The Continuing Tension – Chinese Citizen Activism and More

This summer has seen push back from the laobai xing 老百姓  – the ordinary people and Chinese journalists as well.  It has indeed been a summer of discontent that the Party/State have found it difficult to contain.

I suppose it is not a surprise that we are witness in the last few days to a visit to Sina by Liu Qi, secretary of the Beijing Municipal Party Committee and a member of the Politiburo (See Josh Chin and Loretta Chao, “Beijing Communist Party Chief Issues Veiled Warning to Chinese Web Portal”, The Wall Street Journal (August 24, 2011).  Sina runs one of the most popular weibo (microblogs or “we-media”  in China). Sina in fact has a phenomenal 200 million registered accounts that represent a 40 percent increase over the last three months.

What is a weibo (微 薄)?  Well weibo in China are the cutting edge of social media. Weibo appear to be a combination of twitter  and facebook in China.  As my research assistant at the Munk School of Global Affairs, Qiqi Xie, found:

Since Weibo can sometimes outrun government censors for short periods of time, Chinese citizens can use it to publish more controversial material and to push personal causes … Today, microblogs are increasingly favored over traditional media – which is heavily regulated by the Chinese government in terms of mobilization, amount of information and speed.  According to Meng Lingjun, a lecturer at the Central China Normal University, microblogs “have not only served as a significant tool for information dissemination, but we have also affected the formation and changing of public opinion … in emergency situations.”

Weibo activity was particularly notable at the time of the collision of two high-speed trains near the city of Wernzhou.  As pointed out by Chin and Chao, “Afterwords, millions of users flooded onto the site to exchange information and express frustration with the government’s response.”

While weibo kept the Railway officials from trying to cover up and hide the serious incident, there is continuing worry that this form of citizen opinion will be stifled.  This concern was only heightened by a series by a series of editorials in the state papers discussing the need for more robust effort to refute “rumors” online with particular attention paid to the microblogging.  So the visit by the Party Secretary only raises further the concern over a crackdown on weibo.

The train disaster also gave the traditional news media several weeks of criticism that had seldom been in evidence.  Zhang Zhi’an a journalism professor at Sun Yet-sen University in the southern city of Guangzhou, “Estimates that China now has a pool of up to 500 investigative reporters, and many journalism students want to follow in their footsteps.” (see Kathrin Hille, “Chinese Media Dare to Flex their Muscles” (August 11, 2011).

Have we reached a watershed in China for wider public opinion – or are we at the edge of a new crackdown?  More on this soon.





Maybe Dan Drezner was Right After All – Drat!







Back in early April a number of us – Colin Bradford from Brookings, Dan Drezner from and Tufts, myself and Arthur Stein from UCLA  – were ruminating over the effectiveness of the G20 Leaders Summit.  I took Dan to task for criticizing Colin’s attempted paean (see “Seven New Laws of the G-20 Era” ) to the G20 in his blog post “Learning to Embrace the policy deadlocks“.  As I said at the time (see “Punching Below its Weight”  – positively at Colin’s G20 views and critically over Dan’s too negative  perspective:

Now Colin does point out – and I and others have pointed out as well – the persistently negative international financial press – read this as the WSJ, the NYT and the FT at least. Differences are always played up; and agreements are generally characterized as inadequate.  And it is here that Dan and I differ.   Dan insists on adding his own spin – that is he characterizes the efforts of the G20 in 2010 as “a friggin disaster’.  Now talk about spin!

Well that was then and this is now.

It would appear that neither global governance forum whether the G7 (the old guys) or the G20 (the new guys with the old guys) seem to have acquitted themselves particularly well in the recent – and continuing – global economic troubles.  In the midst of the market gyrations and the growing uncertainty over the condition of European debt and US anemic growth and high unemployment – the statements by G7 Finance Ministers and the G20 were issued and then – fizzled.

Now admittedly we are reacting to finance ministers’ statements and not precisely the leaders – but then again the leaders aren’t gathering.  This will have to do.  The statements of the two sets of finance ministers and central bankers oddly released only hours apart on Sunday August 8th appeared to go largely unnoticed.   They expressed the obvious – the commitment to coordination and the willingness to do whatever was required. Here from the G7 ministers the following which said that they:

… affirm our commitment to take all necessary measures to support financial stability and growth in a spirit of close cooperation and confidence.  We are committed to addressing the tensions stemming from the current challenges on our fiscal deficits, debt and growth, and welcome the decisive actions taken in the US and Europe.

In even less detailed terms the G20 ministers repeated the call to commitment and coordination.  Rhetoric but hardly believable as expressing the firm willingness to act in a coordinated fashion.

This may not be disaster but it seems a lot like a damp squib. And global governance leadership and coordination it certainly is not.  There certainly needs to be a lot more doing to accompany the too bland exhortation of the finance ministers.







The New Celebrity Diplomat

Do style and substance mix in official diplomatic circles?

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, Richard Holbrooke a unique US foreign policy advisor to many administrations was a rather rare diplomat in combing substance and style in his statecraft.

Holbrooke was a prominent US trouble-shooter in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. However he combined this aspect of his professional profile with an outsized personality and a fabulous network worthy of any A-list celebrity from the world of business or entertainment.  And of course still going strong is the status Henry Kissinger brings to statecraft and celebrity.  Kissinger is arguably the most elevated American celebrity/diplomat since Benjamin Franklin.

What happens however when celebrity style and the diplomatic substance contradict each other?

Kissinger’s celebrity status does not mean that he operated like celebrity diplomats such as Bono, Angelina and George – with media fanfare and the pursuit of public goods and global governance.  On the contrary he mixed a desire for media attention with a sensitivity to the requirements of statecraft – seeking publicity for his societal flair but strenuously avoiding it when undertaking secret diplomatic shuttle diplomacy in the national interest. His major work whether judged for good or for ill was conducted far from any journalistic or public scrutiny.

Although far less experienced than Kissinger we may be seeing a similar cultured gap between celebrity style and diplomatic substance in the forays of Pakistan’s new foreign minister.  Hina Rabbani Khar recently made a stylistic splash on the diplomatic stage– using her uniqueness (a young female diplomat markedly different from the old boys club’s standard diplomatic image).

One interpretation is that style is substance, with the choice of such a different choice of foreign minister representing an authentic effort in re-branding, especially with regard to relations with India to which Hina Rabbani Khar gained far more positive attention in her first official visit at the end of July.  Another interpretation comes from Foreign Policy however.  This interpretation suggests that the real salience of the appointment of Pakistan’s first female foreign minister is a cover-up of substance with style.  How blurred this picture becomes is reinforced by Hina Rabbani Khar’s meeting with Hurriyat/Kashmiri separatist leaders in the Pakistan High Commission during her visit to New Delhi.

For those who interpreted her activities as a distinct break from the past, this meeting was constructive and totally transparent to the Indian media.  For those with a more negative impression, though, the meeting revealed that Hina Rabbani Khar’s appointment represented the same old reality –with a glamorous face subordinated to a dangerous state apparatus.

From the Bottom Up

[Editorial Note:  It is with pleasure that this humble blogger introduces a new blogger to the Rising BRICSAM site.  Evelyn Chan was a former student of mine at the Munk School and a research assistant.  I have persuaded Evelyn to periodically write about her experiences as a student in China – “From the Bottom Up”]

Most people envision an epic battle scene in a bamboo forest with a sword-wielding Chow Yan Fat when they hear Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Very few know that the name originates from the former Chinese capital –Nanjing. Situated in the prosperous Jiangsu province, a part of the eastern region where the Yangtze River flows, Nanjing has always held an important place in China’s nation-building narrative. Serving as the capital under ten different dynasties and under the Kuomintang, and the site of the worst atrocities of Japan’s wartime occupation of China, the city noticeably straddles between its rich history and its rapid development. Its historic Wu Tong trees line city streets, which are marked by condo developments and shopping centres.

I found myself in Nanjing, having been placed by the China Scholarship Council at Nanjing University, one of the most prestigious universities in China, ranking among the top five nationwide, and the alma mater of former President Jiang Zemin.  Perhaps stemming from a calculated policy of “soft power”, many foreign students have been been endowed with generous scholarships by either the Chinese Ministry of Education or by the many Confucius Institutes worldwide. Could mastering Mandarin really create a generation of foreigners sympathetic to China’s rise?  Seems unlikely.

My time in China allowed me to be part of living history and observe a rapidly pluralizing country. Rather than battling an institution that towed the party line or a disengaged public, I was taken aback by the candidness and pragmatism of many of the Chinese I met. Too often in the news, the power of the Communist Party of China (CPC)  is given so much credence, that the astuteness, scepticism and diversity in opinions of the Chinese population goes unrecognized.

For me this blog series is not to offer a prediction of how China will look like in 25 years, not even the apparatchiks in Beijing can you tell that. Rather, I’d like to share a range of encounters that has informed my understanding of Chinese society and may give you, the blog reader of Rising BRICSAM, a bit better sense of the evolving China – “from the bottom up”.

The most lasting impression I take away from my days in China is how differently as a Chinese Canadian I was treated .  Visibly looking Chinese did not give me an edge; rather it proved to be more of a liability. Differential treatment on the basis of skin colour is an unfortunate reality in China, even in such a big metropolitan city as Nanjing.

Chinese laborers arriving in Canada and the US near the turn of the century came mainly from Guangdong and Fujian. When Sun Yat Sen, the first leader of modern China, and a native of Guangdong, envisioned the new modern China, it included the return of overseas Chinese. Their education and experience abroad were crucial to the revolution and the rebuilding of post-dynastic China, so Sun Yat Sen thought. Sun held an ethnic notion of Chinese identity that went beyond the borders of the state. A pan-Chinese identity however does not exist today. For instance I could not tell people I was 中国人(zhong guo ren, Chinese). Native Chinese take that to mean I am a Chinese citizen. While in the West, being Chinese carries an ethnic connotation rather than a national one.

The identity of the Chinese Diaspora resides stronger in the South, while this is less true in the North. Even though the CPC today has sought to restore ties with overseas communities in an effort to increase remittance flows and investment, there is no rite of return for Overseas Chinese. While Sun claimed they were the Mother of the Revolution, they do not have a meaningful place in the national narrative of post-reform China. I was either met with disappointment by teachers and strangers for not knowing the language or not as a real foreigner by those who dote on exotic-looking expats.

Both my parents were born in Guangdong and spoke a distinct dialect that is audibly distinct from Mandarin. While I knew Cantonese, I like many CBCs and ABCs could not read or write or speak Mandarin. My Chinese face and my broken Mandarin accent, most likely created some dissonance among the locals I first interacted with.  I was often responded with: “你是韩国人吗?” (Ni Shi Han Guo Ren Ma?, Are you Korean?). When I said no, they then asked, “你是日本人吗?” (Ni Shi Ri Ben Ren Ma?, Are you Japanese?). When I said no again, I got a puzzled look and silence. When I said I’m a 华裔(Hua Yi/Foreign-born  Chinese), I got the “Oh, I get it!” expression and a good chuckle.

However when going out with a group of visibly foreign students, the Chinese automatically designated me the 翻译 (fan yi, translator). This often led to taxi drivers and waitresses yelling at me for my incompetent translating skills. When travelling to 庐山, Chinese teenagers asked to take photos with my Caucasian friends, while I watched on the side. They appeared to be the dollar-wielding, exotic foreigners,  and I the hired help. Many of my classmates, given their appearance have had the opportunity to host TV game shows or model for obscure Chinese clothing brands and car expos, earning about 1000 renminbi for a shoot.

I on the other hand could not for several months find a part time job teaching English. During my interviews, most of my potential employers bluntly said they were expecting someone with blonde hair. I was also told, it’s not about the teaching; it’s about the reputation of the school. While private centres willingly hire French, German or Czech expats, which will inevitably cause many Chinese students to develop interesting English accents, none would so willingly hire a foreign-born Chinese. Private centres, especially ones teaching young children are reluctant to hire overseas Chinese. They increase their cachet as a school that offers foreign teachers. One look at me, and parents would complain that the school hired a native and that they were cheated out of their money.  Looking to avoid a fight with overprotective parents, most employers just don’t bother.

This is not say that racism is widely prevalent or that no one could guess I was foreign-born – it happened once while climbing the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan. Currently, the discussion about race is limited to Han and Minzu (minority nation) identities, ie Tibetan, Uyghur. While globalization has created hyphenated identities and multicultural communities in other countries, it has yet to reach China, despite its integration into the global economy. This will likely change in the future. While we are certainly seeing the rise of China in economic terms, the social effect of China’s development is still playing out, especially in terms of race and identity.

This is also not to say that I couldn’t use my identity to my advantage. An American friend who is completing his Master’s degree in Classical Chinese literature complained that he could never be accepted as Chinese despite his fluency and knowledge of Chinese history and culture. He noted that it’s difficult for Chinese people to overlook his identity and to engage in more deeper discussions. He claims there is a level of trust that my sameness in appearance can create, allowing for a more frank conversation. It probably took a decade for 大山 - Da Shanthe Ottawa-born and only white personality on CCTV, to be seen as one of China’s own. If I keep my sentences short, people right away think I am Chinese.

By the end of my time in China, I handled my identity question with grace – I think.  The yelling with taxi drivers ceased as my Mandarin improved and we would banter about my accent.  As my friends’ Chinese improved, they defended me and angrily yelled back that I was not their translator. Perhaps the most touching moment was when my Chinese teacher, a lady in her 60s who worked in the coal mines during the Cultural Revolution, telephoned me to wish me a safe journey home. She poignantly said that as a foreign-born Chinese, I should continue to study Chinese politics and society. I had a responsibility to return home with better knowledge of the country. She never singled me out in class because I was a foreign-born Chinese, but in this private discussion, she recognized that I had a unique connection to China and to her.


The South China Sea – Is it a Core Interest?

[Ed. note – This piece first appeared at the Munk School of Global Affairs Portal.  It forms the second part of a three part examination by this humble blogger of the contemporary US-China relationship in the context of the South China Sea]

The predicted flashpoint for US-China relations has been for the last year and more the South China Sea (nan zhongguo hai 南中国海).  It is here that the US ‘China Threat School’ from the Washington beltway and the ‘China Can Say No’ (zhongguo keyi shuo bu 中国可以说不)from Beijing and the nationalists target US-China rivalry, competition and even conflict.  These experts and opinion makers see a growing inter-state rivalry. Each side urges their government to stand firm and defend the national interest.  What is it about the South China Sea that has marked it as such a central flashpoint?

In the recent past China has reasserted ‘historical’ claims over all the islets, including the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos and some 80 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometers along the nine-dotted U-shaped line (an old Guomindang assertion going back as far as 1947) Depending on interpretation this Chinese claim can be to all features, waters and resources or less aggressively a claim to all features and, for legal islands, a continental shelf and a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for each.  At least with respect to the former claim there appears to be no international legal ground or basis to assert such encompassing sovereignty. And even if both countries – that is China and the United States – rely only on the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and rights acquired by EEZ, the two countries disagree on what that means.   The US  – remember the US has failed to ratify UNCLOS – argues that the coastal state is allowed to retain only special commercial rights in a zone while the Chinese argue that the coastal state can control virtually any activity within the EEZ.

The current expenditures on the Chinese navy – the PLAN – have been directed until recently to weapons systems that are designed for “access denial”. This earlier PLAN strategy appeared to be:  (1) to secure approaches to Taiwan and deny the US access to it; (2) to deny the US and other near Asian neighbors access to the South China Sea; (3) to protect China’s sea lane lines of communication; and (4) hinder generally others sea lane lines of communication.

But that doctrine and spending seems to be changing.  Recently the Chinese have been planning a form of power projection. The Chinese are contemplating trials for its first carrier, an ex-Ukrainian carrier called the Varyag that has been renamed the Shi Lang.   The Chinese Navy has been planning this launch apparently to be followed by the construction of its own carriers with a new doctrine of “far sea defense” – a far more assertive policy.  This doctrine, among other things, would see Chinese warships escorting commercial vessels that are crucial to the Chinese economy through as far as the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca and on to China.

The rise in tensions – and the apparent rising assertiveness – of China in the region was initiated in part by what appeared to be China’s growing stake in the South China Sea.  Though it is somewhat complicated to tease out, it appears that rising tensions between the US and China over the South China Sea can be traced back to March 2010.  Then, two visiting US officials to China, Jeff Bader, at the time, senior director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council, and James Steinberg, Deputy Secretary of Defense held meetings with senior Chinese officials. They were were told by these Chinese officials (apparently State Councilor, Dai Bingguo, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai) that China would not tolerate any interference in the South China Sea and that the South China Sea was now part of China’s “core interest,” or at least so it was told to US and western media by US officials.  Such a statement it appeared elevated the South China Sea to equal status then with Taiwan and Tibet.  This South China Sea status was noted widely by western media particularly in the context of a Chinese Navy that had announced a new doctrine of “far sea defense” – a far more assertive policy, as noted earlier.

Though the western media has in the “on again- off again” tensions in the South China Sea repeated this declaration of “core interest” it may in fact not represent official Chinese views.  Chinese experts point to the statement by State Councilor Dai Bingguo.  Dai Bingguo is a senior Chinese official who has become one of the foremost and highest-ranking figures on Chinese foreign policy in recent years.  It was Dai Bingguo who remained at the G8 L’Aquila Summit after President Hu Jintao returned to China following riots in Xinjiang.  He has attended as a senior leader at the important US-China dialogues – The China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED).  At the second round in May 2010 – not long after the reported statement to US officials of “core interest”  – in which Dai Bingguo was in attendance – this is what Dai Bingguo said at his press conference on May 25, 2010:

Both sides recognized that China-US relations are of great significance to our two countries and the world and that cultivating and deepening mutual strategic trust between us is extremely important for the sound and steady development of China-US relations in the new era. The Chinese emphasized that while it may not be possible for China and the United States to agree on every issue, it is important that both sides observe the spirit and the principles of the three Sino-US joint communiqués and the China-US Joint Statement, respect and accommodate each other’s core interests and major concerns, and properly handle our differences and sensitive issues, especially concerning China’s core interests such as Taiwan and Tibet-related issues, (emphasis added) so as to consolidate the foundation of mutual trust.  If we keep to this right direction, we can overcome interferences, difficulties and obstacles, and take forward our relationship.

No mention of the South China Sea as a “core interest”.  In fact there is some reason to believe – without an official transcript – that what was said to the American officials was either not precisely conveyed, or was misinterpreted by officials and then the media.  So, apparently what was stated was that the South China Sea was “related to a China core interest” (sheji guojia hexin liyi –涉及国家核心利益) for instance the stability  and peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes as opposed to say Taiwan which would be:  (Taiwan shi zhongguo de hexin liyi – 台湾是中国的核心利益) – Taiwan is a core interest of China.

Well diplomacy is all about words and words and their interpretation are made more difficult by two languages.  Unfortunately too many observers have stated or repeated a China position on the South China Sea that appears not to be official and feeds interests on both sides that see the other as a growing threat.  The story continues but careful diplomacy is called for on both sides.

Image Credit:  Wikimedia Commons an image of the USS Peleliu