Tag Archives: History

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.

“Government Historians’ Ten Minute Speed Program”

This is a translation of this post from Hen Huang, Hen Baoli, which seems especially appropriate given upcoming anniversaries that, perhaps, aren’t going to be accurately represented by government authorities.


  1. People in history can be fundamentally divided into two kinds: “good people” and “bad people”.
  2. In history, the working class were all always good people; the ruling class were always bad people.
  3. Historically, the working class was always industrious, courageous, intelligent, and correct; the ruling class was always lazy, weak, stupid, and wrong.
  4. In history, war hawks were all national heroes, every war they advocated was correct and patriotic, the peace advocates were degenerate scum and traitors to China, every time they advocated for peace it was a mistake and selling out China.
  5. Historically, whenever there was conflict between the Han people and ethnic minorities, [it was because] the ethnic minorities had invaded. The Han generals were national heroes. Whenever there was conflict between China and foreign countries, [it was because] the foreign countries invaded. The generals resisting the invasion were national heroes.
  6. In China before 1949, everyone who broke the laws, every thief and murderer was a rebel opposing the wicked ruling party. After 1949, they were were all class enemies, counterrevolutionaries, and after 1976 they were criminals.
  7. The collapse of every single dynasty was because of the corruption of the ruling class.
  8. At the beginning of every dynasty new ruling measures were adopted that were a step forward and should be regarded as positive; whatever measures they adopted towards the end were reactionary and should be firmly condemned.
  9. Before every peasant uprising in history was revolutionary activity, but afterwards they all became morally degenerate.
  10. In history, aside from [those waged by] the leaders of the Party, the eventual result of every revolution has been defeat.
  11. Every failed revolution failed because of lack of correct guidance on political theory, making the mistake of leaning too far left or right, not first joining the Party leadership, not founding and consolidating a worker-peasant alliance, etc. If it’s not one of those reasons, it’s definitely that the counterrevolutionary forces were too strong, Chinese and foreign counterrevolutionary forces united to strengthen the effort.
  12. Every Chinese scientific invention came at least a few years earlier than [it was invented] in Europe (if Europe had it first then don’t mention it at all).
  13. In recent times, the reason China is undeveloped is that imperialists strongly invaded and frenziedly looted, the reason these imperialist countries were strong is that they looted other countries.
  14. The governments of capitalist countries generally regard us with hostility, the people of capitalist countries are always friendly to us.
  15. It is the inevitable trend of history that capitalism will fall, the failure of socialism is just a complication along the road forward.
  16. Our current policy is always wise and correct, old policies were definitely flawed and mistaken. When “current” becomes “old”, the now-current policies will accordingly become flawed and mistaken

Our Thoughts

It’s an amusing piece and perhaps also some insight into the way official history comes off to Chinese people, as many of this site’s readers probably learned their Chinese history outside China and don’t spend a ton of their free time reading Chinese history textbooks (…right?). In light of the Tiananmen university, do you think he missed anything here?

Also, we would be remiss if we didn’t share with you this image from the post’s original source (Hen Huang, Hen Baoli often takes its posts from elsewhere):

Also of Interest Today:

History, Patriotism, and the Tangled Web They Weave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Nanjing Massacres and the Wenchuan Earthquake”

[This is an original translation of this article by Hu Yong, h/t to ESWN for the link. If there are mistakes here, it’s our fault.]

In Lu Chuan’s new film Nanjing, Nanjing!, the camera lens reveals cruelty to an extreme rarely seen in Chinese films; I had nightmares repeatedly the night after I watched it.

In its hellish scenes, women are raped to death, men are massacred in every possible manner. The darkness of humanity, or perhaps it is just a flicker, explodes out of people with suffocating intensity. Clearly, Lu Chuan is doing his best [to show] this tragedy from seventy years ago originally was common people faced with fate and the extermination of souls in the midst of historic calamity, and from this show affirmation and respect for the value of human life.

It’s a pity that the promulgation of Lu Chuan’s art still won’t overcome the enveloping inertia of reality. Jewish Sinologist Vera Schwarcz published an essay in 1995 called “World War II: Beyond the Museum Lights” that discussed how today we often say Nazis killed six million Jews, the Japanese killed 300,000 in Nanjing, but actually using these numbers and terminology makes massacres into abstractions. “Abstraction is the most fanatical enemy of memory. It murders memory because it advocates distance and, moreover, aloofness. We must remind ourselves: what was massacred was not the number six million, it was a person, then another, then another…only in this way can we understand the meaning of ‘massacre’.”*

With regards to the 300,000 killed in the Nanjing massacre, at this time of remembering the great catastrophe seventy years later, Mr. Zhu Xueqin once wrote: “The Nanjing Massacre was, for a long time, intentionally or unintentionally evaded, the masses were not allowed to discuss it. After this, the political situation improved: people were allowed to make demands for compensation to Japan, and the local government went into action without delay, building a Massacre Memorial, this definitely deserves praise. But in one day allowing everyone to speak, as soon as they begin it’s 300,000, why not “300,000-odd” [instead], and [then try to] pull out a conclusive number? Today, China is one of the few countries that still has census registry and supervision…before this, this system has been used to do countless things, why hasn’t it been used in this important case so that instead [of a real number] there’s just a “3” and then five zeros? I’ve toured the Pearl Harbor Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, they all have names and last names, its very detailed. The Boston Jewish Memorial, perhaps because it had no way of gathering detailed information on so many people, they carved the concentration camp numbers of the dead, one next to another, densely packed and soaring to the sky, such that visitors looking 90 degrees upward still can’t see to the top. Those ice-cold arabic numerals are even more shocking than names. Because of this detail, placing people first, it really reflects the value of individual human life. Killing 300,000 is a massacre, killing 200,000; 100,001 or 2 is not a massacre? That 1 or 2, isn’t that a life? The 300,000 in front of us is an ambiguous concept , not a detailed number, and concepts cannot convince people. Instead, they create doubt and even give Japan an excuse to quibble. [We] should use a conclusive number, the best thing would be to carve specific names, only then can we awe others and win honor in public opinion.”

Yes, 300,000 looks startling but actually through abstraction and generalization, it’s like Vera Schwarcz said: it’s easy to use a kind of “advocating distance and, moreover, aloofness” to sum up history. Only by recovering memories one by one, looking for people one by one, can we show the meaning of ‘massacre’ and make it clear to future generations how this suffering cannot be repeated. If one wishes for “China cannot die”, first one must have “China cannot forget.”** This not forgetting must be not forgetting and losing the specifics of even a single life, and nothing else.

Ai Weiwei, a respected Chinese citizen, began a “Wenchuan Earthquake Deceased Students” public investigation on December 15, 2008, and in connection with volunteers, he verifies the situations of those students who were killed. He is preparing to publish this investigation on the anniversary of the earthquake in 2009. He wants to oppose the government’s intentional abstraction and the forgetfulness already oozing throughout the public. He says, “Those kids, they have fathers and mothers, they had dreams and laughs, they had their own names. This name belongs to them, in three, five, ten, nineteen years perhaps they will all be remembered.”

So, all netizens should support this “active citizen” and refuse the two heavy iron gates that surround us — refuse lies, refuse to forget. Seek out every student’s family name, and remember them, because “their true tragedy is not just in the deaths of family members, but also the coldness of all of society, the refusal of all of society to respond to their problems, believing they’ve already been forgotten.”

Do not make the children who died in the earthquake die again!

[*I was unable to find a copy of the English original article online, so I’ve just translated the Chinese quotation. Undoubtedly, Vera Schwarcz’s original prose is much prettier than my own.

**These are parallel rhyming couplets in Chinese.]

“Twenty Years Unfinished”

[The following is a translation of a blog post from Very Yellow, Very Violent (h/t to Imagethief for leading us to the blog). Links in the text were added by ChinaGeeks to provide some historical context for those who may not know what’s being discussed here, they’re not in the original piece. For those unaware, the seven demands he quotes are demands made by the students in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests, several students famously knelt submissively on the steps of the Great Hall of the People for hours holding up their peition but were ignored.]

Twenty years ago, a group of college students sat quietly at the entrance to the Great Hall of the People and raised a poster with seven demands:

  • One: Reevaluate the achievements and errors of Hu Yaobang and affirm his standpoints on democracy, freedom, relaxing [of restrictions], and [social] harmony.
  • Two: Thoroughly negate and eliminate “spiritual pollution” and “oppose bourgeoise liberalization” [two government campaigns -Ed.], and rehabilitate those intellectuals who have suffered being falsely accused.
  • Three: Open [reports on] all forms of income for national leaders and their family members for the people to see, oppose corrupt officials.
  • Four: Allow the people to run newspapers, remove restrictions on what can be reported, implement freedom of speech.
  • Five: Increase funding for education and improve the treatment of intellectuals.
  • Six: Cancel the “ten conditions” for demonstrations stipulated by the Beijing municipal government.
  • Seven: Demand government leaders thoroughly and publicly discuss government mistakes, and for some leaders, hold new elections through democracy.

The results that year needn’t be mentioned.
Even so, twenty years have passed; has there been a satisfying response to these seven demands written in blood?

  • 1. Reevaluating the achievements and errors of leaders before and after; at that time it was Hu Yaobang, today, you could say it’s Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin, or Xi Jinping. [All people who’ve fallen out of favor since Hu Yaobang’s passing and have not be rehabilitated -Ed.]
  • 2. Intellectuals suffering unjust persecution, today there are still many: Hu Jia, He Weifang, Liu Xiaobo, Ji Sizun, etc. etc.
  • 3. Reporter: “Some Official, how do you view a system of reporting on the [income and] public property of officials?” …High Official: “If you want this to be public, why don’t you also want to make public all of the common people’s income and property?”
  • 4. Don’t even think of running a newspaper, even running a website or a blog is beset with difficulties. Are you willing to be put on file or willing to be firewalled?
  • 5. How much is 4 trillion in investment in education. When added together with [the funding for] medical insurance, it reaches 1% [of the overall government budget].
  • 6. During the Olympics, someone who applied to protest in the designated protest areas was sentenced to three years in prison.
  • 7. Tombstone was banned in China, the number of mobiles on which texting service is blocked in Tibet is increasing, you’re not allowed to investigate the number of students who died in the Sichuan earthquake because their schoolhouses collapsed…
  • These seven demands, are they or are they not something we’re still looking forward to in our hearts?
    Do you or do you not wish to wait another twenty years, and leave these problems for your children?

    [We may update this post with translations of comments if more appear on the site, the author has also written a longer, related piece which you can find here. We may translate it, and/or run some commentary on this piece later.]

Debate over the Tibet Debate

A debate over China’s historical sovereignty over Tibet traditionally asks the question, “Was Tibet historically part of China?” It’s hard to deny that the answer to that question is in many ways a yes.

Officially, Chinese influence over Tibet started from the 13th century onward. In reality, Tibet was under Chinese sway during the Yuan and Qing Dynasties, but was in essence independent during the Ming Dynasty. The Tibet-China dynamic was not quite that of a multinational state. Tibet was ruled more as a feudal possession rather than a real part of the Chinese empire.

Clearly it seems that a sort of vassal state relationship grew during various parts of history. This is similar to China’s relationship with Vietnam and Korea over various periods of time: China exerted a certain political force over Tibet, but it never really became a core part of the empire and retained a cultural identity distinct from China’s. In fact, shortly after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, all Chinese were expelled from Lhasa by the local Tibetan government. That’s hardly the type of treatment you’d give people you consider as your countrymen.

The point of all this is not so much to stake out a position on either side of the issue but to point out the focus of the debate. The main topic of debate is whether Tibet was historically part of China. For example, a recent article from Xinhua details the restoration of a pavilion that was used to greet envoys from the Chinese imperial court, the existence of which supposedly proves Chinese sovereignty in Tibet. But this focus is wrong.

The question that all intellectually honest people should be asking is does a subservient historical relationship justify modern-day policy. The Yuan and Qing empires that held sway over Tibet, in addition to themselves being non-Chinese, were just that – empires. Just as Britain gave up India, the Dutch gave up Indonesia and France was forced to leave Vietnam, one would think that China would have given up Tibet when world opinion decided that empires are not acceptable political structures. This is doubly so because the Chinese used to be pretty hip to anti-imperialist sentiments.

This author doesn’t support Tibetan independence any more than he supports Cherokee independence. But the focus of the debate is and always has been in the wrong place. If honest individuals want to come to a real conclusion, they must look at the relevant questions and not red herrings thrown to the public.

There Will Never Be Another Tiananmen 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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