The Struggle of 15-Year-Old Hukou Protester Zhan Haite

A 15-year-old girl has made waves in the Chinese press recently for her fight against Shanghai authorities after she was banned from taking the high-school entrance examination because she does not hold a Shanghai hukou (household registration). She and her family have experienced harassment from locals and authorities as a result of their advocacy.

From Zhan Haite’s op-ed in the China Daily:

I’d been preparing for the high school entrance exam on June 16 and, although we didn’t have much hope, my parents and I never gave up talking to Shanghai’s education commission. I wanted to take that exam, same as my classmates at junior high and thousands of other Shanghai students.

I wasn’t doing badly at junior high, and I believed I could get into a good high school in Shanghai if I was able to take the exam.

All hope disappeared on June 7, coincidently the first day of this year’s gaokao (national college entrance exam). We were told I was not able to take the exam this year by the education commission.

I was desperate and I wanted to seek help from the public, so the week before the exam I set up an account on Sina Weibo using my real name.

The Internet is an efficient platform to speak out and gain support. My mother was against it, as she was worried I might be attacked by malicious netizens. But our family is open-minded and she respected my decision.

I started telling my story on Sina Weibo and received many words of support that encouraged me in my fight to defend my rights.

It was inspiring when celebrities such as Yuan Weishi and Shi Shusi forwarded my posts. They backed me up. I was not alone.

There were many disagreements, and I’ve received many comments from Beijing and Shanghai residents against the children of migrant workers taking the exam with their children. Some talked in a disrespectful way, which I was not happy about, but I tried to talk to them and persuade them to think about equality.

“Disagreements” is a mild way of putting it. Zhan and her family have been beng harassed. From an article about her in the Economic Observer:

15-year-old Zhan Haite has already been out of school for half a year, but in addition to studying English and Math on her own, she has been keeping busy helping her parents deal with all kinds of harassment. Recently, on November 28, an official from the local family planning commission came to the family’s home; “Someone called and complained that [the Zhan family] was preparing to have another child, so [the official] came to investigate whether we really were planning another birth,” Zhan Haite recalled.

Zhan says that this kind of baseless complaint is common harassment from locals who dislike that the family is ‘stirring up trouble’ by advocating that migrants be allowed to attend Shanghai schools. And the harassment directed at her isn’t just coming from locals. The official response to Zhan’s case hasn’t been much warmer.

After ‘dropping out’ of school, in addition to studying high school content on her own, Zhan Haite has sometimes gone along with her father to petition [the government]. The more they went, the more hopeless she became. Every time the answer was the same, and later after writing several letters to Shanghai authorities and having [the case] transferred to the education committee, the official response was just as cold.

(In fact, Zhan Haite’s father was even detained by the Shanghai police recently, although it appears that as of this morning he has been released or at least has come to an agreement of some kind with them).

So Zhan has been pleading her case on Weibo. She now has nearly 10,000 followers on Sina Weibo, and she and her family were even invited to do a Q&A session on Tencent Weibo. Unfortunately, before the Q&A took place, someone decided it wasn’t a good idea and shut it down. One of Zhan’s most recent Weibo posts reads, “The authorities have ordered us to shut down [the Q&A], I’m sorry.” The text is followed by the image of a heart breaking.

To [Zhan Haite], being blocked on Weibo is a common occurrence. “Either they say I have touched on sensitive topics of they say I have been reported, and there are too many complaints about me,” she said. As she sees it, all of this is done by the “skinheads,” a name she has used to refer to [anti-migrant Shanghainese] since a group of Shanghinese youngsters posing as maintenance staff came to Zhan’s apartment and threatened [the family].

Zhan’s weibo has also attracted some harsh comments from locals, some of whom present arguments about her family’s legal status and others of whom just sling violent slurs like “stupid cunt” at her.

Still, it may be telling that this incident has gotten so much attention in the Chinese press. Experts seem to agree that the hukou system has outstayed its welcome, and the media’s fixation on Zhan may help to push for reforms. Of course, it also helps that Zhan Haite seems to be quite an articulate girl; her case is not at all unique but it isn’t too difficult to understand why the media has fixated on her for the moment.

Additionally, though, Zhan may be an interesting example of what I might term the “dissidentification” of Chinese protesters. I have noticed and mentioned before how people frustrated with a specific issue in China seem to eventually become protesters and advocates in a more broad sense. Six months ago, Zhan was just a student, and shortly after that, she was just an opponent of Shanghai’s hukou policy. Now, though, her self-description on Sina Weibo beginss thusly:

A young citizen, a warrior for freedom, on the vanguard for democracy.

True, Zhan’s focus of discussion has remained mostly on hukou-related issues. But that language — and the fact that she chose to put all of that before mentioning hukous specifically when describing herself — is definitely interesting. I’m now following her on Weibo and will be interested to see if she becomes an advocate in other arenas as well as time goes on (that is, if she can keep her weibo account from getting blocked).

Translation: “Inexplicably Made Happy”

Here are the results of a recent survey that has been passed around in China; “The Happiest Professions in the Eyes of the People.” (It’s not clear how many people participated.)

  1. Public servants
  2. Government officials
  3. Teachers
  4. Artists
  5. Executives
  6. Self-employed
  7. Bankers
  8. Actors
  9. Pilots
  10. Entrepreneurs

(The list goes on from there, but the first couple are really all that’s relevant here).

From Southern Weekend, “Inexplicably Made Happy” ((This title uses a Chinese construction that’s tough to translate sometimes; the use of 被 in front of a verb to indicate someone is being forced to do something, or that the government is saying someone is doing something they actually aren’t. Here, it’s 被幸福, the implication being that the subject has been decreed to be happy even though they actually aren’t.)):

Recently a survey called “The Happiest Professions in the Eyes of the People” has been being passed around. I couldn’t help but feel curious when I saw it. Government officials are public servants, so how did “public servants” and “government officials” get the number one and number two spots on the list?

I also couldn’t help but think of my classmate Ah Fan, who holds a provincial-level official position making 2,600 RMB a month [$412]. Ah Fan hasn’t experienced the so-called high life [of officials]. High housing prices have forced his whole family to squeeze into a shantytown. The guy renting the place next door dropped out of middle school and went to work making doors and windows of aluminim alloy; he makes 8,000 RMB a month [$1,269]. The comparison horrifies Ah Fan, but the neighbor is very respectful of Ah Fan and often tells his children that Ah Fan is a role model. This only deepens Ah Fan’s sense of guilt; he doesn’t dare admit his real salary to the neighbor.

What is happiness? Some say it’s having enough not to worry about material life, and lacking burdens so you can enjoy a spiritual life. How can Ah Fan, who hasn’t achieved either of these, become a happy person?


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Red Dawn Really Brings Out the Idiots

Well, the Red Dawn remake has finally been released ((I’m pretty sure there’s a law on the books in the US somewhere that every piece of IP from before 2005 has to be rebooted or remade, so it was inevitable)), and it’s fucking terrible. Seriously, at just 11% on Rotten Tomatos, it apparently ranks among the worst films in recent memory. I say “apparently” because I haven’t actually seen it; don’t worry though, I’m still capable of discussing it more intelligently than any of the people we’re about to examine.

First up is “Red Dawn shows nostalgia for Cold War mindset,” which features the classic Global Times trademark (garbled regurgitation and a total lack of self-awareness) mixed with a twinge of bipolar insanity. Let’s watch:

The 1984 cult classic Red Dawn did not stint in its demonization of Soviets, which was prevalent during the Cold War era.

But two decades later, Hollywood is still stuck in the clichéd storytelling of beautifying itself and oversimplifying the world.

Hollywood filmmakers never seem to tire of telling stories of the US saving the world from the brink of collapse, while the opponents are wicked villains, be they Chinese or North Koreas.

In Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, good and evil are also in sharp contrast: A US agent desperately endeavors to save the world, while a Russian lunatic uses every means to instigate a nuclear purging of the Earth.

The Avengers probably reaches the peak in this regard: A long list of US heroes is assembled in the movie to kill evil and save Earth.

Apparently, Hollywood blockbusters have a profound impact on the US audience, given their huge box office takings. The thread bare plots in a world divided between devils and angels reinforce how audiences look at the world.

It’s hard to know where to even start here, but I guess crushing irony is as good a place as any. Hollywood is certainly guilty of pushing out gluts of oversimplified action films with black-and-white good vs. evil plots, but if any other nation’s cinema is more guilty of this, it’s probably China. There are exceptions ((I recently saw City of Life and Death, which is about as nuanced a picture of Japanese soldiers as I’ve seen in Chinese cinema. It’s a masterful film, but it’s horrific and depressing as all hell. Fitting for the subject matter, of course, but it’s hard to recommend you watch it if you already know what happened in Nanjing. It just makes you feel sick.)), of course, but the vast majority of films and television programs China produces about its own history are so black-and-white (figuratively) that its a wonder they even bother to film in color at all. Zing!

OK, that wasn’t as clever as I had been hoping it was. But any Chinese language student who has grudgingly worked their way through almost any TV series about the Sino-Japanese war (for example) would laugh out loud at the idea that China’s entertainment is any more nuanced than Hollywood’s. In this instance, the figurative pot and kettle are both jet black.

It’s also odd that the Global Times picked these three films in particular to indicate how American filmgoers apparently eat up this dumbed-down shlock. But are Americans really eating these films up? “Huge box office takings”? Red Dawn is getting absolutely shit on in the box offices, despite this past weekend being its opening weekend. It’s even losing out to a boring costume drama about Lincoln that has, like, no explosions. It’s also losing to Life of Pi, the Twilight movie, Skyfall, Wreck-it Ralph (which has been out for a month already), and some movie called Rise of the Guardians that I’ve never even heard of. So far, Red Dawn is the 2,576th best-selling movie in America. (Unless you adjust the box office numbers for inflation, in which case it’s way lower).

The Mission Impossible film, admittedly, did much better in the US, but it did nearly as well in China too, grossing more than $100 million. Not too shabby for a foreign-language film! And while Avengers is one of the top-grossing films ever, it’s a superhero film; the whole point is that they’re good vs. evil. Oh, and they made over $100 million in China on that one, too. So if Hollywood stupidity is making US audiences stupid, apparently it’s doing the same thing to China.

Actually, many of the US’s top grossing films, while still simplistic, aren’t really good vs. evil. Avatar, which holds the number one spot, certainly isn’t the kind of good vs. evil nationalism the Global Times is complaining about since the film was probably inspired by American colonists’ violent battles with Native Americans. And Titanic isn’t much of a good vs. evil story either, unless you consider the iceberg evil.

Many film critics believe that the Cold War has made a comeback to Hollywood movies in recent years. In real politics, it is not uncommon for Americans to demonstrate their tendency to see the world from a rigid ideological perspective.

When the Global Times is criticizing other people for “seeing the world from a rigid ideological perspective,” it’s difficult to keep your head from exploding with the irony. But strap your dome down with duct tape because we’re about to go deeper. Not to be outdone by some guy whose name is Chen Chenchen (they’re running out of ways to disguise the fact that the editorial staff is writing the op-eds over there too, eh?), in steps the Global Times editorial team, featuring a Hu Xijin who is fresh off his disappointing number 9 finish on the rankings of 2012’s most horrible people and looking to stake a higher spot on the list for next year. He really knocks it out of the park in “Elton John’s outburst met with indifference”, which is about the Elton John concert and is pretty damn crazy. At the end, though, for some reason the subject shifts to Red Dawn. And miraculously, just a day later, Red Dawn has now become a shining example of Sino-US friendship and indicative of a positive worldwide trend in Sino-global relations!

To please Chinese audiences, Hollywood movie Red Dawn changed some parts which could have harmed China’s image. This incident caused a sensation in the West while the news caused by Elton John was only fleeting, as the former can better represent the general trend of the relationship between China and other countries.

It’s hard to know what I should think about Red Dawn, then — come on, Global Times, is it a sickening example of American nationalism or a shining example of American willingness to cooperate when millions of box-office dollars are at stake? Also, why is the film even getting so much attention in the Chinese press at all given that it’s no longer about China and that it is, as I mentioned before, a terrible, terrible film.

But let’s stop giving the Global Times Opinion pages grief and turn our attention to the other side of the globe. By and large, Americans have been doing their country proud by going out and not seeing Red Dawn in droves. But unfortunately, some people did see Red Dawn, and some of those people are racist idiots.

It’s hard to even know what to say about the people quoted in that story. No, not because it’s a complex feeling that’s difficult to verbalize; it’s just that it’s difficult to type while smashing one’s head repeatedly and savagely against a wall. Is it un-American of me to suggest that these people ought to be loaded into a cannon and fired directly into the sun?

Probably. But if NASA were to begin work on a Sun Cannon, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed, and Twitter racists would make excellent test candidates. Perhaps we could even bounce a few off the moon first to see if a ricochet shot would be — what’s the scientific term again? — awesome. I’m no astrophysicist, but I hypothesize that it would.

In Brief: Who’s Really Disappearing Reporters

At this point probably everyone is familiar with the “Bijie Boys” and most of you are probably also aware of how that turned out for the reporter who broke the story. The fact that a reporter would be held for reporting a story no one disputes the veracity of should surprise exactly no one, but there is one aspect of this story I’d like to explore a little bit.

Now, before I start, I want to say that I love Beijing Cream. I find the site both informative and funny and it has been one of my favorite China blogs for a while now. Moreover, I think every writer there is probably at least familiar with the argument I’m about to make, so I’m really just using the Beijing Cream article as an example here. In fact, I suspect Anthony Tao might actually agree with what I’m about to write, but going into all this was rather outside the scope of his article, so he understandably didn’t. Anyway, my point here is that this article shouldn’t be taken as a critique of Tao or Beijing Cream in general.

That said, this section of Tao’s take on the Li Yuanlong’s arrest jumped out at me:

What we shouldn’t assume is that higher levels of government had anything to do with this, considering no one — and I mean no one — would be dumb enough to think punishing a journalist here would be a good idea. If there’s one thing we know about how business is done in these fourth-tier, hinterland-type counties, it’s that the powerful can do whatever the fuck they want, and someone with some power in this case must have decided to act out on his vendetta.

While the latter half of this paragraph is undoubtedly true, I do disagree to a certain extent with the first half. On the face of it, of course, it is quite true: I’d bet an awful lot of money that the decision to detain Li was made and executed by local officials who were not in any contact with higher authorities.

But I wouldn’t say it’s really true that higher authorities had nothing to do with it. The central government’s inability to control, or perhaps lack of interest in controlling, local governments fosters and facilitates an I-am-king-around-here attitude in local officials, and that inevitably leads to stories like this. Central authorities didn’t order the arrest of Li, no, but they have for decades presided over and molded a system that allows local authorities to do things like arrest reporters with minimal consequences, and often no consequences at all.

In fact, the system often offers de-facto rewards to local officials who keep their regions quiet by quieting anyone publicizing negative stories, because the officials that get promoted are often the ones who come from the most “stable,” “harmonious” districts. Officials have long-since learned that the surest route to apparent “harmony” is threatening, arresting, coercing, and censoring the people who would spread negative stories about their districts — reporters, petitioners, protesters, bloggers, etc. This way, higher authorities don’t often have to order the detention of people like Li — they have set the system up in such a way that people like Li can be silenced without anyone in the central government getting their hands dirty.

Moreover, if I — some random dude living halfway across the world — am aware that Li Yuanlong has been detained and “vactioned” at this point, certainly the authorities theoretically responsible for overseeing this sort of thing should be aware of this particular case by now. If they disapproved, undoing it shouldn’t take more than a phone call — the story could have been killed before I even woke up this morning, probably — and yet something tells me that phone call isn’t coming. Even if this case requires a few extra days to work its way through the bureaucracy, I’d be willing to bet it won’t; come Monday, I’d bet Li will still be on vacation. (Though I hope I’m wrong; something tells me this “vacation” isn’t all that pleasant).

(It didn’t take the authorities long to respond to this local problem by sacking the creepy official in question. Somehow, though, I doubt that will happen to the men behind Li’s detention).

I’ve written about the this-is-a-local-issue argument before, because it’s something you hear quite frequently when discussing injustices in China. And while it is, to an extent, true, I think it’s also important to elucidate the higher-level indifference and the systemic structures that makes these kind of local injustices possible year in and year out.

Foreign Reporters With Chinese Characteristics

By now, you’re probably aware of the kerfuffle over “foreign reporter” Andrea Yu, who lobbed a few government-friendly softballs at Chinese officials during official 18th Party Congress press events. She was later featured in a CCTV segment on how “foreign reporters” are covering the congress. The only thing is, she isn’t really a foreign reporter — she works for a Chinese-owned company with government ties.

(Incidentally, the other media outlets in that CCTV report are also pretty suspect. The Hong Kong newspaper (Wen Wei Po) mentioned and interviewd is a plant, as it was founded in Shanghai and is pretty well known for toeing the Party line. And Sinovision, another media outlet interviewed during the segment, is a US TV station imports almost all of its programming from CCTV.)

All this has been hashed out in the press and in blogs, but the discussion has mostly centered around Yu herself and her ethical and journalistic standards (or lack thereof). That, I think, is missing the forest for the trees. While I don’t condone Yu’s behavior, if she had refused, I am sure that her company would have found someone else to do the same thing she did. Refusing would still have been the right move on her part, but Andrea Yu is not the most interesting part of this story.

Instead, let’s consider that (a) Andrea Yu was taking time allotted for real foreign reporters to ask questions and (b) featured in a segment on how the foreign press was covering the Party Congress. It seems that in the absence of a cooperative foreign press pool, Beijing may be looking to replace them with lookalike “foreign reporters” who can be trusted to ask the right questions. It’s a brilliant two-birds-one-stone move: it insulates Chinese citizens from hearing the more critical questions of the actual foreign press, and it prevents the actual foreign press from asking those questions in the first place by giving time allotted for them to a government shill who is posing as a journalist.

Is this a 18th Party Congress desperation move, or a new tactic we’re going to see more in the coming years? There’s no way to know. But I think it is important to note this in case it does become an important precedent for future “foreign” “reporters” with Chinese characteristics.


Incidentally, for those interested, there is also a new 2Non.org story up today called “Why Rural Chinese Kids Don’t Go to College” that you should check out.

And while I’m talking about 2Non.org, what topics would you like to read articles and/or see documentaries about? We write articles like this continuously, but we’re also in the planning stages for our next documentary, and still considering topics, so if you have thoughts or requests for either, feel free to throw them in the comments here. Thanks!

On Martin Jacques’s Latest Op-Ed and the Superiority of the Chinese State

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I came across this piece by Martin Jacques on the BBC’s website. He is, of course, the man behind the sickeningly sycophantic When China Rules the World. But even knowing that, there are some shockingly insane assertions in this article. Let’s jump in, shall we?

After a introduction in which Jacques sets up a straw-man argument (he assumes you think China’s government will be its downfall) to knock down, he writes,

You probably think that the legitimacy and authority of the state, or government, is overwhelmingly a function of democracy, Western-style.

But democracy is only one factor. Nor does democracy in itself guarantee legitimacy.

[…]

But does the Chinese state, you may well ask, really enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of its people?

Take the findings of Tony Saich at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In a series of surveys he found that between 80 and 95% of Chinese people were either relatively or extremely satisfied with central government.

The key word here, of course, is “central.” Saich himself writes:

While in 2009, 95.9 per cent were either relatively or extremely satisfied with the central government, this dropped to 61.5 per cent at the local level.

In China, local governments provide almost all public services and the fact that satisfaction levels decline as one gets closer to the people is a worrying sign.

Saich goes on to write that local approval numbers have increased under Hu and Wen, but of course, his latest survey was in 2009, before the recent bouts of inflation, the Wenzhou train crash, the current economic slowdown, the Bo Xilai scandal, the revelation that central leaders like Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping have used their positions to amass huge personal fortunes ((I highly doubt many Chinese were surprised by this news, but there is a difference between knowing something in the cynical, they’re-all-corrupt attitude of a taxi driver and knowing something in the sense that the New York Times has given you very specific figures.)), etc. Jacques also — what a surprise — cites the 2010 Pew poll but, again, that came before everything I have listed above.

(And, of course, although Hong Kong and Taiwan are a part of China whenever it is rhetorically convenient to say so, somehow the opinions of Hong Kongers and Taiwanese about the Chinese government never get mentioned when discussing how “Chinese people” feel about the government).

All of those issues aside, there is a more fundamental problem with Jacques’ approach here: the reliability of strangers doing opinion polls in a country where a sarcastic tweet can get you sent to a labor camp. I am sure that Jacques, being a China expert, is familiar with the phrase 家丑不可外扬 (‘never air your dirty laundry in public’). I have yet to see a convincing explanation anywhere of how opinion polling conducted in China accounts for the fact that (a) people don’t tend to share their true feelings with random strangers and (b) that is doubly true when people perceive expressing critical sentiment to be dangerous, which we all know it can be.

Why would anyone choose to go out on a limb and tell a stranger they disapprove of the central government? They gain nothing whatsoever from such an action, and the risks, while minimal, are not nonexistent. Moreover, many Chinese are used to censoring themselves when it comes to discussions of politics in public or with strangers. Even if you are dissatisfied, being forthcoming about that has no upside.

Jacques is correct in asserting that democracies are not, by default, more “legitimate” governments than non-democracies. But since that’s refuting a straw-man argument that I’ve never heard anyone actually make, I’m not sure he deserves much credit for being right. Anyway, back to Jacques as he continues his argument:

If the Chinese state enjoys such support, then why does it display such signs of paranoia? The controls on the press and the internet, the periodic arrest of dissidents, and the rest of it.

Good point. Actually, all Chinese governments have displayed these same symptoms. Why?

Because the country is huge and governance is extremely difficult. They are always anxious, always fearing the unforeseen. Anticipating sources of instability has long been regarded as a fundamental attribute of good governance.

This does not strike me as a sufficient explanation for the Chinese government’s paranoia. That all Chinese governments have displayed these same symptoms is probably debatable, but instead of getting into it I’ll grant Jacques the benefit of the doubt there and instead point out that historically, this has been true of more or less every government everywhere. Before the modern era, finding a government that didn’t attempt to censor culture or round up dissidents every now and then is a rather difficult endeavor; this is certainly not a historical phenomenon that is unique to China.

And while China is more populous than any other nation on earth, Jacques’ assertion that it is more difficult to govern is highly questionable (and, in his article, totally unsupported). Certainly, governing a billion people is difficult. I imagine that governing a multiracial, multicultural nation of immigrants that has a history of divisive violence and a legal system that permits most people to carry firearms is also probably difficult.

So what makes China in particular so difficult to govern? Geographically, it’s about the same size as the US, and although it is far more populous, Jacques has just gotten through arguing that virtually everyone in China supports the government. If China’s central government really enjoys 95% approval, then that means it has to worry about around 62 million dissatisfied citizens who may be tough to govern. The US government’s approval rating, by almost any measure, means that it is frequently dealing with a dissatisfied citizenry whose numbers are at least double that.

So what is it that makes China so hard to govern? If Jacques is correct in his argument that Chinese people overwhelmingly support their government, then China’s government has to deal with far fewer dissatisfied citizens than the US does, spread out over an area of approximately the same geographical size. Here, Jacques will likely recall another popular Chinese idiom: 自相矛盾 (‘contradicting oneself’). How can China’s citizenry be overwhelmingly supportive of the government and yet somehow so difficult to govern that the government must resort press and internet censorship, the suppression of dissidents, etc.?

But let’s move on, because this is where we move from faulty logic and questionable unsupported assertions into the realm of full-on crazy:

The Chinese idea of the state could hardly be more different [from the Western one].

They do not view it from a narrowly utilitarian standpoint, in terms of what it can deliver, let alone as the devil incarnate in the manner of the American Tea Party.

They see the state as an intimate, or, to be more precise, as a member of the family – the head of the family, in fact. The Chinese regard the family as the template for the state. What’s more, they perceive the state not as external to themselves but as an extension or representation of themselves.

It’s hard to know where to even start with this. First of all, the idea that all Chinese people see the state the same way is utterly ridiculous. Earlier in his article, Jacques points out that Western perceptions of the state depend in part on one’s own political positions, but apparently there is no such diversity when it comes to the Chinese. No, “they” all apparently feel exactly the same way about the state.

That would be ridiculous enough on its own, but his assertion that Chinese people see the state as “a member of the family” is also pretty nuts. On the one hand, I can see where Jacques probably got this idea; the government itself often uses the family metaphor to characterize the way it governs over the people, and the people have to some extent adopted this metaphor. I’m not sure where Jacques is getting the idea that people perceive the state as an extension of themselves, but some leaders (i.e. “Grandpa Wen”) certainly are referred to occasionally as though they are members of the family.

However, the idea that all Chinese really see the state itself as a member of their family (or see the state as themselves) is absurd. It’s also difficult to disprove empirically because it would require reading the minds of large numbers of Chinese people. But anecdotal evidence abounds, and as someone who spent the part of last couple years traveling around China talking to Chinese families I feel quite confident in saying that there are plenty of Chinese people who don’t see the state as the head of their families, let alone an extension of themselves. Jacques, I’m sure, would argue that those people are the exceptions that prove the rule, but even if we just consider the parents of missing children and ignore other larger demographics of people who have come to see the state largely as an obstacle (like these folks), we’re still talking about hundreds of thousands of exceptions.

In fact, in my entire time in China and outside of China talking with Chinese people, I don’t think I’ve heard a Chinese person sincerely refer to the state as though it were a family member more than once or twice. Sure, it’s just anecdotal evidence, and it doesn’t prove anything, but I do feel inclined to point out that it’s far more than the zero evidence Jacques offered in support of his assertion.

Anyway, from here, Jacques moves into specifics, and bizarrely, chooses what has got to be one of the worst possible examples in an attempt to prove his point:

Even though China is still a poor developing country, its state, I would argue, is the most competent in the world.

Take infrastructure – the importance of which is belatedly now being recognised in the West. Here, China has no peers. Its high speed rail network is the world’s largest and will soon be greater than the rest of the world’s put together.

Really? It is at this point when we begin to suspect that Jacques’ article may actually be satire, because what else could possibly explain this choice of examples? Has Jacques forgotten that China’s high-speed rail network, one of the youngest in the world, has already experienced one of the deadliest high speed rail accidents in history? Is he unaware of the concerns about low-grade fly ash in track construction that indicate most of Chinas high-speed rail network is unsafe? Did he not watch the government’s response to the Wenzhou crash, a performance so blunderously pathetic that it ought to be listed in the dictionary next to the word incompetent?

At best, China’s high-speed rail is an unknown quantity. I do think China’s government was right to invest in this technology, and that China should expand its rail system as rapidly as is safely possible. But since at present there are multiple indications that China has far outstripped what is safely possible, using the high-speed rail network as an example of the Chinese state’s competence simply because it is big seems a little bit insane.

The Jacques moves on to his second example:

And the state’s ubiquity – a large majority of China’s most competitive companies, to this day, are state-owned. Or consider the one-child policy, which still commands great support amongst the population.

Indeed, some of China’s most competitive companies are state-owned, but Jacques is forgetting that that is in large part because it is the state that decides who can compete! It’s also worth noting that in some industries where users have more choice, private companies dominate. Let us compare, for example, the telecom industry and the internet search industry. State-owned companies dominate the telecom market (China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom are all state owned) and consumers don’t really have other choices. Since telecommunications networks need to install sensitive hardware in millions of places across the country, it’s no surprise that state-owned companies dominate here and Chinese consumers don’t have a viable private option. But in internet search, where users are free to visit any URL they choose (so long as it isn’t blocked), private Chinese companies like Baidu and Qihoo absolutely destroy the state-owned offerings.

The dominance of state-owned companies varies by industry, but given that the government ultimately decides whether any company is allowed to operate or not, we shouldn’t be too surprised that lots of state-owned companies end up doing pretty well. To use a sports metaphor, State-owned companies win a lot because the referees are the state. How good a record would the you expect the Yankees have if George Steinbrenner was the umpire for every game?

But let’s move on to Jacques’ assertion that the one child policy “still commands great support” among the population. Here we have another vaguely worded and totally unsupported assertion. It also comes at a particularly interesting time given that the China Development Research Foundation (a government think tank) just released a report urging China to abandon the One Child Policy entirely.

In terms of popular perceptions, the One Child Policy is a complicated issue. In my experience, most Chinese accept that it was a necessary measure to prevent population growth beyond the nation’s capacity to support people, and believe it’s still necessary, although in my own conversations with people I have found that most seem to consider it to be a bit outdated and wouldn’t be too sad to see it go. I’m not aware of any scientific polling on this specific issue, but a recent online poll with more than 30,000 respondents found that more than 70% wanted to abolish the One Child Policy and less than 30% wanted to keep it. Is this what Jacques means by “great support”?

Jacques concludes:

The competence of the state is little talked about or really valued in the West, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Indeed, since the early 80s, the debate about the state in Britain has largely been conducted in terms either of what bits should be privatised or how it can be made to mimic the market.

Now, however, we are in a new ball game. With the Western economies in a profound mess and with China’s startling rise, the competence of the state can no longer be ignored. Our model is in crisis. Theirs has been delivering the goods.

Why is it that every article like this seems to imagine that history just stopped in 2009 or 2010 and the events of the past few years don’t matter when it comes to evaluating the success of China’s state? Moreover, why do the West’s economic woes prove the incompetence of the state when they are mostly the result of incompetence and gambling in the private sector? China’s government certainly deserves credit for the growth of its economy, but condemning Western states for the current crisis seems like a much greater reach.

I’m no economist, so I could be wrong, but again, Jacques doesn’t make any effort to connect the moral failures of Western investment bankers with the failure of the state on a systemic level. Nor does he point out that “the goods” China’s government has been delivering have come with both immediate problems (see: Wenzhou train crash, inflation, Bo Xilai scandal, censorship, paranoid crackdowns, etc.) and long-term issues that haven’t yet fully emerged (see: ageing population, local government debt and reliance on land sales, gender imbalance, shoddily-built infrastructure that will break sooner or later, etc.).

Western governments also face numerous problems, of course, and if we define a state’s competence as based entirely on its total GDP then, yes, China is poised to become the most competent state in the world. But right now, that definition would make the United States the most competent state on earth, a claim that (if it wasn’t election season) I think even the most strident Tea Party nutjobs might shy away from making.

Jacques’ article is full of the vagueness that is characteristic of China’s-system-is-the-best arguments because, as usual, his only real evidence is China’s remarkable economic growth. And while its growth has been impressive (to put it mildly) it has also given rise to significant problems. Some are already in full bloom and some have yet to emerge but pose serious questions about the Chinese system’s long-term viability if it does not reform. China’s system has done an incredible job of improving the economy over the last thirty years. But thirty years is barely more than a generation, and using that period (which was not without its rough patches, by the way) as evidence of systemic superiority is at best premature.

It is also simplistic, because it assumes that the purpose of the state is purely to generate economic growth. Economic growth has been great for China’s population, but when assessing the superiority of a given system (which, just as a side note, is a pretty pointless endeavor to begin with) there are a myriad of other factors I would argue that should be considered. And despite what Jacques might say about what “Chinese people” think, I know plenty of Chinese people who agree with me.

Has the state adequately protected its people from threats to their well-being, including long-term threats to their health like pollution and tainted foods? Has the state adequately protected its people’s human rights? Has the state enacted policies that solve problems in the short term without creating bigger ones in the long term? Has the state’s primary concern in governance been the welfare of its people or the perpetuation of its own power? These are serious questions (and there are many more) that could apply to most Western regimes just as well as they apply to China. But Jacques, in his article, has considered precisely none of them.

If nothing else, I hope that someday we will be able to move past the ubiquitous, ridiculous idea that “Chinese people” are a monolithic bloc that thinks the same way about everything. In China, as anywhere, there is a diverse spectrum of beliefs and opinions when it comes to the legitimacy, the role, and the competency of the state. Certainly, these beliefs and opinions have been shaped by China’s unique history, and as a result they do probably skew differently than Western opinions about the same topics (although measuring this empirically would be extremely difficult).

But Chinese people do not all think the same way about anything, and anyone who tells you otherwise is full of shit.

Unrelated note: If you haven’t yet checked out 2non.org, my new nonprofit venture, please do so and consider making a donation. They’re tax deductible, the articles (and other content) is free, and the only way we can afford to keep doing it is if people kick in a little bit when they think the content is worthwhile. Whether you can donate or not, we’re working on a new article that should be up sometime this week that I think you will enjoy.

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.