Archive for the ‘Whose World Order?’ Category

A short post for Whose World Order, based on an interesting encounter I had the other day. More substantial things on China en route.

Shanghai View: the Soldier Sociologist

Date: 18th April 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaDivorceSociology

I met a soldier today from the northern Shandong province, who had quit his 13-year army career to go and become a sociologist looking at divorce. He told me it was because the work in the army was hard and he had found it boring and repetitive. When asked what he had done as a soldier, all he could muster was “exercises.” He hadn’t had any opportunities to travel and had managed to rise a bit in the ranks, but not a huge amount – I couldn’t figure out the specifics of his rank, but he gave the impression of it being somewhat mid-range.

But what was fascinating was what he had decided to do instead. Having quit the army, he signed up to Renmin University (People’s University) in Beijing to do a PhD in sociology. His particular research was focused on divorces, and understanding how they work from the inside. His thesis project was focused on a particular couple who had divorced. He identified his subjects by hanging around a family court and watching a number of divorce proceedings. Having identified his ideal couple, he approached them separately. Of course, they initially refused to participate, but he treated them separately to dinner and was able to persuade them to become his subjects.

This was not entirely surprising as he was a charming chap, though I was impressed that he was able to persuade them to agree to undergo repeated interviews and then to also open up their network of family and friends to inquisition. From this, he was able to assemble the anatomy of their divorce and why it took place, and to learn some broader lessons about modern Chinese society. Unfortunately, he was not able to tell me much more about his findings than this, and when I pried he hemmed and hawed, leading me to suspect he had not quite finished.

Curious about divorce in China, I went online and discovered that in 2009 an official survey uncovered that one in five marriages in China ended in divorce. That figure is increasing, so research on the topic is clearly salient. There is ultimately nothing wrong with a former soldier deciding to do that research, even if it seems to be a somewhat dramatic life change. What the vignette captured, however, was how increasingly western China is becoming in many ways – different life options are still open to people at relatively advanced stages in their careers. Rather than a planned economy where everyone does the same, centrally-determined thing for life, there is now fluidity within the system. As their divorce rate catches up with the west, other features of society are also emulating western tendencies. The bigger question that remains unanswered, however, is whether this convergence is also taking place within the domestic and personal spheres.

A new post for Whose World Order – cut a bit awkwardly, but oh well.

Shanghai View: Rampant Aspiration

Date: 11th April 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaShanghai

Take, for example, a visit earlier this week to a Shanghai government official with some visiting ECFRers. The meeting itself was par the course for Chinese government officials – we got the party line and not much else. One amusing thing did stand out for me, however, and that was the painting of Pudong’s skyline that filled one wall behind the main two chairs (Pudong is new Shanghai, and up until the mid-1990s was mostly flat). This is a picture of Pudong’s current impressive skyline:

An addition to this painting, however, was this building:

The building, which is going to be the crowning jewel in Shanghai’s skyline is, still under construction (I could not get a picture of the actual image in the room since I did not have my camera with me). They broke ground before the Expo, only to shut it down for the six months of the Expo and then re-start work at a frenetic pace. At the moment it is a stub in the ground, with cranes popping out of it and an intended completion date of 2014. But what is interesting is that in the Shanghai government’s mind, this building is already a done deal. That might well be true, but at the same time we are dealing with a nation that has been plagued by all sorts of problems. Shanghai might be pretty efficient, but slapdash efforts have caused problems in the past. I know of one of Shanghai’s glass buildings that has lost four large window panes that were not stuck in properly. Each one was about the size of two doorways side by side, and would have killed anyone they hit on the way down – fortunately, they missed.

So is the municipal government simply trying to save money by pre-emptively including this building in its artwork, so that it doesn’t need to spend money on interior re-decoration in three years? Given how cheap and plentiful art material and artists are, this seems unlikely. Instead, the painting is a symbol of China’s most ambitious and bullish city reaching for the stars in its usual rampant manner, something reflective of the nation’s general sense of itself.

 

A new piece for Whose World Order?, this time exploring the events in Japan as seen from Shanghai. Overall, people seem unsure what to do, but are basically sympathetic to the unfortunate Japanese. One friend, however, pointed out a Chinese twitter post he had seen which was glad about the fact that a US ship had been completely written off by a radiation cloud (this story), my friend responded that this was pretty mean, and the person said well, what were they doing there anyway. Some interesting responses overall from the Sino-blogosphere. Further, in a postscript subsequent to the post, the BBC published this story.

Shanghai View: A historical breeze from Japan

Date: 15th March 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaEarthquakeNuclearTsunamiJapan

The message to my phone read: “BBC FLASHNEWS: Japan gvt confirms radiation leak at Fukushima nuclear plants. Asian countries should take necessary precautions. If rain comes, remain indoors first 24hrs. Close doors & windows. Swab neck skin with betadine where thyroid area is, radiation hits thyroid first. Take extra precautions. Radiation may hit Phil [Philippines] at starting 4pm today. Pls send to your loved ones.”

These sorts of messages are quite common after major events, though usually they do not arrive in English (in Xinjiang I was told that during the 2009 riots, grim pictures showing disemboweled Han Chinese in Goya-esque poses were being circulated via text). Usually it is rumour-mongering in Chinese, accompanying the normal paranoia that sweeps through any large population after a major disaster.

One rumour to reach me this time was that I should avoid sushi from Japan since it was likely to have been dosed with radiation, another friend forwarded me an email that had a map with a large red cloud spreading out as far as China emanating from a nuclear symbol over Japan. The accompanying message spoke of “northern compatriots” having to avoid going out without masks on for the next two or three months and to avoid water and seafood.

But beyond this, the reaction in Shanghai at least to the disaster in Japan has been strangely muted. CCTV has been dedicating a lot of time to the disaster and the news organisations have all dispatched large teams to cover it, but thus far I get the sense that people are unsure what to make of it all or how to feel. Some have pointed out that there has been a strange gloating in some places online – China and Japan have a long and contentious history after all – but from what I have seen, this has been kept under control (either by the net-nannies or by self-restraint). Some still slip through saying that this is some sort of divine intervention against Japan, but I get the impression they are a minority. Nevertheless, there is a strange sense of ambiguity, and Adam in Shanghai has done an interesting piece on this.

I found it a bit depressing, until I had a conversation that gave me some confidence for the future. Having just finished a morning of discussion on US-China and differences in how the EU and US interact with China, I went to lunch with one of the young scholars. Over lunch he told me of his hope and belief that it was possible that in the wake of the disaster, there was a perfect moment for rapprochement between China and Japan. In every cloud a silver lining. Having seen the grim memorials in Nanjing that are the root of much anti-Japanese feeling in China, and the bombastic memorial in Tokyo celebrating war criminals that stimulates further tension, I can only hope that he is right and finally the two can find some way to us this moment to try to finally shed the toxic burden of history.

A final note on the text message, having scoured online, I can find no evidence that it actually came from the BBC.

 

A new post for Whose World Order?, drawing on some of my more interesting experiences here in Shanghai. I am constantly surprised at how similar the Chinese and American outlooks are. Hopefully in the longer term this bodes well and does not augur conflict.

Shanghai View: Reading Orwell in Shanghai

Date: 10th March 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: 1984Jane AustenOrwellShanghaiChina

I am sometimes asked at my institute to interview prospective employees, to assess their level of English. It is usually a pretty depressing experience, as most of these young Chinese speak excellent English (certainly infinitely better than my Mandarin). After starting off with some getting to know you questions, I try to dig into something substantive that they are interested in. Recently I decided to ask them all what books they had read and liked in English.

The position that was being recruited for was an administrator’s role, and those (mostly young women) interviewing for it were English language or literature graduates. When confronted with the question what book they liked most, Jane Austen scored the most, with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility most common (one girl had to whip out her ipad mid-interview to tell me the name of her favourite – “Sense and Sensibility”). William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily did well, and a girl who had done French language and literature at University was a fan of Hugo’s Notres Dame de Paris(the Hunchback of Notre Dame in English). All pretty standard stuff and probably course texts chosen by nervous job interviewees who wanted to say the right thing.

A couple were a bit more revelatory – one girl who had done her dissertation at University on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby said she liked the book because of the parallels she saw in the “American dream” and the new “Shanghai dream.” One of the few males said that he was a fan of Moby Dick because of the idea of an everlasting chase to beat the enemy, a situation he empathized with. But even these were tempered reactions, and I was very surprised to learn that the girl who had studied Fitzgerald had not read any other books by the author. A lack of inquisitiveness that is surprisingly common amongst some students I come across.

But then, at the end, a friend asked if I could interview her daughter as well, so she could practice her English. Sure thing, I said, and did the same questions I had before. This time, she launched off into telling me that Orwell was her favorite writer and in particular 1984 and Animal Farm. Why? Well, the book, she said, had a lot to teach us. In particular, she thought that it could show the Communist Party how it might try to improve itself and its image in the world. The lessons that could be learned from 1984 could help the Party show the world that Communism does not have to be that bad.

Now of course this girl did not have anything to lose in her interview and so was less inhibited. But it was an interesting perspective that highlights something I have touched on before – the patriotism that stirs within many young Chinese. Even a book which might be seen as damning for China (I recently re-read it while on a long car journey across China’s restive Xinjiang province and certainly saw some parallels) is seen by some of China’s youth as another opportunity for their great country to do better. They are fundamentally part of the system and proud of it, seeing a country before them in which one can reasonably talk about an aspiration to a “Shanghai dream” being a reality. These are by no means cock-eyed optimists, but instead young people with outlooks that to me seem very similar to those of youth in the United States or Europe. Does this mean that the system as it is will simply continue into perpetuity? Not necessarily, as, in parallel to this growing desire to aspire, there is clearly a growing desire to reform – just at a Chinese pace, rather than something pushed from the outside. At least, let us hope it is going in this direction, as otherwise dystopian visions similar to 1984 or Brave New World that were painted in subversive best seller The Prosperous Time: China 2013 last year might come to pass.

A new post over at Whose World Order?, this time looking at what I feel is a rather overheated speculation about the implications of the current revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East for China. I might be writing more on this subject later in the week, and would appreciate any other’s thoughts and views.

Shanghai View: Jasmine Tea Revolutions?

Date: 25th February 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: EgyptJasmine RevolutionLibyaTunisiaChina

A lot has been made of the implications for China of the current wave of revolutionary zeal in North Africa and the Middle East. From Shanghai, however, much of this seems overplayed; I have found few colleagues or friends who genuinely believe that this means much of anything for China. There are sporadic protests one hears about – the Shanghai one was very small – and in Beijing I understood that it was hard to tell how many actual protesters showed up in Wangfujing.

Having said all this, it seems clear that central government here is concerned about things. The press has waited until events have clearly reached a critical mass before coverage of a revolution becomes substantial (a sign that editors are waiting to see which way the political winds are blowing before they express a view). Net searches about things related to China and the revolutions remain sensitive (as in they don’t work), and some searches including outgoing US Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s name were sporadically blocked after a video surfaced of him at the protests in Beijing.

The US Embassy has claimed the Ambassador was on his way to a museum and had stopped to have a look around, but the story the video tells is an interesting one. In it, a Chinese member of the crowd shouts at the Ambassador asking him: “You want to see China in chaos, don’t you?” Huntsman, quite prominently wearing a jacket with a US flag emblazoned on it, denies this but quickly leaves as people start shouting at him: “Yes, China has many problems! Reform, livelihoods, morality, faith – our problems are many! But we don’t want to be another Iraq! We don’t want to be another Tunisia! Nor another Egypt! If the nation should descend into chaos, will the US and these reformers put food on the table for our 1.3 billion people? Don’t f****** mess with it!”

This seems quite telling, as it highlights one of the many reasons why it is unlikely that we are going to see a revolution on a similar scale in China. People are too invested in the system and too fearful of what might come instead to rip it all down. Certainly in Shanghai, friends have all talked about the revolutions with heavy unspoken comparisons with China, but no one is planning mass protests in People’s Square. A non-Chinese friend astutely pointed out that unlike the centrally focused autocracies of the Middle East and North Africa, there is no central figure to focus anger on – no Gadaffi or Mubarak to focus attention and anger.

There is an order amongst chaos in China. Things generally work, and while there is an endless volume of angst about corruption in which the poorer members of society suffer disproportionately, heads do roll, giving some sense that accountability does exist (most recently it seems as though the minister for trains has fallen victim). Things aren’t perfect, but people have a sense that through hard work they might be able to elevate themselves, giving them a capacity to aspire to reform the system rather than want to overturn it.

 

 

A new post for Whose World Order? over at ECFR, this time looking at a rather irritating event I had had happen to me of late. I am sure most others living in China have experienced this at some point, but this does not detract from the irritation.

Shanghai View: What’s Real?

Date: 17th February 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: BeijingChinaCounterfeiting

Bouncing credit cards are always a humiliation. Being shown up in front of a room full of friends and other random people as someone whose credit is of dubious value never looks good. But imagine this happen to you when you attempt to pick up a tab using currency that you got out of a cash point.

The money had come from an Agricultural Bank cash point at Beijing airport – it was late and I was in a hurry so I didn’t bother to look at it, but just jammed it in my pocket and ran for a taxi. When was the last time you bothered to check the validity of cash you got from a cash point?

It was a few days later when picking up the tab for drinks at a bar that I realised the problem. A bashful waitress came back asking for another form of currency to my dud 100 RMB bill, leading to a tableful of friends ridicule my attempt to palm off fakes. Upon closer inspection I realised that it was indeed not real – the paper was too slick and when you folded the paper the ink rubbed off. Unfortunately for me, it was another couple of days before I realised that I had gotten two in the same batch when I tried to pass another one off to a taxi driver taking me back to the initial scene of the crime at the airport. This was an even more awkward situation as I had no other money on me, leading to a row and a race into the airport to a cashpoint – NOT the one I used before I should add. I shall go curse that one next time I am in Beijing.

This entire incident might have a slightly comical air to it, but I remain 200RMB down out of the experience (about 22 Euro), and baffled by the how the money got there in the first place. Almost every shop, and certainly every bank, in China that I have come across uses money counters which both count the amount of bills and verify their authenticity. That some managed to get inside a cash point suggests an inside job of some sort – and I should add this is not the first time this has happened. A friend of mine in Shanghai had a similar experience with an ICBC cashpoint.

Fake stuff in China is pretty commonplace. Aside from markets everywhere selling knock-off DVDs, clothes, electronic equipment, furniture, and pretty much anything else you can imagine, you periodically get bombarded with emails highlighting fake foods of one sort or another. A Chinese teacher at one point told me not to buy cups and other bits of pottery from guys who sold them on the street as apparently the clay they were using was toxic in some way. In addition, stories of mass contamination like the fake milk scandal of a few years ago are surprisingly common – though more often than not they are at a more local level and thus do not attract the same sort of notoriety. It is often very hard to verify any of this – even the fake objects you buy are not always that far off the real thing, some are made by the same manufacturer but simply without the famous label.

But fake money from a cashpoint seems a new low and does make you think that something has fundamentally gone wrong with the system. While me getting a few dud bills does not mark the end of the PRC, within these sorts of fissures you do get a sense of some of the problems which China has and which occasionally burst forth.

A brief postscript to this story: I am still stuck with the bills, but the delay checking in at the airport while fighting with the cabbie meant that by the time I got there the flight was full so I was bumped up to first class. Some sort of karma I suppose.

 

A slightly belated post for Whose World Order? This time looking at the preparations for the Year of the Rabbit. Happy Chinese New Year all!

Shanghai View: Get ready for the Rabbit

Date: 1st February 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: Hu JintaoShanghaiYear Of The RabbitChina

Someone recently told me that with China, you have to add a zero to everything to get the proportions right. Major cities like Beijing or Shanghai are the same, or larger, in population than many European nations. The online population of netizens is now estimated to be around 400 million, more than there are US citizens. Similarly, this time of year, Chunjie (Spring Festival or Chinese New Year), somewhere in the region of 230 million people will make train journeys to get home for the festival. It is a well-worn cliché, but these mind-boggling scales are important to bear in mind when one makes any consideration about why China acts in the way that it does.

Long queues are already forming at train stations and ticket offices as people wait to buy tickets for trains home: in an attempt to stop scalping (which of course still takes place) you can only buy tickets ten days ahead of time, but this means that on days when everyone wants to travel, like clockwork, 10 days out you have a long queue. In Beijing the other day it was reported that all tickets from the city sold out in half an hour. Given the fact that at this time of year everyone tries to get back home to see family (and in Shanghai alone it is estimated there are some 3 million migrant workers), you can imagine how hectic these queues can get. In one incident doing the rounds, an infuriated migrant worker named Chen Weiwei stripped naked and ran into the station controllers office in Jinhua, East Zhejiang, after he waited for 14 hours on two consecutive days to get tickets to go home.

Marketplaces are full of red rabbit stuff. Red is the color of prosperity and happiness, and we are about to enter the year of the rabbit (fyi, we are just leaving the year of the tiger). Strings of faux silk lanterns, chili’s, zodiac characters, large pieces of cardboard with Chinese characters emblazoned on them in gold, and all manner of small red envelopes in which you put money to give to people to say thanks fill market stalls and doorways. The intense red masks the low quality of the items, which I discovered are apparently mass-produced in Guangzhou.

But there is a darker side to this time of year too: friends have told me that they have encountered a growing number of pickpockets. This is common at this time of year as people start to get desperate and realize that they might not have the money to get back home and they do stupid things in an attempt to raise money. It is seen as a great humiliation to not be able to make the family migration for Chinese New Year and as a result there is a usually a spike in petty theft at this time of year as people make one last desperate pitch to raise cash.

Police are also kept busy with an increasing number of drunk drivers. Similar to Christmas time, this time of year is full of heavy drink laden meals resulting in inebriated individuals deciding a drive home is a sensible idea. And of course fireworks become ubiquitous, resulting in invariable fires. In 2009 188 people were killed in explosions related to fireworks at around this time, though this was down on an average of 400 per year between 1986 and 2005.

The authorities are aware of all of this and in response have launched an anti-crime campaign nationally to address these issues, “as the spring festival approaches, mass activities, traffic, fire control and other agencies are adding more security measures for our society.” And while this can be dismissed as the usual government-speak, the CCP is acutely aware of the importance of this holiday to the public. In 2008 when heavy snows brought parts of the rail network to a standstill as people were making their annual pilgrimages home, Premier Wen Jiaobao went to train station platforms in Hunan and Guangzhou to apologize and reassure people that the government was doing as much as it could. Given the bad weather we have already had this year, it is possible that he and Mr Hu will have to do this again this year. The alternative would be the possible wrath of the many thousands who would be directly affected, and the further sympathetic anger expressed by the many millions of others who would scold the government (either openly, online or in conversation amongst each other) for failing to provide adequate services for the public. In Chinese officialdom’s mind, who knows what this might escalate in to?

Chinese officials regularly berate foreigners for pressuring them to do too much too fast, complaining that they are still a “developing country” with domestic priorities which are more important than any foreign entanglements. It can be a frustrating perspective to encounter, but at the same time, at this time of year, it is a bit easier to understand what they mean.