Confucius Institutes and Soft Power

More and more people worldwide are learning Chinese each year, and if the Chinese government has anything to do with it, they’ll be learning at Confucius Institutes. Confucius Institutes (孔子学院) are a Ministry of Education initiative; they are in essence Chinese language and culture schools set up in foreign countries, sometimes at universities, that have direct ties to the Chinese government.

The institutes are a fairly new initiative — the first was set up in 2004 — but there are high hopes, and the government expects there to be 1,000 Confucius Institutes by 2020. They are one of the government’s soft power initiatives; in 2006 Zhou Qing’an, a researcher at the Center for International Communications Studies of Tsinghua University, said:

China still lags behind in terms of cultural competitiveness, and the Confucius Institute should add more profound and dynamic elements to attract attention overseas, rather than hanging on to superficial or stereotyped cultural icons.

Like anything associated with the Chinese government, reception abroad has been mixed. Requests from universities and other institutions continue to pile up — probably in no small part because of the shortage of qualified Chinese teachers abroad — but some university administrators fear letting in “a propaganda vehicle for the Chinese communist party” could make it “more difficult for academics to maintain their freedom and independence.”

In Canada, Intelligence Services reported last year on the Confucius Institutes, saying that they were part of a soft power play by the government. “China wants the world to have positive feelings towards China and things Chinese,” the report said.

In what seems to be a strange logical disconnect, the Chinese response has been to vehemently deny that Confucius Institutes exist to export Chinese values, something that no one seems to have accused them of in the first place. According to Xinhua:

The major goal of the Confucius Institutes abroad is to strengthen mutual understanding between China and foreign countries through cultural exchanges, said Xu Lin, director of the Chinese Language Council International, a national body promoting the Chinese language internationally and guiding the establishment of Confucius Institutes.

Xu told U.S.-based China Press in an interview on Thursday that foreign media reports that have said the Confucius Institutes are playing a key role in China’s cultural infiltration are groundless [and] that China had not and would not force foreigners to accept its values, adding that Confucianism emphasizes peace and harmony and adherence to tolerance of different cultures. She also said what China wants foreigners to know about is not a perfect China, but a real one.

A blog post that’s been circulating the Chinese net this week also rips into “western criticism”, arguing that “values” are an essential part of language learning, although the author (Xu Shilin) never actually says what criticism it is he’s responding to. Below is our translation of part of the post, which is called “If Confucius Institutes aren’t exporting values then don’t bother with them!”


There are things about the West that make one jealous, and there are things about it that make one unsure whether to laugh or cry at its stupidity. For example, there are those who’ve challenged Confucius Institutes, saying they’re exporting values. A Confucius Institute spokesperson responded by saying that the Institutes are oriented towards language training, not exporting value systems. Saying that is acceptable, and it certainly shut up the doubters. Chinese people study language, sometimes very intensely, yet no one has ever called into question that this is studying Western values. The C.I.’s polite response to this preposterous challenge is, in itself, transmitting a value: A gentleman doesn’t get angry at those who are ignorant.

Actually, this doubt isn’t something you need to try to understand, because it comes either from a lack of understanding or from ulterior motives. How can language training not include values? Would you really want to study a language with no value system in it? There’s no language in the world that doesn’t have a value system! Chinese language training will expose you to Chinese values inherent in the language, if they do you some good then you can hold on to them, if not, then don’t. How can you want to study another culture’s writing and ask them to throw out all of the values? If your own values are solid, you shouldn’t fear being “invaded” by other people’s. If Confucius Institutes only trained you in Chinese and never mentioned Chinese values, there would be no need for them and no way for them to exist.

I fear the doubters don’t understand Chinese at all. Studying English, you can just learn the letters first — this one looks like a beansprout, this one like an ear, etc. — and there’s no value system. But with Chinese characters, any one you study is part of a value system. If you want to study characters, there are values in all of them: rites (礼), justice (义), honesty (廉), shame (耻)…which one doesn’t have values?

[The author then raises a number of examples, including single characters and chengyu (four character idiomatic sayings), that are connected inherently to Chinese values. As this is likely of little interest to non-Chinese speakers, we haven’t bothered to translate it here, Chinese speakers can refer to the original essay if they’re interested in seeing the specifics.]

The Confucius Institutes’ response to this challenge used the values of a sage, and didn’t quibble with its challengers. Actually, the best method would be to make them study Chinese, and show them what valueless Chinese is like. For example, they could study a chengyu: “giving an autumn spinach at night” [figuratively, it means “flirt”]. Ask them, do you want to study with or without a value system. They will reply, without! Then you tell them “It means giving your family some autumn spinach during the nighttime.”


Admittedly, we may have missed something, but barring that, this seems like just the sort of cultural misunderstanding the Confucius Institutes and their ilk are meant to combat. Here, it seems to me the misunderstanding is mostly on the Chinese side, Western critics seem to have skipped it and moved straight to paranoia. In all honesty, even if the Institutes’ real purpose is to promote the CCP, how much damage is that really going to do in a country or at a university with academic freedom? For that matter, how can one really reconcile rejecting Confucius Institutes with Western values of academic freedom?Although I think the post we’ve translated above is tilting at windmills a bit, the author is right on one count. The beauty of freedom is that you get access to anything. If you don’t like the “propaganda” you’re getting from the Confucius Institutes, go somewhere else.

As one somewhat baffled university spokeswoman said in response to the Canadian Intelligence report on C.I.s, “We’re an educational institute, so it’s not something we look at in a political vein, or any sort of security vein […] What we’re doing really is delivering education for people.”

Chinese People and English Names

Slate ran an interesting piece yesterday about the increasing frequency with which Chinese people have, and use, English names. The author of the piece (Huan Hsu), a Chinese-American living in Shanghai, writes, “At my workplace, which is 90 percent mainland Chinese, just about everyone I interacted with had an English name, usually selected or received in school […] what really struck me was how commonly people used them when addressing one another, even when the rest of the conversation was in Chinese.”

The reasons for this, according to the Hsu’s conversation with a UCLA anthropologist, run the gamut: English is the lingua franca for business, Chinese who work for international companies want names their bosses can pronounce, English names are more “egalitarian” than many Chinese forms of address, etc. According to the respondents in the anthropologists study,

[Having an English name is] essential to being Chinese and achieving Chinese goals. Whereas in the past patriotism was expressed by self-sacrifice, it is now expressed through economic activity. So by working for, say, 3M, Chinese citizens are helping to build up China, and the English names they take on in the process are as patriotic as Cultural Revolution-era monikers like Ai Guo (Loves China) or Wei Dong (Mao’s Protector).

To be fair, Hsu admits that the trend is, thusfar, confined to cities:

For now, English names remain limited to those living in urban areas or with access to education—ask a migrant worker for his English name and you’ll get a quizzical look. But as China globalizes, more and more Chinese pass through checkpoints where they’ll acquire English names. Since 2001, all primary schools have been required to teach English beginning in the third grade (for big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, lessons start in first grade), and parents regularly choose English names for their children. China now churns out approximately 20 million English speakers each year, and the estimated number of English learners in China is in the hundreds of millions. In fact, there are probably as many Chinese who can read this sentence as Americans.

Even so, Hsu may be overstating things. People in Shanghai are probably tired of hearing it, but the city is not a fair representation of the Chinese urban environment. As of 2007, about 594 million Chinese lived in cities; Shanghai’s population is about 19 million. English names are likely also prevalent in other, more Westernized cities like Beijing and Hong Kong, but the population of those three cities combined accounts for less than eight percent of the total Chinese urban population.

In other cities, Chinese people who have — and frequently use — English names are significantly less common. In my own experience, I’d estimate that only ten to fifteen percent of my students, who are mostly English majors, have English names, and many of them first introduce themselves using Chinese names, even when the introduction is in English.

Furthermore, any foreigner who has been to China is well aware that the “English speakers” China turns out are, at best, inconsistent. Many students have indeed studied English for years, but few of them have attained any level of fluency.

The idea that having an English name is “essential to being Chinese and achieving Chinese goals” seems patently ridiculous from here, though it may well ring true in Shanghai or Beijing. It seems a bit preemptive to suggest that Chinese people “living in urban areas” or with “access to education” are adopting and using English names nationwide. Apparently, they’re doing it in Shanghai, but that doesn’t mean it’s happening everywhere.

Ai Weiwei’s Project: The Numbers

Ai Weiwei’s blog was recently updated with statistics from their investigation as of April 27th. There’s no point in translating the post fully, so we’ll just reproduce it below.

The first column is the ranking of the schools, by number of estimated deaths. The second column is the name of the school in question (the first school is Beichuan Middle School; most of the schools are primary or middle schools but the #6 school and some others are kindergartens). The third column is the estimated number of deaths, the fourth reflects the number of people whose data has been collected by the project, and the final column reflects the discrepancy.

Our stylesheet here sort of messes up his lo-fi formatting system, so if you want to read the chart a little more clearly, try the original post. We’re copying it here anyway in case you just want to look at the top few, and also in case it gets deleted there like some of his previous posts have.

序号 学校名称 估算遇难数 调查已收集 差额
1 北川中学 1383 800 583
2 曲山小学 698 420 278
3 聚源中学 492 306 186
4 新建小学 438 345 93
5 东汽中学 383 256 127
6 曲山镇幼儿园 327 54 273
7 向峨中学 327 40 287
8 平通中学 300 119 181
9 木鱼中学 297 326 +29
10 映秀小学 281 277 4
11 金花小学 181 43 138
12 红白中心学校 180 172 8
13 南坝小学 173 197 +24
14 武都小学 150 88 62
15 富新二小 127 129 +2
16 洛水中学 108 115 +7
17 南坝幼儿园 100 3 97
18 九龙学校 98 110 +12
19 汉旺镇中心小学 97 98 +1
20 蓥华初级中学 81 65 16
21 北川职中 81 26 55
22 洛水小学 81 14 67
23 洛水二小 77 1 76
24 湔氐镇中学 75 1 74
25 蓥华镇仁和村小学74 0 74
26 平原小学 69 0 69
27 龙居小学 60 56 4
28 向峨小学 60 2 58
29 遵道欢欢幼儿园 58 45 13
30 漩口中学 53 46 7
31 擂鼓小学 50 2 48
32 八角镇小学 45 0 45
33 映秀幼儿园 40 11 29
34 绵竹职业中学 30 0 30
35 汉旺镇中心幼儿园27 20 7
36 东汽技校 21 1 20
37 工商职业技术学院20 0 20
38 广济中学 19 0 19
39 广济镇小学 16 16
40 汉昌春蕾小学 14 14 0
41 魏城小学 13 13 0
42 水利职业技术学院13 0 13
43 石坎兴坪小学 12 12 0
44 太平二中 12 12 0
45 陈家坝中学 11 11 0
46 师古镇民主小学 10 0 10
47 石坎小学 9 9 0
48 金花幼儿园 9 9 0
49 乔庄二小 9 3 6
50 木鱼小学 7 6 1
51 东河口乡小学 6 6
52 苏宝小学 5 5 0
53 遵道中心小学 5 5 0
54 梁平文化镇小学 5 5 0
55 双碑小学 5 0 5
56 凉水小学 5 0 5
57 怀远中学 4 0 4
58 南坝中学 4 0 4
59 隆丰镇幼儿园 3 3 0
60 麻柳湾小学 3 3
61 太白幼儿园 3 3 0
62 江油一中 3 3 0
63 西南科技大学 3 3 0
64 天河小学总部 3 0 3
65 鱼江楠小学 2 2 0
66 擂鼓中学 2 2 0
67 南坝周周幼儿园 2 2 0
68 高川乡英才中学 2 2 0
69 青莲职中 2 2 0
70 太平一中 2 2 0
71 太平街小学 2 2 0
72 雁门小学 2 2 0
73 中坝职中 2 2 0
74 富新职业初级中学2 2 0
75 洪口镇中心小学 2 2 0
76 蒲阳中学 2 0 2
77 小渔洞江楠村小学2 0 2
78 师古镇民主中心中学2 0 2
79 清平小学 2 0 2
80 湔氐镇小学 2 4 +2
81 磁峰中学 2 2
82 陈家坝幼儿园 2 2
83 邓林学校 2 2
84 蓥华镇中心小学 2 2
85 草坝小学 1 1 0
86 龙门山镇中心学校1 1 0
87 通济中学 1 1 0
88 五星小学 1 1 0
89 中科院青年北川希望小学1 1 0
90 桥头中学 1 1 0
91 江油市胜利街小学1 1 0
92 青莲小学 1 1 0
93 九岭学校 1 1 0
94 八一学校 1 1 0
95 新加坡诚毅小学 1 1 0
96 西屏阳光幼儿园 1 1 0
97 武都五通村幼儿园1 1 0
98 江油中学 1 1 0
99 晏阳初工程学校 1 0 1
100 彭州市实验小学 1 0 1
101 富新学校(总部)1 0 1
102 下寺小学 1 0 1
103 禹里小学 1 1 0
104 拱星真白溪小学 1 1
105 关庄小学 1 1
106 凌法小学 2 2
107 广智小学 0 0 0
108 平通小学 49
109 白方小学 18
110 白方小学 18
111 北川坝底小学 8
112 武都幼儿园 8
113 北川职高 6
114 高庙小学 4
115 向峨幼儿园 3
116 城南中学 3
117 云西中学 2
118 户县国防科技学院 2
119 北川三中 1
120 擂鼓幼儿园 1
121 绵阳高中 1
122 城北中学 1
123 西南镇东汽职校 1
124 板桥中心学校 1
125 土门小学 1
126 德阳通讯信息学校 1
127 遵道翔符幼儿园 1
128 清平幼儿园 1
129 洛城小学 1
130 洛城二小 1
131 东汽小学 0 0
132 水磨镇幼儿园 0
133 通化中学 0

In America, China is More Popular Than Republicans

A good friend and sometimes-tipster points us to this blog post on a liberal website, quoting fairly recent Gallup polls that indicate China is more popular among Americans than Congressional Republicans.

The post is apparently part of a larger series making fun of Congressional Republicans by pointing out unpopular things they are less popular than, but it still provides a bit of perspective:

USA Today/Gallup Poll. Feb. 20-22, 2009. N=1,013 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.
“Do you approve or disapprove of the way the Republicans in Congress are handling their job?”
Approve 36%–56% Disapprove

Gallup Poll. Feb. 9-12, 2009. N=1,022 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.
“Next, I’d like your overall opinion of some foreign countries. Is your overall opinion of [see below] very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?”
China: Favorable 41%–51% Unfavorable

Granted, a 41% approval rating isn’t exactly universal acclaim, but even President Obama‘s approval is hovering around 62%. Given that what most Americans know about China begins with “Communist…” and ends with “…Tiananmen Square”, China could be doing a lot worse. And it might just be food for thought for those who see Americans as picking on China. As it turns out, Americans pick on everyone, but apparently there’s almost no one we like less than Republicans these days.

Thoughts After Skimming Unhappy China

To begin with, I haven’t read all of the book (中国不高兴), or even most of it, so admittedly everything I say here ought to be taken with a grain of salt or three. Nor should this be mistaken for a review of the book or commentary on the book as a whole. Frankly, I have neither the time nor the interest to read this entire thing, but I did download a copy a month or so ago, and skimmed through a bit of it last night to see what they said about America. This is just my thoughts after reading a bit and skimming a bit more.

Actually, they spend quite a lot of time talking about America, and they certainly have plenty of complaints. On economic issues, I’m willing to grant them the benefit of the doubt — I can barely understand that stuff in English, let alone Chinese — but elsewhere I felt the book betrays, if anything, a deep lack of understanding of America, its people, and its leadership.

Specifically, the authors are not fans of Obama. They call his books and speeches empty rhetoric, and criticize him for encouraging the “wasteful lifestyle” of Americans, yet even following his campaign from here in China I was well aware that he was actually quite clear on that point. The impression that I got from him, from the beginning, was that the 1990s-style excess was over, and that Americans would need to adjust to new pressures, especially environmental ones, if America wants to retain prominence in the 21st century. Apparently, the Unhappy China guys didn’t get the message though, or didn’t care, because they spend several pages railing on him for not doing that.

In fact, the parts of the book that I read struck me as rather American, or at least much like the kind of thing Americans do that gets everyone else in the world so annoyed: armchair quarterbacking countries we’ve never been to or understand. Every time the book mentioned America, the tone and the arguments felt a bit to me like the anti-China ranting of southern conservatives who rarely cross the Mason-Dixon, let alone the Pacific. I have no idea whether the authors of Unhappy China have been abroad for any period of time, but from what I read I’m inclined to guess they haven’t.

The attitude that bothers me so much is perhaps best incapsulated in a single line from one of the essays: “If you want to resolve the problems of America today, you can’t just shout slogans.” It’s presumptuous, it’s hypocritical, and it’s pretty damn ironic in a book that many reviewers compare to a nationalist shouting party. Yet Americans, even Americans who’ve never been to China, take the same approach to China all the time. “To fix China’s problems…”

Both countries have problems aplenty. It seems to me that this kind of stupid rhetoric only adds to said problems, and distracts everyone from solving anything by putting them immediately on the defensive. It’s a natural reaction — even this post is a product of it, to an extent — but it’s extremely counter-productive. Write a book about how America (or China) sucks, and the response is going to be a series of increasingly audible expletives, not a thank-you note for the critique followed by serious self-examination. But this repeated, mutual alienation solves nothing, as neither the US or China is, at this point, economically viable without the other. China could call in US debts, sure, but as I understand it, that would go down in history as a sort of economic murder-suicide, not exactly what China’s looking for.

Of course, Unhappy China was never meant for American eyes. Some might even argue that as I’m not the intended audience for the book, I have no right to criticize it. To that, I would say to the authors of Unhappy China who state they have “nothing to learn from America”: there is still at least one thing you might learn from watching us. When you’re a superpower, everyone is always watching. There’s no such thing as “only for Chinese people” anymore, and there probably never will be again. The world has gotten smaller. Perhaps instead of yelling indignantly about each other, we could get off our high horses for a while and actually make some attempt to understand each other.

I know it probably won’t happen, but sometimes even I can’t resist “shouting empty slogans”.

Also of interest

This is too short to make into a full post so I thought I’d just add it here. People’s Daily’s English website has two great headlines next to each other right now that send a pretty clear message. The headlines: “U.S. expects more swine flu cases” and “China to prevent swine flu”.

You win this round, China!

“God Doesn’t Get Time Off”

This is an original translation of this post on Hecaitou’s blog. Admittedly, it doesn’t directly address China but it’s interesting, and we’ll make some connections in the comments that follow it.


I’m not opposed to having a plan for your life, but making up a chart for it in Excel is terrifying. In life, you only get one trip to the end of the road [i.e., death], or only one chance up on the stage; I feel these all can rely on charts. However, getting out the abacus and counting up your life like an accountant, planning what you’ll do every year and saving money every month for your retirement, is a bit excessive.

In my college days I had a classmate from the same province as Lei Feng, who wrote meticulously in his diary from right to left every day. Once near the end of the semester, everyone had gone out to study and there was only me in the dorm room doing some light reading. Suddenly it occurred to me that he’d been writing and plotting away in his diary all day and I had no idea what he was writing. After a while my curiosity got the better of me and I hopped onto his bed and pulled out the notebook. All I saw was line after line of “Before day X month X, finish essay number X” or “Before day X month X memorize English vocab X” After it, there were four exclamation points, and often also an extra note: “Must do this.” Then another four exclamation points. What’s even more excessive is that he’d finished everything.

At the time, I thought the guy needed to see a psychologist, living his life according to a book with everything carefully planned and counted up. It’s as if that notebook were his soul, his god, and he lived his life in the world according to what was instructed therein, loyally and devotedly following every last order. I said forget about it, no matter how much success he gets in the future, I don’t envy this kind of life. I really don’t want to be writing “Tomorrow evening, 8:30-9:00 pm: have sexual intercourse one time with my wife!!!! Definitely must conceive a child!!!!” in a diary, then write a supplementary note a few months later: “insemination successful, responsibility complete.” I don’t think there’s any value in that.

Some people feel they already clearly understand life and the world, and so begin planning. I feel doing this is an affront to god, because your ‘book’ is in his hands, don’t try to seize power. Moreover, human life probably can’t be clearly quantified or defined. The people bought houses last year didn’t know what housing prices would be like this year. For Master Lei and Lao She [a famous writer], who could have known that in 1976 it would all come to a nightmarish end? Writing a plan for your life until you’re eighty, how do you know that you’ll even make it to forty?

You can “count up” your life, but you can’t be sure things will develop in the direction [you expect], otherwise couldn’t god have some time off? Even if things really go perfectly according to plan, if you think about it, wouldn’t that kind of life be incredibly boring? If you could predict everything that happened, why would there be words like “unexpected” and “pleasantly surprised” in the dictionary? If your life is neatly planned out, I fear you’re not far from falling apart.

These days, changes are big and they come quickly, no one knows what will happen tomorrow. To compare, perhaps having a plan is a little better than not having one, but this is really just camouflage to make you feel a bit more comfortable. The world will, as ever, advance according to its own calculations, and you drift and float along with fate, running into people and things you never planned for. You can feel that life is definitely so, or should be so, but that doesn’t make it so. On the other hand, there is one thing we can define clearly. Boring. Living your life this way is clearly boring.

You have an Excel spreadsheet, and so does god. He knows what’s in your spreadsheet, but you’ll never know what’s in his. His spreadsheet is called “being a person”, yours is really just called “desires”. There’s nothing worse than putting your desires in the form of a spreadsheet, it’s as if there was only one model of condom for the entire world. If life is something that you can really figure out, then god is an accountant.


The life-planning phenomenon is not, by any means, unique to China, but it does seem to have found root in more people here than one might expect given China’s turbulent recent history. Parents are often especially guilty of this, or perhaps guilty of the double-sin of putting their children’s lives into Excel spreadsheets, counting up classes and extracurricular lessons, pushing them forward to college, to good marriages and stable jobs.

But what is a stable job, exactly? Aside from government jobs, the “iron rice bowl” seems to be dying or dead, and one wonders what it is about the history of China that could lead parents to believe that government jobs are definitely long-term stable. Planning out your life, aside from being boring and a little bit soulless, also seems foolish. Having a plan is one thing I suppose, and counting on it another. But planning — dreaming, really — years in advance…does much often come of that other than dashed hopes?

“They Beat Me Until I Was Screaming in Pain”

This is an original translation of a part of this post from 24 hour blogbus. What we’ve translated here are the words of a Zhao Xinhua, a housewife whose family was beaten and whose home was destroyed by masked men in league with the police.


On April 13th, 2009, at around 8pm, my famly was sitting around when suddenly local cadres burst into the room with dozens of steel-helmeted, masked men. They showed no documentation, and didn’t say a word. Two masked me took me (Zhao Xinhua), tied me arms, twisted my neck down to the ground, and kicked and punched me. Another man grabbed my hair and used it to slam my head to the ground, they beat me until I was screaming in pain. Later, they dragged and beat me two hundred meters outside of my house to the door of the police van. Some six or seven others dragged Lu Qingwen, who had just been sleeping, out of bed, held him to the ground, and kicked and stepped on him, then beat him savagely with nightsticks. After that, they put him in irons, dragged him down five flights of stairs and into the street, where they beat him again. They tore his shirt and vest and dragged him the two hundred meters to the police car. We were stuffed in. They didn’t let us sit in seats, we sat on the floor. Dragging our feet, we were taken from our homes barefoot.

More terrifying is that they took our 14 year old son Lu Yongpeng, held his hands behind his back, and kicked and beat him until he was crying and screaming, holding him in the door of the police car. I dearly love my son, and said the child has already broken bones, please let him go, but they just beat him more.

Active-duty serviceman Feng Haiyang was beaten by masked men in cooperation with the police, handcuffed, tasered, and arrested.

My sister’s son Feng Haiyang, a 23 year old active-duty member of the 92054th army in Fujian, also lives with us, and thus had a uniform and military nametag in the house. Around 9 at night, he reported to law enforcement with his mother that our house was about to be bulldozed, but that there were still valuables inside. He asked whether they might report this to higher authorities so that we can get our valuables out, or maybe you can save the house. These pleas were all refused. Feng saw the house demolished with his own eyes. Furious, he pushed through the police lines to enter [the demolitioner’s office], whereupon he was held to the ground and beaten by six or seven masked workers. They hurt him everywhere, until he couldn’t move, at which point he was dragged out and held to the ground while his cell phone was stolen. Finally, they dragged him 200 meters to the police van, squeezed him in, and then attacked him with electrified clubs.


According to the introduction, businessmen were cooperating illegally with the police in the area to evict people and destroy houses, which could then be replaced with new buildings. One gets the impression that the family had no warning whatsoever previous to the home invasion and beating, but I’ll admit I didn’t have time to do more than skim the rest of the article. For the sake of perspective, though, the very end of her post is worth translating: “Today, I [still] truly believe the government was founded for the people. Business was not reformed and opened for illegal real estate practices, so I continue to seek redress, and ask the government to quickly resolve this problem.”

From my perspective, it seems like these stories pop up on Chinese blogs every day or two; on the other hand, the blogs I read are selective, and I’m likely to skip over blog posts about puppies and sunshine. So what do you think? Is this just some local hooligans, or evidence of a much deeper problem, or both? And do you think Zhao will have any luck getting help from the government?

History, Patriotism, and the Tangled Web They Weave

History has always been a subject with particular potency in China. Confucius used rituals and sage-king exemplars from a bygone age as models for proper behavior. Emperors traced their family lines back into mythology to justify their place at the center of the universe. Today, common people proudly tout China’s “five thousand years of history”. And of course the government, for its part, tries to shape the discourse in a Party-friendly way, especially when the topic is modern history. A recent post on the China Beat quotes a Beijing University textbook thusly explaining the purpose of studying modern history:

What are the aims of studying our modern history? To gain deep insights into how the invasion of foreign capitalism and imperialism combined with Chinese feudal authority to bring terrible suffering to the Chinese nation and people…and how history and the people came to choose the Chinese Communist Party.

Indeed, the China Beat piece is a fascinating study of modern Patriotic Education in China. The education itself has been wildly effective in painting China’s post-opium war problems as largely the result of foreign countries, and many have credited it with the creation of fenqing, angry youth with a particular distaste for all things foreign that may well stem from their understanding of modern Chinese history. The China Beat didn’t find that to be particularly true in their visits to various “national shame” museums, concluding that China’s patriotic education is “a little like white noise.”

Of more interest to me, though, is the shifting understandings of the term “patriotism” itself. Having written a 150 page thesis just on patriotism in May Fourth literature, I could go on about this for days. I won’t, but the China Beat piece reminded me how interesting the topic really is.

Starting with May Fourth we might define patriotism as something different than what it was in imperial China. Loyalty to a ruler or dynasty was falling out of fashion (late Qing incompetence and the general craziness of Express Dowager Cixi made being a loyalist pretty tough), and loyalty to the “nation” — a relatively new concept in China — was in. May Fourth writers may even have been a step ahead of that; they were (arguably) not loyal to the nation of China as it currently existed, but in fact harshly critical out of love for a potential future “China” they were hoping to help create. It was this critical spirit, that, among other things, led to the first study groups on Communism. Most intellectuals agreed there was plenty wrong with society; it was a matter of time before people started looking for practical solutions.

But Patriotic Education in the post-CCP era seems to have shifted the definition of patriotism back in the direction of loyalism, as stability and harmony are promoted as core Chinese values. It’s no coincidence that these values can be easily used to support maintaining the status quo. At least as long as the status quo remains a strengthening China, the CCP can point to the days of national humiliation as a reminder of what happens when China isn’t strong, i.e., when the CCP isn’t in power, and shake its mighty patriotism stick.

The eternally unanswerable question, though, is what Chinese people really think. As the China Beat report makes abundantly clear, there’s a big difference between what people are taught in classrooms and what they actually feel, or even what they actually consider patriotic. Unfortunately, a Chinese opinion poll is beyond the means of this humble blog. We’ll go into much more detail on this at a later date, but right now if you’re reading this and you’re Chinese, how do you understand the concept of patriotism, as well as its relationship with history? And if you’re not Chinese, well, I still want to know: what do you think?

Laohu Miao: “Song of a Migrant Worker Asking for Pay”

[Here is a post from Laohu Miao (Tiger Temple) regarding a plea for help he received from a migrant worker this month. As usual, our translations are rough around the edges, please bear with us.]

Zhang Xinqi, from Henan province, was a worker on the Olympic Forest Park. On July 2nd, 2008 I met him at the construction site and we have since then kept in contact.

After the Olympic [Forest Park] was completed, Zhang Xinqi returned home for a period of time and then returned to Beijing to do construction work. By the end of 2008 the economy was not doing well and business was slow, so Zhang Xinqi was had no choice but to return home again. By the time he came back to Beijing, the Spring Festival had already passed.

On the 13th I received an unexpected text from Zhang Xinqi. Mr. Zhang, hello! Can you help me with something? If you have time I want to talk to you a bit about this. I replied saying that I agreed. Below is the next text message Zhang Xinqi sent me:

“It’s about the work we did in Chaoyang District [a district of Beijing] last year. There was a company from Linqu, Shandong with a manager named Feng Xintang who came looking for us to do some work. He had his subordinate Xiao Hao handle it. He had us install doors and agree to pay us 100 RMB for each door installed.

After we finished we asked for our pay; he said after the New Year he’d give us the money. After the New Year Feng Xintang had us look for Xiao Hao, who had us look for worker Zhang, who had us look for worker Duan, who had us look for manager Ma, who had us started to agree to give the money. After we spoke with him a few times he refused to acknowledge the debt. He wouldn’t answer his phone, so we went back to look for worker Zhang again, he took us to the door we installed but now said he wasn’t dealing with the problem. When we looked for Xiao Hao he said: I’m just working here part-time [dagong], look for the boss!

We went back to look for Wang Xintang*, who said Xiao Hao is the one who had to go to work, ask him for money. What are you doing talking to me? Now we don’t know who to look for. Can you help us look [and get our money]? Even if we don’t find them, we won’t give up. Thank you.”

Who should these migrant workers look for? Everyone help out with suggestions, thank you.

[*It appears that there is a mistake in the text message; Feng Xintang and Wang Xintang seem to be the same person.

This kind of thing isn’t new: migrant workers are refused their wages all the time. Rather we want to echo Tiger Temple’s message and ask what Zhang Xinqi, and people like him, can or should do. We’ll translate good replies and send them along to Tiger Temple.]

Ai Weiwei: “Gangsters in the Government”

[This is an original translation of an essay from Ai Weiwei’s blog written by Yang Licai, one of Ai Weiwei’s volunteers. Previously, we’ve reported on Ai Weiwei’s “Citizens’ Investigation” project, in which he is attempting to compile the names of students killed in the Sichuan earthquake, and the roadblocks that seem to keep getting thrown in front of him by government officials. In this essay, his volunteer goes into much more depth, as well as offers his own opinions about the motivation of the officials and the system behind them. It’s long, but we strongly urge you to read all of it, it’s fascinating.]

UPDATE: Thanks to Global Voices Online for pointing out this article is actually by Yang Licai, one of Ai Weiwei’s volunteers on the project. Since the essay was on Ai’s blog, I didn’t even think to look, but there’s an author attribution at the bottom of the piece. Sorry for the confusion.

UPDATE 2: The original post is no longer available on Ai Weiwei’s blog. Whether that’s self-censorship, Sina censorship, or something worse is unclear. In any event, I have the original Chinese text, those interested in reading it are free to email me (I don’t want to post it here for fear of our site getting blocked in China).

If hoodlums and legal gangsters* could control things**, if they could become police officers, enter the government, and run schools, what would that be like?

In the town of Taiping, I was besieged by a group of government and middle school officials; at the police substation in the town’s outskirts, I was forcibly searched and some things were taken from me; on a rainy night four strangers dragged me into a car and told me they were taking me to “you’ll know when you get there”; I was besieged again by officials in Taiping, with many students and parents watching; I reported [these things] to 110 [emergency phone number] but no police were sent; I was beaten and robbed [by people] under the direction of the school president with students watching. I reported this repeatedly to 110 but no police came. City PSB official Zhang Xing illegally refused to provide the “Report of Offense to Police Superintendent Registration Form” and also refused to provide the paperwork necessary for an appeal; city education bureau leader Wang Yangjin said: the names of the students who died on 5/12 [the earthquake] are still a state secret and the information won’t be revealed until the government reveals it.

Ai Weiwei
These few days experience in Jiangyou and Taiping make Jiangyou and Taiping seem like an autonomous, self-governed region on Mars. There is a “Taiping township” but no “peace”***, there are humans but no “human rights”, there are law enforcement officials but no laws. In Jiangyou there are government officials, justice department officials, education department officials and even the school janitor, who make impromptu self-governing ‘laws’ and announce them as they are needed. In my experience, this is not uncommon; for example, there’s the “Government officials obstructing pedestrians don’t need to produce identification” law, the “police needn’t provide identification when carrying out public affairs missions” law, the “wearing a police uniform is the same as providing ID” law, the “don’t need to provide a cause to body search” law, the “if we say you’re breaking the law then you’re breaking the law” law, the “when we get there you’ll know [where we’re taking you]” law, the “here you can’t take photographs” law, the “you can’t leave” law, the “we’ll beat you if you don’t come with us” law, the “we don’t have the paperwork you need to file reports or appeals” law, etc. etc.

These laws are indeed effective, I was shocked to discover that the “gangsters and legal gangsters” had won a great victory. But actually it’s more complex than that; these people are all regular Chinese citizens, not professional criminals or expert scoundrels. In comparing them, I realized it’s not that my own rights have decreased, it’s that the rights they’re granted as representatives of the government allow them, those tramplers individual rights, to ravage and encroach on [my rights].


In Jiangyou, those obstructing my survey first threaten and intimidate, saying things like “illegal survey”, “ulterior motives”, “hurting the feelings of people in a disaster area”, “uncovering the scars of the people in a disaster area”, “disrupting social order”, “without legal procedure”, etc. Once, they framed me when I was outside the school speaking to two female students, people walking by ignored the facts in front of their eyes and reported to the head of the school that I had [forcibly] taken the two students outside school grounds and what was I doing anyway. When I protested with the facts, they eased up the atmosphere and moved on to their second technique, “remonstrating with good intentions” and saying they trusted me fully. They said we know you’ve come a long way, and with good intentions, but your survey is useless, this sort of thing should be conducted by the government, individuals don’t have the right to do it, you must trust the government, and so on. This second approach was also ineffective, which led to the third technique: sluggishness, passing the buck, nitpicking, hiding whatever can be hidden and avoiding whatever can be avoided.

If you don’t make strong demands they don’t provide documents, if you don’t argue on the basis of reason they don’t respect the rights of citizens, if you don’t protest they handle things illegally, the person who picks up when you call 110 doesn’t send any officers, etc. Finally, it’s the fourth technique: “one less issue is better than one more issue”, “inviting the gods is not as good as sending them off”; with a special agent with a special car I am sent out of the countryside under escort. After being sent off, I come back, they’re like cornered animals, using beatings to threaten me.

Among them are friends and enemies. On the one hand, they brazenly ignore human and legal rights, which is illegal and unprincipled, laying out layers of sentry posts and impeding the legal rights of those wishing to conduct this citizens’ investigation, on the other hand, I often feel they’re just following the orders of “higher-ups”, when things don’t go smoothly behave like a gangster, or use illegal tactics to enforce the law, or resort to violence and thievery, all these kinds of behavior cannot be helped. They [the higher-ups] don’t ask for meritorious service, they just demand that nothing goes wrong.

Institute Head Meng, when he got off of work, immediately returned and wanted to put everything down in writing […] When I left the police substation in the outskirts of town, he called me over to the doorway and shook my hand, saying “I’m happy to have met you.” The man who escorted me home started with a straight face as though he wouldn’t let personal feelings get in the way of duty, but on the road home began to discuss his family with me. Taiping 2nd Middle School Chemistry teacher and branch secretary Wu, participated in intercepting me and forcing me to leave, but during and after when I was beaten, he was the only person who stayed with me and afterwards, took me to the hospital to get checked out, even “delaying a date with [his] girlfriend” to help me. For the public good, he took on the identity of government representative and policy explainer to do “ideological work” with me […] For his personal interest, he actually felt the same as I did about my unfortunate situation, frequently repeating he opposed the use of violence, enthusiastically helping me and treating me like a friend.

These people’s relationships with me are like two locusts tied to the same string, or two actors on the same stage, we are interconnected. The methods we use in our struggles are different, but undoubtedly we are all victims of the power of the system. We’ve all played the opponent in plays but don’t really wish to enter the plays ourselves, this play is just being put on for the sake of “other people” watching. More “into the play”, and less human are Principal Yang of Taiping 2nd Middle School, leader Yang Xing, the middle aged woman who photographed and searched me but refused to sign her name. Throughout, they stood strong and unyielding on the opposing side, labeling me a “inflexible enemy” and refusing to communicate, beating me and pressuring my appeals and resistance [on the basis of] human rights. President Yang was frenzied in his attempt to frame me for “removing two female students from the school.” These people’s deeds were the evil, falling club; [these people are like] a mad guard dog protecting a rich household, they have lost all individual thought and willpower, letting people brandish [weapons, i.e., resort to violence] and spurring them on.

Seeking a living within the system is like seeking a living in the gangland world, you must always follow the orders of the “higher-ups” and “elders”, the more you are obedient the more you are well-received; the more you are loyal the more you are favored. If you have independent thoughts and the sprit of a critical thinker, I fear it will be difficult for you to find a place. Even if you aren’t thrown out, you can only feel wronged and seek to protect yourself through not working too hard. When I come in contact with them, I can often sense the rope that binds them, and the hand that’s holding the rope on the other end. Those like School President Yang, those kind of hatchet-men, maybe they will have an opportunity for a meteoric rise, but they’re also easily sacrificed by the “higher-ups”. Their methods will sooner or later lose the support of the people and they will become public targets. The anger of the people is uncontrollable, and when it threatens the “higher-ups”, these hatchet men are the most valuable sacrificial lambs. As for those rogues who do the beating, they will always be ignorant and will always be being used. One can sympathize with them, but they’re not even worth mentioning.

Jiangyou, a small city located in the northwestern part of the Sichuan basin, covers 2,716 square kilometers, with a population of 877,600 people. It’s 160 kilometers from Chengdu. In my brief stay in Jiangyou, what I saw and heard reminded me of my own home, Panjin City in Liaoning. Whether it’s the scale of the city or the landscape or people’s attitudes, these two cities are similar. In modern China, no one can shut themselves in an ivory tower, there is nowhere that’s a haven of peace. If, in life, you wish to get far away from this haze, aside from action, aside from seriously and earnestly fighting for change, creation, and construction, there’s no other way.

*法氓, I was unable to find a reliable definition for this term and I’m not familiar with it, so I’m guessing.
**The original is 会武术, which literally means “can do martial arts”, but a literal translation in English makes it somewhat confusing so I’ve rendered his usages of this metaphor more loosely on the assumption that his meaning is “to have the ability to back up their desires with action and enforce them”
***The name of the town, 太平, means peace.

Who’s really to blame here, and is Ai Weiwei really right in letting some of the underlings who harassed him off the hook?