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Happy Christmas. Liu Xiao Bo got 11 years.

Friday, December 25th, 2009

Happy Christmas everyone. Sad Christmas for China, and for all of us who love that country and who believe in freedom, dignity and truth.

Exactly one year ago, on Christmas Day, I published this post about Liu’s Charter. I was critical with the initiative for many reasons: it contained contradictions, it was reactive rather than active, and it was not a Charter to unite all the Chinese. But most importantly, the way the document was drafted ensured that it had not a chance to fly.

The initiative was practically born dead, Charter was never a big subject in China even in early 09, it was the crisis and the stimulus that we watched at the time. The party had won the game from day one, so what point in bullying Liu now, one year later? Clearly, just to set an example to ensure that the rest of the signers will shut up, and to avoid new initiatives in the coming years. “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey”, the Chinese tradition says. And that is NOT justice, but a disgusting mafia trick.

Even if you don’t believe in democracy for China—even if you think (like I do) that the hypocritical governments of the West have no lessons to give here—even if the Charter was probably not the best way to attain the noble principles it professed. Even so, any decent person can see that a document like this should never be a reason for a man to be deprived of his freedom.

The party knows this, and it is again censoring and lying on the internet to hide its dirty deed from the people of China.

Now the story has been picked up by the CNN and it is making some noise. If we are lucky and it goes far enough, maybe even Obama will give us a memorable line. But it will not change anything, because all this is part of the deal with China. And the sentence is nothing more or less than what could be expected of the Chinese government today.

Liu knew this well, and he decided to go on in spite of it. That is because he is an idealist and a hero. He will be remembered.

More on this case here. Also, from my own blog: here, here and here.

These are the principles that 303 brave men published in China in 2008:

Freedom. Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.

Human rights. Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.

Equality. The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every person—regardless of social station, occupation, sex, economic condition, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or political belief—are the same as those of any other. Principles of equality before the law and equality of social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.

Republicanism. Republicanism, which holds that power should be balanced among different branches of government and competing interests should be served, resembles the traditional Chinese political ideal of “fairness in all under heaven.” It allows different interest groups and social assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures and beliefs, to exercise democratic self-government and to deliberate in order to reach peaceful resolution of public questions on a basis of equal access to government and free and fair competition.

Democracy. The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government. Democracy has these characteristics: (1) Political power begins with the people and the legitimacy of a regime derives from the people. (2) Political power is exercised through choices that the people make. (3) The holders of major official posts in government at all levels are determined through periodic competitive elections. (4) While honoring the will of the majority, the fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of minorities are protected. In short, democracy is a modern means for achieving government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Constitutional rule. Constitutional rule is rule through a legal system and legal regulations to implement principles that are spelled out in a constitution. It means protecting the freedom and the rights of citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power, and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.

The New Laobaixing of China

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

You might have heard the term Laobaixing (老百姓), literally “the hundred surnames”, the common people of China. They are also known as LBX in this website dedicated to them.

Laobaixing is a great word, not only because of its obvious etymology, but also because its connotations are quite different from our  “common people”. From what I have seen, in China everyone can be a Laobaixing depending which way the wind blows, and to look down on the Laobaixing is a mortal sin that you can only enjoy when nobody is watching. See below:


This is the protest I saw on one little Huaihai Road Lane a few months ago (56minus1 was faster to post it). Note the white protests banner, to mark the difference with the otherwise identical red propaganda ones. The banner said: “The relocation of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra to a new building seriously disturbs the people and destroys social harmony.” It disappeared very quickly and there was no way to find out what it was all about. This week I have witnessed chapter 2 of that protest:


The banner is now black like a pirate flag (excuse bad phone camera).The text is also more aggressive, it reads: “The propaganda department XX cheats everyone, doesn’t care if Laobaixing live or die”. I asked the guys who were keeping the banner but the menwei of the little lane nervously sent me away. Nearby there was a poster explaining the problem: the works of the Shanghai Orchestra building right behind the lane are causing vibrations and cracks on the walls. The next day when all was over I went back to witness the despair of the Laobaixing:


This is the little lane where the LBX live. And yes, that is a Maseratti. Stay tuned for the next episodes, we will keep following the plight of the dispossessed.

Han Han and the Big Misunderstanding

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

I saw on ESWN this Time magazine interview of Han Han, and since I have written before about him, I think it is worth a comment. It is also interesting because it illustrates the scary misunderstandings between East and West that Kaiser Kuo warned against recently. This is, in my opinion, the key passage:

…despite his youthful bravado, Han, who has published 14 books and anthologies, generally stays away from sensitive issues such as democracy and human rights. His calculated rebelliousness, says Lydia Liu, a professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, exemplifies the unspoken compact his generation has forged with the ruling Communist Party: Leave us alone to have fun and we won’t challenge your right to run the country. "He is known for being a sharp critic of the government and the Establishment but he isn’t really," says Liu. Instead, she says, Han is a willing participant in a process that channels the disaffected energy of youth into consumerism. "The language in his novels and the narrative strategies are very easy to read," says Liu. "Basically it’s all the same book."

Before judging the literary value of the writer, Mrs. Liu makes a moral judgment of his rebelliousness: It is not intense enough to her taste, the issues he deals with are not sensitive enough. I think I’m not too far from the truth if I say that this summarizes the opinion of  a large part of the academic community, and by extension of mainstream Western opinion. You may have noted that Ms. Liu is an expert in literature, not in politics. But when it comes to Chinese politics, we ALL know better than them.

Hecaitou’s blog also posted the interview and we can see some Chinese discuss it among themselves. Allowing for the odd troll, it is a fairly balanced discussion, as expected from an intelligent Chinese forum when they don’t feel observed by Western eyes. Perhaps the 2 most significant comments, that give an idea of the atmosphere, are:

- Compared to those who were criminalized for speaking, Han Han has no courage. He only teases, doesn’t dare to speak about the system.

- You mean, he needs to be a martyr? To fight for your rights, even if it is just a bit, to obtain awareness of citizen dignity, all these are matters that require someone to capture them. To be able to speak from within and disintegrate this system, that is the real master.

A large part of the misunderstandings between East and West come from the unreasonable expectations we have of each other. In particular, Western opinion expects of Chinese public figures to fight heroically and even suicidally against their own government. The Chinese political system is so evil, the logic goes, that any public person worthy of our attention should be dedicated to fighting it.

Now, I am the first who thinks China needs political change and respect of human rights, and I greatly admire the courage of some dissidents. But real heroes should be voluntary, like Mother Theresa, and no amount of public pressure can ever create one. Even less foreign public pressure.

In case I have some naïf reader, it is just as well to inform you here that Western policies are as arbitrary and cruel in the international scene as the CCP’s are accused of being in China. And both are equally full of good intentions. Why don’t we apply the same standards with our own public figures?  Do we require of our writers to fight the system? Have they signed a compact to drive us into a consumerist slumber instead of protesting against injustice in the World?

We don’t do that. We act just like the Chinese, satisfying ourselves with he thought that “The World is unfair, but with a bit of patience and faith in the system, it will eventually become a better place”. Substitute “The World” with “China” and you have the mainstream Chinese thought.

“Hypocrisy”, I was going to write. But I don’t think it’s even that. It is simple closed-mindedness,  the inability to see things from the other side.

Lessons from Xinjiang: The Deep Roots

Saturday, August 8th, 2009

eeeee One of the essential purposes of a government is to ensure the safety of the citizens and, from this point of view, the Chinese government has failed spectacularly in Urumqi.

To begin with, it did not afford sufficient protection to the Han victims during the night of 5th July. Some wrong decisions were most likely taken during the crisis, and the leaders of the forces of order owe at least some explanation to the Chinese.

But the CPC has failed in a more crucial way, which cannot be ascribed to simple human error in time of emergency. It has failed to create the conditions for the peaceful coexistence of the Chinese; it has failed in the very objective that it states as its own: the creation of a harmonious society. 200 Chinese killed by Chinese are the clear proof of this failure.

I will analyze in this post some of the reasons why the interethnic policies may have failed and what can be done to  improve the situation. There are many good arguments both for and against the independence of Xinjiang, which would make for a fascinating discussion, but I will not touch the subject here. Whatever the theory says, the reality is that Xinjiang is and shall remain Chinese for the foreseeable future. Large numbers of both Han and Uyghur can equally call Xinjiang their homeland, and these peoples have to learn to live together for their own sake. Let’s try to be constructive and see how this can be achieved.

The intentions of the CPC

I began by saying that the government has failed, which is obvious. But to be completely fair, interethnic relations is an extremely difficult area where almost every government in the World has failed to some degree. Looking at the region where Xinjiang sits, and comparing with interethnic and interreligious strife in similar nearby countries we have to acknowledge that the record of Xinjiang in the last 20 years is far from catastrophic.

Some argue that there are no worse problems –fundamentalism, suicide bombings, war- just because the Han are repressing the Uyghur population to inhuman extremes. This is easily proven wrong, and anyone who has been to the area knows this much. Moreover, a simple look at the World can tell us that even the most extreme repression by the army does not guarantee peace, but rather the opposite, as seen in Uzbekistan, Chechnya or Palestine. It is not mainly force, but prosperity and stability that have kept the Uyghurs silent.

The party’s interethnic policies have failed, but the very existence of these policies and their actual enforcement speaks a lot for the nature of the CPC’s intentions. The clear goal of the party is to guarantee China’s unity, stability and harmony, it is not and has never been to impose the supremacy of the Han. Granted, China is an authoritarian regime, and individual rights are not always respected, in Xinjiang or in any other province. China needs democracy and rule of law, but this has nothing to do with the oppression of the Uyghur by the Han.

Interethnic policies

Let’s take a look at the essential of these interethnic policies, which mostly come in the form of positive discrimination: 10 added points in the gaokao exams for access to university, partial exclusion from the single child policy, quotas (but rather low) in the administration and, most surprising of all: an explicit policy of lenient treatment for non-political crimes, which is known to all Chinese in the form of the common assumption: “be careful with Uyghurs, they can carry knives”.

Another group of policies are the ones destined to avert the danger of Islamic fundamentalism. These include prohibition to wear headscarves and other religious attire in schools and government buildings,  prohibition for under 18 year olds to attend prayers at the mosque, and strict control of the clergy. While we can accuse these policies of offending sensibilities, we might as well say that France has a similar headscarf prohibition, and that China is consistent with its clear principle of forbidding religions to engage in politics. An enlightened rule, in my opinion, more so in a place where there is reasonable grounds for fearing religious fundamentalism.

Other more recent policies, decided by the maximum leader of the party in the region, Wang Lequan, are less justifiable. In particular the one related to having all the schools teach solely in Mandarin makes no sense and can only spark resentment among the Uyghurs. The logic of this decision is that all citizens need to be proficient in mandarin, but this point is not technically sound, as it has been proven that a full bilingual education from early age is compatible with proficiency in two languages.


One interesting point in the conflict of July and its aftermath is that it was never made clear what exactly the protesters wanted. The WUC had plenty of media time, but it didn’t present a consistent program. Kadeer dedicated her appearances to send out casualty figures and to deny her role in the events, relating them to the Guangdong incident. As a result, it is difficult to know which of the Chinese policies are most resented by Uyghurs, other than being “colonized and repressed”. The absence of a moderate Uyghur voice makes things very difficult to understand, another consequence of the heavy handed government of Wang Lequan.

In any case, it looks like it is not so much a matter of one policy in particular, but a problem of attitudes between the Uyghurs and he Han. A problem of integration and mutual misunderstanding that is so typical of interethnic conflict in any Western country, rather than a conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed. This is consistent with many of the observations of foreigners living in Xinjiang.

Much has been written in the West about positive discrimination, and you might be familiar with the kind of problems it can create. There is a natural reaction of resentment in the poorest elements of the majority group at what they see as unjust favouritism towards minorities. But worst of all, policies such as “2 restraints, 1 leniency” lend themselves to abuse and often benefit the worst individuals in the minority, starting a vicious circle of negative selection.

In China positive discrimination is particularly vicious because the Han, encouraged by the official media, tend to take these few concessions as a definitive proof of their generosity towards the Uyghurs, which then gives them carte blanche to engage in all sorts of discriminating behaviours, in many cases not even realizing that they are being unfair.

The Uyghurs react to this perceived –and often very real- discrimination by adopting the role of eternal victims and recalling the invasion of the bingtuans, or the dilution of their people, which is hardly a strong argument as: 1- A large part of the bingtuan population is not installed in Uyghur areas, 2- The Chinese have been doing bingtuan-like activities in Xinjiang long before the Uyghurs even arrived and 3- Chinese companies  have all the right to establish in any areas of their country as long as they are not forcefully expropriating the original owners.

Some possible solutions

In conclusion, I think this is not so much a matter of bingtuan, oppression or ethnical dilution, but rather a matter of complete insensibility from both sides Han and Uygur, and most of all from the Chinese government in Xinjiang, whose head only cares about pleasing Beijing.

I know the really important problem – lack of democracy and rule of law - will not change in Urumqi until it does in Beijing. But without looking so far, I have some modest suggestions to the CPC of Xinjiang that should be easy to try and improve the situation.  All relatively simple points, more gestures and attitudes than large power concessions:

  • Don’t forcefully modernize Kashgar declaring it backward.
  • Don’t force monolingual schools on people for their own benefit.
  • Impose 100% bilingual schools for all in majority Uyghur areas.
  • Stop, progressively and with tact, the leniency policies.
  • Enforce the laws against discrimination in job postings.

But most important of all, I have one advice for the government of China that is not restricted only to Xinjiang: Actively promote mutual respect and understanding among different cultures and races.

This ability is seriously lacking in most Chinese of all ethnicities, as this essential part of their education has for years been substituted by clichéd touristic dances and children in costumes. This spells trouble for China not only with the minorities, but also in other regions where it wants to earn respect and expand its influence, like Africa or South America.

Lessons from Xinjiang: Disaster and Response

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

NYT diagram

I was not there and I do not know more than what is in the press. But in the light of the available information, I think it’s worth it to have another look at the events, and see what we make of it. Refer to the NYT diagram linked on the illustration, this paper is hardly suspect of pro-CPC, and the information included (from witness accounts) is about as detailed as has been published concerning the events of 5th May.

It all started with a protest in People’s Square, followed by a concentration along Liberation Road, which was met around 6.30 by the People’s Armed Police. Up to here everything is “normal” in the logic of street rioting: there were clashes and probably some victims from both sides. But Liberation Rd. is very central, many people live there and surely the NYT would have found at least a witness to mention it if hundreds of people had been killed or made prisoner at this point.

But it is afterwards, especially after 8, along the axes of Tuanjie and Dawan Roads, that the events are not normal by any standard of social disorder. Street riots, like other forms of violence, can have collateral damage, but this is not the case. The police was not there, the Han mobs couldn’t have been organized in such a short time, and the only way to explain those deaths is that it was a deliberate large scale massacre of civilian residents and passers by. This is consistent with what was written in other accounts by various newspapers.

The initial count of 123* Han casualties that has been more or less accepted by all sides as minimum is an astonishing figure for actions that happened mostly in the space of 5 hours and in such a reduced area. Looking at other riots in the region, including Xinjiang, Tibet or other Chinese areas, we see this ratio is completely out of range. This was not the heat of the fight in a political riot. It was cold-blooded persecution, the kind of actions that can only be the work of fanatics.

Who was behind the events

In its August 2 issue, the Hong Kong newsweekly Yazhou Zhoukan interviewed Heyrat Niyaz, a Uyghur journalist, blogger, and AIDS activist, the kind of person who is unlikely to be partial to the CPC. Heyrat speaks about the Islamic Liberation Party, Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami, a pan-islamic international political party which is formally peaceful, but which has been accused in the past of inciting violence in Europe. This organization has spread very quickly in Xinjiang in the last decade.

As a witness in Urumqi, Niyaz notes the strong Kashgar accents of many of the protesters and the religious slogans that were heard in the protests. This brings to mind all the times the CPC has spoken of the menace of an Islamist group called ETIM, which might actually exist or not. In any case, some radical groups do exist, as was clearly seen from attacks like this one last year, where 16 policemen were coldly knifed and bombed after being run over.

I will not accuse any group without proof, as I would be guilty myself of the same “solid block” thinking I criticized yesterday. But what we have seen up to now should make any honest observer curious, and it certainly warrants further investigation in the field of radical islamism in Xinjiang. In a region bordered by countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is not at all unthinkable that frustrated youths take example of their counterparts across the border and find an escape in a perverted version of religion.


The Chinese government has handled the crisis relatively well, given the circumstances. Actually, the main objection one could make is the opposite of what most Western readers like to imagine: on Sunday 5th more force should have been used to avoid the murders.

If you think of it, you might agree that the CPC leaders are not precisely idealistic dreamers. When they let the foreign reporters into a place it is because they know they have nothing to lose, and this time they must have been pretty confident that they were not to blame. Also we have to admit that, even when in front of journalists, it is unusual in most armies in the World to exhibit so much discipline and restraint as the Chinese did in the aftermath of indiscriminate racist attacks against their own people.

A large part of the Western media were confused by this attitude, which perhaps explains why they left so early. Indeed, it is some food for thought and it can make some weaker spirits shrink, to consider that for the second time in a row (after the Sichuan disaster) China proves that, sometimes, an authoritarian regime can do things better than a democracy. It takes some solid convictions and some understanding of ones own ideals to be able to look at the World without the mould of good and evil.

In any case, there is little doubt – the Western media has given me no reason to think otherwise – that the Chinese double approach of media control and moderate police action has produced the best results during the crisis. It goes without saying that this only works as a short term formula to curb down the violence, and that much more will need to be done from now on to really solve the problems in Xinjiang. More about long term solutions in the next posts.

Rebiya Kadeer

I will not waste time here to discredit Rebiya Kadeer, because from the beginning she discredits herself. She has provided no basis at all for most of the information she gave to the media, and some of her claims are so absurdly wrong that it actually makes me think she has to be innocent: someone who’s made it in business can’t possibly be such a bad liar. The only explanation is that she is totally clueless.

Click on the picture for one example of her latest claims.


More than anything, Kadeer gives the impression that she is desperate for TV time. She knows her time of fame is running to an end, and she is forced to place ever stronger claims, raising the stakes at each go to attract the tired audiences. As blogger twofish reflected, if she really cared about the future of Xinjiang, she might have grabbed this chance to send a message of peace and try to connect with the rest of the Chinese at a time when they were brutally attacked, earning perhaps the respect of the moderates.

But how has someone like Kadeer, a successful businesswoman in her time, imprisoned and then released by the CPC, ended up as de facto representative of the Uyghur people? Kadeer was called to play a role, and she plays it just fine. It is a role that has been written by the CPC, and by the Western media, and by the audiences and by the American NED, who is funding her. The story was written long before she arrived, a well proven plot that works with the public and will make everyone happy. It is all over again the Dalai Lama saga, and thanks to the copy-paste now the scriptwriters can relax and enjoy their Summer holidays.

Except, of course, that Rebiya Kadeer is no Dalai Lama, and neither her deeds nor her standing among the Uyghur justifiy any such comparison.

The Important Question

And now down to what many consider the crucial question: is Kadeer in contact or even financing the extremist groups who arranged the killings, or is she, as I suspect, totally ignorant of the reality on the ground? I don’t think we will ever find out. It is difficult to believe that the NED, funded by the American Congress, would sponsor anyone connected with terrorism; but if by mistake they did, I am sure they will take good care to hide all the proofs.

Note that, either way, the NED doesn’t come out very well from this story. Sponsoring an opportunist who jumps at the chance to get a name for herself while she coldly observes the killings of dozens is hardly in line with the objectives of a National Endowment for Democracy.

But really, is all this so important? I don’t think so. Kadeer will not last, and whether she is guilty or not, the peanuts that the NED pays her do not really change anything. Kadeer with her accommodated expatriate Uyghurs of the WUC cannot possibly control the operations of a terrorist group on the ground. And, as an inspirational role, I doubt it very much that she – a woman, twice married, business and PC background – could ever work for young islamist radicals. She will most certainly not turn into the new bin Laden.

No, the real questions for China and for the World are others:

Who was really behind the killings of 5th July? How will the prisoners be judged? How are the interethnic policies of the CPC failing? How is this failure feeding the bases of some violent groups? What is the connection of these groups with islamist terrorism and what is the probability of Al-Qaeda joining the party? And why is China the only Security Council country that hasn’t received a large-scale attack from islamists, in spite of the years-long Uyghur conflict?

And finally, where are the people that are supposed to be answering all these questions?

*See my comment below for the basis of this number.

Lessons from Xinjiang: the Media

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

XJTV Have you been watching Xinjiang TV these days? I am a fan. It’s the new Love TV, a 24-7 concentrate of all the corniest efforts by the Chinese official media to promote harmony after the events of 5th July. Smiling kids, flowery dances, long meetings of interethnic neighbour associations discussing love and togetherness. Best served with tequila, lemon, and a grain of salt.

But seriously. It’s been a month since the events of Urumqi, and it feels like there hasn’t been much done in the way of analysis. All the channels of the media were red hot for a week, but they cooled down as soon as the blood dried on the streets, and no new insights are forthcoming. Too soon the debate has been hijacked by unproven claims of opportunists like Kadeer, and the predictable responses from China. The peace loving Uyghurs and Han who lost their lives in Urumqi deserve better.

So yes, I am consciously watching XJTV, and I suggest you do the same. For lack of anything better and in protest against the rest of the media establishment, both Chinese and foreign. Because no matter how awkward XJTV’s efforts might seem, at least this TV station is doing its job.

The events of Xinjiang are more important than the bland Summer coverage would lead us to imagine. It is probably the most deadly single political riot that has happened in China since Tiananmen 1989. It is also the only major case of social unrest where the international press has been granted permission to report from the ground. And there are important lessons to draw from the experience, particularly in the fields of 1- Media and 2- China’s policy.

The Chinese Media

I am and I will always be against State-controlled media, and every person I respect here, some CPC members included, agrees with my point of view: without the freedom to blame, all comment is meaningless.

But precisely because we don’t believe in that media, we don’t expect too much from them. After all, it is not the fault of the writers or editors if they live in such a system, not everyone can be a hero. From this relative point of view, we can say that the Chinese media – or the CPC, which is the same in this case - has done a good job.

Indeed, one interesting phenomenon in the aftermath of the July 5th events is the media’s role in calming things down on the Han side. We made fun of all those silly heart warming articles, but probably the love talk was crucial at a moment where ethnic feelings were getting out of control. How many times in the World have you seen interethnic clashes* killing more than a hundred to simply peter out in 2 days with no more than moderate force applied by the State?

By choosing to focus on the positive, turning the blame on external elements and being loyal to the principle of harmony, the Chinese media did a valuable service to their country and probably avoided many more deaths. This might seem obvious now with hindsight, but it might have been just as easy for them to try to appeal to the pride of the Han and disaster would have ensued.

The Free World Media

But what about the media from the free World?

The Xinjiang events were of particular interest for many of us following the debate of anti-China bias in the Western media. In the highest point of the discussion, after the Tibet 2008 events,  the Western media always had the point that, since they had been banned from the area, they couldn’t be held accountable for inaccuracies in their reporting. Now we have the first major riot where this argument is not valid. The time is to evaluate the results. How well have they fared?

In my opinion, it has been disappointing, at least for two reasons.

1- In a large part of the media there was a clear prejudice against the Han and against the authorities. Not all were as extreme or ignorant as this example, but the principle was clear: their mission was to witness how inhuman the Chinese system is. Even if some of them later moderated their reports, the harm was already done, and when travelling in Europe mid-July I found it a common opinion that “China is slaughtering its minorities again”.

2- Fortunately, free media IS to some extent free and diverse, and we have seen some examples of fair reporting from the ground. In particular I was following the Telegraph journalist Peter Foster, who did a great job of reporting honestly what he saw. And then, I got to this article, only 4 days after the events, and to my despair he announces that he leaves on holidays. Like blogger B&W Cat noted, almost all the others soon followed suit and, to this day, nobody has told us what really happened in Xinjiang.

In the meantime, Xinhua and the others stayed at their posts, showing the Chinese and the World who really cares about Xinjiang, and who really cares about China.

Some Conclusions

There is something very wrong with the World media, and it is something much deeper than a anti- or pro- China stance. It has to do more in my opinion with how it is organized. Remember the line:

By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

It is a pleasure to read Adam Smith and imagine that, indeed, the invisible hand is working every day to make our lives better. And yet, this example has made clear that if there is one industry were the hand cannot work it is the media. That is, of course, unless we accept that its role is to produce “the truths we like to hear” in the same way as the role of Apple is to produce computers we like to use.

Because that is exactly the problem. The minute the media sees that there are no obvious CPC crimes, that the police is handling the situation well, and that actually a communist authoritarian regime sometimes does things better than a democracy, this is not interesting. It is not even about political lobbies or advertising companies’ pressure, it is simply that most readers don’t like it. It is more comfortable to live with their solid categories, Islamism bad, communism bad, democracy good. And the invisible hand says: journalist shut up.

There is a lot of talk on the internet about the future of traditional newspapers, and many are analyzing the reasons for their demise. Well, how about this one:

There has been a major political riot, the most deadly in 20 years in the most important rising country in the international scene, and the media has still not even attempted to explain the reasons behind the events, instead working full-time as a mouthpiece for a self-appointed leader in Washington with very dubious legitimacy, and who might possibly be connected with the terrorist group who has organized the killings of more than 100 people.**

I am not so idealistic to think that internet and blogs are going to change the situation. The information lobby will always be powerful, whatever the shape it takes, and in the end the mainstream reader will always read what he wants to read.

For the people who care, the only hope, now as always, is in diversity. And fortunately the internet works in the right direction for this. Visit this link for just one example of how a blog can provide you –if you take the time to read carefully- with better commentary than your Sunday paper.

* Interethnic clashes:  whether or not the initial violence was organized by terrorist elements, by the time the Han mobs went out with bats it clearly became an interethnic clash.

** More about this upcoming.

Han Han and the post-80s

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009


Chinese ultra-blogger Han Han is starting a magazine. He announced it previously on his blog, and his last post is already giving the details to send in article drafts and job applications. I learned this last night from my friend 2Ting, who was eagerly preparing her CV and intro letter. The literati of the post-80s are very excited, it appears.

Han’s magazine, which still doesn’t have a name to avoid imitations, is presented in this blog post. A very Chinese and a very Han Han announcement, interesting for several reasons. But before I speak of it let me give some background on Han Han. I’ve been planning to write about him for ages, and never found the time until today.

The man

Han Han is 2Ting’s idol. He is also the idol of thousands of others post-80s Chinese, and he has become - in spite of himself-  a symbol of this often caricatured generation. His bio is interesting: while attending middle school he won a first prize in a famous literary contest, then he dropped out of high school and started writing  popular novels and driving race cars. By now he has become one of the best selling authors in China, and, if I got my stats right, the most read personal blogger in the World. Click to continue »

The worst in 14 months

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

The AFP dispatch says it all:

Seventy-four workers were confirmed dead and dozens trapped underground after a gas blast early on Sunday at a colliery in northern China, the worst accident to hit the nation’s mines in over 14 months.

There is something very wrong with these news.  The paragraph should end with “the worst since the beginning of Reform” or even “since the fall of the Qing”. But the worst in over 14 months!

A mine, and especially a coal mine, is a dangerous working environment - we have known very serious accidents in Europe as well. But, in the 21st century, large scale incidents with 74 fatalities becoming yearly routine is not simply an “accident”. It is a conscious act of a company manager who is gambling with the life of his workers. And there is a responsibility from the government for allowing to continue operations in some mines that should have been closed down long ago.

For the sake of comparison: Only this one incident is 10 times more deadly than the whole Sanlu tainted milk scandal. In that case, there was wide social response and the governent saw it as a serious harmony problem. A fast trial was organized, the company was dismantled and in three months there were leaders condemned. Probably not perfect justice, but at least there was some action.

But who will speak for the black faced migrant miners? There is no independent union of miners to organize protests. The general public is not concerned by a safety issue that - unlike tainted milk- will never put their own well-being at risk. The media, both international and Chinese,  will have forgotten the incident in no more than a week.

Very soon we will all turn our attention to different news and, in the meantime, the miners will still be going down, little by little digging their way into their next pocket of gas.

Unemployment and the Spark of the Revolution

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

You will excuse me for writing two serious posts in a row. It’s been ages we don’t do anything on the Crisis, and these days there’s been a series of articles on the subject that I couldn’t just let pass.

Two of them have to do with the growth projections for 2009. Yawn. We’ve been seeing new projections and discussions thereof almost every week, and after the holidays break it looks like here it is all over again. It is mostly fruitless, because there’s not enough new information between one projection and the next, and so most of the times the changes reflect the mood of the expert more than anything else.

It was however interesting to read this PD article Sunday where one CPC “renowned economist” worried that “China is likely to lose 3.9 million jobs in 2009″ if GDP growth slows to 8 percent. Well, he need not worry anymore, according to other top CPC officials quoted here the very next day, “China Risks Missing 8% Growth Target”, which will be “extremely arduous” to achieve. They are starting to change their tune, again.

And this brings us to a more interesting subject which, although it is as difficult to predict, at least it is more telling than the empty statistical artifice of GDP. I am speaking of Unemployment.

There has been two contradicting articles over the weekend, by Wang Tao from UBS and by Victor Shih. They hold different positions as to what will be the unemployment figures in 2009 and what will be their social impact. In any case, it is worth noting that both of them, with their 15 Million (Tao) and 35-50 Million (Victor) figures, are way above any calculation by the “renowned economist” of the People’s Daily, who gives 1 Million for every % of GDP lost.

Needless to say, I am with the relatively pessimistic predictions of Victor on this issue. Partly because I deeply distrust socio-economic projections issued by banks (you can hardly blame me on that). But mostly because the arguments that Victor puts forward are more solid than Tao’s. Based on his deeper knowledge of Chinese politics,  Victor goes on to analyze the possible consequences of his prediction in a worse-case scenario.

Noting that, even if the government has the capacity (as he calculated here) to subsidize the unemployed families for an extended period,

the current wave of layoffs affects a young and vibrant cohort most capable of carrying violent collective action against the state. Without any systematic triggers, we at least will see a spike in localized riots which necessitate the mobilization of People’s Armed Police (PAP) units all over China. The central government would also be compelled to (and they are doing so already) roll out generous unemployment benefits for migrant workers and college graduates (to the tune of 300-400 billion RMB). If a systematic trigger occurs and instability spreads to a sizable city, we will see the large scale mobilization of both PAP and army units and possibly substantial bloodshed. In most scenarios, the CCP regime would still survive a large scale, cross regional rebellion. However, “overall investor confidence” will be lost.

What is the “systematic trigger” which I refer to? I don’t know exactly what it would be. However, if we look back in history, it can be a wide range of events, including the death of a popular leader, a serious natural disaster, the spread of a deathly infectious disease, a small student demonstration turned violent, religious groups…

This idea of the “trigger” (I called it the “Spark” on my previous post) is right on. It is exactly the element that is missing and the one that will make all the difference: when we have social tension to get the people in action, and intellectuals to draft the road map, the mix is an unstable equilibrium waiting to get in contact with a spark. Of course, Victor doesn’t know what exactly this spark would be, and neither do I because its own nature makes it unpredictable. But I would add to his hypothesis one of my own:

The emergence of a massive wave of protest on the internet that extends to all the forums and BBS simultaneously, with new sites being created faster than the government can block the old, which could create a cascade effect that would force the government to commit its worst mistake: close down the internet altogether. This would add to the protesters millions of online game addicts released from their cybercafes, constituting a serious army of instability.

Check out today’s post by Imagethief on the subject, showing with 2 nice graphs that we have an unprecedented situation in China. Also,  yesterday Jeremiah of the Granite Studio did an interesting comparison of the present situation and the one in 1919 during the May 4th movement. In those times, there was a clear “trigger”: the humiliating treatment of China by the Western powers in the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, including the unforgivable transfer of territories to Japan.

One last note for the optimists: this weekend I learnt of a reputable economics professor living in Shanghai who recently bought 3 months advance of canned food to store in case the situation gets rapidly unmanageable. In a city like Shanghai, if the logistic networks are disrupted we can run out of food in a matter of days. I am still not quite there myself, but I must admit that, since I heard this, the idea hasn’t quite left my head and I tend to go more generous on every visit to Lawson’s.

UPDATE: Oops, I completely missed this one. All Roads has been doing the same comparison and drawing his own conclusions. You can see it here.

Beaumarchais and the Nanny

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

As I was answering to a comment on the Chrter 08 post, I felt a sudden urge to find the original context for one of my favourite quotes, which stands on Instructions as a principle of this blog.

That is how I found again this beautiful passage which I can’t resist copying here, although I know in these fast times some readers may find it somewhat old  (231 years to be exact).  It was written by a  watch-maker, inventor, playwright, musician, politician, publisher, spy, arms-dealer, and notorious activist of the American and French Revolutions:

They tell me that if in my writing I will mention neither the government, nor public worship, nor politics, nor morals, nor people in office, nor influential corporations, nor the Opera, nor the other theatres, nor anybody that belongs to anything, I may print everything freely, subject to the approval of two or three censors.

Figaro satirizes. And then goes on to say:

Foolish things in print are important only where their circulation is interfered with; without the freedom to criticize, no praise is flattering, and none but little men are afraid of little writings.

So beautiful and so up to date, every bit of it. A few bureaucrats in this country should read this, and realize that already 231 years ago their same little game was well known to the people. And that some day, in China too, the attitude of silencing, detaining, firewalling and suppressing the freedom of speech will be remembered as one of the “4 Shames” of the past.

Mind you, I know that quoting a comic writer, even if he is a classic of Literature and Revolution, is not exactly a solid scientific argument. But who speaks of science here? This is all about common sense, about opening your eyes and seeing what is obvious, and about concepts so simple that a child can understand. If I am not allowed to criticize you, all of my praise will be empty of value.

And this leads us to speak of the latest little wave of protest in the China blogs. Like it happens every now and then, all the main blogs are (rightly) complaining against the new Net Nanny ’09 campaign. The adult babysitting agency CIIIRC has published a list of websites who have been caught posting “vulgar” pictures of beautiful ladies. And warned them to “seriously clean up their unhealthy content”.

I don’t think there can be a better example of a petty departure getting large circulation thanks to the censors. And if I know my fellow men, Chinese or Western alike, I am ready to bet that the offending sites have noticed a dramatic increase in traffic today since the publication of that list, and that blogs like Danwei have done a great service to the community by putting all the links together on one single page for us to check. Bravo!

Note: Translation of “Marriage of Figaro” by Edward J. Lowell in the book “The Eve of the Revolution”. Some slight modifications from my part.

Chаrter 08 and political change in China

Thursday, December 25th, 2008

Barely two weeks after the publication of the Chrter 08, it has already become old news, lost in the indifference of Western media (with notable exceptions), and erased in China by the cold intervention of the censors. I want to examine here the importance of this document and give some more thought to it and its possible impact.

There is one line in Chrter 08 which concentrates in my understanding the essence of the document:

“Human Rights are not bestowed by a State. Every person is born with inherent rights to Dignity and Freedom. The government exists for the protection of the Human Rights of its citizens.”

This principle, inspired in the long tradition of the Enlightment and the famous 18th century Declarations, is at the heart of the matter. Should these rights apply to China, or are they just an interference of foreign ideas in Chinese affairs? This mostly unspoken debate that rages today in China is putting in doubt the universality of Human Rights, and questioning it in view of the singularities of the Chinese culture.

Of course, this line of argument does not resist the minimum intellectual scrutiny, but it’s marketable to avid patriots. One doesn’t need to put many brain cells in contact to see that the entire ideology of Maoism -or today’s wild capitalism for that matter- are also based on foreign ideas. And that great Ideas, like print and paper, cure to cancer or Human Rights, belong to Humanity.

One of the most influential political thinkers of the Enlightment, who inspired the precursors of this Charter, wrote 3 centuries ago:

“I am a man before being French. For I am necessarily a man, but French only by accident.”

This Charter is up to now the boldest effort in mainland China to speak out for the Universality of Human Rights. Its influence, directly or indirectly, will no doubt be decisive at the time when these questions will have to be seriously debated by the Chinese government. Whether this happens in turbulent 2009 or many years later, China will be in debt with those 303 brave men who dared to stand up for their ideas.

Reflections on the Chrter 08

Before I write these reflections, I want to state my respect for all the authors and supporters of the Charter in China. My points below are not rejecting their fundamental principles, and they should be understood as constructive critic.

1. The fact of publishing the Charter and obtaining a few thousand signatures in the Mainland is in itself the most important action for Human Rights ever done in China, and it represents a qualitative leap from previous actions which were: 1- Purely reactive, 2- Mostly isolated, 3- Strongly supported by Western actors. This is a serious challenge to the Chinese government, and a very dangerous one for the signers, as it is well known how China reacts to coordinated efforts of this kind.

2. One important difference from past actions is the positive nature of the movement. The Charter is not merely a reaction or complaint; it is a statement that stands in its own right. Note, however, one important difference between the line quoted above and those in the classic American and French Declarations: this one is formulated in the negative, “Human Rights are not bestowed by a State”. There is still an important element of reaction which will have consequences on the future of the Charter.

3. A document of this kind should try to seek the maximum consensus in mainland China. This is, in my understanding, the main weakness of the Chrter 08. Going into particular details, such as proposing federalism for Taiwan, or putting in question sacred figures like Deng Xiaoping (by mentioning Tiananmen*) is not working to achieve maximum consensus. Neither is aggressively criticizing Mao’s legacy while failing to recognize the important successes of the present regime. These points can be easily utilized by detractors to turn public opinion against the Charter.

4. Most importantly, from a theoretical point of view, figures like Mao or KMT should have no place in a Charter that wants to unite the Chinese. The recent History of China is an amazing tale of cruel failures and unequaled successes. Events that need to be openly discussed at some point, certainly, and compensation given to the victims. But direct accusations are altogether at a different level and unworthy of sharing the same document with the generous ideals stated in the Charter. These things do not only weaken the Chrter 08 from a practical point of view, but also reduce its soundness as a Universal Statement.

Will Chrter 08 fly into 09

I have written it before in this blog, and I am convinced of this: China has an intelligent government. For each propaganda muncher crying traitor at Liu Xiaobo, there is one thoughtful official that reads the Charter and understands the challenges that his country is facing. The government of China is as skillful to control internal issues as it is unable to control the external image of the country, and it has done an impressive job this time at downplaying and silencing the Charter. The lesson of 1989 is well learnt.

The sad consequence of this is that today the vast majority of the Chinese population has no idea of the existence of the Chrter 08. And I am not only speaking of the masses of peasants. A quick survey among my personal Shanghai friends, all of them with university education and speakers of at least one foreign language, gave discouraging results: Not a single one of them had even heard the term “lingbaxianzhang” (Chrter 08) one week after its publication.

It is unlikely that this Charter -or any other Charter for that matter- will in itself spark political change. Its direct impact is limited, and it has probably already run all it had to run. It is not Charters, but Leaders that start revolutions. And when they do, they look back to the works of the intellectuals to give a meaning to their actions. Inevitably, the time will come for political change in China, and Chrter 08 can be the precursor and the basis for future debate.

However, for these changes to happen peacefully they should first reach the largest possible consensus, not only among the intellectuals, but among the people of China. This includes millions of honest middle aged Chinese who still regard Mao as a respectable leader, and who understand that it is him and his followers, with all their faults, that led China from misery and humiliation to the present prosperity.

These people are not criminals or radicals, nor did they consciously cause any suffering to others during Mao’s terrible years. They are simple, honest Chinese who lived the time they had to live working quietly for their country. Brainwashed or not, these are today the good people of China. And when the intellectuals draft and sign a charter they should always bear in mind that it is for them that they are fighting.

History shows that there are two ways to change the system in China: the violent revolution way (Mao) and the peaceful consensus way (Deng). I believe that this second way is the one that most Chinese desire for their country, and China has proven in the past that it is capable of taking it successfully.

However, to move the massive inertia of the CPC requires some level of distress, like the one existing prior to 1978. Whether the impact of the crisis in 2009 will be enough to lead to this situation and whether the leaders in China will be willing or brave enough to push the changes, remains to be seen. But 2009 might very well bring the first real opportunity in many years, and this well timed Chrter 08 might still have its word to say in the coming months.

Conclusion and note to censors

I am living in China, where I have always been treated with patience and generosity by the Chinese people. For this I have learnt to love and admire this country. I know my obligations as a guest, and with my work, my life and my writing I try my best to return all that China has given to me.

Therefore, I state here my respect to Chinese of all ideologies. Dear censor, I would much appreciate it if you can continue to afford me the privilege of living in your country, not only physically, but also through my little voice on the internet. Please, do not block my blog.

Finally, my best wishes to Liu Xiaobo and his family in these difficult moments. Lu Xiaobo is the main drafter of the Chrter 08 and at this moment he is still detained by the police. He should be released immediately.

I want to show him all my support here, and give my tiny contribution by spreading his work below.

Happy Christmas.


The Principles

These are the noble principles that 303 brave men published in China in 2008:

Freedom. Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.

Human rights. Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.

Equality. The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every person—regardless of social station, occupation, sex, economic condition, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or political belief—are the same as those of any other. Principles of equality before the law and equality of social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.

Republicanism. Republicanism, which holds that power should be balanced among different branches of government and competing interests should be served, resembles the traditional Chinese political ideal of “fairness in all under heaven.” It allows different interest groups and social assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures and beliefs, to exercise democratic self-government and to deliberate in order to reach peaceful resolution of public questions on a basis of equal access to government and free and fair competition.

Democracy. The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government. Democracy has these characteristics: (1) Political power begins with the people and the legitimacy of a regime derives from the people. (2) Political power is exercised through choices that the people make. (3) The holders of major official posts in government at all levels are determined through periodic competitive elections. (4) While honoring the will of the majority, the fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of minorities are protected. In short, democracy is a modern means for achieving government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Constitutional rule. Constitutional rule is rule through a legal system and legal regulations to implement principles that are spelled out in a constitution. It means protecting the freedom and the rights of citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power, and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.

*For the mention of Tiananmen incidents and discussion on discrepancies in the Charter, see my previous post here.

Exchange Rates and multilateralism

Friday, December 12th, 2008

This week David Dollar has a very informative post: On exchange rates, think multilaterally. It is an analysis of the RMB exchange rates and their change over time. Using one of those useful trade-weighted indexes that the World Bank likes so much, David goes over the history of RMB exchange rates from the 90s to now, drawing conclusions on the policies of the Chinese government and their consequences at each stage.

After some retrospective paragraphs that I absolutely recommend to read to anyone who wants to understand past Chinese currency policy, he goes on to speak of the future:

There is a lot of potential for misunderstanding in this area. China feels that it has had a rapid effective appreciation and now wants to see what the real effects are before going further.The U.S. is probably looking at a substantial devaluation of the dollar against other major currencies, as the immediate financial crisis wanes and the U.S. needs to rein in its consumption and save more. If that happens, it is not in China’s interest to follow the dollar down. It will take good coordination between China and the U.S. to resolve their large imbalances in a smooth manner.

And I have the same objection that I always make to the World Bank Chinese publications: they stick to strictly economic terms, and avoid Chinese politics as much as possible. OK, I can understand being part of the WB he is not as free as this anonymous blog,  and he prefers to not stick his nose into sensitive matters. The trouble is, looking at the economy without the politics around it leaves you completely blind to see the immediate future.

I am not even close to having the experience of David Dollar or the number crunching capabilities of the World Bank, but I have eyes to see that something very big is missing in his picture. Multilateralism? Misunderstanding? Before any misunderstanding can actually happen, there has to be a will to understand. And this is far from sure at this point.

I just copy here part of the comment I wrote on his blog to show what I mean:

Still, as you imply yourself in the post, economists are always better at explaining things in retrospect. I am not sure at all that Chinese authorities will do the right thing in 2009.


We need to keep in mind that Chinese politics always give priority to internal issues over external image or foreign affairs in general. Examples of this abound in recent times, such as their attitude towards protesters during the Olympics, or their cancellation of latest EU Summit because of DL, etc.


If it comes to a point where unemployment gets even slightly out of control I have no doubt that Beijing will do what it takes to avoid internal problems. Including playing with the RMB, engaging in trade wars, and all the while siding with the “people” against the “Western menace”.


We should keep an eye on Unemployment and Currency.