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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.

Back to the HSK (2)

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

e59bbee78987_1 I am back to Shanghai with some interesting anecdotes and some mildly funny pictures of Japan. Unfortunately, I will not be able to post any of that,  because this week I am busy with work trips in China, and especially because this is the HSK week. It is just as well, I guess, after all this is not Japanyouren, and there are funnier travel bloggers out there if you are looking for a laugh.

Before I disappear for a week into my studying den, let me explain you again this business of the HSK. It is short for 汉语水平考试,or Chinese Level Exam, and it is the official standard to measure your level of mandarin, accepted by all universities in the mainland. It is also a very crazy exam, designed to squeeze out of the examinee’s brains as much linguistic information as possible in 3 hours, and then put it down in measurable statistical terms.

As it happens, the HSK is an exam that does not mainly measure your level of Chinese. It measures your determination, endurance and sangfroid, and your faith in a better life after the bell. The good side of it, apart from hardening your soul, is that it gives you a good taste of the ultracompetitive Chinese education system and their university entrance exam. It is even reminiscent of the 科举考试, the old imperial examination to select the bureaucracy, which famously caused some of the candidates to lose their wits and become heavenly kings. For a foreigner who is serious (deranged) enough to try to understand China, this experience is essential.

But back to the facts: This Saturday 17th is the HSK advanced, and I am going to fight for a level 9, out of 11 possible levels. I need to get this degree desperately, for the sole honourable objective of beating my own record. This is the Olympic spirit.

IMG_2248 My practice essays with thoughts on the Four Books

Here are some details of the exam: the reading section contains text with a total of over 4,000+ characters, the equivalent of some 10 pages in a standard format novel, and on that text you have to answer 15 questions (not choose a,b,c,d, but actually answer with a sentence). There is a total of… 15 minutes for this part. I tested with a native Chinese friend and that is the time she took just to read the text at normal speed.

The essay writing is another scary part, because you get so used to typing with the computer that when it comes to handwriting characters you don’t even know where to start. At least here you do get 30 minutes for an essay of 400-600 characters, so you actually have the time to read what you are writing, and to consider if you really want to express your own point of view in an exam which contains exercises like:

The concept of scientific development leads our people towards a more ——- society”  ( a-harmonious, b-harmonic, c-harmonium d-hormonal)

This example is not exactly literal, I am quoting from memory. The point is the HSK has a strong Beijing flavour, and some of the phrases are taken directly from CPC handbooks and the helmsmen’s theories. In a way, it feels like the Four Books of the imperial examinations all over again: the Thought of Mao Zedong, the Theory of the 3 Represents, the Concept of Scientific Development… As the old saying goes: All things they’ve changed, and nothing has changed.

Motherland, I love You!

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

xin_412100601194387584036I was pleasantly surprised when I booked my last minute flight to Japan, I got a very reasonable price for the 1st October National Day. When I went to Pudong airport I understood why: the streets were empty in Shanghai, nobody flew at that time because they were all at home with the eyes glued to the TV set, watching as thousands of men and women, looking silly in their flowery dresses, marched on Beijing’s Chang An Avenue.

I had the chance to watch the parade for 30 minutes as I waited to board my plane. I have to say it was beautiful. Sure enough there were  cringeworthy moments, like when the TV showed the communist model peasants, workers and miners, shining like Mario Bros in 256 colours. But of course, a good deal of hypocrisy is always mandatory in these State events, in China and elsewhere. And regarding the execution, I have watched quite a few of the famous mass events in Pyongyang, and I am pretty sure North Koreans are white with envy watching this one, if their state channel even cared to broadcast it.

All this display of patriotism reminded me of the conversation I had last week with little Yi. It was after we watched an advert on TV, the one where the little girl stands on Tiananmen Square squeaking in that ghastly toddler tone: “妈妈我爱你!” (mum, I love you), and a similar girl says the same in Tibetan in front of the Potala temple of  Lhasa. The screen then goes white, and a message comes up: “祖国我爱你”.  Motherland, I love you. I don’t remember which was the company announced, but the advert has been showing continuously for months, and it was the eleventh time I watched it.

I had a delicate stomach that day, and pushed to the limits of resistance, I couldnt help bringing up the subject:

“This is ridiculous,” I said bluntly, “you can’t love a country like you love your mother!”

“Of course you can,” said little Yi, “you don’t understand the feelings of the Chinese!”

“Yeah, right.”

Babbling toddlers and feelings of the people. That was about as much as I could take before lunch. I regretted I’d spoken at all.

“Our country is like a mother for all the Chinese, ” she continued, “that is what they mean.”

“Yeah, OK, except that it is NOT the same. A mother gives you life, she will always love you and no matter what happens, no matter what mistakes you do or how stupid you behave, she will be there for you. A country, if you fail to comply, will just abandon you or even put you to death ”

“Well, it is a different kind of mother. If you fail, the punishment is terrible. If you work hard and succeed, the prize is much greater. It is a mighty mother with higher stakes, what is wrong with that?’

“Nothing wrong, just that that is not Love”

“It is,” she insisted. “Or don’t Christians teach love of God, and isn’t He much more terrible, that if you fail to behave even your life is not enough, and you get an eternity of pain?”

“I…,”

I shut up. She had some point there. I don’t particularly believe in the Christian god, and besides, 2000 years ago they invented a mother Mary precisely to deal with the rough edges of the Old Testament. But it is true that, in religion and in politics, many people in the West feel that same kind of loving feelings as the Chinese. So this was not really a discussion about China, but a more general one on patriotism.

My problem is that I do not accept the word love to refer to a country. For one reason, because I understand love as a feeling that can only happen between persons, perhaps sometimes with animals, but not with things. And definitely not with abstract and easy manipulable concepts like “nation”. But granted, this is merely a problem of language, and I don’t have the authority to prescribe how the word “love” should be used, even less how “爱” is employed in Chinese. Still, there is a more compelling argument against love for the motherland:  I think it is not in the best interest of the “loving” party.

Let’s look at the facts. Human society has to be organized some way, and the power needs to be held by someone. In the past it was the tribe, the emperor or the feudal lord. Now it is the nation-state, nothing particularly wrong with that.  All forms of organization require the respect and participation of the citizens to work, and it is in the interest of everyone to treat them accordingly, once their legitimacy has been established. Therefore, I understand it is important to respect and work for the improvement of one’s country, and I try to do it, just like I do for my company or for my university. But love them like a mother?

It might be that I am speaking from a very European perspective-though by no means mainstream even there. Perhaps I am failing to take into account the particular circumstances of countries like China. Europeans used to be the haughtiest and most virulent motherland lovers, until their excessive feelings brought about ruin and destruction. Patriotism in China never caused any catastrophe of even comparable magnitude, and instead worked well to save the people from foreign-imposed sufferings. So the feelings of many Chinese are understandable, if not necessarily beneficial today.

And still, the key question we have to ask ourselves is: are these feelings in the interest of the citizen, and in the interest of mankind as a whole? Can the World really be in peace if the relation between citizens and their countries is one of blind love, like child to mother? When there is a conflict of interests, is the loving child not forced to fight for his beloved to the last consequences? Since conflicts of interests and greedy rulers are facts of life that will not disappear, is not the love doctrine in contradiction with the ideal of World Peace that most of us profess?

I would like to hear opinions about this. Of course, I understand that for many sentimental people the feeling of love for their country is very much alive, and there is little to explain since it is just a feeling . But Chinese tend to be very rational and in control of their feelings, and when they choose to love it is rarely out of blind passion, but rather because they consider it a good option.  I suspect their patriotism is in most cases the result of a prisoner’s dilemma: if other countries act patriotic, the only rational attitude is to do the same.

But I wonder if people are actually following this logic (ultimately a defensive attitude) or are really so in love with their country and their flag that they don’t even think much about it. And if you do think about it, do you actually believe that a peaceful World is possible in the long term?

Perhaps I think too much sometimes. Perhaps the fact that I am writing from Nagasaki, where I have just seen one of the most chilling exhibitions of human-caused horrors, might have some impact on my thoughts today. And still, I stand by all I write here.

What are your views?

(PS. On the same subject, also see this post just published on Chinageeks)

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.

Grievances

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.

The University of Love

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

HuaShiDa

This is the imposing main entrance of my favourite university campus in Shanghai: HuaShiDa.  I like this entrance because it is very green and very complete, and it has everything from a roundabout sign to a saluting giant Mao, to a construction crane in the background. But what I like most is the inscription:

SEEK TRUTH, FOSTER ORIGINALITY, LIVE UP TO THE NAME OF TEACHER Click to continue »

Chinese Gods

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

I was a bit reluctant to read “Chinese Gods”.  I never had much of a taste for the mystical, and the rows of whiskered statues staring in the temples fail to arouse in me more than a cautious curiosity. But when I received the latest publications of Blacksmith, the promise of a book that “makes sense” of China’s religions caught my eye, and I thought perhaps this was my chance to jump into it and cover a gap in my education.

You might be familiar by now with Blacksmith books of Hong Kong -  the same Blacksmith that did the Asian edition of Apologies and other gems like King Hui and Business Republic. I am, and I have come to expect good surprises from them;  many things can be said of their books, but surely not “hackneyed” or “banal”. Pete Spurrier, the man behind the company, is not afraid to go with first-time authors, and he seems to have a knack to find intriguing writers with original points of view. Jonathan Chamberlain is perhaps his best find.

Indeed, in terms of surprises, this book delivers from the preface.  First, you discover it was actually written and self-published by Chamberlain 30 years ago, inspired by a series of painted glass figures he collected from local markets. It goes on to describe an unusual interview in Bangkok with British mystical writer John Blofeld, a reference in Asian religions, who agreed to give the book a prologue in articulo mortis. And then suddenly, before you realize it, you are swimming in the thick soup of China’s beliefs, following the author in his daring quest to make sense of  all the Gods. Click to continue »

Han Han and the post-80s

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

From http://msn.ent.ynet.com/

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 »

China Underground: the Review

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

china-undergroundI first read about  “China Underground” last Friday, during my daily browse of the China blogs. I had never heard the name of Zachary Mexico before, but the review on  China Beat made me feel curious, so after work I stopped by the Garden bookshop and got my copy. Only 24 hours later I had been to a speech by the author, queued at the Shanghai literary festival to get his autograph, and finished reading his complete works. I guess this qualifies me as his fastest fan.

Over the weekend I spoke with a few friends about the book and I could  feel some resistance. Some China hands clearly disapproved of the cover’s pop approach to a grave subject like the Middle Kingdom - a friend of mine from New York even warned me against what looked like “an East Village poser”.  All this probably explains why the few  who had actually read the book were so excited about it:  they weren’t expecting it to be readable in the first place.

Not having any kind of prejudice against pop illustrated covers, I found the price tag fair and the promise of a fresh perspective on China exciting enough to give it a try.  Here’s the results. Click to continue »

Crisis: Those that see the glass half full

Monday, March 9th, 2009

Xinhua has come up with the most brilliant in-depth analysis of the economic crisis that we’ve read to date.

BEIJING, March 8 (Xinhua) — China’s relatively fast economic growth has caught the eye of the world at a time when most of the countries are experiencing the full wrath of a raging economic slowdown.

As some Western media questions why China works, the world’s economic experts and scholars are also wondering the same thing: What tools China has to keep its economy resilient and why it is well-positioned to weather the financial crisis?

The answer lies in the nation’s unique growth mode featuring a “scientific outlook on development.”

Economists and bloggers of doom, read and learn.  For the sceptics, this editorial is based on the work of recognized specialists, such as:

  • “Analysts”
  • The vice president of Stellenbosch University
  • The Colombian ambassador to China
  • “The international community”
  • Velia Hernandez, professor from the A.N. University of Mexico

And many other “economic experts and scholars”.

Finally,  science at the service of the community.  And the question is, what do I do now with my two months worth of canned tuna?

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

cp7zmp6g

Today I am starting my review section with one of the books on Chinese economy that has impressed me most in the last year, “Capitalism with Chinese characteristics”, by MIT professor Huang Yasheng. It is a book that clearly stands out from the recent China books, and it might be destined to become one of the big references in the field.

There is no shortage of good China books in the last years. Many are written from a business perspective, by people with first hand experience who will tell you exactly how things are done here. Others look at the available economic data and build interesting theories to explain them. Few go deeper than this, to look into the heart of the matter: the politics behind the Chinese economy.

The problem is:  it is so difficult to obtain reliable information on Chinese policy that most efforts in this field turn into circular arguments over the same limited data. Professor Huang breaks the circle by going back to the sources and questioning directly all the mainstream assumptions, leaving many of them upside down. The situation in China requires this approach, as he says in the preface:

In studies of American economy, scholars may debate about the effects of, say, “Reagan tax cuts”. In studies of the Chinese economy, the more relevant question would be, “Did the government cut taxes in the first place?

By going back to the archives of what, in his own words is “some of the world’s most medieval record keeping”, Huang Yasheng is able to come up with a whole new picture of Chinese economic policy in the last three decades. This book is the result of painstaking archival research into rarely examined files, such as a “22 volumes compilation of internal bank documents” or the archives of the Ministry of Agriculture.

A qualitative leap from the classic tea leave reading, and one that deserves some careful consideration, even if the conclusions drawn will not be to the taste of every reader. Click to continue »

Chаrter 08: Why it should be called Wang

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

When I started my article about the Chrter 08 last month I couldn’t help wondering if it was well worth the effort. Most of the English speaking blogs and media had been very quiet about this issue, and in China nobody seemed to know anything about it.  Two weeks after the Charter’s publication, I thought perhaps that was all we were going to hear of it.

I am pleased to see after all that the Chrter 08, in spite of the weaknesses I noted, is indeed slowly “flying into 2009″. From the English language blogs, it has since got more attention, with featured posts by Xujun Eberlein, Peking Duck, FM, and now also ESWN. Most importantly, in the Chinese speaking circles it is slowly gaining momentum, as is proven by the fact that the government is getting nervous and has closed down the whole site bullog.

ESWN and the CSM have written about this rather optimistically in my opinion. CSM quotes :

Zhang says more than 300,000 websites now link to the charter, and it’s being discussed on blogs, QQ groups, and other chat rooms. “It’s impossible to block information in society now,” he says.

I am afraid this statement has yet to be proved. Like ESWN’s Roland Soong notes, this number 300,000 is taken from the number of Google.com results. It is a relatively large number and it indicates that the subject has become popular in the Chinese internet forums.  But little more than that. Of these results, only 1/3 come from mainland China, and 100,000 is attained easily by many of the hot topics coming up regularly on Chinese BBS (see ChinaSMACK).

The fact is that Chrter 08 is still an unknown movement in mainland China. Out of 5 local friends I asked, all with university degrees and fluent English, even today only one of them had heard the term (but knew no details). As for the majority of Chinese who live out of the cities and don’t use the internet, there is no way they can have heard about it. I don’t know who is the “peasant” that CSM mentions as a signer, but until I get  some tangible evidence otherwise, I maintain that China doesn’t know about the Charter.

This is a very important point because, of the difficult path that Chrter 08 will need to run to achieve its goals, the first unavoidable condition is to become known to the public by beating the censors at their own game. As I said in my previous posts, the government has done an impressive job of silencing Chrter 08, but it is a sign of hope to see it little by little creeping back into the mainstream.

As I see it, the 3 phases and 3 main difficulties that the Charter will have to face to grow into a real mass movement are, in this order:

1-To be Known vs.  internet censorship and lack of freedom of speech

2-To be Trusted vs. weaknesses that make it easy to manipulate against

3-To be Loved vs.   lack of a spark, a leader, a name: the material of which Change is made

.

Charter Step 1 and the Internet Underworld

We will leave point 3 for a post in the future, supposing we ever get there. For the moment we are still stuck in phase 1, and it is far from clear that the Charter will make it past this point. We know  that the Chinese government  has developed a very sophisticated system to control information on the internet. But how does it work? What are its strengths and weaknesses to oppose the Charter? Following ESWN, I have conducted some research on Google and found the curious results below.

First, as Roland points out, if you search for Chrter 08 in Chinese, Google.cn is sending back this message:

“Some results are not displayed according to local laws, regulations and policies.”

This has made me think that indeed, when it comes to fighting censorship, the Charter has an insurmountable flaw: it is a document. Therefore, its title and content are fixed and it is extremely easy to locate by a bot. Worse even, in this era of internet search engines, nobody has still given the  Charter a better nickname than that easily searchable title 08宪章. Any internet conversation where the Charter comes up, even if the contents are not copied, is sure to attract the Censor’s eye.

It might sound ridiculous at this point, but I’m serious: The Chrter 08 should be named Wang.  Or Zhang or Liu, any other term that is not exclusively related to it and therefore cannot be banned. Two centuries ago, the first Spanish constitution of 1812 was nicknamed by the people “La Pepa”, a popular name for a girl that many intellectuals scorned at the time. Two years later, during the reign of autocrat Fernando VII, this name became extremely useful to dissidents to acclaim the Constitution without risk to their lifes, with the famous slogan “Viva la Pepa!!”

Do you still think this is not relevant? Well, follow me with the next google experiment. If you are in China, try to search Google.cn for sensitive political terms like: Falungong, Tiananmen 89 massacre, Liu Xiaobo, you name it. You might be surprised to find not the message above, but rather a reset connection, which only affects viewers from mainland China and which is easily bypassable with a proxy or VPN.  It looks like this:

So what is that first message that Roland Soong and myself have been obtaining? It is not the political censorship message, but another one with which many Chinese men are acquainted. It is the notice you get when you look for some well defined  terms, like those found in pornography. As an example, I suggest you try a search for the word  “口交”. I will not translate it directly here, but let’s just say it is not a blog job. Run the search, surprised? Try any other “vulgar” word and you will end up with Google’s  Chrter 08 message. This is the first and most basic level of defense in the Great Wall, the porn block !

Pretty annoying for the drafters, I guess. But above all, it is very negative for the transmission of Chrter 08, because by calling it this name, the supporters are giving themselves away directly to the  Censors. And this is before phase  2- direct manipulation- has even kicked in.

So we are back to the basics. Like I already said, this Charter is lacking the popular element, the leadership that succesful movements have had in the past, the brand and name and life that would make a whole people roar “Viva la Pepa!”, or the one that years ago inspired a man to dance with the tanks on Changan Avenue. As it stands, it is the cold work of the intellectuals, and nobody has felt the urge to call it Wang.

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Note on Censorship

Finally, one more thing I cannot leave unmentioned. It is not news for anyone that Google have a deal with the Chinese government to collaborate in the repression of the internet. What is news to me is that Google is so openly censoring the principles by which all decent democratic countries abide, including the most basic of Human Rights. Google should be careful, they are entering a dangerous area, one which can backfire in a not very far future.

One more final test for the shame of the censors: when you run the Charter o8 search on Google.cn and you get the message screen, go to the number 4 item on the list of results. I just did that tonight and I believe I found out the essence of Google’s repression algorithm: “Ban all except the People’s Daily”. Indeed, this is the only way I can imagine that a People’s Daily article comes up as the single result for the search 零八宪章. It is a random PD article that coincidentially contains separate instances of 宪章 and 零八.

What a shame, Google, what a shame. Watch your steps today, lest you might find tomorrow that the people does not forget.

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UPDATE: The results on Google change with time, and this last People’s daily result is not on page 4 anymore. In any case, the search for 零八宪章 on Google.cn gives results that have always one thing in common: they are all from websites controlled by the government, like china.com, cctv, etc.  No results from the thousands of forums and blogs that discussed the issue.

UPDATE2: See this post for a more clear explanation of how the internet censorship works in China and this one for the ways in which Google -and many other search engines- collaborate with the Chinese government. I have learned a lot in the year since I wrote this article, and I know now some of the info contained is not technically correct. I am not updating the text above anymore, so if you are interested in the technical part you should absolutely visit these two posts.

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.

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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.