Category Archives: Uncategorized

ChinaGeeks Archive has been shut down, but a full archive of its posts is available here for those interested. has also been shut down, but you can watch the film for free here:

Link to Vimeo

PSA: Beware the Impostor

Just a very quick thing: it has come to my attention that someone is using my name (Charles Custer) to comment on China articles at various news sites (see this and this for examples). This person is not me.

For the record, any comment you see on any news site using my name is not by me. I don’t comment on news articles like that. If I had a comment, it would be posted as a blog post here, or it would be something I posted to Twitter. I do not comment on news sites, so any comments like this that you see are not by me. It’s just someone using my name because they’re too cowardly to use their own.

Hey, Speaking of Soft Power Fails…

A couple days ago we looked at one way to fail at soft power, but while we were doing that, China’s highest levels of leadership were working on a way to fail way, way harder. In case any of you have been living under a rock, Xi Jinping — China’s presumptive next president — is M.I.A.

Now, before things get all Jiang Zemin-y up in here, plenty of sources seem to be suggesting that Xi has been out with minor injury and will likely be back in the public eye soon. But no one knows for sure because no one has actually seen Xi since September 1, and China’s government has refused to explain where Xi is.

Let’s just pause for a minute and think about the message this sends to the world. China is saying, “Trust us. Make the RMB your reserve currency. We are a stable, peaceful economic powerhouse and you have nothing to fear from investing in us. Oh, by the way, the guy who’s running our country may periodically just disappear for extended periods of time and no one will explain why. Don’t worry about it!”

I’m no economist, but I believe the sudden, unexplained disappearance of someone in charge of the world’s second largest economy is going to have an impact on the markets. It certainly doesn’t instill confidence. And things don’t improve when that disappearance drags on for weeks. Whether or not Xi was seriously ill or injured is almost beside the point now. What the hell did Chinese officials have to gain from all this? Because they sure lost a lot of points internationally, and having your impending next president disappear doesn’t play too well domestically either, no matter how hard you scrub the weibos.

I suppose whenever Xi reemerges from his cucoon underground bunker sex palace marble boat whatever, it may become clear what happened to him. If he had some sort of horrific visually-evident disease — flesh-eating bacteria or something? — then I could see why the government might want to hide him from the world. But short of that, I’m seriously at a loss for what the upside of “the president-to-be has disappeared” approach to governance is. I welcome your explanations in the comments.

Anyway, this is probably a good enough reason for plenty of countries to stick with the US dollar for now. Sure, our jackass bankers may have ruined the world economy, and sure, it turns out our strategy of invading random middle eastern countries, destroying them, and then leaving hasn’t been hugely popular with the locals. But say what you will about Barack Obama or Mitt Romney — it’s hard to imagine either one of them vanishing without a trace just a few months before the all-important power transition (or the all-important lack thereof).

The economic numbers aren’t everything, and even if China’s economy was looking as rosy as it was a few years ago, trust matters. It is time for China to start trusting its own people and the world to be able to handle news like “Xi Jinping has hurt his back and is going to skip some meetings on doctor’s orders.” Perhaps I’m off here, but I think most people’s response to that would be something like: “Oh. Hmm, I’ve got to remember to pick up some milk on the way home from work” and not “OMG, anarchy in the PRC!”

Leave it to China to take what seems like a pretty innocuous incident — an old guy hurting his back a bit — and turning it into one of this year’s more epic propaganda/soft power own goals.

‘Village Democracy Spreads the Wealth’: Interviewing Yale Researcher Nancy Qian

Does village democracy in China bring greater income parity to poorer populations along with feelings of satisfaction and empowerment?

When I reported last month on the release of an American-funded, multi-university study examining the effects of village democracy on public goods expenditures in China (see “Village Democracy Spreads the Wealth” (07/01/2012), I had not yet been able to reach any of the study authors for a direct interview.

Naturally, many questions remained unanswered, particularly those related to the limitations of the research and the caveats that always underlie good news.

To recap briefly:  The international study, jointly undertaken by academic researchers at The London School of Economics, Yale University,  Johns Hopkins, and Peking University’s China Center for Economic Research, concluded that local elections and village democracy in China are actually increasing prosperity and local villager “buy in” to better governance.

Measuring both economic and social effects of local elections in 217 Chinese villages randomly selected from 29 Chinese provinces, the study’s major finding is that village democracy increases local expenditures for public projects by as much as 27%. Examples include irrigation for poorer village farms and more spending for public schools.  Moreover, villagers themselves are willing to part with money to invest in these projects through increased taxes; virtually none of the expenditure increases come from regional or central government coffers.

Another major finding of the study is that village elections — which have been rolling out in China since 1982 — actually results in redistribution of land and agricultural income to poorer families. “Elections increased the ratio of the income of the households that were in the poorest 10 percent over the households that were in the top ten percent by 21 percentage points,”  the authors stated. How? Elected village officials are empowered to redistribute farmland originally leased to enterprises (which disproportionately benefits village elites), thus boosting agricultural income among the poor.

Why, then, does China continue to report an escalating number of “mass incidents”  — riots, demonstrations, uprisings — as many as 127,000 a year (New York Times), with land disputes accounting for 65 percent of rural “mass conflicts” (China Academy of Social Sciences). If village elections are working so well to redistribute wealth, why is the income gap between richer and poorer in China growing ever wider?

Obviously these questions are complex. “Democracy doesn’t guarantee happiness; we also have protests in fully democratic countries,” observed Nancy Qian, one of the study co-authors, an assistant professor of Economics at Yale University.  “Just because things are better in the villages doesn’t mean it’s enough,” she continued. “We don’t have the data over time to find out whether elections have increased or decreased local protests.”

I reached Qian while she was taking a speeding Amtrak in New England.  She added a number of qualifiers about the democracy study.  First,  study data did not touch at all on civil rights.  The researchers did not interview or collect survey data from villages in ethnic minority regions, such as Tibet or Xinjiang.  They did not collect or collate data on democracy protests or any other kind of Chinese protest, whether local, county, or provincial.  So there is an apparent gap in knowledge about democracy, public money and satisfaction. Not only is it tough to get reliable data on the numbers of [village] protests (“You know you’re not getting a random sample,” Qian said, since both Chinese media and government tend to suppress reports of protests). “As researchers, you’d be worried about protests you’re hearing about and what you’re not hearing about,” she added.  Available data may be unreliable.  But the relationship between local democracy and the freedom to protest is one that Qian would like to explore.

Further, the democracy study did not look at whether greater democracy at a local level promoted richer and more elite folk to elected positions. Qian acknowledges “there is a lot of turnover [in elections]; and the people who enter office today will be very different from people who were in office before.  They are younger and more educated; and they may not have been from the Party before. They’re not part of the original elite.”

Such issues as localized corruption, black jails, forced abortions in the countryside, and the relationship between village governments and the prosecution of crimes by police were subjects untouched in this broad-based study. These real-world factors are like commas in a long embedded sentence with the main idea at the end — and that idea, according to Qian, is that village democracy in China apparently improves public life overall and helps to redistribute both land and income from the richest families to the poorest ones.  However, the question of how democracy actually shapes the lives, thoughts, and options of people in specific villages, in specific regions of China, remains open.

In the near term, Qian and her colleagues will add further dimensions to their study. “We want to understand whether elections work to benefit people with higher social capital, and also to look at the role of religion and how that affects how elections really work,” she said.


Village Democracy Actually Spreads the Wealth (Did Anyone Ever Doubt it?)

Last December’s spectacular ten-day confrontation between Wukan villagers and local CCP riot police in Guangdong amply demonstrated how organized grassroots protest can morph quickly into organized electoral politics.

Three months after the rioting, in which villagers drove out authorities and barricaded themselves against police, villagers went to the polls to elect a new seven-member village governing committee hailed by Al Jazeera “as a model for greater democracy in China following an uncompromising confrontation over land grabs and abuse of power.

In foreign media, Wukan was quickly held up as a village template for civic activism and democratic reforms. But though this Guangdong fishing village might be considered one of the exceptional models of rural rebellion —  villagers won unusual freedoms to hold new elections, install a respected rebel leader as the new Party secretary and reclaim portions of sold-off land –in actuality village elections in China have been going on for decades.

Since 1982, in fact, when the Communist Party began allowing local elections, villages throughout China have implemented polling in stages, then in waves. Timing of the first village elections was staggered over years and then decades, determined by local town, city, or county CCP officials who assessed the comparative “readiness” of the village to democratically elect its local leadership.

Today, though, village democracy in China seems to be working effectively — surprisingly so. In the largest study ever undertaken on rural village elections and their impact on local economies, a cooperative research team at The London School of Economics, Yale University,  Johns Hopkins, and Peking University’s China Center for Economic Research jointly concludes that local elections and village democracy are actually increasing public prosperity and “buy in” to better governance.

“We find that elections significantly increase public goods expenditure [and] the increase corresponds to [local village] demand and is paralleled by an increase in public goods provision and local taxes,” wrote Monica Martinez-Bravo (Johns Hopkins), Gerard Padro i Miquel (London School of Economics), Nancy Qian (Yale University), and Yang Yao (Peking University).  “We also find the elections cause significant income redistribution in the villages,” they continued.  “We show that the main mechanism underlying the effect of elections is increased leader incentives.”

Based on 2006 and 2011 surveys conducted by the authors along with economic and election data collected between 1982 to 2005, the study was published in May as a working (not yet peer-reviewed) paper of the National Bureau of Economic Research (Washington DC), a private, non-profit organization.  Funded by grants from Harvard University, Brown, Stanford, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the study can hardly be called “transnational” at its source, but the authors claim independence from the opinions of NBER, or presumably, any other institution, whether Chinese or American.

Measuring both economic and social effects of local elections in 217 Chinese villages randomly selected from 29 Chinese provinces, the study’s major finding is that village democracy not only increases public expenditures for worthwhile projects  — examples include irrigation for poorer village farms or more spending for public school teachers — but that villagers themselves are willing to part with money to invest in these projects.

In fact, virtually none of the increases in public expenditure came from regional or central governments, the study found.  Instead, village residents “bought into” the projects and paid increased local taxes and fees, strongly suggesting that leadership and constituents were “aligned” in supporting the projects.

The numbers are also dramatic. Public goods expenditures increased by as much as 27% in the “democracy villages,” according to the study.  Moreover, the research confirms earlier studies suggesting that village elections, albeit in a fledgling state, actually reduce corruption because elected officials are held more accountable by villagers than appointed ones.

Spreading the Wealth in Farmland

The second major finding of the study is that elections result in redistribution of land and agricultural income to poorer families. “Elections increased the ratio of the income of the households that were in the poorest 10 percent over the households that were in the top ten percent by 21 percentage points,”  the authors stated. How? Elected village officials are prohibited from imposing recurring taxes on income and production. But they are empowered to redistribute farmland originally leased to enterprises (which disproportionately benefits village elites). Redistribution in turn affects agricultural income, helping the poor increase their share.

In addition, elected village officials have power of management over certain village enterprises which allows them to redistribute wage income.  This can directly benefit poorer village families — and apparently does.

Not that all elections (or elected officials) are alike.  According to the researchers, many first-time village elections generally have few candidates willing to run.  Some villages are run by rich families — clans and village chiefs sharing power.  It’s difficult to break their grip. In several cases, elections have been delayed because regional officials were dissatisfied with certain villages’ responses to centralized policy (i.e., One-Child policy).  And in others cases, local officials’ collusion with police and large land owners delayed or hampered the electoral process.

In addition, before the late 1990s, only the local CCP branch was allowed to nominate candidates for village elections.  Residents had little power of choice, and could only vote bad performers out of office.

In 1998, however, open nominations became national law. Villages were able to choose their own candidates, and many did — by the thousands. The more progressive CCP leadership believed that village democracy would actually promote public welfare. Further, elite power holders might be persuaded to relax their grip somewhat if local elections resulted in continued stability and economic prosperity.

So much for ideals.  How then, does this village democracy study square with the thousands of local “anti-corruption” cases and periodic sweeps of rapacious officials in local and regional government? If village democracy is working, how come so many Chinese towns like Wukan periodically erupt into demonstrations or even rioting? If village elections appear responsible for redistributing income with greater parity among rich and poor, why is China’s rural vs. urban income gap growing ever wider?

The authors haven’t addressed these questions.  But if elected officials indeed perform better for their constituents than appointed ones, the lessons of village democracy might certainly apply to larger government bodies in China.

We’ll wait and see.


A.Emmett is a Beijing-based professor of journalism.  Her personal blog, “China Through Blue Eyes,” can be found at



The Tea Drinkers’ Guide

Human rights activists in China would not be strange to “tea drinking”, which means an interrogation summoned by the state security police. Various acts of citizenship could trigger “tea drinking” – it could be writing a blog about freedom and democracy, attending political gatherings, signing online appeals for certain demands, or merely expressing interests in protests. It can be said that “tea drinking” is something that you need to go through if you aspire to become a citizen in China through acts of public defiance.

In an article written at the Human Rights in China Biweekly (translated below), Wu Gan (twitter: @tufuwugan, “Super Vulgar Butcher”) extensively analyses “tea drinking” and suggests strategies on dealing with it for aspiring citizens. Wu is a prominent Chinese rights activist and netizen reporter, well known for his sense of justice, enthusiasm and resourcefulness. He actively supported Deng Yujiao and the Three Netizens of Fujian, and was involved in the citizenship investigation into the death of Zhejiang village head Qian Yunhui.

Translation: The Tea Drinkers’ Guide

In a land without freedom, “tea drinking” is the only way to become a real citizen. “Tea drinking” usually refers to interviews by the police because of your civic actions or speeches. In fact, no tea or even no water is served for most of the time. I think that overcoming the fear over “tea drinking” is very important in the process of fighting against the dictatorship machine in China. Personally, I’ve been through the evolution from being fearful of to being accustomed to “tea drinking”. I intend to share this guideline to other people who will soon face “tea drinking”. Of course, this is only my personal opinion. Personal experience and the specific circumstance will make each case unique.

In “tea drinking”, the public security agents you face will be from either the Bureau of Internal Security Protection (guobao) or the National Security Bureau (guoan). Guoan will be involved in cases linked to foreign countries, while guobao deal with internal affairs. Guobao are usually more visible, while guoan maintain a low profile. While they execute orders from the dictatorship machine, they are all human beings, and we can classify them into three types:

(1)The brutal type: Such kind of people are of low quality and may have psychological problems. They abuse their power to sustain violence and have no respect for human nature. They use persecution and violence to prove their existence and authority, and derive pleasure and satisfaction from it.

(2)The understanding type: They know their work is disgraceful, and understand the nature of the dictatorship machine, and that the machine will not last long. Therefore, they will not take the initiative to do evil, but will only execute orders, just for a living.

(3)The robotic type: They are hopelessly brainwashed, and have thinking no different from that of the dictatorship machine. They think what they are doing is right, and even consider their work as honorable.

In “tea drinking”, it is either they visit you or they force you to their place. The main objectives are to warn you and create fear, forcing you to abandon your civic actions. They will also teach you political lessons and brainwash you with ideas they think are correct, such as “you live your own life, why are you doing these things?”, “now the country is rising, you need to trust the government and the party”, “these social problems are very normal during reforms, the party will be able to resolve them”, “so and so is an enemy of the party, you need to be aware, don’t be close to him”, “there is deep water behind that event, foreign elements are out there, don’t be utilized by them”, “if you don’t listen, we will not be so kind next time”, “you need to think for your family”, etc. Sometimes, notes will be taken and detailed questions will be asked about the ins and outs of a case. You may even be asked to sign a confession.

I’ve talked about what “tea drinking” is and the types of people you may face. Now I turn to things you need to be aware of.

As you cannot escape from the dictatorship machine, all you can do is to dance with the wolves. You need to go through “tea drinking” before you can become a real citizen, and that takes wisdom and preparations. I advise you to do the following:

(1)Make sure you can afford what you are doing, and be prepared for harassment, house arrest, “tea drinking”, labor camp or even imprisonment.

(2)When you fight for civil rights, it is important to be transparent, open and just.

(3)Be prepared in case you lose your freedom after “tea drinking”. Think about ways you can release information, seek legal assistance, and keep in touch with your family and the outside world.

Things to note during “tea drinking”:

(1)Be well mannered. Don’t show your fear. Don’t fall into their trap and be agitated in face of violence and insults.

(2)When asked about yourself, only tell your own part and not someone else’s. Act as if you are a fool. “Couldn’t remember clearly”, “I forgot”, “not sure about that” and “don’t understand” are all good excuses.

(3)Tell them what you are doing is open, just, and for all to see, and that you have made preparation for possible consequences.

(4)Try not to form personal enmity. Tell them that you have decided to go ahead and will bear the consequences, and ask them not to confuse public and private matters. Some sort of contract spirit is needed.

(5)Don’t insult, confront or humiliate them, online or otherwise, unless they did the same to you.

(6)If you form a personal enmity, you might want to investigate him privately. I personally have no objection to righteous blood revenge.

(7)Don’t believe what they say, and don’t try to convince them. And, very importantly, bear in mind that there is nothing they cannot do.

(8)Whether or not to sign a confession depends on the situation. Sometimes, you can sign it to end all the unnecessary entanglements. These confessions are for them to please their bosses. Confessions signed under threat are not binding and there is no need to comply with them.

(9)The best way to interfere in public affairs is to do so from another place in order to avoid troubles caused by local interests.

(10)Sometimes they will contact your employers, relatives and friends to create pressure on you. This is the most difficult thing to deal with and you have to face it. Let the people around you know what you are doing, and let them know you are doing something open and righteous. It is difficult to get their support, but you have to fight for their understanding and respect. This can ease the pressure on you.

When you are on the path to citizenship, you are either “drinking tea”, or on the way to it. When everyone is not afraid of “tea drinking” but treats it as an honor, we can say our society is progressing.

Discussion Section: Cultural Warfare, Cultural Weapons

You may have seen in the news recently reflections on Hu Jintao’s essay in official Party gibberish ((Honestly, this is more a dig at the intentionally vague and hard-to-understand writing style than it is the ideology, though I don’t agree with much of that either)) theory magazine Qiushi. Here’s a good piece on it, but if you’re too lazy to click, the general gist is this: the West ((because that’s a real thing…)) is waging cultural warfare against China to Westernize and divide it.

I don’t have much interest in discussing that argument, but rather, let’s talk about how — or with what — China might respond in a cultural war. I must admit here that some of my thoughts here are essentially stolen from the folks I did the Sinica podcast with last week, as this is something we discussed over dinner after recording the show. I don’t recall exactly who said what, but to be safe, just assume anything smart I say came from one or all of them, and anything dumb I say is something I came up with myself ((almost certainly the truth)).

So, what would China bring to a theoretical cultural war? It strikes me that especially if you interpret China as the mainland, it has very little to offer. (Of course, Chinese people tend to consider anything remotely connected to someone of Chinese descent to be “Chinese” — including but not limited to the current American ambassador — but for our purposes here, let’s assume by China I mean the PRC and by Chinese culture I mean mainland culture, i.e., the culture that exists under the laws and regulations of the CCP.)

Take, for example, literature. Can you think of any really great Chinese literature from the past five years? I can think of a couple books by mainland authors, but one of them was only published outside of the mainland, and the other was published domestically but in an inferior (read: censored) form.

Admittedly though, literature is an unfair category for expats and non-native speakers, since people tend to read books in their native languages and aren’t necessarily going to be aware of what’s great in Chinese even if they read Chinese.

So fine, let’s move on to films. Can you think of any really great films China has produced in the past five years? Note that by great, I don’t just mean cool martial arts flicks, but a film that has some sort of lasting artistic value. Again, I can think of a couple that sort of fit the bill, but it’s an awfully short list unless you count independent productions which aren’t allowed to be screened in theaters in China.

TV is even more of a disaster. Chinese TV is bad and, by and large, getting worse. The only real exceptions to this that I’m aware of are some of the online TV shows that exist outside the regular system (like the wonderful and occasionally crazy Kuang Kuang animated series).

This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with Chinese culture from the perspective of the producers of culture. In contrast, the work of authors outside (or published outside) of China can be incredible, and Chinese indie film directors in both narrative and documentary fields have made some films that are goddamn amazing. In TV, there’s shows like Kuang Kuang.

It’s not always about politics, either. Plenty of indie Chinese films have little to do with politics except that the filmmakers’ creativity has essentially forced them to become outsiders because SARFT doesn’t want to take any risks when it comes to cultural output. There’s nothing “political” about time-travel TV shows (which SARFT banned last year). It’s just about control. The CCP clearly feels that a lack of control will inevitably lead to political and social problems, so they grasp the reins as tightly as they can.

Unfortunately, that means that in any kind of cultural competition with the West, they’re going to be bringing a fist to a bazooka fight. And the worst thing is that it’s a fight China probably could compete in, to the benefit of everyone (the West could use some competition) if it wasn’t forcing all its best players to sit on the bench.