There Will Never Be Another Tiananmen 1989

2009 has the potential to be a volatile year for China. The economy is slowing, Charter 08 is reportedly gaining some momentum (Also see ChinaGeeks’ guide to Charter 08), and the year brings two inauspicious anniversaries: the fiftieth anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising in 1959 and the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident in 1989. There has been much speculation and, one imagines, wishful thinking that something like Tiananmen (only larger and more successful) might happen this year. Well, it won’t. Evidence suggests that the protests and subsequent crackdown in 1989 redefined the way Chinese people approach rebuking their government.

First, let’s define some terms. For the purposes of this article, two terms have been invented, both terms refer to modes of solving national political and social issues in China:

  • National Collectivism refers to the mode of problem solving marked by top-down, collectivist approaches and focused directly on national interests. It is characterized by appeals to solve national problems by way of broad, nationally-implemented solutions.
  • Local Individualism refers to the mode of problem solving characterized by non-collectivism and non-generalism. It implies that national, general problems are best solved through a focus on individual or local specific issues.

As with almost any attempt to broadly define historical eras and trends, the distinctions that separate National Collectivism and Local Individualism are not always cut and dry. There may be individual cases where the line between “general” and “specific” problems is difficult to draw, or where the difference between a “national” cause and a “local” one is not entirely clear. Still, looking at the larger trends, these categorizations are useful to separate what are two very different techniques.

Pre-1989, there are lots of examples of National Collectivism. The May Fourth and May Thirtieth Incidents are early examples of protests appealing for sweeping, nationally-implemented reforms, and of course the CCP’s large scale movements (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, etc.) also qualify in that they are all attempts to resolve national issues through collectivist solutions implemented nationally. The Tiananmen Incident of 1976 and the Democracy Wall movement in 1976, again, were appeals for broad change on a national level, and there were others. It is, of course, a well-publicized fact (outside the PRC) that the goals of the students in Tiananmen in 1989 were also broad reforms they wanted implemented on a national level.

After the crackdown, Chinese culture—especially youth culture—underwent something of a transformation. “Gray culture”, as it was called , was “a state of mind—the zeitgeist of a new generation that had lost the grand hopes of reforming, much less unseating, China’s Party-controlled political establishment.” (Schell, Orville, Mandate of Heaven) Rather, youth focused on much more personal methods of resistance, or eschewed social change altogether. The people had learned, wrote critic Liao Wen, that “extreme resistance proves only just how powerful one’s opponent is and how easily one can be hurt.” Rebellion became a personal concept expressed through removing oneself from official channels and culture rather than by demonstrating en masse in the hopes of affecting far-reaching social change. Gray culture was, then, the antithesis of National Collectivism: where National Collectivism aims to solve issues of nationwide importance, gray culture focused on individual goals; where National Collectivism approached broad social change directly and with optimism, gray culture largely ignored it. In their own way, they participants in gray culture were changing society in a decidedly Local Individualist way. The stage their rebellion played out on was inevitably individual rather than national, but this widespread form of individual changes in attitude was itself a form of protest.

It would be untrue to allege that protests haven’t occurred in post-Tiananmen crackdown China. Quite the contrary, mass protests have been quite numerous. However, post-1989, protest and reform efforts have differed sharply from the protests that occurred in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. In Rightful Resistance in Rural China, O’Brien and Li characterize the rural Chinese protests in the 1990s and early 21st century as “rightful resistance”. This type of resistance, they argue, is played out as a “local or regional rather than national or transnational” phenomenon, and thus it clearly fits within the confines of nationalist individualism/localism. For example, O’Brien and Li cite a Central Committee report as saying that in rural Shandong province in the year 2000, more than seventy percent of collective incidents were in response to “[local] cadre-mass contradictions and conflicts of material interests” . Much of that 70% apparently refers to protests of corruption in local elections:

The main points of conflict reported were: elected cadres who were corrupt, overbearing, or unwilling to open village finances; election manipulation; attempts by lineages or criminal gangs to undermine elections; and county and township officials who did not “work hard to guide elections and correct problems.

Clearly, these kinds of protests all fall within the definition of Local Individualism. Moreover, these statistics, although taken from a study of incidents in Shandong, appear to be representative of the country as a whole. Over the course of the book, O’Brien and Li cite examples of protests spurred by displeasure with local elections in Fujian, Hebei, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, Henan, and Hubei, just to name a few. In fact, direct-action protest tactics—a form of resistance that appeals either directly to a mediator, high-level official, or the local populace regarding a local dispute of some kind—are on occasion quite effective, and widespread enough that Chinese surveys indicated direct-action rural resistance was occurring in Sichuan, Anhui, Hunan, Jiangxi, Henan, Shaanxi, and Hebei, while surveys taken by O’Brien and Li reported people from twenty-eight provinces had lodged complaints about local affairs, people from twenty-seven provinces had “led or taken part in demanding dialogues with local government leaders”, and people from twenty-six provinces “had taken part in publicizing central policies and laws [as a way of informing villagers that these central policies were being violated locally]”. Although O’Brien and Li’s sample sizes were too small by far to be considered scientific (overall, they had 1,314 respondents), all signs indicate that in rural areas, protests focus exclusively on local issues. Almost all of the incidents of protest cited throughout the book are either protests of local laws and regulations or improper or nonexistent local enforcement of national policies locally.

Interestingly, in the essay “Civil Resistance and Rule of Law in China: The Defense of Homeowner’s Rights”, Yongshun Cai cites a 2004 survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as saying that “of its record of 130 mass confrontations between peasants and police in 2004, about 67% were over land use.” Although this seems as though it may contradict O’Brien and Li’s numbers—there is no way that 70% percent of mass incidents can be over local electoral problems at the same time 67% of them are about land reform—whatever translation issues and contradictory data explain the difference are largely irrelevant here, as land use protests also qualify as Local Individiualist mode of solving social issues. Cai also notes that local land use protests are not just taking place in rural areas, but that the phenomenon also holds true for people in urban areas . For instance, in Nanjing, homeowners unified against a developer and defied move them by “organiz[ing] themselves day and night into patrol squads to monitor the people entering their neighborhood.” He also cites examples of urban protest about local land use issues in Beijing and Shanghai

Xi Chen cites yet another protest phenomenon popular in post-1989 China. “[The] most common strategy [of ordinary people when protesting] is what James Scott calls ‘everyday forms of resistance’: people carry out covert and individualized resistance while feigning obedience.” Chen then argues that in addition to the examples of “rightful resistance” cited by O’Brien and Li, Chinese protests also sometimes take more confrontational forms. Chen cites four examples. The first, a group of disabled urban residents who drove “motorized tricycles” (ostensibly as necessitated by their disabilities) organized a protest at their district government (Chen does not specify which city the example is from), then blocked the gates of the provincial government compound and undermined an officially sanctioned parade. The second example concerned retired cadres protesting insufficient pensions and health insurance from their former work groups (the groups were targeted specifically), her third example also concerns government retirees seeking pensions from their former company, and her fourth involved demobilized members of the military who found it difficult to get jobs because national policies had not been properly implemented in their location. What all of her examples have in common is that they are protests bent on resolving specific, local issues rather than national ones.

All of protests described above, which represent both urban and rural protests in China post-1989, are both local and specific, as they tend to be focusing on local implementation of a specific law, tax, or policy. They quite clearly implement Local Individiualist modes of solving social issues, and surveys by various branches of the Chinese government, media, and academic world (as cited in O’Brien and Li) and O’Brien and Li’s own research confirm that this mode of protest is widespread and makes up the vast majority of “mass incidents”. Reasons for this are clear: China’s authoritarian government proved with finality on June 4, 1989 that direct impact on national politics was out of the question; thus, many of those inclined to protest shifted their focus locally. O’Brien and Li confirm, “Most popular contention [in post-1989 China] surrounds misimplementation of beneficial measures that already exist but which local officials have chosen to ignore.” Clearly, in post-June 4th China, Local Individualism has become the default popular approach to solving political and social issues.

Does any of this prove for certain that there won’t be another National Collectivist event like the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989? Certainly not, but it does indicate that popular perceptions about how to effect change have shifted away from any kind of national, people vs. government confrontation. 2009 is going to be an interesting year, but it seems unlikely we’ll see another Tiananmen-like incident.

Major Sources
O’Brien, Kevin J., and Li, Lianjiang, Rightful Resistance in Rural China, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Schell, Orville, Mandate of Heaven, Touchstone, 1995.

[Full citations for all quotations, including page numbers, publication dates, etc., available on request.]

Dear President Obama

Please proceed directly to this excellent piece by Rebecca MacKinnon called “In Talking to China, Remember its People.” For those of you in China, it’s GFW’ed, but here’s an excerpt (courtesy of Shanghaiist):

The point is that while these people are not citizens of a democracy, they are by no means an undifferentiated mass of brainwashed drones. Despite often crude censorship of the Internet and state-run media, despite manipulation, intimidation of dissidents and political astro-turfing of the blogosphere by paid commentators, there is no unity of thought in China today. Civic minded citizens manage to hold wide-ranging debates on the Chinese Internet, in living rooms, dormitories, office break rooms, and classrooms about many public issues. Reading the Chinese blogs I’ve found all kinds of views about you and your new administration. Many are inspired by your personal story and the idea of truly equal opportunity that you represent. Others hope that you will be more forthright and principled on human rights issues than the Bush administration was. Others are very concerned that you will be protectionist in order to help the American people in the short run, and that this will hurt the Chinese people economically. Others lament cynically that no matter what happens, the rich and powerful in both countries will be the relationship’s main beneficiaries.

And then:

Just as you have used new technology to engage with the American electorate, your China policy can be greatly strengthened if you conduct a real conversation with the Chinese people. Listen as much as you talk; provide a much-needed platform for open discussion. The U.S. embassy in Beijing should build a Chinese-language website modeled after change.gov, focused not just on U.S.-China relations, but on the range of concerns and interests – from environment, to food safety, to factory safety standards, to education and real estate law — shared by ordinary Chinese and Americans. Some linguistically talented State Department employees should start blogging in Chinese. Open up the comments sections, see how the Chinese blogosphere responds, then respond to them in turn. Translate some of the Chinese conversation into English for Americans to read and react, then translate it back. Sure there will be censorship problems on the Chinese side, but if enough Chinese find the conversation important and relevant to their lives, the censors ultimately won’t be able to stop it. Nor should they want to if they’re wise – because the resulting conversation would help both governments build a more stable and rational relationship that would truly benefit the people of both countries.

Not a very original post on our part, but I think this piece really deserves your attention (and Obama’s, too).

Can ANYONE Write an Article About China Without Mentioning This?

With its economy seemingly heading the same direction as America’s, China is taking steps to ensure that its jobless university graduates can, you know, get jobs. Reportedly, they will be offering training and giving loans to companies that hire them, as well as offering smaller loans to graduates who want to start their own businesses. It seems like a good plan; there are certainly plenty of American graduates and soon-to-be graduates who wish the US government would institute a similar plan.

But Reuters Wire Service is never content to simply report on the what; being investigative reporters, they want to dig into the meaty, meaty why. And, of course, since they’re writing about China, this is the answer they came up with:

China has more than economic reasons to fear surging graduate unemployment. It is also a potential political time bomb.

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests led by radicalized students. Unsettling discontent could spread again as millions of graduates, whose families have paid steeply for their education, look for work.

Yes, of course, the reason the government is trying to help students is not because they want to help or because their efforts could help speed up the flagging economy, it’s out of fear of “another Tiananmen Square”. Never mind that the first Tiananmen Square protests had absolutely nothing to do with unemployment and that they were started by students, not unemployed graduates. Never mind that the protests emerged spontaneously as an outpouring of support for the recently-passed Hu Yaobang, rather than as an organized protest of anything. Never mind that the Tiananmen Square protests were born directly out of dissatisfaction with the government rather than dissatisfaction with economic conditions arguably fairly unrelated to government policies. (OK, to be fair, part of the dissatisfaction that led to Tiananmen was related to high inflation, but there were a wealth of other social issues that contributed as well; had it just been the inflation, I suspect Tiananmen 1989 would never have happened).

The truth is, the slowing economy does pose a threat of destabilization for China, as it does for all countries, but at the moment, I don’t see anyone other than idiotic Washington Post columnists blaming the crisis on China’s government, so a general anti-government “mass incident” on the scale of Tiananmen seems extremely unlikely.

I do understand the temptation of invoke those protests when writing about China, especially from the West, where they’re one of the few Chinese historical events people have actually heard of. Still, I really wish that if people were going to invoke them, they’d take the time to learn the history first.

UPDATE: It’s worth noting that the US Economic Stimulus Plan apparently includes a ton of education funding, like “grants to needy college students”. Shockingly, the New York Times doesn’t cite the reason for this education spending as fear that unemployed students might rise against the central government.

Happy New Year

Yes, happy year of the ox from everyone here at ChinaGeeks, i.e., pretty much just me. There isn’t much going on because of the holiday, and I seem to have acquired some kind of terrible sickness, so today I’ll just leave you with some links.

World Leaders Send New Years Greetings to China (Shanghaiist)
Broader point about Geithner, Obama, China, and “manipulation” (James Fallows)
Chinese New Year Food- Differences Across Six Provinces (CN Reviews)
In Praise of Sweatshops (China Hearsay)
Toward Sustainable Security (China Dialogue)

Enjoy your dumplings, folks.

Why Isn’t Hip-Hop Popular in China?

Today the New York Times published a piece called Now Hip-Hop, Too, Is Made In China about the emerging Chinese hip-hop scene. It asserts that hip-hop’s popularity is growing fast in China among young and working class people despite the fact that rappers cannot broadcast their music through mainstream channels. As the Times points out, you won’t hear any hip-hop in tomorrow’s Lunar New Years gala TV special.

The Times writes,

Over the last decade many students and working-class Chinese have been writing rap as a form of self-expression. Rougher and more rebellious than the well-scrubbed pop that floods the airwaves here, this kind of hip-hop is not sanctioned by broadcast media producers or state censors but has managed to attract a grass-roots fan base.

Indeed, government authorities can pose a problem, especially for live performances. The so-called “Godfather of Chinese Hip-Hop”, Dana Burton, told Foreign Policy, “We’ve had police shut our parties down, take the turntables out of the clubs. We’ve had police arrest our MCs. They say that we don’t have a permit, or that the words that we say are offensive.”

But, although it’s difficult to provide concrete numbers, the Times is likely overstating hip-hop’s widespread popularity among Chinese youth. Many of China’s most popular hip-hop groups were started by or are composed primarily of foreigners (Redstar, Yin T’sang, etc.). And outside of highly internationalized cities like Beijing and Shanghai, there seem to be few hip-hop acts and even less interest.

Censorship may be one reason, but another may be that, much like American audiences thirty years ago when hip-hop was being born in the Bronx, Chinese audiences generally don’t see the appeal of hip-hop yet. The Times quotes a Jay Chou fan as saying (about “real” hip-hop acts):

“I don’t know what groups like Yin Tsar are trying to do,” said Hua Lina, 35, an accountant. “They dress like bums, and sometimes they take off their shirts at performances, screaming like animals. Their lyrics are dirty — why would I want to pay to see that?”

The Times notes:

While Beijing’s underground music scene is generally under the authorities’ radar — hip-hop, indie rock and reggae groups perform regularly at nightclubs here — the producers representing broadcast media in China avoid musicians perceived as threatening.

Another reason hip-hop has failed to take off in China is that many hip-hop groups, probably as a result of being criticized for their lyrics and performances, have taken the same elitist and exclusivist tone that is evident in some American “underground” acts as well. Wang Liang, a hip-hop DJ, is quoted as saying artists like Jay Chou rap about love “and call it hip-hop when it isn’t.” Although its unclear what, if any, effect this has in China, in American it can often have the effect of turning fans away from artists they might otherwise like because they are told they can’t understand.

Chinese hip-hop’s biggest problem may be just that — understanding. If groups like Yin T’sang were being played on mainstream radio in China right now, the backlash would be enormous. Most people simply don’t understand where they are coming from, or the feelings they are expressing. Dana Burton notes, “A couple times I’ve wondered, ‘Are they going too far? Am I getting too conservative?’ They’re rapping about being involved with the mafia, or being underground, or doing drugs,” adding, “They don’t really rap about the government.” Most Chinese people just can’t understand that point of view. That will change, just as it has changed in America, but time is definitely needed.

Yet another obstacle is piracy. The Times article notes that corporate support is one of the few ways for artists to be successful financially in China, and that corporations would never put money behind “dirty” hip-hop groups like Yin T’sang, but it’s also worth noting that the vast majority of successful musical artists in China are not from mainland China and/or have support and international followings outside of the mainland. (Although the Times article paints Jay Chou as basically a CCP propagandist-cum-singer, it’s worth nothing that he is actually from Taiwan).

UPDATE: For an analysis of this article much harsher than my own, check out Bokane. For an analysis much deeper and better than my own, check out this blog (blocked in Mainland China).

Further Reading on Chinese Hip-Hop
Underground Hip-Hop in Shanghai (Asia Scout Network)
How a Muslim Convert from Detroit Became the Godfather of Chinese Hip-Hop (Foreign Policy)

[Note: The author of this article has been making hip-hop music for over a decade and currently resides in Harbin (China’s tenth largest city) where there is no hip-hop scene to speak of.]

US Taking a Harder Line on China Trade?

That’s the story from Obama’s Treasury Secretary nominee, Timothy F. Geithner, who apparently said during his confirmation hearing that Obama believes China is “manipulating” its currency.

As the New York Times points out, the comment is sure to annoy Chinese leadership, if the news doesn’t somehow get lost in the bustle and traffic on the last day before the Spring Festival holiday. According to the Times,

it remained unclear whether Mr. Geithner was signaling that Mr. Obama would officially declare later this spring that China was engaging in currency manipulation, when the administration is required by a 20-year-old trade law to report to Congress on exchange rate issues. Such a finding would begin a legal process that starts with diplomacy and could end with the imposition of trade barriers like tariffs. The objective would be to persuade China to let the value of its currency, the yuan, freely float — a move that would let its value rise and would increase the cost of its exports.

Either way, the Bush administration never went so far as to outright call China currency manipulators; such a dramatic shift in tone just two days into the new administration may herald a change in relations for the two countries, especially on economic issues. Beijing is unlikely to take such accusations sitting down and, as John Pomfret points out, China is one of the largest foreign holders of US Treasuries, which has potentially giant implications for the American economy should they choose to alter their policies. The fear is that if America pushes China to devalue its currency, the Chinese might be less willing to invest in US debt and float the national deficit.

The Times story reports that some American experts are not particularly thrilled with Mr. Geithner’s statement either:

“It’s huge,” said Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund who is now a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I’m very supportive in general and I think China needs to be called to account and the I.M.F. has not done it,” he said.

But, he added, “I have to say this is really a bit of an issue for Mr. Obama’s internationalist sort of theme for his foreign policy because this is going to be at least a spat with China, and if we don’t back down it’s then a row, and you know how that goes.”

[…]

“You know the world has changed a lot with the financial crisis and China has a lot in U.S. Treasuries,” said Frank Vargo, vice president for international economic affairs at the manufacturers’ association. “This needs to be done in a cooperative, not a confrontational, way.”

Some market strategists said Mr. Geithner’s statement inflamed a contentious issue unnecessarily given that China’s exports and economy were slowing significantly.

“Things have changed quite a bit since Hank Paulson made an issue of this,” said one, Edward Yardeni, an independent analyst, referring to Henry M. Paulson Jr., the just-departed Treasury secretary. “The Chinese trade surplus is shrinking dramatically and China’s economy is falling into recession. I think it really wasn’t necessary. It doesn’t accomplish anything.”

It appears likely that Geithner will be confirmed.

Also of interest today
China announces subsidies for universal health care (NY Times)
Online games included in porn crackdown (China Daily)
Foreigners do Chinese things! Ha ha ha! (People’s Daily)

The Story of Spring Festival

Given that it’s right around the corner and not much else seems to be happening in the Middle Kingdom right now, this seems as good a time as any for a historical detour into the holiday’s origins.

First, the origin myth of Spring Festival (translated and with illustrations from this Chinese site):

Tradition has it that in ancient China there was a monster named “Year” with long tentacles on its head that was extremely ferocious. “Year” generally lived deep down on the ocean floor, climbing to the shore only on the Lunar New Year to devour livestock and people.

Because of this, every year on that day, people of every village, the old and the young alike, would flee to remote mountains to avoid being attacked by the beast.

This New Year’s Day, as the people of Peach Blossom Village were escorting the old and young to the safety of the mountains, an old man with a slivery beard and eyes that seemed to be sparkling came begging, his frame resting on a single walking-stick and his arms carrying a sack.

Some people in the town were sealing up their windows and doors, others were cleaning and preparing for the journey, still others were herding their livestock; the chaotic sounds of bustling, panicked people and horses were everywhere. No one thought to look after this old beggar.

An old granny from the town’s east end was the only person to give the old man a bite to eat and urge him to head up the mountain and avoid the beast. The old man smiled, stroking his beard, and said, “Granny, if you let me stay in this house for one night, I’m sure I can drive this ‘Year’ beast away.”

The old woman was shocked; looking closer she saw the beggar’s frame was hearty, that he looked spirited and poised. But when she continued to advise the man to go up the mountain, he simply smiled, saying nothing. The old lady felt it was hopeless; out of necessity she left her house and took asylum in the mountains.

At midnight, the “Year” monster burst into the village. He discovered that the scene was different than in years past; in the grandmother’s house on the east side of the village red strips of paper were pasted around the doorway, and inside the room a lone fire glowed brightly. The monster trembled, and let out a strange scream.

“Year” glared at the woman’s house for a moment, then screamed madly towards it. When he neared the doorway, the sudden “bang, pow” of explosions filled the air. “Year” quivered and shook, unwilling to approach the house again.

As a matter of fact, the things “Year” feared the most were the color red, bright flames, and the sound of explosions. The door to the old woman’s house burst open, and in the doorway stood a man wrapped in a red cloak, laughing uproariously. “Year” turned pale with fright and helplessly jumped upwards.

The next day was the first of the new year; as the people hiding in the mountains returned to their homes they were shocked to see that everything in the village was safe and sound. Suddenly, the old grandmother realized what had happened, and hastily told the other villagers of the old beggar’s promise.

Everyone crowded towards the old woman’s home, all they could see were the red paper strips, some unburned bamboo still exploding “bang!” in the courtyard, and a red candle still flickering inside the room…

The villagers were wild with joy, to celebrate this auspicious event they put on new clothes and hats and visited the homes of their friends and family to share congratulations. This news spread quickly through the surrounding villages; soon everybody knew the way to banish the “Year” monster.

From then onward, every year on New Year’s Eve every family puts up red scrolls, sets of firecrackers, and keeps candles brightly lit, keeping watch during the night. When dawn comes, they still go to the houses of friends and family and exchange congratulations. This custom continued to spread and grow as it was passed down, and became Chinese people’s most important traditional festival.

There appear to be many versions of this story, and many versions about the origins of Spring Festival (as one would expect for a tradition so old). Although traditions of celebrating the new year through sacrifices to the gods and ancestors may have started as early as the Shang dynasty (roughly 1600 B.C.E.-1000 B.C.E.), when the new year officially began doesn’t appear to have been fixed formally until the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.). The origins of traditions are also difficult to date; the site that the above story is translated from says that the tradition of writing couplets on red paper for the festival began in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 C.E.) and that the tradition of posting 福 (happiness) on the door is from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) or earlier, but no evidence is provided. The tradition of spending New Year’s eve with ones family, apparently, comes from the Wei-Jin period (220-420 C.E.)

A good amount of information on current traditions is available at Wikipedia for those outside China, those in-country are welcome to browse the Wikipedia page, but might do better just to go outside and watch the festivities. With all the firecrackers, it’s not like you were going to be resting anyway.