Village: Rural Life in Modern China by Mobo Gao

This book by Mobo Gao is an unusual one, but definitely deserves to be read by anyone interested in China's recent history. It is an account of the history of the author's birthplace, Gao Village in Jiangxi province, since the Communist Party took power in 1949. Mobo Gao was only the second person from this village to gain a higher education in its 200 year history, and ended up becoming a university professor in Australia. His views are controversial, as he is a "leftist" (in Chinese terms) with a tendency to minimise the impact of the disasters of the Mao Era, claiming that they mainly affected the elite, while the peasantry that constituted the overwhelming majority of the population actually benefitted from the era's radical policies, and even from the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, he is disparaging about most current Chinese policies, claiming that they do not really benefit the poor.

While his defence of Mao's rule, which he lays out in his other book "the Battle for China's Past", might seem to be based on a certain selective blindness, this book does a good job of explaining where he is coming from. Enriched with personal memories and anecdotes, but by no means a memoir, the book gives you a vivid picture of this little village and its recent history. He claims that the Great Leap Forward's craziest polices were mitigated by the common sense of the villagers, while the only local culture that was actually lost during the Cultural Revolution was the original copy of the local genealogical tree, which was burnt. He later describes the return of clan-based local struggles, the unjust taxation, the increase in general amorality and insecurity, and the continuing poverty of the villagers during the market reforms of the eighties. He claims that the first real material improvements for the villagers only came in the nineties when the young started to go out and work in the nearby cities, where they were often horribly exploited.

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics by Huang Yasheng

This book by Huang Yasheng, a Beijinger who teaches at Harvard, offers a different set of insights into how modern China works. Huang is also motivated by concern for the poor and underprivileged, but he sees things very differently from the aforementioned Mobo Gao. Huang is a great fan of the policies followed under Deng Xiaoping in the eighties, which in his view were able to free up the great reservoir of enterpreneurial potential of the Chinese countryside. Peasants were enabled and encouraged to start their own businesses, which they often did quite successfully. After the sad events of 89, however, China changed course. The new model of growth favoured the urban areas, the state-owned enterprises and foreign invested companies, while it was inimical to small indigenous entrepreneurs, and the countryside became nothing but a reserve of cheap labour. While the GDP continued to grow impressively, this form of growth was less beneficial for the well-being of the ordinary Chinese. He calls China's current system "crony capitalism", and calls for genuine protection of property rights to be ensured as a way of checking the system's inherent corruption and cronyism.

You Don't Know China: 22 Enduring Myths by John Ross

China is a country that lends itself uniquely well to myth-making and urban legends. This book is a really good take down of some of the most widespread myths about China, from the mundane (cats and dogs as an everyday dish) to the more consequential (the supposed Dickensian conditions in Chinese factories, China as the new "place to be"). The book does a great job of disposing of some of the new myths about China created by the international media, for instance the huge ghost cities sitting in the desert that on further inspection are not quite as deserted as they seem. Not everyone might agree with some of the authors' points, for instance his complete rubbishing of traditional Chinese medicine, or his contention that China was never really that isolated from foreign influences throughout its history. The inclusion of the Tiananmen Square massacre as a myth, purely because the killings didn't take place within the square itself, strikes me as rather unconvincing. But all in all the book is still a compelling read, and it finishes with a convincing take down of one of the most consequential modern myths about Chinese history, the occurrence of a "century of humiliation".

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Beijing's great bricking up: what lies behind it?

The "great bricking up" of 2017 would seem to be almost over, and the dust is settling again over the hutongs in the center of Beijing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small businesses have been forced to close by having their entrances bricked up (although many have valiantly tried to continue operating through a side entrance or a small window). Corner shops, hairdressers, restaurants and bars, no one has been spared. In the process, some of the city's greatest nightlife spots for foreign hipsters and alternative young locals have been mercilessly destroyed.

Workers brick up the entrance to a hutong restaurant

These are the facts. But what are the motivations behind all of this? The official explanations don't necessarily have much to do with reality. The authorities claim the point of the campaign is to close down illegal hole-in-the-wall businesses, address "architectural violations" and "restore the hutongs to their original look'. This all sounds very reasonable, but I would bet these are not the real motivations. Calling the hutongs' small businesses "illegal" means very little, in a context where property rights are unclear and everything is a grey area.

Most of those in the know seem to think that the point of the campaign is to push the migrants (or in some cases, the foreigners) who operate these businesses out of Beijing, thus reducing the city's population. This is what the Economist claimed in its May article "The Wider Meaning of Change in a Beijing Alleyway", and James Palmer in his Diplomat article, "How to Destroy the Heart of a Chinese City". Some of the smarter analysts who I have spoken to, both foreign and Chinese, make the same claim. In their minds the campaign is linked to the stated policy of capping the capital's population at 23 million by 2020, and moving some of the government functions and a few million people from Beijing to the soon-to-be-constructed city of Xiongan, out in Hebei.

Personally, the idea that the main motivation behind all this closing down of bars and shops in Beijing's central cluster of hutongs is reducing the city's population doesn't strike me as realistic. After all, the vast majority of Beijing's residents don't live or work in the one-storey hutong houses of the center, but in the vast 30-floor tower blocks further in the periphery. A single 小区 (a kind of gated community) in a suburb like Sihui probably contains more people then all of Dongcheng's hutongs put together.

What I suspect is a better explanation for the campaign is one that Palmer's article touches upon: social control. Essentially, the authorities aren't comfortable with the kind of unregulated, spontaneous and cosmopolitan street life that has grown in some of the hutongs in question. Their vision is one of a uniform city where entertainment is provided by air-conditioned shopping malls, and every street just has the same repeated McDonalds, Starbucks and Chinese fast food branches.

If there must be hutongs where people go to have fun, they should be along the model of Nanluoguxiang: essentially horizontal shopping malls, completely commercialized and standardized, replete with a bit of packaged "traditional culture" for out of town Chinese visitors. Incidentally, Nanluoguxiang was also closed down for a few months and renovated last autumn. It's now even more awful than it used to be. Hilariously, this article in the Chinese media claims that it "got a facelift to bring out traditional character". Sadly, touristy towns all over China, from Lijiang to Pingyao, now present shopping streets that look exactly like Nanluoguxiang.

Shops in Nanluoguxiang

It is no accident, I would bet, that some of the hutongs well known as nightlife haunts for young foreigners and Chinese alike, like Fangjia hutong, have been among the hardest hit by the closures. To me they represent the best of Beijing, a place where people from all walks of life (including foreigners and ordinary Chinese) rub shoulders in a genuine traditional setting, and neighbours still know each other. To the decision-makers, they are something that doesn't fit in with their vision of a society "governed by law" with Chinese characteristics. It is also no accident that Sanlitun's famous (or infamous) bar street, which is not in a hutong, has received the same treatment. The dirty, wild and unmanageable bar street is going to be turned into just another extension of the glitzy shopping malls that surround it on both sides. The final result of all this may be to irreparably damage some of the few areas of Beijing that still have some real character and uniqueness to them, in favour of a standardized and soulless entertainment culture that looks the same throughout China.

People eating in front of Moxi Moxi, the now forcibly closed Israeli street food joint in Fangjia hutong 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Why won't China abandon North Korea?

A few years ago I happened to read "Dear Leader" by Jang Jin Sung, one of the best books around about North Korea. Jang Jin Sung is probably the highest-ranking North Korean ever to have defected and told his story in detail. And his story is quite remarkable: he was an ordinary boy from a provincial town who became a writer and got coopted to work in the heart of the regime's propaganda department, creating propaganda aimed at South Koreans. He was lucky enough that one of his poems was praised by the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il himself, and he thus gained the class status of "Admitted" in North Korean parlance. He was then given the honour to meet Kim Jong Il in person, which is what first caused his faith in the system to start wavering. Brought up to believe that his country was governed by an almost god-like figure, when he discovered that Kim Jong Il was actually a very ordinary man who spoke in coarse language and used high heels to mask his short stature, the esteem in which he held his leader took a serious dent.

Although he lived a sheltered life in the capital, when Jang travelled back to his hometown of Sariwon and witnessed the effects of the last gasps of the famine that ravished North Korea in the late nineties, any remaining loyalty to the regime collapsed. While there he saw corpses lying unclaimed outside of the train station, and a farmer publicly executed in the town market for stealing some rice. It disgusted him when undernourished relatives and acquaintances asked him for information about the health and wellbeing of the "selfless Dear Leader" with genuine concern in their voices.

Jang made friends with a colleague who shared his distaste for the system he lived in, and when his friend accidentally mislaid "forbidden" reading material from the propaganda department in the Pyongyang subway, they were both forced to flee the country in 2004. After crossing the border into China and almost getting caught in the process, they were forced to lay low to avoid getting arrested by the police and sent back. Jiang managed to get in contact with South Korean agents who smuggled him into their embassy and give him a diplomatic passport, but his friend was unfortunately caught and committed suicide rather than being sent back.

The book is a compelling read, and its description of North Korea from the inside is fascinating, although by now rather dated. There is however one passage which is very relevant to the contemporary crisis in the Korean peninsula. Jiang Jin-sung recounts a private conversation he once had in Pyongyang with an ex-classmate from Kim-Il Sung University, a government cadre involved in establishing connections with ethnic Koreans in China. Apparently there was then a rule in North Korea that private conversations between cadres could not be used as a basis for prosecution unless there was independent evidence of them having taken place. This rule was made to prevent personal vendettas from spiralling out of control, and it allowed members of the elite to establish friendship and trust by sharing the dangerous truths behind the official narrative.

Jang's ex-classmate spilled his guts out regarding the true state of China-North Korea relations at the time. He told Jang about the background to Kim Jong Il's visit to China in 2001. In 2000 Kim Jong Il apparently came across an internal document of the Chinese government regarding the pact made between China and the DPRK after the Korean War. The document contained statements by some Chinese policy-makers suggesting that China should call off the mutual aid pact, or even ask North Korea for reparations for China's support during the war. Kim Jong Il was furious and went straight to the Chinese embassy to reprimand the ambassador, without any prior warning. North Korea's state news agency also announced the visit to the Chinese embassy without first telling the Chinese. The whole thing was seen as a diplomatic snub to China.

In response, China withdrew its ambassador and sent in a new one who was far less friendly to the North Koreans. A couple of months later, dozens of North Korean agents were arrested in North-East China for trying to groom local cadres within the government and police. Then for a while China even put a stop to aid to North Korea. After making their point, the Chinese authorities invited Kim Jong Il to visit China in January 2001, and he had no choice but to make the trip. The Korean delegation was even made to wait outside Beijing for days before being received. Then Kim was forced to go down to Shanghai and tour the skyscrapers of the Pudong special economic zone, and declare his praise for China's economic reform. This was reported in the international media as a sign that North Korea's leader wanted to emulate China's economic reforms. The reality is that he was forced to go to China as a kind of penance for daring to challenge his Chinese backers.

What is telling are the phrases that Jang's ex-classmate uses when talking about North Korea's relationship with China: "(...) I bet that's the first and last time our general tries to play with China the kind of games he plays with the US. We all know that if they squeeze us, we're dead.". And then later: "If they decide that our regime must go, it will go".

If this was true back in 2004, it is probably even truer now that cross-border trade between North Korea and China is much more large-scale. As others have recently pointed out, it is naive to think that the Chinese government couldn't bring North Korea to its knees if it wanted to. But it is also clear that they do not have any intention of pushing North Korea to the point where its regime may collapse. China's decision-makers may genuinely be frustrated at Kim Jong Un for his recklessness and threats (or they may be secretly pleased), but they appear to think that a reunification of the Korean peninsula would bring US troops all the way to their border. Although the reality is that in the long run the American army would have to pull out of a reunified Korea, the Chinese government probably doesn't believe this or see things that way. While it may not be a puppet, North Korea is essentially a buffer state, and for this reason it continues to exist.

Jang Jin Sung