Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 5 November 2010

Liu Xiaobo’s 300 colonies

The centrepiece of many condemnations of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize is the reference to a statement he made in 1988. In an article in the South China Morning Post and then reposted on many sites (for example here), the Hong Kong-based scholars Yan Hairong and Barry Sautman cite this statement as Liu saying that China needed to have 300 years of colonisation in order to have real historical change. They add that ” in 2007, Liu stated that he did not want to take back what he had said in 1988, because it reflected a belief he retained. He attributed progress in China to Westernisation,” and conclude that Liu “is either woefully ignorant of the nature of colonialism …or Liu finds it a congenial alternative because he is convinced of Western superiority.” This is more or less the accusation leveled by online nationalists, and it is this that made it, albeit in distorted form, into the fake “secret protocol” of the Nobel Committee that I wrote about a few posts back.

The accusation is demagogic because it pretends to take Liu’s “call” for China’s colonisation at face value, rather than a hyperbole with a long history, a lament for what he perceived to be Chinese mentality, no different from that made by the famous TV series River Elegy in 1988, or Yang Bo, or Lu Xun or the May 4 movement before that. Back in 1988, such hyperbole was common; in today’s China, it is so out of sync with mainstream nationalism that it seems mad. One can of course argue with the accuracy of the “yellow culture” pessimism — in view of all the ferment in China I do not find it convincing — but if one is to condemn Liu for it, then Lu Xun has to be condemned as well.

Indeed, in an opinion piece on Liu’s prize, the Australian scholar David Kelly points out:

In his best-selling book China Stands Up, the writer Moluo, who once sided with ”liberal” voices close to Liu Xiaobo, sets out to settle accounts with the ”May Fourth Movement”, a patriotic movement criticising the entire Chinese tradition that followed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 (and, ironically, gave rise to the Communist movement in China).

Moluo claims that the May Fourth Movement, which now has a tradition of counter-tradition, embodied the denigration of Chinese culture that had been a mark of Western imperialism since the Opium Wars.

While not mentioned explicitly by Moluo, Liu’s writings are solidly in the May Fourth lineage.

Apart from the intellectual dishonesty of pretending that Liu is “soft on colonialism,” though, it is interesting to ask what follows if he really is. For Yan and Sautman, who are unrelenting anti-imperialists, it would be consistent then to reject the rest of his thinking as well. But the fact that colonialism remains a trump card — like Nazism — for so many people beyond leftist thinkers is interesting, considering that if Liu actually meant it that colonialism was good for modernization, he would represent a fairly mainstream strand of Chinese thought — not the May Fourth tradition, but that which privileges economic development over everything else.

Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 24 October 2010

Reactions to Indian court judgement in favour of street vendors

A post on Minjian International has alerted members to online reactions to an article in today’s edition of the popular newspaper New Beijing News (Xinjingbao). The article reports that an Indian court ruled that the removal of street vendors from locations around the Commonwealth Games was unconstitutional.

Comments on the article largely compare India favourably to China: “We must learn from India,” “The Indian people are lucky,” “What right do we have after this to make fun of India?” The two most popular comments are along these lines. These reactions come against a background of an India discourse in Chinese media that is generally both disparaging and sometimes very hostile. They are a reminder of the fickleness of online mood, but the fact that court rulings in favour of the poor do not fail to resonate in China does not necessarily contradict a negative view of India.

Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 18 October 2010

Anti-Japanese protests

It has been widely reported that anti-Japanese protests broke out in Chengdu, Xi’an, and Zhengzhou on the 16th. Kyodo reported that in Chengdu, a crowd of several thousand young people chanting “Long live China” and “Boycott Japanese goods” and singing the Chinese anthem smashed the windows of Ito Yokado and Isetan, two Japanese department stores. (Isetan’s windows were also smashed during the previous protests in 2005.) In Xi’an, a crowd of 7,000 attacked a Japanese sports-goods store. Photos from Xi’an, including young people holding a banner that reads “China’s Greatest Endeavour Must Be To Eradicate Japan,” can be seen here.

The demonstrations were seen as a response to protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Tokyo against China’s handling of the incident in which a fishing boat captain rammed a Japanese ship near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Bloomberg reported that a Japanese court released the captain after “China detained four Japanese employees of the construction company Fujita Corp. on Sept. 20 for allegedly videotaping military targets.” Japan’s former air force chief Toshio Tamogami led the procession to the Chinese embassy, Bloomberg said; some of the protesters pledged to boycott Chinese goods.

It is interesting that the Chinese demonstrations took place the same day as those in Tokyo, suggesting that the organisers had been preparing in advance. It is also interesting that Xinhua reported the incidents, unlike in 2005.

The protests have continued. According to a report by Japan’s ANN television, on 24 October in Baoji, Shanxi, demonstrators displayed, in addition, to anti-Japanese slogans, banners demanding lower housing prices and a multi-party system. Clips of the report can be seen here.

Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 17 October 2010

Saying no to Hungary: Did China release a murder suspect?

According to this weekend’s Népszabadság, the biggest Hungarian daily (F. Gy. A. “Nem jött jogsegélykérelem,” 16-17 October, p. 2), a Chinese court has released a 26-year-old Chinese man suspected by Hungarian authorities of murdering his 21-year-old Norwegian girlfriend in August in Budapest. He left Hungary on the day of the murder. After an international arrest warrant has been issued by Hungary, Chinese authorities arrested the man but refused Hungary’s extradition request and released him after 30 days, saying that without evidence they could not detain him any longer. Although this may be technically true, Chinese police does not have such scruples in many other cases that concern far lighter crimes, so this step should be seen as a snub to Hungary.

China’s consular authorities in Hungary had, according to the article, requested that Chinese police travel to Hungary to investigate the case. Hungarian authorities reacted that China should request legal assistance through a standard international procedure.

China’s refusal to extradite criminal suspects has become a consistent way of “saying no,” yet Chinese authorities often seek the repatriation of Chinese suspects who are detained abroad, although not necessarily through formal extradition procedures. In the late nineties, Chinese police had come to Hungary to investigate murders among the Chinese here, but after the same newspaper revealed this the case embarrassed Hungarian authorities, who denied that they had permitted such an arrangement.

The reliability of the Hungarian report, which is based on Norwegian media reports, is questionable. It is written by the same Fekete Gy. Attila who, in the nineties, produced a bombastic article accusing Chinese migrants in Hungary of being “mostly illegal,” restaurants of being hotbeds of human trafficking and money laundering, and Chinese merchandise of being largely counterfeit. reported on the arrest warrant based on Hungarian sources, but the more recent developments do not seem to have been reported in mainland Chinese media. Based on Norwegian media, the Falungong’s Epoch Times reported in September that the suspect had given himself up and confessed to the murder.

Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 11 October 2010

Saying no to North Korea

Protests against events in other countries, if they concern no Chinese, are very rare in China — although there are expectations that this will change with the maturing of a Chinese middle class that will engage, for example, in charity and volunteering abroad. China’s liberal dissidents have also been much less inclined to protest oppression by other states than their former peers in Eastern Europe. And protests against North Korea are surprisingly few anywhere, considering that it is undoubtedly the most oppressive regime in the world.

So it is interesting that the writer Zhou Duo, in a 28 May letter only now circulated on the Internet (I got it via Minjian International), applied for police permission to hold a one-man demonstration and hunger strike (!) on 4 June of this year. (He couldn’t of course have thought that it would be approved.) The letter argues that China currently faces no external threat except that posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and the proposed demonstration was to protest these as well as to demand the cessation of Chinese aid to North Korea.

Zhou Duo was imprisoned after 1989 as one of the main “black hands” behind the student protests, along with Liu Xiaobo.

Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 10 October 2010

Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel prize: Will there be a boycott of Norwegian Wood?

The Chinese government condemned Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel prize swiftly, but with relatively little publicity: the main page of Xinhua today, for instance, does not mention Liu. But “patriotic youth” on the Web have already proposed to boycott a series of Norwegian brands in response to this new “insult to the feelings of Chinese people.” This call was circulated on other sites with the ironic comment: “Never heard? Never mind. … In the worst case, there is always Norwegian Wood” (the Haruki Murakami novel, not the Simon and Garfunkel song).

On a more serious, though equally ridiculous note, a blog post on Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV’s server — which has, curiously, been removed since — claimed to reveal a secret protocol appended to the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s decision. The purported original text is reproduced in English, but written so ungrammatically that some parts are unintelligible. For example: “you did not hesitate to sell the interests of their country of birth, perseverance and original material to attack the communist regime.” It purports to praise Liu for fighting for the revaluation of the yuan and for carving China up into 300 colonies. The author of the post further alleges that the Nobel committee acted under U.S. pressure and cites its history of rewarding the Russian dissident physicist Saharov for starting the “colour revolutions” (in reality, the term was invented some ten years after Saharov’s death), Gorbachev for undermining the Soviet Union, Gao Xingjian for demonising China, and so on. Jiang Yanyong, the retired doctor who was the whistleblower on China’s SARS epidemic, an AIDS activist, and Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer are added to the evidence since, according to the post, they have all received Nobel nominations.

But there were also semi-public celebrations. Messages on Minjian International, a Hong Kong-based NGO focusing on China’s overseas activities and without a dissident agenda, reported that banquets were organised in at least five cities, and some of the participants were detained. At Shandong University and Beijing Normal University, banners were reportedly hung in Liu’s honour.

Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 24 July 2010

The story of a pro-China Tibet campaigner

The same issue of Southern Weekend also carries an interview with Xu Mingxu, the author of a new book called Xueshan xia de chouxing—Xizang baoluan de lailong quyong (Ugly spectacle under the snowcapped peaks: The whither and wherefore of the Tibetan riots). Xu takes issue with the Wang Lixiong’s book Sky Burial, in which Wang, the husband of Tibetan activist Woeser, writes that the Tibetan issue must be solved by transcending the Peking-Dharamsala (CCP – Dalai Lama) conflict and interrogating the desires of Tibetans. In Xu’s view, such a “depoliticized” approach is impossible because the Tibetan issue is ultimately an issue of sovereignty. If you believe that Tibet has always been part of China, then your departure point is to view 1959 as liberation; if you believe that Tibet has always been a sovereign polity, then it is to view 1959 as occupation. Pretending that you can avoid making this choice is delusionary or fraudulent, Xu implies.

Xu himself makes clear that his own standpoint, which is the former, defines his view of the Tibetan question. He quotes a “Chinese American scholar,” Chen Ruoyi, as recalling that when he asked Tibetans what Tibet needed most, they all responded “Modernization,” followed by “protection of Tibetan culture” and “a high degree of autonomy,” and writes that Tibet’s problems come from the tension between these three. But acknowledging this complexity does not mean that Xu is willing to reconcile different viewpoints. While he uses Western accounts of Tibet in his book — “many Westerners have been to Tibet; everything they have written can’t all be lies” — he uses only those that challenge the cultural-genocide orthodoxy, and does so only because they carry more credibility in Westerners’ eyes (though why use them in a Chinese-language book?); he is certainly not willing to take the dominant Western views seriously enough to argue with them.

One of the interesting things about Xu is his career. Originally a literary scholar from Shanghai, he began writing about Tibet in the dissident journal Beijing Spring and the pro-Taiwan World Journal in 1991, when the Chinese-language press overseas, and particularly these publications, were extremely hostile to the PRC’s policies. (The circumstances of his departure to the US, where he clearly remained until the 2000s, are not mentioned in the interview, and his reply to why he chose to publish in those particular jounals — that others were not visible in the US — is unconvincing; likely, he started out within the broadly understood post-Tiananmen “democratic opposition”). His opposition to Tibetan independence was then roundly attacked by other contributors to these periodicals. But by the mid-’90s that their tone began to change, and when Wei Jingsheng was released from prison in 1996 (or 1995?) his support of Tibetan independence met with hostility and threats from readers of these publications. Later, Xu was interviewed in a number of other exile, Hong Kong, and English-language periodicals as the representative of a “different opinion,” and this in turn earned him invitations to various academic conferences. After the 2008 riots, his name suddenly appeared in mainland Chinese media such as People’s Daily and the nationalistic Global Times. Xu’s trajectory is probably reflexive of a large number of post-1989 activists.

The other interesting thing is Xu’s rejection of the idea of an independent, or impartial, perspective. Xu understands the complexity of  nationalism but believes that knowledge of Tibet or the desires of Tibetans are both secondary to one’s position on sovereignty, and that position is ultimately determined by whether one’s national loyalty.

But then why write books?

Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 21 July 2010

Chinese anthropologist on foreign “biopiracy”

The 15 July issue of Southern Weekend published an article by Zhou Lei, identified as a PhD in anthropology. Zhou argues that Western companies operating in Yunnan’s border areas are engaged in “biopiracy,”  i.e. the production and patenting of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics based on local “local knowledge” of medicinal plants, animal genes and “cultural genes” (wenhua jiyin). The foreign companies earn huge profits, while China only gets a “miserable” financial return. Local governments are complicit in this process by offering the companies investment incentives. One example is the exploitation of “orchid resources” by an unnamed French company in Sipsongpanna with some “nominal” environmental protection projects but without “real compensation” for local people.

If this continues, Zhou warns, the “cream of the biological resources of Southwest China will be swallowed wholesale by domestic and foreign capital.” He suggests that the government should cooperate with local organisations to create a registry of “local knowledge” (bentu zhishi) and patent appropriate parts of it, set up a range of bodies like a “National Anti-Biopiracy Centre,” and create a foundation to support local cultural preservation using money from the patents.

Zhou’s article is interesting because the idea of biopiracy, which has been popular in India, has so far received little attention in China. India has undertaken similar government efforst to patent various medicinal plants and traditional Ayurveda and yoga practices, an initiative that some critics say has harmed the living body of traditional knowledge by straitjacketing it into modern codes and taking control away from its practitioners.

Moreover, while Western pharmaceutical companies are the usual targets of anti-biopiracy activists, the differentiation between Western and Chinese capital in the article is likely intended to resonate with nationalist sentiments — although the article subsequently also mentions “domestic capital.” In India and elsewhere, state efforts to patent “local knowledge” are often opposed by “indigenous” activists. Indeed, the areas Zhou describes are largely inhabited by “minority” ethnic groups, but the recognition of indigenous rights is clearly unacceptable for the Chinese government. Interestingly, Zhou makes a gesture to “indigeneity” by using  the term local (bentu). In a recent article, Michael Hathaway suggests that a discourse of indegeneity is in fact emerging among Chinese environmental activists.

Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 11 July 2010

Former People’s Daily journalist on 2008 demonstrations

In 2008, we discussed the 2008 protests by Chinese students overseas against foreign media coverage of the riots in Tibet and in support of the Peking Olympics. Subsequently, we published an article on them in The China Journal. Today, a former People’s Daily correspondent who covered the demonstrations in Paris at the time made a comment at a conference panel on China’s protection of its overseas interests that puts an interesting twist on the story.

He said that at the time, he and other journalists were eager to cover the demonstrations as breaking news, but  no editor at People’s Daily or other Chinese media wanted to take the responsibility since they did not know how the Party’s Central Propaganda Department would react. After two days or so, with still no instructions from “above,” an editor finally took the risk. “If you do good work for it, the Propaganda Department won’t remember you, but if you make a mistake they will remember it forever,” the journalist said scornfully. In his view, the journalists were keen to take this opportunity to do propaganda work, but Propaganda Department officials are just interested in taking money, not in doing their work.

This account suggests, then, that the coverage of the protests in mainstream media and the wave of mainstream nationalism that it triggered was not ordered from above after some deliberation, but was essentially the outcome of journalists’ own actions, only retroactively validated by government permission.

Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 10 July 2010

Anthrodesign on Google in China — again

Tricia Wang, who has earlier analysed the reasons of Google’s lack of success in China, has returned to the topic in a post on Cultural Bytes. She realised, she wrote, that contrary to her earlier analysis,

The bigger issue was more than a matter of Google failing to conduct proper ethnography and user tests on the Chinese market. The real issue is that China and Google see the world in different ways and this informs their outlook on how access to information should be mediated. And ultimately Google assumed that their world view would eventually trump China’s.


 I argue that the Google-China saga is an example of a contemporary clash in moral orders centered around information politics. Google exemplifies a hacker ethic that can be traced back to Enlightenment ideals of individual achievement while China reflects Confucian cultural norms of social harmony that emerged 2,400 years ago during the early Han dynasty. A moral order rooted in Enlightenment ideals rewards rebels, while a moral order rooted in Confucian ideals rewards followers. 

Access to information has become a battle site of cultural imperialism. Information politics is ultimately a struggle over meaning and symbols. Google, one of the main players, has successfully linked the commodification of information to an ethical system of social change which I call “neo-informationalism,” a retooling of neo-liberal ideals and a re-envisioning of imperialism based on information as a primary means to wealth expansion in the digital age.

I was surprised. I found Wang’s first analysis to be good because it paid attention to what Chinese users actually did. I don’t think Chinese users, in general, actually talk or behave in a way that lets itself be traced back easily to Confucianism and social harmony. How useful are these concepts for understanding online communication? Yes, many Chinese think that some form of regulation is needed for the Internet, and no, not many of them are interested in the abstract issue of freedom of expression. But there is also genuine excitement among educated Chinese about Google standing up to the government — because the government is not trusted very much. And in any case, Google’s ideology is unlikely to play a role in users’ browser choice.

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