Category Archives: International Relations

High-Level Defection or Convenient Vacation?

UPDATE 7: For an alternative theory, check out this post on Inside-out China.

UPDATE 6: The Chinese government has now announced that Wang Lijun did enter the US consulate and that they are “investigating.” Of course, we knew all that, but this announcement was — like the last one — posted to Weibo, where it immediately spread like wildfire. It seems quite obvious now that the authorities are letting this story spread on purpose.

The reason for this that we have been talking about is that it weakens Bo Xilai, something that some within the Party very much want to see happen. Alternatively, though, allowing this news to spread could be an attempt to “soften the blow” when Wang is almost inevitably branded corrupt and a traitor. Because he played a leading role in the anti-corruption campaigns in Chongqing, Wang is quite popular with average Chinese people, and much more widely known than the average vice-mayor. Perhaps the rumors and these announcements of things we already know are being intentionally spread to incept ((OK, that’s hyperbolic, but when else am I going to get to use this word?)) the idea that Wang, who we previously thought was good, is now bad.

Of course, there were already plenty of questions about the way the Chongqing anti-crime campaigns were conducted. If nothing else, these updates just continue to underscore that we still really have no idea what’s actually happening.

UPDATE 5: At the moment, Wang is back on the Sina Weibo trending topics list twice. “王力军” (an intentional mistyping of his name is #2 on the trending topics list, and the phrase “vacation-style medical treatment” is #7. Searches for “Wang Lijun” (typed correctly) remain uncensored. It’s quite clear that Sina is not trying to suppress this story at all, which begs the question: is someone at Sina trying to damage Bo Xilai?

UPDATE 4: The US State Department has confirmed that Wang Lijun was at the US consulate and that he left of his own volition, although they won’t talk about whether or not he asked for asylum. Very interesting. Here’s the relevant bit of the transcript from the State Department press briefing:

QUESTION: — specifically these reports coming out of China that a deputy mayor of Chongqing had sought refuge at the consulate in Chengdu and that there had been an unexpected increase in security personnel around the consulate for a while. What can you tell us about any of this?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you’re referring to reports about the vice mayor of Chongqing – right – City. So his name is Wang Lijun. Wang Lijun did request a meeting at the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu earlier this week in his capacity as vice mayor. The meeting was scheduled, our folks met with him, he did visit the consulate and he later left the consulate of his own volition. So – and obviously, we don’t talk about issues having to do with refugee status, asylum, et cetera.

QUESTION: Okay. But – so can you tell us exactly when that meeting took place?

MS. NULAND: I believe – we’re here on Wednesday – I believe it was Monday, but if that is not right, we will get back to you.

QUESTION: Do you have any information about what – have you had any subsequent contact with him? Because there’s some questions about his whereabouts.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. To my knowledge, we have not.

QUESTION: And aside from any possible thing that you couldn’t talk about on asylum can you tell us what he did talk about there? What was the purpose of this meeting?

MS. NULAND: Frankly, I don’t have anything at the moment on the substance of the meeting.

QUESTION: Can you say why you said he used – why you used the term, “he left the consulate of his – on his own volition”?

MS. NULAND: Well again, there has been some reporting to indicate that that might not have been the case, but it was the case.

QUESTION: Okay. The reporting being that he had been forced to leave or that had been dragged out, or —

MS. NULAND: There’s been unusual reporting about all of this. So just to reaffirm for you, that he walked out, it was his choice.

UPDATE 3: Ai Weiwei has tweeted that according to a reliable American lawyer, Wang Lijun once asked the US consulate for asylum. However, he doesn’t name the source, and the word “once” makes it unclear when this happened. Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily News is reporting the rumors are true and that Wang asked for and was denied asylum, after which he was arrested, but who knows how accurate that is.

Meanwhile, McClatchy’s Tom Lasseter (@TomLasseter) is in Chengdu checking things out and finding things seem more or less normal.

UPDATE 2: Added a bit to the rumor section about Wang allegedly divulging information to the US.

UPDATE 1: See also this excellent piece by Tania Branigan in the Guardian with additional information.

Weibo and Twitter are buzzing today about an incident that apparently took place at the US consulate in Chengdu last night (thanks to @niubi for first bringing it to my attention). As far as I am aware, at the moment there are only a few real facts connected to this situation, and they are these:

  • Last night, the US Embassy consulate in Chengdu was surrounded by a large number of cars from the People’s Armed Police and other security organizations.
  • The US Embassy is not commenting on the situation, at least for the time being. Update: Still no comment, but this article confirms that the US had not requested the police presence outside the consulate.
  • The Chongqing Press Office announced this morning that Chongqing vice-mayor Wang Lijun is on “vacation-style medical leave” for “nerves”. (Reportedly, Wang’s mobile phone is switched off).
  • Sina has been censoring searches for “Wang Lijun” on and off throughout the day. ((at the moment I write this, it appears to be uncensored again, but I have seen it blocked and unblocked again twice this morning.))

So those are the facts as we know them. Here’s the narrative that’s been circulating which, for the moment, should be taken as very much still a rumor: Wang Lijun approached the US consulate in Chengdu last night to request political asylum. At present, he is either still inside the consulate, or has been refused and handed over to Chinese national security police. Update: According to some versions of the story, he was in the consulate for quite some time, and may have divulged significant amounts of privileged information to US diplomats.

What the hell is going on? I’m not at all sure. Making things especially weird is the fact that these topics quickly shot to the top of Sina Weibo’s trending topics list, but then disappeared. Searches for “Wang Lijun” were blocked, then unblocked, then blocked again, and now appear to be unblocked again. For reference, below is a screenshot I took of the search page during the first round of blocking (that I noticed, it may have been blocked and unblocked before this).

What’s really interesting about this — aside from the fact that I’ve never seen a search term blocked and unblocked so quickly before — is that whatever the truth behind the consulate kerfuffle and Wang Lijun’s involvement, this incident has two major potential political ramifications.

On the international side, the implications of a high-level official defecting or attempting to defect just before soon-to-be-president Xi Jinping makes his visit to the US could be huge. If the US were to grant Wang asylum, that would be….well, awkward probably doesn’t even begin to cover it.

On the domestic side, with China’s leadership transition fast approaching and Wang being high in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing administration, a defection or even just a rumored defection on Wang’s part could seriously damage Bo’s position. Certainly, there are forces within the Party who are very opposed to Bo’s rise, and it’s hard to think of what better ammunition they could have against him than something like this. On Twitter, @niubi theorized that Sina could be allowing some of the posts about Wang Lijun to go through on purpose to damage Bo Xilai’s reputation, and that certainly seems possible.

Assessing the likelihood that any of this (beyond the facts) is real is very difficult. On the one hand, the US generally doesn’t grant asylum from in-country embassies, precisely because those embassies are easy to surround with police. A year or so ago, I was asked by a Chinese friend to research this process, and found that generally speaking, it’s much easier to be granted political asylum if you’re outside the country you want asylum from. It strikes me that if Wang Lijun really did flee to the Chengdu consulate to request asylum, he must have been in a rather desperate situation. Otherwise, presumably, he could have waited for an opportunity to travel abroad and had a much greater chance of success.

Then again, a high-level official like Wang might be just the sort of person the US is willing to take that risk for. But it’s an awfully big risk, and the diplomatic fallout if the US granted Wang asylum would be massive. Still, if word of the incident gets out — and it certainly seems that’s happening — rejecting Wang’s application would be a PR loss internationally.

Anyway, it’s not at all clear what the heck is going on here, but whatever it is, it’s definitely interesting. We’ll keep an eye on it, but interested parties should pay special attention to Weibo, where there’s a lot of chatter about Wang and his “vacation-style medical leave” that is getting through the on-again off-again censorship.

Will China Make Friends in Pakistan?

Earlier this week, the Asia Times Online reported that China is planning on setting up military bases in northern Pakistan. Yes, the country in that sentence was China not the US.

While I grasp the real politik of the situation, I have to say this might not be a good idea. The motivations are obvious: bolster Pakistan to counterbalance a rising India (who China still has border disputes with) and rein in extremism that might spill over the border (or already has).

But I really don’t think China has any idea whatsoever what kind of shitstorm it’s getting itself into.

Autonomous Regions

First, let’s just look at the names of the provinces China wants to set up there  their base(s) in: the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) or the Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA). That’s a mouthful, ain’t it? (Although certainly not as much as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.)

FATA and FANA are as federally administered as Xinjiang is autonomous. Since the partition, they’ve existed essentially beyond Islamabad’s jurisdiction, governed by tribal leaders, much as had been done during the Raj, when the British gave up on the region after failing to take complete control. Basically China will be moving next door to the Graveyard of Empires, into a place that seems equally inhospitable.

As such, it appears that Pakistani President Zardari may be hoping China will help bring these restive regions into the fold (while also giving the middle finger to India).

Recipe for Disaster

Here are just the first things possible downsides that came to my find:

  • NIMBY Radical Islam Style. We know that Osama bin Laden’s original animus against the US was driven partially by the existence of American bases on Saudi soil. Pakistan might not be home to Mecca and Medina, but it is nonetheless home to 160+ million Muslims and the law of percentages says there should be enough extremists among them to be perturbed at Chinese military bases in their backyard.
  • Radical Islamic terrorists hate the US, if not just for supporting Israel, but because it represents the major force behind globalization, a phenomenon they ferociously oppose. China’s projection of its power (which, it actually could do more often. See, DPRK, Burma, etc) could make it lose the veneer of being eastern and different. Throw in the frequently reported news that China oppresses its Muslim minorities ((There are 30 million of them constituting ten separate groups, my favorite of which being the 保安族 because, yes, their name does translate to the Security Guard People, which would be a great name for a Village People cover band.)), and you have a nasty recipe for radical Islam’s newest bete noire.
  • Pakistan is duplicitous. The Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan’s CIA) probably knew about Osama bin Laden’s residence for years. There are links between the ISI and the Taliban. ((This shouldn’t be surprising. Since the 80s, the ISI has been involved in promoting Muslim extremism in Afghanistan as a way to overcome the lack of inter-tribal cohesion among the Afghan peoples in the fight against the USSR.)) And the ISI has been training and arming (some of the guns probably initially came from the US) terrorists to carry out attacks in India and Kashmir. The ISI has been increasingly independent since Zardari, who has no military cred, took over after Gen. Musharraff stepped down.
  • This will piss off India. Okay, so we know India and China don’t exactly get along. But it’d probably be best for the world if they at least tried. Some Indian reports say there are already Chinese troops in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. I’m sure setting up bases isn’t going to win the hearts and minds of the Indian people.
  • Unpopular wars can take down governments. This isn’t a full-blown war, and may never be, but there is a possibility of escalation. If it does, and things fall apart, the CCP could be in trouble. There are countless examples of this happening in democracies. Here’s one from an authoritarian government. ((Now that I think about it, this might actually be a good thing; if the next government we get is better than what we have now.))
I’m sure there are plenty other reasons why this is a bad idea (this, for example), which doesn’t necessarily mean the effort will fail. But I’d hope China would learn from America’s mistakes, rather than repeat them.

Related Reading

This piece on Wired is pretty solid.

China’s aircraft carriers: an interactive guide

See end of this post for an interactive guide to China’s aircraft carriers.

Varyag in Dalian

In August this year, the world’s attention was caught up in the sea trials of China’s first aircraft carrier, a refitted former Soviet vessel Varyag which China purchased from Ukraine. A few months further back in March, the UK Ministry of Defense put its decommissioned aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal up for bidding. Not surprisingly, it attracted a few Chinese buyers. James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor of Jane’s Defense Weeklytold Reuters:

It is very difficult to gauge what is going on here. The links between Chinese businessmen and the Communist Party are always somewhat ambiguous. The Chinese have a reputation for playing a long game, as well as for reverse engineering.

China has in fact played a long game in terms of foreign carrier acquisition. China has been enhancing its carrier technology for the past three decades. During this period, it has acquired four carriers, starting with HMAS Melbourne, a former British-designed Australian aircraft carrier which China purchased in 1985. The remaining three, Minsk, Kiev and Varyag, are all former Soviet vessels.

Melbourne, Minsk and Kiev had all been purchased as scraps, with all the sensitive kits removed. Furthermore, the purchases of Minsk and Kiev were made by businessmen intended to convert them into casinos or theme parks (this is in fact what they are now). However, it is reasonable to assume that they have all been thoroughly surveyed by the Chinese military for naval construction designs, as they sit for years in the dockyards before being transformed into something else.

Varyag is a little bit different. It started life as an unfinished Soviet carrier which was later transferred to Ukraine. It was also the largest and the newest among the four, with technologies from the 1980s. When Ukraine tried to sell it to China in the 1990s, the US pressured Ukraine to remove all the sensitive equipment before doing so. Nonetheless, it was chosen to be transformed into China’s first operational aircraft carrier, after spending years in the naval dockyards in Dalian. Interestingly, like the cases of Minsk and Kiev, Varyag was also intended to be used for entertainment.

With three out of the four aircraft carriers that China purchased being Soviet-designed, it is reasonable for China to refit an ex-Soviet carrier as its first functional aircraft carrier. This brings us to the question of why China is now bidding for a British Ark Royal design. Is it really for a purely business purpose, or is China switching models?

The answer could perhaps be found in China’s purchase history. Its very first purchase of HMAS Melbourne is a Majestic class British light aircraft carrier design dating back to 1942, and has been in use by eight other naval forces until 2001. HMS Ark Royal is also a light aircraft carrier, belonging to the Invincible class which was developed in the 1970s with the successful vertical landing technology.

The other three larger, ex-Soviet vessels variously belonged to the Kiev and Admiral Gorshkov classes, which were both a combination of a carrier and a cruiser, capable of engaging in anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and surface warfare. They thus represent a different design philosophy from that of the British carriers, which are more intended for the projection of air power than providing an air support platform for other guided missile cruisers and submarines, as in the Russian Navy.

Thus, China’s bidding for HMS Ark Royal might signal that it wants to pick up from where it left off at HMAS Melbourne. Perhaps mastering two design philosophies would be the way to go in the complex maritime geographies surrounding China. But another equally plausible reason is that, given that China is far behind in carrier technologies, and the difficulties of purchasing a foreign craft due to the world’s distrust in China’s rise, it has to jump at every bidding opportunities. Only after getting as much on the table as possible can it decide which way to go.

Click here to access an interactive guide to the four aircraft carriers which China purchased from abroad. This is based on two Chinese reports from the Southern Weekend (16 September 2011) and the Caing Magazine (18 July 2011). For optimal viewing, you may need to reset your browser’s zoom setting.

The Internet Organization of China’s New Generation of Nationalists

The website Anti-CNN was launched in 2008 by a group of young Chinese students, led by Rao Jin, who was dissatisfied with the biased and distorted reporting of China by Western media. In 2009, former CNN Beijing Bureau chief Rebecca MacKinnon had an interesting conversation with the group of young Chinese behind Anti-CNN. She said ‘it will be very interesting to see how the Anti-CNN website continues to evolve,’ and that ‘Rao Jin has plans to develop an English-language platform – with a less provocative, more friendly name – through which his community can engage in dialogue and debate with the English-speaking world.’

Indeed, Anti-CNN has evolved three years on. The website no longer exists. In its place is April Web, which also comes with an English platform. They describe themselves as carrying across ‘the vision of the youth and Chinese identity while engaging in issues of global concerns,’ and ‘a media platform to meet and encourage healthy, constructive, and progressive minds for empowerment.’

At Radio France International, commentator Kai Wen has a recent piece about the group of young people behind April Web, labelled as China’s new generation of nationalists. Below is a full translation of the article.


After the Lhasa riots on 14 March 2008, a website called ‘Anti-CNN’ appeared in China. It heavily criticized the bias of the Western media while reporting on China, and won a wide following among young people. Subsequently, on 19 April, the Chinese communities in Paris, London, Berlin and Los Angeles held mass gatherings with the theme of ‘Supporting the Beijing Olympics, Opposing Media Unfairness’. This marked the beginning of a new generation of Chinese nationalists, and ‘April Youth’ has since then became their symbol.

Three years later, many of those who joined the mass gatherings have lost their political enthusiasm and returned to normal life. But not for ‘April Youth’. Quite the contrary, it has become more organized and institutionalised thanks to the internet.

Today, Anti-CNN, which was built by Tsinghua University graduate Rao Jin no longer exists. Its successor is ‘April Web’. Rao Jin is still the core member. He is surrounded by more than twenty like-minded young people, who manage an array of media including April Web, April Space, April Media, April Youth Forum and April Miniblog. Although its Chinese brand name is now called ‘April’, it is not difficult to find the ‘AC’ logo in its forums and spaces, reminding visitors of its Anti-CNN root.

It seems that this group of young people are outliers in the current Chinese system. On surface, by being administrators of a non-official website which relies on revenues from server hostings, they do not depend on the official system. But at the same time, they fiercely defend criticisms directed at the current system, ranging from issues like US foreign policy to German media reporting practices, and from the Wangfujing ‘Jasmine’ protests to the disappearance of Ai Weiwei.

These people are not mobs. In fact, much of the content managing team belong to the post-80s generation, most with undergraduate degrees, some even with Masters, PhDs or overseas study experience in Europe and the US. At the same time, among the major authors for the website, some have deep exposures to French culture, and others are even scholars teaching in overseas universities. But their broad knowledge and the fact that they are outside the officialdom do not prevent them from becoming staunch defenders of the ruling order.

Such paradoxical mentality is perhaps partially explained by a declaration published in April Media earlier this year. The declaration, called ‘History will Remember the April Youth of 2008’, said that ‘this generation of overseas student often struggles and competes alone. As individual overseas students, the difficulties, setbacks, discrimination, repulsion and hostility they face abroad far exceed those they face at home […] As they try in vain to integrate into the core circles of mainstream societies overseas, to develop and realize their dreams, they start to miss the motherland. And the rapid and miraculous development of China presents tremendous attraction for them. The inevitable consequence is the return of the overseas student community to racial and national identity.’

Like what the author said, this generation of young people eats hamburgers, wears Nike, watches NBA and listens with iPod. Spiritually and materially, they are a globalized generation without any precedents. But deep down, they are at a lost and nervous. Such illusions amid affluence, when combined with selective amnesia under the national education, create a longing for utopia, and an argument for the legitimacy of the political system. In the above-mentioned declaration, the author quoted Mao Zedong, ‘we must be prepared to take the blind alley, and to hurry on after walking though it!’ In another declaration, a young scholar from a famous law school in Beijing said in a Maoist tone, ‘we will discuss about the world order and offer our prescriptions in passionate words […] The Western-centric knowledge system is increasingly at odds with our experience. Let’s reconstruct the world’s image and embrace a wider world.’

Such trends are not only found in these declarations, but also in many aspects of the April Web. Looking at one of its most unique and emphasized video, which features Sima Nan, Sima Pingbang, Wang Xiaodong and Kong Qingdong, you cannot but wonder how a website labelling itself as representing the ‘Youth’s Vision’ could be so similar to Utopia Village (wuyouzhixiang), a leftist and Maoist website. In just three years, the newly emerging nationalists have merged with the generation ten or even twenty years older.

The evidence of this merging could also be found in the post-80s generation’s Global Times style of reasoning. Shortly after the disappearance of Ai Weiwei, the April Web has quickly shoot a three-episode interview series, ‘Onlooking Ai Weiwei’. The respective themes are ‘Anti-Chinese Arts are Darlings of the West’, ‘If Ai Weiwei and the Likes Succeed, China will be Worse’, and ‘Bashing China and Beautifying the West are just Business as Usual’.

‘April Youth’ defends Tsinghua University in the controversies surrounding a call for Tsinghua students to be party loyalists. Tsinghua student Jiang Fangzhou, also belonging to the post-80s generation, critically likened her fellows as ‘worldly cadres without independent thinking’ in a letter to the university. She illustrated the absurd situation in China’s higher education institutions with Wei Guo, a young student aspiring to enter the Central Propaganda Department in Chen Guanzhong’s novel, The Fat Years: China, 2013. They ‘are not unconcerned, only that they willingly defend the government – like defending treasures they are going to inherit.’

As always, inheritance is where family arguments stem from. Jiang Fangzhou’s concern may be a reflection of the conspiracy theories surrounding the fight for the inheritance. And it remains to be seen whether the ‘April Youth’ in these ‘fat years’ are really a bunch of idealists.

Chinese Overseas Students, Then and Now

The first Chinese overseas student is Rong Hong, who went to the US to study in 1847, first at Monson Academy, then at Yale. Since then, more Chinese gradually studied abroad, with the first surge appearing at the turn of the 20th century. Back then, China was in a difficult transition period from the late Qing Dynasty to the republican period, marked by foreign humiliation and domestic suffering. But it was also an age of awakening. Hundreds and thousands of Chinese students went to advanced countries like Great Britain, Germany, France, America and Japan to study all sorts of matters. They brought back visions of modernity, which included not only Western technical knowledge, but also society, politics, laws and culture, bestowing great hopes on the modernization of China. They acted like a bridge which connected China to the outside world, and made important contributions in arousing Chinese people’s wake to overthrow the corrupt Qing Dynasty, establish a republic, abolish obsolete traditions, and modernize and strengthen China.

Today, it is fashionable to talk of China as the next superpower. With the shift of power from the West to the East, the special position of Chinese overseas students has also eroded. Perhaps they are no longer needed as saviours of China. They might even need to rely on China’s glories. But beyond China’s economic rise lies authoritarian politics, rampant corruption and mounting social problems. However, the current generation of Chinese overseas students see little interests in making things better. In a few recent articles, Beijing writer and FT Chinese columnist Xu Zhiyuan, and prominent Hong Kong writer Tao Kit, have portrayed them as a confined community, predominately interested in enhancing their personal careers while showing little interests in Western ideas and cultures. In other words, they fail to act as agents of change in China, quite unlike their predecessors.

A confined community

Drawing on his exchange experience at Cambridge University during 2009-2010, Xu Zhiyuan described in FT Chinese how Chinese students in Cambridge live in their own confined world, showing little interests in things around them:

The largest overseas student community in Cambridge is Chinese. Counting in the sixth formers and visiting scholars, it includes nearly 1,500 people. They are numerous and everywhere, but are invisible in Cambridge’s public life. In Varsity, the largest student-run paper in Cambridge, I seldom see their news. I am not familiar with the overly-rich student activity scene, but I rarely see a Chinese face, whether in the theatre showing the tragic life of Alan Turing, in bookshops, or in the cinema screening the great famine of Ukraine. It is also apparent that Chinese students here are not interested in making their voices heard, even when the world media is hotly debating about China.

These Chinese youth live in a new kind of confined life. New technologies and open information have liberated but also destroyed them. Armed with Skype, emails, MSN, Facebook and Youtube, they live a tribal life. Even though they are in Cambridge, they will not miss any popular TV series in China, or the latest film If You Are The One. For them, Britain is just a temporary background. They neither have the ability nor the interests to express their views on Britain or the world. Meanwhile, the rise of China affects them in another way. They no longer view themselves as a progressive force which will improve China. Conversely, they strive to integrate themselves into the current Chinese order. The internal logic of the rise of China has also forced its way into their lives. Three decades of successful commercialism and consumerism is accompanied by political stagnation and incompetence, and a noisy and coarse culture.

Narrow visions

In addition to a lack of interests in the world outside, Tao Kit also pointed out in Hong Kong’s Next Magazine the narrow visions of Chinese overseas students, who are only interested in pragmatic subjects like engineering, finance and commerce, rather than the arts and humanities:

The scope of subjects studied is narrower. Late Qing scholar Shen Jiaben studied law in Britain. He returned to China and tried to reform the legal system based on the British model. At least, he abolished many inhumane corporal punishments. Zhu Guangqian of the republican era went all the way to Edinburgh to study aesthetics, and became a great master after returning to China. While Jeme Tien Yow studied engineering in America, Sun Yat-sen read medicine in Britain, and Liang Ssu-ch’eng studied architecture in the US, at least, there were those who chose to study law and aesthetics in order to enlighten the minds of Chinese.

Today, business administration, finance and technologies are the hottest choices among Chinese overseas students. Who would choose to read Latin or arts history? […] A century ago, Chinese decided to study overseas so that they can contribute to the nation, akin to the spirit of Fukuzawa Yukichi [one of the founders of modern Japan]. Today, Chinese overseas students only care about finding a good job, while the Chinese Communist Party only believes in GDP. […] How can Westerners not view them merely as a group of consumers?

The US public believes that young Chinese students are particularly good at maths. This is a prejudice brought about by the bias in subject selections. Westerners only know that the Chinese are good at engineering and sciences, but not arts and humanities. This is just like how Hollywood views Chinese movies – it is Chinese kungfu rather than romance that is recognized. This is because Western audiences don’t believe that Chinese can be romantic.

Blurred identities

Overseas Chinese students are well placed to bridge the ideological divides between China and the West, and lead social progress in China. But, unlike their counterparts a century ago, they have failed to do so. In another article on FT Chinese, Xu Zhiyuan explained why, and set out the political implications:

When Hu Shih returned to China in 1917, he said to his friend who welcomed him in Shanghai, ‘now that we are back, everything will be different.’ He was referencing Erasmus Darwin’s famous sentence. This was the confidence of Chinese overseas student at its height. They acted as a bridge between Eastern and Western civilizations, shouldering the responsibility to introduce new ideas, technologies and organizations into the Chinese society. In one of his later articles, Hu Shih wrote, ‘we always carry with us new insights and a critical spirit. They could not be found in a race so indifferent and used to the existing order, but are absolutely essential for any reform movements.

Those ‘new insights’ and ‘critical spirit’ often enjoy bad luck. They are swamped by the inertia of Chinese people. Their ambitions, anxiety and constraints are exactly the characters of China itself. But no one can deny their importance. In between the enormous gaps between China and the West in terms of power, wealth and knowledge, they act like transmission belts. However, the tragedy lies here – they are just that. Facing external pressures and internal weaknesses, they never develop their self-determination and value. Their roles are functional – they can build railways, chemical factories or new buildings. But their influence is only limited to the surface of the Chinese society. They are too eager to be useful. They may be noble hearted, aspiring to save the motherland; they may also be calculating, seeking personal successes.

20th century China was just like the Soviet Union criticized by Andrei Sakharov: ‘our society must gradually find its way out from the dead end of non-spirituality. This non-spirituality is killing the possibility of development, not only spiritual, but also material.’

Generations after generations of Chinese overseas students rushed in to join the rank. They helped new China to acquire missiles and hydrogen and atomic bombs, and were recognized as national heroes. But how many of them have followed the line of Andrei Sakharov to question the meaning and value of these actions, and their relationship with the profound suffering of this race? The ability and knowledge they learned from the West turn out to be tools of oppression and illusion directed toward their fellow countrymen.

Re-branding China Requires Honesty, Not Propaganda

The following is a completely unedited submission I made to the Global Times’s op-ed department, who I have been writing pieces for for some time now. I was particularly proud of this one, a response to this editorial. Unfortunately, it did not end up getting published.

[I have removed a few sentences from this post on the grounds that they were quite definitely pretty unprofessional. My bad.]

Re-branding China Requires Honesty, Not Propaganda

A few days ago, the Global Times ran an opinion piece called “How can we make the world like us?” That’s an interesting question, and one that China seems to be asking a lot these days. The government has put a lot of money into expanding their media outlets with the hope of gaining global acceptance, and recently announced a plan to create a short film and accompanying thirty-second commercial that will run on TV in various foreign countries. The commercial will feature a fifty Chinese celebrities.

Wednesday’s opinion piece praises this as a big step forward over China’s previous attempts to rebuild its image, which mostly invovled news stories about economic progress. But actually, I think the opposite is true. News stories about China’s economic growth – which were based in undeniable and clearly evident facts – were a remarkably successful way of changing people’s perceptions of China’s development. But neither those stories nor the commercial is going to help much in terms of making people like China. Neither is the Expo, and neither did the Olympics, really. These show a China that is powerful, yes, but not necessarily one that is likeable. So where has China gone wrong?

The original article says “the Chinese people have long regarded national strength as fundamental to winning respect and affection from the rest of the world. Many Chinese people still swallow the bitter memories of past poverty and the humiliation associated with it.” And while strength may be instrumental in winning respect, it has nothing to do with winning affection. Some strong countries are liked internationally, but others are despised, and the tides turn easily. America, for example, has seen its international image go from “the promised land” to “bully imperialist” primairly because it was demonstrating its military strength. Strength does not breed affection. Too often, in fact, what it breeds is fear.

Economic partnership will not save China either. Foreign countries are no morel likely to be friends with China for econimic reasons than you are likely to be friends with the people working the cash register at your local grocery store. Sure, developing countries may toady up to China for a seat at the table, and even other superpowers can’t afford to ignore China, but that is business. And while business relationships are often also friendly relationships in China, they generally aren’t abroad. It’s all economic; China cannot win affection by flaunting economic power.

Even if that were possible, China certainly isn’t in a position to do so. Whether their complaints are fair or not, an increasing number of foreign CEOs are complaining that foreign companies aren’t treated fairly in the Chinese market and that the government gives unfair advantages to local companies. That kind of approach certainly isn’t going to win China many friends abroad.

Neither is a commerical full of smiling celebrities who quietly “swallow the bitter memories of past poverty and humilation” while presenting a whitewashed image of China to the world. The world knows that China is not a perfect place, so presenting it as one and trying to cover up all of its flaws comes off as dishonest.

It might seem paradoxical that being more honest about flaws will make people more likely to like China, but it makes sense. In interpersonal relationships, people who present themselves publicly as perfect are disliked; they are called arrogant and mocked behind their backs. When they fail, bystanders rejoice. This is essentially what is happening to China now. Foreigners laugh at Xinhua and other domestic media outlets. This isn’t because the people working there aren’t talented – they are – but the limits placed on what they can and cannot say are too great. They are not allowed to be honest. And as a result, the world sees them with suspicion rather than affection.

Returning to the metaphor of interpersonal relations, humble, self-deprecating people generally have little trouble finding friends. People are more likely to trust someone who doesn’t pretend he’s perfect. Why is the US, which is currenly engaged in not one but two unpopular wars on foreign soil, still more popular internationally than China according to a BBC World Service poll from April of this year? I suspect one of the reasons is that the relatively free flow of information into and out of America makes its government seem comparatively honest, even if it is also deeply flawed.

Of course, there’s a difference between admitting one’s faults and advertising them. No one would recommend that China purchase airtime in foreign countries and then run an advertisement about how dangerous Chinese coal mines are, for example. But more honesty would be a good first step.

And if China can’t attract foreign countries by being more honest in its media output, then that’s a clear sign that the government has more important problems to attend to than whether or not foreigners like China. If China wants to be liked, it needs to get honest about its flaws and serious about fixing them.

If it doesn’t it may continue to gain strength and a grudging respect. But it wont gain affection. And it will, almost certainly, gain enemies.

Guest Post: How Chinese Intellectuals Perceive the Tibet Issue

The following is a guest post and translation by Mindy Zhang. Obviously, as the original email was just private correspondence, the professor was just making some basic points, not writing something he expected to be published. Accordingly, we will not publish his name, the name of his university, and the original Chinese text will not be available for this article.

However, readers should be aware that the author of the email is a major figure in the study of International Relations in China.

Two years ago, when I was in D.C and saw some Tibet activists in person, I found myself utterly ignorant of the issue, and I wrote an email to a professor in my college. He replied in length. The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend from Britain, who was very curious about China’s Three-T issues and his question reminded me of this email. So, I decided to pluck it from my personal mailbox and translate it into English.


  1. Here is my opinion: what makes Tibet an issue is mainly that some Tibetans, backed by strong international factors, are seeking independence. There have been two major independence-seeking/Anti-Han movements, one happened during the Revolution of 1911, when the British attempted to negotiate with central government (ROC) as a representative of Tibet. The other occurred in 1949, also supported by the British, along with some Indian intervention. It failed and the DL, as a local delegate, signed the Seventeen Point Agreement with the central government (PRC). The 1959 riot was backed up by the CIA and India. Most of westerners’
    essential knowledge of Tibet is mainly from propaganda by Britain and U.S. One particular case in point is that the 1959 suppression was often distorted as an invasion (at least, some westerners I knew consider it as an act of invasion). The Seventeen Point Agreement, which had a clear regulation of Tibet’s autonomous status and its relations with central government, is barely mentioned in books published in western world.
  2. The management of Tibet since 1949 was based on autonomous system and the Seventeen Point Agreement until 1959. Some major changes then were made and the traditional theocracy was completely abolished. The cause of the 1959 uprising can be partially explained by land reforms and ownership reforms implemented in some Tibetan-inhabited areas outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. However, those reformed areas has nothing to do with the Tibet Autonomous Region, where the DL was in charge. That being said, the central government did not necessarily break the Seventeen Point Agreement. Some Tibetan separatists and Americans took advantage of this situation, but it doesn’t make any sense that some [regular] Tibetans did the same thing. (The ultra-Leftist trend during cultural revolution was also a contributing factor to their resentment)
  3. Personally speaking, the current situation is not fully an outcome of central
    government’s religious and ethnic Policy. There is indeed a substantial force in Tibet wishing for secession from China. There is no problem with central government’s policies after the reforms and opening up period; in fact, I personally feel like Tibetans have been quite favored, making some lamas feel they can act above the law. Insurgences like this happened before, in 1987 and 1989. The pattern is quite similar——demonstration, still unhappy, violence in use, suppression.
  4. The whole thing is for sure deliberately plotted and prepared. First, peaceful demonstration (March.10th), violence next (13rd), then there comes the Olympic torch relay. The perfect timing and media’s one-sided response are not a coincidence. I am not suggesting here that it was plotted by a specific government; the international community is increasingly complicated as
    globalization evolves. All the above is just my personal judgment, it would take time to verify.
  5. In regard to western media, they interpret theTibet issue based on their own perceptions, which is a problem that will take time to solve and might be insolvable. Don’t take their comments seriously and let them make noise. The more attention you pay, the more swelled their heads will be. Some Chinese care too much about their comments/evaluation, thus giving them a sense of superiority. Also, media itself is amplifier capable of making a simple word into big news. Those trouble-makers are not a big deal. The Beijing Olympics will work out regardless of all kinds of resistance. Hard-working Chinese athletes will get more golden medals if some western ones are absent [because their nations choose to boycott], and some reception fees, i.e. taxpayers’ money, will be saved if some of them choose not to attend the opening ceremony. The world is a big place; each of us is just utterly insignificant.
  6. Check out Prof. Zhang Zhirong’s International Relations and the Tibet issue (《国际关系与西藏问题》). Tibet is not my specialization and the latest research is not something I am aware of. I have been studying in the international sphere for years and my personal experience is westerners are unaware of many issues. Explain to them if you were in a good position, if not, just forget it. Young people will change as you grow up. The way of displaying patriotism varies from person to person, some are impulsive and some restrained. In all, try to make yourself high-minded. Your upbringing/character also matters, because sometimes you are being judged not just as an individual but as a Chinese.