Archive for the ‘China’ Category

The “Real” Tibet

February 15, 2010

It’s fair to say that the goal of articles in Foreign Policy magazine is to clarify, to elucidate, to let the light of rationality shine upon some murky issue in the field of foreign policy. This being the case, I was intrigued by the recent article “Tibet is no Shangri-La,” which has no penetrating vision or fresh policy prescription; instead, it simply asks us to think about Tibet as if it were a real place.

The essay opens by taking Westerners to task for creating hopelessly nostalgic “new Orientalist” representations of Tibet and glorifying the famous Dali Lama. It then points out not only that Tibetans aren’t all orange clad Buddhist monks, but also that some Tibetans seek to profit from the Western image of “Tibetan-ness” by creating old-timey Tibet theme tourist traps. The essay also notes that folks who consider themselves ethnic Tibetans in fact hail from various locales in the vast expanse of western China, and that, while they tend to be practicing Buddhists, they’re not necessarily pulsating with noble religious fervor 24-7. (Nor are they, as the Chinese media would have you believe, separatist terror mongers.) Instead, they have fairly reasonable grievances against the Han settlers and the Chinese government, which quite clearly discriminates against them. To the degree that there’s a point, it is that Tibetans inhabit reality, not some colorful metaphysical realm.

I would like to take add a couple points about how we formed this image of Tibet in the first place: when the Dalai Lama and his followers escaped Tibet in 1959, they got a few inches of print in Western newspapers — but that was it. The US was ambivalent; the CIA secretly provided weapons and funding to Tibetan guerrillas during the 50s and 60s, but the Dalai Lama was consistently refused a US visa and occupied essentially zero space in the American “popular imagination,” if you’ll allow the term. After Chinese rapprochement in ’72, the US was happy with this obscurity. After decades of activism, along with media coverage of demonstrations in Lhasa in 1987 and 89, Tibet still wasn’t the cause celebre that we know today. It was only in the early 90s, when Richard Gere and others (most notably Steven Segal) became interested in Tibetan Buddhism, that Joe Sixpack saw these sad images of Himalayan tranquility. What I mean to say is this: it wasn’t just traditional “Orientalism” that made us suddenly feel sentimental about Tibet — it was a sustained and expensive PR campaign orchestrated by Hollywood insiders who happened to be enthusiastic about Buddhism. In this way, the DL was annointed as as a public figure (in the West) and began to receive his controversial White House invites.

On a related note, I once read a pretty neat article about how Tibet activists try to constantly manage and negotiate the image of the Dalai Lama. In particular, some of them are angry that “culture” and Buddhism are the main elements of Tibet discourse in the West, and hope instead to re-brand the DL as a political leader — which, from their perspective, he obviously is.

In sum, I enjoyed this FP essay, but I think it should have talked about how the prevalent image of Tibet is actually a commodity. The article seeks to challenge false images of Tibet, but it doesn’t talk about how those images were amplified and perpetuated by a massive PR campaign. (Meanwhile the Chinese are waging an equal and opposite PR campaign, but that’s another story.)

China’s future history not actually set in stone

January 27, 2010

A photograph taken by Chinese media outlet China Daily at the recent Copenhagen summit:

Apparently they picked this pic because it kinda looks like Obama is bowing to Wen Jia Bao.

The author of a recent NYTimes article suggested that the global financial crisis has catapulted China into a new leadership role in the world economy — it has essentially “fast forwarded history.” What’s interesting here is the rhetoric; it’s presumed that China was always already going to continue its “peaceful rise” to super power-dom.

Maybe that was just an unfortunate turn of phrase, but I think it also reflects the dominant point of view these days. I don’t want to write an essay about it, I just want to inject a few notes of skepticism: asset bubble, civil unrest, falling value of the dollar, Xinjiang separatism, demographic crisis, energy security, Taiwan, environmental degradation, coming leadership shift, decaying Leninist political structure…

It is actually a good article, and it even quotes from one of my professors! But China is facing a lot of unknowns, any one of which could/should make the popular narrative on China’s future global dominance somewhat more problematic.

20 years since the death of Hu Yaobang

April 18, 2009

Wednesday marked the 20th anniversary of the death of former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang, the event which set off the protest movement leading up to the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4th, 1989.

The Chinese seem to have a tradition of expressing political will at the funerals of deposed leaders — like at Zhou Enlai’s funeral in 1976 — and that’s how Hu’s death manifested itself as a movement. Many years later the CCP was careful to suppress any subversive displays at the 2005 funeral of Hu’s successor Zhao Ziyang, the man who held the highest office in the land in 1989 and actually came out to express his sympathy with the protesters. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s not your fault — neither have a great many Chinese folks since he doesn’t get a mention in the textbooks these days…

Anyway, if you’re interested in China, or indeed if you are in China, I say you should try to think about the courage, optimism, and energy that those kids displayed as more and more of them gathered in the square (starting two days ago.) Remember that cab drivers, old ladies, regular folk who had worked for the state for their whole lives got caught up in the momentum and came out to support the students. Also take note of the media silence about this topic. Picture yourself as a patriotic youngster, camping out for days in the heat, waiting for an audience with the (presumably) benevolent neo-emperors, the stewards of the new socialist China, who, it was thought, would eventually come out of the old palace at Zhongnanhai and lend an ear to their humble subjects…

Here’s some fun facts about the bloodshed:
The CCP *knew* that international media was going to cover the events because Gorbachev was in town at the time (very significant since it was thought to mark the rapprochement of the two countries.) But party leaders were (and are) so paranoid about things getting out of hand that they ordered the strike anyway — knowing and not caring that the rest of the world was watching.

Deng had to call in the military from the countryside because of the very strong risk that local Beijing soldiers would refuse to fire upon their kin.

To this day nobody really knows how many people from all walks of life died in the streets.

Even 20 years after the fact, that’s some pretty tragic shit right there.

Troubling Heirarchy: (Rambling About) Sustainability, The Wire, and Chinese Politics

April 5, 2009

Sometimes when you spend a lot of time thinking about a set of topics they tend to bleed into each other in weird ways.

Julian Wong over at The Green Leap Forward has written a pretty good summary of eco-design principles. The gist is that we always need to use a holistic or systems thinking approach, taking the biosphere and the community into account — especially when designing stuff that will establish patterns of life and pathways for future design, e.g. infrastructure. This is not a new concept for environmentalists. But one of the reasons that Wong’s analysis is cool (and indeed his whole blog is excellent) is that he talks explicitly about the way institutions work to make eco-design next to impossible:

“If we think about the essential functions of a city, we would probably come up with a list including housing, food, clean water and air, electricity, mobility and access, education, jobs, recreation, and perhaps a few others. The problem is that these seemingly disparate functions are always designed, created and managed in silos. Occasionally, a master plan will envisage interactions between the various functions, but once such plan leaves the planner’s office and gets in the hands of the developers, operators and administrators, the sectoral boxes firmly take over. The result? A lot of waste, and policies and procedures working at cross-purposes with each other. A simple case in point is the food-water-energy trilemma–a lack of coordinated policies addressing these fundamental needs has led to narrow policies addressing each individually, but ignoring the resulting trade-offs.”

Thesis (that I won’t be able to prove): The kind of sectoral inefficiency that Wong is talking about is at the heart of any hierarchical structure. Special interests or individual actors will always seek to advance their own agendas from within, to move farther up the power ladder, and/or avoid descending a rung on said ladder. This makes community building difficult, stifles creativity, nixes any possibility of systemic change, and leads to unsustainable outcomes. Economic theory holds that people are rationally self-interested — I’m claiming that hierarchy exacerbates this, leading to undesirable outcomes.

Here’s a short video for color/flavor:

Evidence/Argument: Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Chinese government, an extremely rigid hierarchy. Each element within (be it ministry, interest group, individual, etc.) is paranoid, acting to secure their own position or advance it at all times. Local officials see themselves as being at the top of a little hierarchy and so they take advantage of their position via corruption, extortion, excessive taxation, and/or brutal suppression of those below them. Anyone who would oppose them will find their options very limited: usually they can only get their way by jumping to the next level of the bigger hierarchy i.e. using whatever means necessary to focus the central government’s attention on their issue. This is always a risky move.

(In Season 1 of The Wire, when MacNulty steps outside of the chain of command to pressure Major Rawls to initiate an investigation of the Barksdale drug outfit, he’s taking a similar risk.)

Now. The Wire is not only enthralling (on par in this respect with the good seasons of Gilmore Girls) but also unique: it is a frank presentation of hierarchy. The main locus of The Wire is institutional, rather than individual. Unlike most TV, the narrative doesn’t focus on the quandaries and triumphs of one or two protagonists. Sure, there are protagonists — but the story centers upon the way that folks negotiate the world, especially how they relate to the often hostile social institutions that pervade their lives. Characters who try to move outside of the hierarchy, who don’t take a realist approach to their work or who seek the moral high ground usually end up getting killed or marginalized (sent off to an undesirable post, for example.)

This doesn’t mean there’s no contention — otherwise why watch the show? Similarly, there has been a strong current of scholarship showing that the political environment in China is actually quite dynamic, rather than stolid. Social protests (and other extra-institutional actions) have increased across the countryside — and there’s also evidence that a lot of wrangling goes on *inside* China’s supposedly monolithic institutions of governance.

Brookings scholar Ken Lieberthal used a case study of energy bureaucracy to examine this type of infighting in China back in the 1980’s. In his recent book “China’s Water Warriors” Andrew C. Mertha builds on Lieberthal’s work to show that “policy activists” (elements strongly in favor of a particular policy or government action) continuously exert pressure on, and even within, the Party and government. Of course the system is weighted in favor of those “activists” who support the status quo, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a daily struggle going on or that the political winds might not shift.

In The Wire, each character must balance professional ethics with family obligations, ambition or career goals, and the desire to have an easy life. People are pulled in different directions in this way. For example, Lt. Daniels has to threaten his superiors with media exposure in order to get the Major Crimes unit running — a very risky move which is detrimental to his short term standing. (Ultimately, though, Daniels’ vigilante reputation becomes beneficial to his career when an activist Mayor comes to power circa season 4.)

My point about The Wire is that everyone on the show (even the dealers!) is well aware that the War on Drugs is horrible, wasteful, tragic, etc. — but each person keeps it going because they have to maintain their place in the system. Dreams of doing good or making substantial change are always compromised in the end. The quickest way to happiness in The Wire is to simply recede from the action and become a wise dimwit a la Shakespeare’s fools. (McNulty does go this route in Season 4 and much of Season 5, for example)

My point about Chinese politics is similar: it is a system that rewards conformity. This doesn’t mean that China, like the ailing city of Baltimore as portrayed on The Wire, doesn’t undergo political change — such a claim would be absurd given recent history. But it does mean that change is generally driven by whatever is perceived by folks on the top of the hierarchy as helping them climb even higher.

My point about sustainability, mostly stolen from Mr. Wong, is that calls for long term planning, community-based design and resource management, and conscientious group-oriented goal setting. None of these things happen very easily in hierarchical systems since one person/group’s priorities will always override those of the person/group below them — so short term benefit at the top of the ladder outweighs long term benefit at the bottom. This concept has been enmeshed in environmental thought for a long time because a core issue for us tree-huggers is that Nature is always at the bottom, and thus always getting thoroughly screwed by us.

Conclusion: If you were into po mo theory, you could argue that our preference for hierarchy stems from the prevalence of binary power relationships (gay/straight, black/white, humanity/nature, boy/girl, etc.) that reinforce themselves via our language and culture. Perhaps this is so. But I’m going to argue that the reason we find ourselves relying on hierarchy to organize so much of life is that it’s efficient, especially for top-down management on a large scale — the primary activity of powerful corporations and the state.

The problem with hierarchy is that it narrows each person’s field of interest, enhancing our (natural) selfishness while detracting from a) our view of larger social structures and their often deleterious effects and b) our concern for the long term effects of our actions.

So maybe we should empower organizations that don’t operate on such a large scale. This might engender community, moral action and awareness, as well as to make sustainability that much more feasible. Rambling finished!


February 18, 2009

So I couldn’t figure out why my enthusiasm for blogging had been on the wane — then I remembered one possible excuse, which is that I’ve been donating a good chunk of my time every week to being an intern at

The site is kind of a grassroots effort at showcasing under-reported humanitarian and environmental crises around the world, which unfortunately do not make the front page of the NYTimes, and making them more accessible to US readers. My work is basically to check a bunch of NGO sites and other alternative international news sources, choose some compelling tidbit, look for quotable background information and eye-popping pictures about it, and then write up a blurb. Then repeat. Most of the stuff I write ends up being ferociously edited, largely because I don’t have a lot of experience pretending to be a journalist. (Evidently journalism calls for a different tone from that of dense academic papers or pithy blog posts.)

But the work is kind of fun, it’s certainly very informative, and I encourage you to check out the site. It seems to satisfy whatever mysterious urge causes me to blog.

Of course if that were true I wouldn’t be blogging right now…

Actually my current excuse is I’m trying to avoid writing a short paper due tomorrow on “Civil Society in China”. This is a tricky topic since most activities that American political scientists would associate with “civil society” are expressly frowned upon by the CCP. Of course there are fascinating exceptions to this rule (environmental NGO’s, local chambers of commerce, homeowners associations, etc.) that I’ve been doing a lot of reading about. There’s a growing body of research on the subject since people are looking for indications that China might either collapse due to social unrest or spontaneously transform itself into a democracy. Either possibility would be of huge global importance and both are well nigh impossible to predict. “Civil society” on the ground is supposed to be a good indicator to watch since it might coalesce into an opposition political party — in which case, it’s presence would be very significant — or it could serve as a “pressure valve” to allow malcontents to blow off the accumulated steam of post-reform society — in which case it’s absence would be significant!

Generally folks have “read the literature” and so they have this in the back of their heads, they proceed to do a whole lot of really focused, locally oriented research, and then they try make an intriguing (tenure-achieving) argument about “civil society” in general. But I can’t buy into the allure of these arguments since the definition of “civil society” is fuzzy, the evidence surrounding it is usually based on idiosyncratic local variables, and hence the stuff may or may not be applicable. That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting, or that Joe Bloggs PhD doesn’t deserve tenure, it just makes it hard to write a coherent short paper about the topic.

The Boys in Green

October 24, 2008

So I’ve been furrowing my brow upon this Green revolution stuff, not only because of the strong capitalist bent to it and the glaring lack of political feasibility, but also because I hear about it so much — and as a rule, whenever something crosses that threshold of being in my face all the time, I start to find it annoying.

HOWEVER last night in class I saw a terrific presentation by the incomparable Scott Sklar of the Stella Group which executes renewable energy projects for industrial and commercial interests worldwide. This man gave me a much needed positive vibe about the notion that possibilities exist for our future.

Check it out: the military is always on the cutting edge of new technology, and they’re *great* at getting public funding in this country. So I thought what Mr. Sklar had to say about current military projects particular interesting — since they tend to end up in the public sphere and thus the market for consumer goods (like our fair internet).

Did you know that 80% of combat deaths in Iraq are due to soldiers traveling in convoys, hence making easy targets of themselves? And of course what are they carrying in the vast majority of these convoys? Fuel!

Did you know that the military has been one of the prime movers in the development of PV-nanotechnology that can be used in dyes? You will be able to generate energy for your house by painting it with this stuff — they’ve even been able to print it on paper to make little flexible polaroid-sized solar cells. Absolutely insane.

Did you know that they make portable solar powered water purification systems? (These will come in handy in the battlefield as well as in turmoil following natural disasters, the incidence of which we can expect to go up!)

Did you know that there are also a lot of folks within the DOD who are advocating for the strategic importance of “distributed energy” — finding ways to generate energy in a de-centralized, renewables based way?

There are the same people (though military man McCain is obviously not part of this group) who worry about nuclear power and our insanely inefficient power grid as national security risks! Our energy grid needs to be more flexible, like the cell phone network — which, by the way, depends on cell towers 20% of which operate off of solar energy!

Did you know that they already sell backpacks with little solar panels embedded in them, so you can charge your laptop while you walk around?

And finally: Did you know that the solar and wind industries are the third largest employers in Germany and Spain? You can’t keep military prowess and hence global hegemony while the economy suffers…so I think there’s a faction in the Pentagon pushing for this move towards renewables. And these people tend to have quite a bit of political clout. And hell, if there’s anything that People’s Liberation Army over in China likes to do, its try to get our technology…

Here I am a peacenick quasi-anarchist and its *the military* that get me excited about the move to green energy…absolutely insane!

The Coal Economy

September 19, 2008

I’m probably going to be reading and writing about China, the environment, and energy policy for what remains of the semester…so I thought I might use this forum to offer periodically some speculations on various related things.

So In his latest “We Can Solve It” email, The Man Himself Al Gore sums up current US energy policy with aplomb (a quality notoriously absent from his 2000 presidential bid.) He says: “We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the future of human civilization.” Word. But we don’t want oil stealing the limelight!

Of course US foreign policy has been driven by considerations of oil at least since World War I (before that it was cotton) but oil is not the source of most of the energy that you and I use. Coal is. Furthermore, the trade that we’ve built with China over the past few decades is also coal powered.

Now consider the fact that China now produces more greenhouse gases then any other country, having recently overtaken the US for that dubious distinction. While per-capita energy use in China is very low, this is because the majority of China’s outrageously large population are farmers who don’t use much energy. Most of the energy used in China comes from coal and goes towards the industrial sector. Coal has fueled Chinese development — it’s primarily used to power the extraction of steel and other minerals as well as the manufacture of consumer goods for US and European markets. These activities bring in enough revenue for the PRC to have billions laying around to lend the US. The other source of revenue is the 25% income tax on Foreign Direct Investment, mostly levied upon corporations who also want to produce things for export.

So when China lends us money, it’s because our consumption is the source of their revenue. They need us to stay afloat. American mass consumerism depends on electricity that is also primarily powered by coal. So, what we have is a vast system for extracting and burning coal — they extract it and burn it so as to make and sell stuff to us; we extract it and burn it so as to buy things from them. The very fact that I can type this post (on my Made-in-Taiwan laptop) and you can read it (presumably on yours) is predicated upon this relationship.

In light of this thought, check out this ad from “We Can Solve It”:

Like I said in my previous post, we’re all familiar with what happens when you elect representatives of the oil industry to high political office. It’s bad. So I’d be in favor of “breaking big oil’s lock on the government.” But if you agree with my above statement that the Chinese and US economy are linked inexorably through coal production and consumption, then in order to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere we would have to stop (and retool) the whole machine. We would have to stop the global economy and change out its rusty old engine.

Besides the fact that this would be catastrophic to our daily lives, both here and in China, it’s also completely impossible for governments to undergo such an action.

I’m currently interning at an outfit whose goal is to use the market and a growing network of business/civil society folk around the world to try to fix the problem not by lobbying government per se but by promoting investment in renewable energy, which is a very dynamic industry right now. It’s exciting stuff. But I don’t believe this tactic will be very effective, simply because it’s grounded in the very market ideology that created the problem.

Good luck shaming China, you guys…

July 21, 2008

Maybe I should stop reading the Op-Ed page…I don’t think it’s very good for the brain.

Case in point: Thomas L. Friedman wrote in a recent Op-Ed that, “there was something truly filthy about Russia’s and China’s vetoes of the American-led U.N. Security Council effort to impose targeted sanctions on Robert Mugabe’s ruling clique in Zimbabwe.”

OK so Robert Mugabe is a rich, power mad, murderous dictator whose insane policies have ruined many, many lives — it’s true. So why would Russia and China veto the UN Security Council measure to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe?  Is it because they’re *evil* countries?

Or could these countries have, oh I don’t know, some kind of financial interest in keeping Mugabe’s regime in power?

China, for one, is beoming more and more intertwined with Africa due primarily to China’s thirst for oil and valuble minerals.

As David Shinn and Joshua Eisenman have pointed out in a recent report surrounding US-China policy towards Africa,

“China’s reluctance to impose political conditions and its willingness to work with any African government have resulted in strong ties with Sudan and Zimbabwe, two countries considered pariahs in much of the west. China accepts African governments as they are and seems equally comfortable with an Islamist government in Sudan, a democracy in South Africa, and an autocracy in Equatorial Guinea. It also has a history of switching political loyalty with relative ease when there is regime change in an African country.”

Even better: In 1965, post-colonial civil war broke out in what was then the newly independent state of Rhodesia. After more than a decade of fighting, Mugabe became commander in chief of the rebel “Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army” (ZANLA) which received funding directly from Beijing!

Remember when the US installed General Pinochet in Chile in 1972 to prevent Allende from nationalizing key Chilean industries? And then, even after decades of Pinochet’s disastrous rule, the US refused to take any stance on the general’s genocidal policies? There was something “truly filthy” about that too, no?

Whenever the US reveals its imperial aspirations, the liberal NYTimes will fob it off on excesses perpetrated at the hands of Bush…or whoever the scapegoat of choice happens to be. But whenever China or Russia do so, it’s simply “shameful”

That is dumb.

Of course, I don’t want to go out of my way to excoriate Friedman, because he’s a smart guy. But this isn’t worthy of his intelligence.

fun facts

May 16, 2008

I have learned some wacky things lately. Check it out:

  • You eat more plants, you live longer. (for this and other food truths see Mark Bittman’s TED talk)
  • Jerry Springer used to be Mayor of Cincinatti (see this episode of This American Life)
  • According to NPR, all American plastics contain toxic chemicals that have been banned in Europe
  • The Uyghurs of Xinjiang, China enjoy a form of bagel known as girde nan, which is one of several types of nan, the bread eaten in Xinjiang. It is uncertain if the Uyghur version of the bagel was developed independently of Europe or was the actual origin of the bagels that appeared in Central Europe. (from Peter Hessler)
  • According to Islam, you have to wash yourself / your clothes if a dog touches you. And you’re not allowed to keep dogs indoors.
  • In China, however, there’s a widespread traditional belief that dogs are lucky. Dogs are able to see good fortune in your future, purportedly, so if a stray dog follows you home, it’s a happy omen! (these two are from my ESL group. I don’t know how we started talking about dogs…)
  • The U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s single biggest consumer of petroleum, using more of it every day than the entire nation of Sweden. See here

Crazy intercontinental Chinese doors

May 14, 2008

I’m not sure if other people find this interesting but…these doors are everywhere in Beijing:

They’re just normal doors. But the stainless steel makes them look exaggeratedly tough. And they usually feature elaborate patterns and rounded edges, with flowers engraved upon the stainless steel surface (as above). This combination of security overkill and design intricacy gives an almost Gothic impression– like a Dickensian door knocker.

Somehow the mix of rigid and flamboyant smacks of “the new China” to me…and yet they’re all over the place down here in Bay Ridge too!

The length of Eighth Avenue that stretches south from Sunset Park is known as Brooklyn’s Chinatown, home to a very large population of Chinese immigrants who hail mostly from Fujian province in south east China.

So I’m going to speculate here: Not only did the design for these doors make it from China as such, but it must have gone from northern China (Beijing) down to Fujian, or vice versa, before even crossing the Pacific. That’s kind of crazy in itself.

Let’s suppose that the doors are imported, or at least that the steel needed to put them together is imported. Raw materials are relatively cheap in China so it’s not an unreasonable assumption. There must be a *very* elaborate set of logistics in place to get these thousands of Chinese doors into Brooklyn. Think of the livelihoods that depend on this set of arrangements. Exceedingly complex human and technical relations come together *every day* just to maintain a simple, crucial equation: Metal and labor and ocean passage goes into ===> a silly looking door <=== and profit emerges out of it.

It’s nuts when you think about it…