James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
This item from The Nanfang, a site covering the big cities of southernmost China (nanfang, or 南方 = "southward"), does a nice job of conveying the discouraging and enlivening aspects of China that so often coexist.
Discouraging: the latest tightening of The Great Firewall, the Internet-censorship system that is unworthy of a population as large, increasingly sophisticated, and information-hungry as China's. This is just so retrograde and embarrassing.
Enlivening: the latest remake of Pharrell Williams's Happy song, this one set in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong.
Let's agree that remakes are not necessarily signs of cultural strength. But I like this one because it shows off some of the look, range, and pizazz of the city of Shenzhen, which I've written about over the past decade and which, for all the reputational and cultural dominance of Shanghai and Beijing, often seems the most exciting part of China.
If you watch the Chinese and international dancers in this video, after a built-in pre-roll ad from the Chinese YouTube-like site Youku, you'll get a perhaps-surprising idea of what the Shenzhen area looks like. It's where many of your electronic goods got their start. I've been to most of the places used in this video, and I'm glad to see them displayed to advantage.
The Youku servers are on the other side of the Great Firewall, so it may take a while for the full video to load. But if you get to see it, think for a minute: the Chinese people you see here are the ones the government thinks aren't ready for full use of the Internet.
Update: If you get an error message from the Youku servers that looks like the one below, just wait it out until the countdown clock (shown by red arrow, indicating 24 seconds at this point) works down to zero. Again, it's worth seeing.
My friend Brian Glucroft, who over the years has done memorable photography and reportage about the vivid, diverse humanity of daily life in China, sends the picture above, taken a few days ago in Shanghai. He writes:
On Changping Road in Jing'an, Shanghai, I just heard saw / heard something I think you could appreciate. It reminds me that some of the criticism China hears from Westerners is motivated by a hope China can do better in areas where the West has failed.
Yet again, "oh well".
Then a little while later, he sent the two pictures below and this followup note:
Later in the day I saw two street cleaners less than a block away on the same road. A man swept the leaves off the sidewalk into piles on the road, and then a woman bagged them. No leaf blowers required. Their handmade brooms constructed from bamboo, branches, & leaves, still commonly used by street cleaners in Shanghai and elsewhere in China, worked just fine — plus quieter, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier. It's one way in which Shanghai and many other cities in China don't need to go green but already are.
The motorbike with the British design (seen many of those across China recently) and both people wearing face masks in the 2nd photo are bonuses.
These bottom two pictures resemble what I saw during our years in Shanghai, Beijing, and other big Chinese cities. But of course the country has "progressed" since then.
For an American take on this development, I direct you toward a measured assessment from Bill Radke in Seattle. And for more views of the variety of life in China, do visit Brian Glucroft's site. Its opening-spread picture gives an idea of its spirit:
I've been offline for many hours and am just now seeing the announcements from Beijing. The United States and China have apparently agreed to do what anyone who has thought seriously about climate has been hoping for, for years. As the No. 1 (now China) and No. 2 carbon emitters in the world, and as the No. 1 (still the U.S.) and No. 2 economies, they've agreed to new carbon-reduction targets that are more ambitious than most people would have expected.
We'll wait to see the details—including how an American president can make good on commitments for 2025, when that is two and possibly three presidencies into the future, and when in the here-and-now he faces congressional majorities that seem dead-set against recognizing this issue. It's quaint to think back on an America that could set ambitious long-term goals—creating Land-Grant universities, developing the Interstate Highway System, going to the moon—even though the president who proposed them realized that they could not be completed on his watch. But let's not waste time on nostalgia.
Before we have all the details, here is the simple guide to why this could be very important.
1) To have spent any time in China is to recognize that environmental damage of all kinds is the greatest threat to its sustainability—even more than the political corruption and repression to which its pollution problems are related. (I'll say more about this connection some other time, but you could think of last week's reports that visiting groups of senior Chinese officials bought so much illegal ivory in Tanzania during a state visit that they drove the black market price to new highs. [I've changed the description of these allegations slightly from the first-posted version.])
You can go on for quite a while with a political system like China's, as it keeps demonstrating now in its 65th year. But when children are developing lung cancer, when people in the capital city are on average dying five years too early because of air pollution, when water and agricultural soil and food supplies are increasingly poisoned, a system just won't last. The Chinese Communist Party itself has recognized this, in shifting in the past three years from pollution denialism to a "we're on your side to clean things up!" official stance.
Analytically these pollution emergencies are distinct from carbon-emission issues. But in practical terms pro-environmental steps by China are likely to help with both.
2) To have looked at either the numbers or the politics of global climate issues is to recognize that unless China and the U.S. cooperate, there is no hope for anyone else. Numbers: These are far and away the two biggest sources of carbon emissions, and China is the fastest-growing. As John Kerry points out in an op-ed in tomorrow's NYT, reductions either of them made on its own could just be wiped out unless the other cooperates. Politics: As the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks five years ago showed, the rest of the world is likely to say, "To hell with it" if the two countries at the heart of this problem can't be bothered to do anything.
We see our own domestic version of this response when people say, "Why go through the hassle of a carbon tax, when the Chinese are just going to smoke us to death anyway?" This new agreement does not mean that next year's global climate negotiations in Paris will succeed. But it means they are no longer guaranteed to fail.
3) China is a big, diverse, churning, and contradictory place, as anyone who's been there can detail for hours. But for the past year-plus, the news out of China has been consistent, and bad.
Many people thought, hoped, or dreamt that Xi Jinping would be some kind of reformer. Two years into his watch, his has been a time of cracking down rather than loosening up. Political enemies and advocates of civil society are in jail or in trouble. Reporters from the rest of the world have problems even getting into China, and reporters from China itself face even worse repression than before. The gratuitous recent showdown with Hong Kong exemplifies the new "No More Mr. Nice Guy" approach.
A nationalistic, spoiling-for-a-fight tone has spilled over into China's "diplomatic" dealings too. So to have this leader of China making an important deal with an American president at this stage of his political fortune is the first news that even seems positive in a long while.
We'll wait to see the details. But at face value, this is better news—about China, about China and America, and about the globe—than we've gotten for a while.
I promise, this is it. But I think I can also promise that this is worth it. Earlier today, I posted a summary of the back-and-forth about Mark Zuckerberg's decision to do a 30-minute session in Chinese, and what that meant for the psychology of language learning.
Now Paul Duke, an American proficient in Chinese who explains his bona fides below, weighs in with the last word. (Unless I hear from Zuckerberg himself...)
Let me give you the short version of my view, then I'll explain:
Zuckerberg's interview in Chinese was a brilliant move from a business perspective. To go to China -- where Facebook is blocked! -- and make the gigantic gesture of respect of speaking Chinese (whatever the quality) for half an hour, scored more positive publicity for Facebook than any other imaginable strategy. My hat is off to Zuckerberg as a brilliant businessman.
Now the details:
I've been studying Chinese for more than 20 years, and have worked over the past 17 years on and off in and around the Chinese movie industry, as a producer, subtitler, liaison generale, and most entertainingly (for me) as translator for Donald Sutherland and Paul Mazursky during production of the Chinese film Big Shot's Funeral, directed by China's most successful comedy director, Feng Xiaogang (who speaks no English other than a handful of swear words), and funded by Columbia Pictures, back in 2001.
Whenever you mention your old apartment in Beijing, the air quality in Beijing, etc., I know exactly whereof you speak. From 2011 to 2013 I lived just a little ways from where you used to live, in the apartment complex called "Richmond Park".
Here's what I think about Zuckerberg and his Chinese which has been missed in every commentary I've seen:
-- Mark Zuckerberg is by all accounts an extremely shrewd businessman. The movie The Social Network portrayed this in a very entertaining and, I gather from reading about the real Mark Zuckerberg, genuinely insightful way.
-- China and its closed market for social media (ie, no Twitter, and no Facebook, as you well know) is possibly the biggest business threat to the current global domination of Facebook. Putting it simply, if someone in China creates a social media network on the web that matches the power of Wechat on smartphones, then Facebook may never be able to truly dominate social media in China the way it does in the US. In fact, a popular (in China) Chinese competitor to Facebook is at the moment the only truly imaginable serious business competition for Facebook. (Of course, one has to admit the caveat that everything can change fast on the web, etc etc, as newspapers and magazines know well!)
-- Zuckerberg, being an extremely shrewd and ambitious businessman, is looking to use every tool he possibly can to break into the Chinese market and make sure Facebook is not bested by a Chinese competitor, in China or worldwide.
-- His appearance at Qinghua and his ability to speak half-decent Chinese after just a few years of study struck a publicity home-run for Facebook IN CHINA which cannot be overstated. Facebook is blocked in China, but Chinese media and social media was aflame with the story of the multi-billionaire founder of Facebook who speaks Chinese!
-- As you yourself well know, even in today's exceedingly practical and expedience-minded Chinese society, face, politeness and respect still matter quite a bit. For Facebook to be blocked by the Chinese government, and for Zuckerberg to nevertheless put hundreds and hundreds of hours into studying Chinese is an amazing act of respect. How many Chinese people do you think were saying to themselves and their friends, "Wow, we block this guy's website and cost him billions in advertising and he goes out and learns our impossible language!"?
-- I've already gone on too long, but I'm just going to wrap this up by saying: Zuckerberg has, with one half-hour interview, put the Chinese government on the defensive -- at least from a "face" and "politeness" point of view. At this point, he has shown tremendous respect toward the Chinese, and many millions of Chinese are saying "this guy isn't so bad, maybe Facebook isn't so bad, our government should really loosen up."
The next step -- for Zuckerberg's Chinese proficiency and for his PR campaign -- would be to announce he's going to spend a year in Taiwan in one of those immersion programs at a university there. He could say: "I'm convinced from all the feedback I've gotten that I need to be full-time in a Chinese-only environment, and much as I love China, I can't run Facebook from there because I can't get to the website! But China is only a 90 minute flight away and I'll be visiting regularly."
Well, maybe the PR part would backfire, but all of us who have struggled with Chinese know this is the only way to make the leap from not-bad textbook-and-tutor Chinese to really feeling comfortable in the language, and more importantly, using the vocabulary and sentence structures which native speakers use.
We can only imagine...
Thanks to all for comments, and to Paul Duke for this astute wrapping-up.
Two days I described the disagreement on whether it was brave or crazy for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, to do a public session in Chinese, and the larger issues of language-learning the controversy brought up. Yesterday Isaac Stone Fish, author of an item for Foreign Policy saying that Zuckerberg hadn't done very well, explained why he had made that case and answered criticism from another student-of-China named Kevin Slaten.
A slew of mail from people who have worked the frontiers of language has arrived, and to wrap up this mini-series you'll find an assortment below. [Update: I've just received a very interesting note on the business, as opposed to linguistic, ramifications of Zuckerberg's talk, which if I can work out some details I'll put up as a post-finale bonus later today.]
1) "The audience really couldn't tell what he was saying." Thomas Rippel, an Austrian who is fluent in English and who has lived and worked in China, writes to defend Isaac Stone Fish:
While the title of Isaac Stone Fish's article is ill chosen, I agree with most of it. Zuckerberg's Chinese sounded awful.
Two weeks ago Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg posted a video of himself doing a speech and Q-and-A session in China, in Chinese. Soon thereafter, Isaac Stone Fish of Foreign Policy, whose friends had asked him how Zuckerberg's Chinese was, responded "terrible." He did an item called "Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Chinese Like a Seven-Year-Old." Yesterday I posted a critical-review-of-that-critical-review, by Kevin Slaten, plus some other thoughts about language learning.
Since then I've received an avalanche of interesting letters, and I plan to share an assortment of them tomorrow. For now, Isaac Stone Fish deserves a clear shot to reply to Kevin Slaten's criticisms. I turn the floor over to him:
Thanks Mr. Fallows for your thoughtful post, and for giving me the chance to respond, and Mr. Slaten, thanks for your contribution.
After Zuckerberg spoke Mandarin, several newsoutletsclaimed his Mandarin was fluent. That is incorrect. There’s a difference between speaking unstandard Mandarin -- which, as Mr. Slaten correctly pointed out, is what that Mao and Deng spoke -- and speaking broken Mandarin with mangled tones, which is the way Zuckerberg spoke.
The problem with Zuckerberg’s Mandarin was not just his pronunciation; he also made many grammatical errors. You’re right that a seven-year-old native speaker -- even if his mouth was full of marbles -- would not make the tonal or grammatical errors that Zuckerberg made. It was the best analogy I could think of to describe the quality of his Mandarin: any other suggestions for analogies would be much appreciated.
Learning Chinese was great fun, and very helpful to me in my career; I strongly recommend it to people who want to work in China. But it’s very time-consuming. Even if it would be encouraging, I am not going to pretend that a beginner can study Chinese part-time for a few years and suddenly learn to speak excellent Mandarin.
In the end of his piece, Mr. Slaten writes, “Speaking of Chinese fluency, Mr. Stone Fish, we didn't catch that link to your own 30-minute Chinese-language speech in front of millions of people around the world.”
I must admit defeat. Yes, I could give a 30-minute Chinese-language speech much better than Zuckerberg’s, especially if I prepared for the topic, as Zuckerberg seemed to have done. But I will never be able to satisfy Mr. Slaten’s request to do so in front of millions of people. Why? Because only an exceedingly small number of people actually care about the level of my Mandarin. Take my former Chinese teachers and my parents out of that equation, and that number drops dangerously close to zero.
Thanks to Isaac Stone Fish for his good-humored response, to Kevin Slaten for his stimulus for this discussion, and to everyone else who has written. Tomorrow it will be your turn.
The South China Morning Post has a fascinating story about the flight of a Chinese-owned airliner that eventually got its 200 passengers safely to the ground, but not before some misadventures.
The screenshot above, used with permission from FlightAware, shows the route the plane had to take before Chinese controllers allowed it to land. Here's a larger view of the trip, the track of which picks up a little while after its departure.
• The plane, an Airbus flown by China Eastern, started out in Asahikawa on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido;
• It was headed for Beijing's Capital Airport, shown as ZBAA/PEK on the screen above. But it couldn't land there because the visibility was too low. Planes abort landings because of low ceilings or limited visibility all the time; knowing how and when to execute a "missed approach" safely is part of normal IFR (instrument-flight rules) skills. There are circumstances where some airliners can land with no visibility, but let's ignore them for now. Usually the problem is fog, clouds, and so on. In this case, it was because the pilots couldn't see through Beijing's polluted air. According to the SCMP, some 60 flights were diverted from Beijing that day because the air was opaque.
• If a plane, especially an airliner, can't land at one airport, it just goes somewhere else. This too happens all the time, as weary frequent flyers know. But the controllers at the nearby Jinan and Qingdao airports in Shandong province said, "Unt-uh." You are not cleared to land. This is very much not the way the aviation world usually works. Remember, too, that this wasn't some threatening alien craft but an international flight by one of China's mainstay airlines.
• Unable to land in Beijing, and not approved to land anywhere else, the plane just circled around in holding patterns, as you see above.
• Eventually and inevitably, it ran low on gas.
• At this point the pilots reported to the controllers that they were in emergency circumstances and needed to land now. The controllers in Qingdao finally said, OK, now that it's an emergency, you can land. According to the SCMP account, the plane had so little fuel left over when it touched down that the final approach to Qingdao was all-or-nothing. There wouldn't have been enough fuel for another "go around."
Here is how the flight looks on a normal day:
This story has everything: Signs of China's growth, prosperity, and strength—planes full of tourists to Hokkaido, shiny new airline fleets. On the other hand, the inescapable consequences of pollution. And, perhaps most important, the distance still to go in developing the complex, resilient, trust-rather-than-command-based networks that are necessary to operate the highest-value modern organizations in the right way.
Universities can't (in my view) operate well in a climate of press censorship; high-tech startups are hindered when there is doubt about contract rights and rule of law; and things like an aviation network don't work well when people are afraid, or unwilling, to adapt and take local initiative rather than waiting for commands. Yes, I do realize how adaptable and de-centralized most of China usually is. But the reason that high-end modern industries like aerospace, bio-tech, and info-tech are such important bellwethers for China's development is that their success depends on a combination of clearly understood standards and delegated authority and decision-making. These modern systems can't work if everyone is waiting for explicit instructions from headquarters or mainly worry that they'll be punished for exercising on-scene judgment.
There is a larger point to make here, about why these top-end, "soft infrastructure" developments will be harder for China (though still perhaps possible) than the hard-production miracles of the past generation. In fact there's a whole book on the topic! I will be interested to hear from my friends in the Chinese aviation world and who will be blamed for what after this event.
Following this item last night, three more useful things to read about the drama unfolding in Hong Kong:
1) "Why Obama should keep quiet about the Hong Kong protests," by Benjamin Carlson in Global Post. Ben Carlson—who is a much-missed former Atlantic staffer, and in recent years a resident of Hong Kong and Beijing—underscores this crucial point. What is happening in Hong Kong is not about foreign "interference" or meddling in China. But that is exactly how the government in Beijing would love to be able to portray it, and for them comments from an American president would be an absolute godsend.
Why does this matter? Because I am already anticipating the wave of op-ed columns and grumblings on the weekend talk shows about this latest case of Obama's "weakness" or "passivity" or reliance on "leading from behind." Anyone who encourages him to get in the middle of this reveals both ignorance of China and indifference to the consequences there.
My friend Hai Zhang, who is originally from Kunming and whose writings and photos you can see more about here, sends this picture just now from across the Shenzhen River that separates Guangdong Province, in mainland China, from Hong Kong. He writes:
On the other side of the Shenzhen River, I feel shamed, I cry and cry. I think you know what I am crying for and what I am shamed of.
For now, as the National Day Holiday dawns in Hong Kong and across China, three reading suggestions:
1) "Against My Fear, I See That You Hope," a message from a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to her students who have taken to the streets in protest. This post, by Denise Ho, conveys how unusual it is for this movement to arise in Hong Kong, and the mixture of admiration and foreboding in many people's minds:
As I listened to you, I was and am fearful. During the rally on Monday my eyes followed one of you, my own student, as he spoke on the stage. Was it less than two years ago that he was one of the silent ones in class? When had he grown so tall, so articulate? And where had that beard come from? As I watched you tremble with the rightness of your words, with the fury of the wronged—when you shouted that you would make the Chinese state come to its knees—something clutched my heart with fear. At that moment I suddenly felt old, in a way that wrinkles and grey hair have not chilled me. When I was young, I too had many dreams.
I am afraid for you, and as I told my friends on Saturday it is less a fear for your arrest, or bodily injury—although events since Sunday have shown that perhaps I should fear this too. More than this, I am afraid of what happens if and when the world you hope to create does not come to be.
2) "China Strikes Back," by Orville Schell for the New York Review and China File, gives more reason for the foreboding. Orville Schell is a longtime close friend, and he has known more about China, for a longer time, than I ever will. (He and John Delury also recently wrote a very good book about China's rise, Wealth and Power, which is newly relevant.) His conclusion is darker than I'm willing fully to embrace now. But this article is important background to what you see unfolding in Hong Kong.
3) Henry Farrell on the limits of "explanatory" journalism, on Monday in The Washington Post. I'm all for explanatory journalism, which is part of what The Atlantic has always been for. But in its latest incarnation it's both highly valuable, when writers can add new data—or reporting-based interpretations—and suspect, when writers feel the need to "explain" events in which they're mainly working at second-hand remove. It's an adjustment each wave of journalistic improvement goes through.
All the more reason to pay attention to those explaining, from on the scene. Including Gady Epstein in The Economist, Emily Rauhala in Time, the WSJ'sReal Time Blog, the NYT and WaPo on-scene coverage, and more.
I'm not on-scene, but an observation from having been there over the years:
It would be wonderful to think that the PRC leadership would take the soft-power, high-road route out of this confrontation. It could recognize the maturity and responsibility of the newly politically aware Hong Kong populace. It could cannily assess the advantages to China of "controlling" Hong Kong while letting it continue to operate with rule of law, uncensored Internet, untrammeled media, free universities, transparent financial markets, and all the other attributes of a first-world center. With a light hand, the PRC government could have it both ways.
But that's not likely. Any more than it's likely that the current leaders will throw the doors to China open to the world's journalists—which would be the best way to advance the country's image, given that more interesting/good is underway there than depressing/bad—or that they'll uncensor the Internet or realize that they're magnifying their problems in the long run by jailing, for life, a moderate, intellectual leader of the Uighur cause. This is why it is hard to imagine a pleasant ending to the currently inspiring movement in Hong Kong.
I could say that the Chinese leadership is on a self-destructive course—but, hell, I have said that about America at countless stages. For now, thanks to Hai Zhang; consider reading these items; and most sincere admiration and best wishes to the people of Hong Kong.
I was at the uneventful (if tense) Legco [Legislative Council] demonstration on Saturday as well as last night's demonstrations between Causeway Bay and Central.
It was as much depressing as, ultimately, uplifting. When I was incapacitated by a blast of pepper spray, I somehow found myself being reverse crowd-surfed to a safe area.
There, a young girl cradled my head and poured water into my eyes. Some others wiped the chemicals off my arms and legs. When they went on to help the next injured person, an old woman kept watch over me, speaking soft Cantonese and plying me with all manner of snacks and drinks. These were complete strangers. Later, when we scrambled to avoid the first tear gas attack, a small band of people committed to staying put and helping the crush of smoke victims climb over the concrete barriers and into safety.
Yes, yes, I am aware that Rashōmon is a Japanese reference, and we're talking about events in China. But bear with me—at the moment it's a convenient shorthand for the contradictory possibilities, and the unknowable underlying reality, of events that are important but not fully understood. If you'd prefer, you could think of this as Heisenberg Comes to Hong Kong.
Two days ago I mentioned some of the downbeat political and economic news out of China, mainly involving challenges for the economy and the continued tightening of political controls under the hoped-for reform leader Xi Jinping. Now three representative reactions from readers in and around China:
1) “Stop being such a downer.” From a reader based in the U.S. who often does business in China:
Please don't do this if you can help it. For years, you were the guy bringing out ideas. Now, not so much.
I know how many bad stories there are. My family provides them. I see them. There are plenty of folks to point out the obvious.
It is only stories that everyone knows. You're reinforcing ideas already in peoples heads.
There's no lack of forecasters predicting doom for China. It's the story Westerners like best.
There are better and more interesting stories.
The stories that get written are the ones already in Westerners heads. Everything is viewed thru the Western lens. No one is writing from a Chinese view. I understand why. It's anathema. One would be outcast.
Folks think it's a billion people yearning to be free. It's more like a billion people wanting clean air, an apartment, a retirement home that's not a shithole, fashionable clothes.
But those are stories that run counter to Western canon on China.
I recently did a trip across Hubei and Hunan that was (sort of) like your trip across the US. The overall vibe was positive. It's a different picture of China than folks in the US get.
2) “The reality is downcast right now, and you might as well say so.” From a foreigner who has lived in China for the past 10+ years and has been involved in the music business there:
I've spent more time in Hong Kong of late, as my wife and I are planning to return to the US after many years in China, and we're organizing our affairs in Hong Kong as an intermediate on our way back to the US.
The situation for music became so dismal in China that I finally decided to give up the endeavor altogether. Our last several live shows were tampered with in a very heavy-handed way by the gov't: we were forbidden from performing certain songs at the last minute and not permitted to substitute others for them, our show times were moved around at the last minute, and our appearances even spliced out of videos of the events. I concluded that it was no use trying to fight these (invisible) forces, and we decided that it would be best for us to move back to the US and focus on a future there.
It's a sad day. I remember the overwhelming sense of optimism among my Chinese friends when I first moved to China [more than ten years ago]. The sense then was that the genuine opening up of China was inevitable, and everyone (I'm speaking of my Chinese friends and colleagues and not expats) had the sense that the heavy hand that had been upon them for so long was finally lifting.
Now my sense is that optimism is all but gone. The strident nationalism is no substitute; it brings a certain angry determination but almost none of the spontaneous optimism that was so evident a decade ago. I feel so sorry for China's artists and scientists, who are not only very talented, but who will suffer both in career and in reputation because of forces in the country that are beyond their control
On the bright side, things are looking up for the US, and my (uninformed) guess is that roughly speaking as China spirals into more and more economic peril because of its dubious policy choices, it will be much to the benefit of the US economy, as people from China and elsewhere flock toward the West generally and the US in particular in search of the optimism that they can no longer find in China.
3) “Things are good and bad at the same time.” From someone formerly of Hong Kong, now in the U.S.:
As an ex-Hongkonger, I am of course as disappointed and frustrated as many are at Beijing's decision not to allow direct election of our Chief Executive. However, being a determined optimist, I see this as a cup half-full.
First , let's remember that the British government has never allowed any sort of elections for the CEO (Governor) of Hong Kong, or India, or any of its former colonies (including the United States) in its long and shameful history of colonialism either, as every Chinese mainlander will tirelessly remind you. So no one can deny that indirect election as now proposed is definitely a step forward.
Second, I propose we should view the CEO of Hongkong not as equivalent to the US President, but as a US Supreme Court Justice, who is also nominated by the party in power and not elected by the people. What this means is that as long as the CEO candidates nominated by China maintain their independence after the elections, we are in good shape.
Hongkongers need to find an Earl Warren, who seemed to toe the party line before nomination but who turned out to be a defender of civil rights. Whether such a candidate can be found is a test of the moral integrity and courage of Hongkong's elites. Whether Beijing will acquiesce in his/her subsequent independence will be a test of its good faith. But as things stand right now, a bad outcome is not a foregone conclusion.
All these accounts are true. After the jump, a quote from China Airborne on the necessity and difficulty of accepting such contradictions.
First, for fair-and-balanced purposes, if you'd like to start with some depressing trends out of the U.S., be sure to read “The punditry vs. the presidency,” by Michael Cohen in the NY Daily News. It is about the destructive, non-accountable pundit pressure on Barack Obama to prove his strength by “doing something” about the crises underway around the world. Ah, it brings the "why we hate the media" days back so vividly.
On to China.
1. Politics. Last night my wife and I heard the cheering news on (state-controlled) China Central TV that universal suffrage was coming to Hong Kong. Great! And, yes, we actually watch this channel a lot of the time.
Unfortunately, as everyone except the state-controlled Chinese media pointed out, the announcement was part of a deal that ensures that the right to vote won't really matter. The Hong Kong electorate will be able to cast its vote only for one of several Party-approved candidates. As an illustration of the contrast in coverage, reader Rick Jones sent this screen shot:
On the overall situation, here is a useful assessment by Richard Bush of Brookings. For instance:
China's 2012 promise [of universal suffrage by 2017 for Hong Kong] created hopes among the public that the chief executive would be picked through a truly democratic election. Those hopes have now been dashed, and it is likely that China has bought itself more instability, not less.
After the jump, an email from a long-time foreign resident in Hong Kong about some local reaction to the decision.
2. Economics. If you want the big picture on why the challenge now facing China’s economic leaders is different from, and even harder than, ones they have dealt with in the past three decades of rapid growth, you could start with Minxin Pei’s China’s Trapped Transition. It came out six years ago, and it foresaw a structural crisis for China's economy within six or seven years. Or, you could even read China Airborne, which is on this exact theme. For now I suggest that you start with two online postings by Michael Pettis, in Beijing.
One is a guide to the four stages of development the political-economic system has gone through, from the poverty of the 1970s to the mixed success-and-crisis situation of the country today. Here is what Pettis thinks a not-yet-realized fourth step would mean:
What China needs now is another set of liberalizing reforms that cause a surge in social capital such that Chinese individuals and businesses have incentives to change their behavior in ways that generate greater productive activity from the same set of assets.
These must include changing the legal structure, predictably enforcing business law, changing the way capital is priced and allocated, and other factors that determined the incentives, so that Chinese are more heavily rewarded for activity that increases productivity and penalized, or at least less heavily rewarded, for rent seeking.
But because this means almost by definition undermining the very policies that allow elite rent capturing (preferential access to cheap credit, most importantly), it was always likely to be strongly resisted until debt levels got high enough to create a sense of urgency. This resistance to reform over the past 7-10 years was the origin of the “vested interests” debate.
The other Pettis article is this new item on the very bad, and less bad, options for a Chinese fiscal/financial transition.
3) Sociology. My friend Eric Liu points out in a WSJ essay (drawn from his very good new book A Chinaman's Chance) that China has practically no naturalized citizens: some 941, as of the 2000 census. No doubt there are more now, but by comparison the U.S. has somewhere in the vicinity of 18 million. Like Eric Liu, I view this as reason #1 that the long-term strategic assets of the United States vastly exceed those of China. Also, see the report from Frank Langfitt of NPR on a much-discussed recent episode in which a foreigner keeled over, unconscious, on a Shanghai subway and everyone on the train ran away rather than offering help.
The point of my book China Airborne was that just about everything involving China's potential, and its challenges, could be seen in its ambition to become an all-fronts aerospace power.
Chinese scientists and officials are trying to advance their civilian space program, and also their network of military satellites. Their state planners and their industrial companies are trying to build big airliners, like Boeing and Airbus. They are trying to build smaller jet and piston airplanes, like Gulfstream and Bombardier and Cessna and Cirrus (the last of which the Chinese aerospace corporation now owns). They want Air China and China Eastern and China Southern to be prominent international carriers. They want the entirety of their huge country to be connected with airlinks, and toward that end they have been building nearly 100 new commercial airports (!) and working with advisers from the U.S. and elsewhere to devise ways to guide flights to airports in the remote and mountainous Far West.
Across the country you can find the Chinese equivalents to the Wright Brothers, and Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, and Howard Hughes and Juan Trippe, and Chuck Yeager and John Glenn, and Herb Kelleher (head of Southwest) and Fred Smith (of FedEx) and Sally Ride, and others—but all at the same time. (For more, the novelist Dana Stabenow had a nice review this week.)
Those are the opportunities. On the other hand, we have the obstacles. The most important of them is the one that is the obstacle for many other aspects of China's development: the old-line interests of security-minded state.
China has a huge demand for more airline routes and more business-air travel, but nearly all of its airspace is locked up by the military, which only grudgingly makes it available. China has amazingly few helicopters for a country of its scale. With four times as many people as the United States, its civilian helicopter fleet is roughly one-twentieth as large. (Roughly 10,000 in the U.S., versus around 500+ in China.) Chinese purchases of helicopters, mainly North American- or European-made, could quickly double or triple—except for military and police controls that restrict their use.
All of which brings us to today's news. In a few ways, travel on Chinese airlines is "nicer" than in the U.S. The planes are much newer, since the fleets have expanded so rapidly; the cabin crews are newly hired and more chipper; and the system still operates on the quaint assumption that they should give you something to eat.
But if you care about speed and predictability of travel, which is the main point of an airline system, China's airlines have serious problems. Even on good days, their scheduled flight times are slower than for comparable U.S. or European routes, precisely because the military lock on airspace makes them take less direct and efficient routings. And they are much more subject to delay—yes, even when compared with the U.S.
Thus we have this summer's air travel nightmare for China. The military has scheduled a bunch of aerial training exercises in upcoming weeks. These happen to be over the airports that serve China's largest population centers, and they happen to take place during the heaviest travel period of the year (apart from the annual "Spring Festival" migration, aka Chinese New Year.) If the civilian airports have to be closed during that time, tough! You can read the details from the New York Times, from CNN, and even from state-controlled China Daily(above). Also from the China Real Time blog of the WSJ, which reminds us that China's major airports are the worst in the world for flight cancellations and delay, and that delay-induced commotions, even riots, are increasingly common results.
Everything about China of the moment, and the medium-term future, involves this tension between the modernizing, liberalizing impulses and needs of its companies, entrepreneurs, universities, and citizens, and the fearful impulse toward ever-tighter control by parts of the government. That theme will give passengers something to reflect on as they wait out the delays at PEK or PVG.
Recent news out of China has involved crackdowns and seemingly looking-for-trouble international provocations, as mentioned here yesterday. The latest occasion for the crackdowns, including the scenes of jampacked subways that dominated many news shows yesterday, was the wave of recent terrorist violence in the vast western-frontier Xinjiang region of China.
Xinjiang is far closer to the Central Asian 'Stans than it is to Beijing or Shanghai, and its original dominant ethnic group is the mainly Muslim, ethnically Turkic Uighurs, who look more like the people you might see across the border in Afghanistan or Tajikistan than those in the rest of China.
American coverage of violence in Xinjiang seems to alternate, switching between two simplifications we inevitably apply to foreign news. Sometimes attacks there are portrayed as part of worldwide jihad—this is a Muslim region, and during the Bush-Cheney era the U.S. joined China in classifying a major Xinjiang group as part of the worldwide terrorist threat. Sometime they are portrayed as part of dissident or regional resistance to central Chinese government control.
In a new essay in the LA Review of Books, James Millward of Georgetown University, one of America's real experts on the region, explains the tangles of Xinjiang's situation. Both of the standard views are partly true, but both are mainly beside the point, he argues. For instance (spelling the name Uyghur):
What is the relationship between the civil rights problem [for people in Xinjiang] and the terrorism problem? Are they linked? Some say so. Uyghur rights groups, while deploring the attacks, say that Chinese oppressive policies have led to the outbreak of Uyghur violence.
The Chinese government opposes this view, arguing that the sources of religious extremism and terrorism are external and unrelated to its own policies....
It’s likely that the truth lies in between: Chinese policies and never-ending crackdowns, especially since the 2009 riots, have created a climate in which some Uyghurs are more likely to heed twisted, pseudo-religious ideologies that advocate killing innocents to send a political message....
Why then the repeated gratuitous insults against Uyghur culture — false claims that Uyghur is a primitive language, thoughtless dismantling of Uyghur-language education, suspicion and persecution of private Uyghur-language instruction, compulsion of government workers to eat during Ramadan, prohibition of doppa caps and scarves?
I suspect that the Chinese leadership and some Chinese scholars who advise them are uncomfortable with Uyghur cultural uniqueness. They increasingly feel that this distinctiveness is itself a source of the problem....
Even while the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem.
The subject is likely to remain in the news, and Millward's essay is worth reading now and keeping on hand as a guide to the complexities.
For some previous installments, from when we were living in China and the Han-Uighur riots of 2009 were underway, please see this, this, and this, with links to other posts.