Your womb, my history

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Like a vehicle losing control, a recent debate about legalizing surrogacy suddenly swerved and crashed into the carefully guarded space of post-1949 Chinese history, creating an opening that competing camps of online commentary vied to control. 

Amid the festive atmosphere of the Chinese New Year in early Feb, People’s Daily carried a largely bland piece in one of its less important sections. As the third installment in a series reviewing the implementation of the two-children policy (China eased its decades old one-child policy in a historic move to address the pressing demographic challenge in 2016), the piece discussed the difficulties facing many aging Chinese couples seeking to have a second child. At the end of the article, the author entertained the possibility of legalizing surrogacy in China, which so far has been strictly banned.

Acknowledging the controversial nature of such a proposal, the author advocated caution in the hypothetical easing. Only non-commercial, voluntary surrogacy should be allowed to avoid  spawning a for-profit industry. 

But the mere fact that People’s Daily mused about such a possibility struck a nerve with many who feared the ethical and legal mess that such a move would cause. Global Times, the market-oriented offspring publication of People’s Daily Group, in a curious case of rebellion, openly objected to the idea by citing situations in India and the US, where surrogacy, legalized or not, led to consequences that harmed the surrogate mothers, who were often in a disadvantage in such deals, and the children they bore.

The feminist argument was prominent in this debate from the very beginning. In an impromptu poll on Weibo initiated by a feminist outlet, a majority of participants expressed concern about the violation of women’s rights if surrogacy were green-lighted in China. People feared that women would be forced into the business against their will. An apocalyptic picture emerged in the discussion of poor girls kidnapped and kept in captivity to serve as surrogacy machines in  a “reproduction sweatshop”, even though doing so would clearly violate China’s criminal code with or without legalized surrogacy.

China’s population policies have been dogged by increasingly strident criticism from feminists these days. Major policy moves such as the abandoning of the one-child policy, hailed elsewhere as an enlightened development, met with cynical response domestically as the state’s  attempt to manipulate women’s wombs to correct its own demographic blunders. The bizarre scenes on the local level, where certain local governments pressured employees to have a second child in order to fulfill policy goals, further embittered advocates who resented the perceived “instrumentalization” of women by the state to achieve social objectives.

This line of thinking apparently colored the online response to the People’s Daily article. What’s unexpected was how far it went to threaten the very legitimacy of the Party. When Weibo user Huangqingjiao, a playwright, posted her comment about legalizing surrogacy, she reached back all the way to the early history of the People’s Republic, trying to make the case that the regime had a history of treating women as reproductive machines. “Whether it’s forcing people to have a second child, or legalizing surrogacy, what’s more horrible than these decisions is the icy logic behind them, the logic that treats women as mere items.”  She brought up the campaign to recruit tens of thousands of young women to go to Xinjiang, in the far west of China, in the years immediately following the establishment of Communist China in 1949. The invincible People’s Liberation Army, directed by the Party’s top leadership to settle down permanently to consolidate control of this frontier region, had to confront an insurmountable problem: the daunting male-to-female ratio. Not surprisingly, most of the troops were men. Many of them had endured years of brutal battles, first with the Japanese and then with the Kuomintang in a devastating civil war. Having passed their prime time for forming families, those officers and soldiers were put off by the prospect of an extended single life in a barren land. Some of them formally applied to be dismissed, so that they could return home and get married. “The issue of wives”, as General Wang Zhen put in in his letter to a colleague, “has reached to a point that it affects morale of the troops and the stability of Xinjiang.”

A massive campaign rolled out across the country to recruit women to Xinjiang. Responding to the call to build New China and the opportunity to contribute as independent, empowered individuals, tens of thousands of female students, housewives and peasants flocked to recruitment stations, committing themselves to a noble cause.

Very few of them were aware that their roles as girlfriends, wives and mothers were probably more valued by the state at that time. Some of them started to feel the “heat” after settling down in work units freshly set up in the western province. “Match-makers” were dispatched to “work on their minds”, trying to convince the girls that marriage was for the greater good of a prosperous Xinjiang. In certain cases, attempts of persuasion bordered on coercion, causing a fair amount of stress among those women (some of them became mentally unstable). The situation alarmed the leadership, which in the end directed those “mind workers” to soften their approach and honor the freedom of marriage, a concept that had just been enshrined in the People’s Republic’s new marital law.

The history of this campaign is well-documented. Government files, news reports and academic papers exist to preserve an important part of the Party’s early efforts to govern a newly seized region. Huangqingjiao got a glimpse of the history in a TV documentary called “Eight thousand Hunan girls go to Tianshan”, zooming in on one leg of that campaign in Hunan province. Her interpretation of their fate as sheer tragedy shaped how many netizens viewed this history in particular and the Party’s treatment of women in general.

The more reserved version of such a view lamented the powerlessness of individuals before the iron wheel of state-building. The extreme version went as far as equating the females with “comfort women”, sexual slaves kept by the Japanese military during World War II.

Ironically, what was presented as being sympathetic was taken as an insult by the descendants of the very women to whom the sympathy was directed. “My grandparents dedicated their youth to the frontier. They fell in love and got married of their own free will. Those ignorant of the Xinjiang construction corps should quit denigrating our predecessors! ” snapped one Weibo user. The local police of Altay, a place in the north tip of Xinjiang, sent out an angry Weibo post accusing Huangqingjiao of spreading lies. “The first generation of Xinjiang’s constructors do not deserve such assault… Without their sacrifice, how could someone like Huangqingjiao enjoy her leisure and peace?”

If the anger was directed at the lack of appreciation for those women’s agency, they might have a point. The “comfort women” comment was particularly insensitive in this regard. Studies looking closely at that period depicted a nuanced picture of those females “negotiating” their existence in an environment at once liberating and suppressing. Many of them came from abject backgrounds that were even harsher to women of their generation. They escaped extreme poverty and the shackles of traditional Chinese society to seek education and work in a new environment. Most of them fulfilled such dreams by becoming nurses, teachers and office workers in the PLA-turned Xinjiang Construction Corps. And they used this newfound independence to push back at the “matchmaking” attempts that were seen as inconsistent with New China’s vision of women’s liberation. Some of them in the end accepted “Party arranged marriages” not because they passively bowed to fate, but rather reconciled their devotion to the country with personal life choices. 

Yet the indignation could also have  originated from a misplaced stigma about women with “impure” sexual experiences, even if coerced. Therefore, a woman’s misery of forced marriage could be taken as disgraceful on the side of the female. And people chose to defend her by insisting that they were “clean”(qingbai).

More is at stake than the women’s reputation. Modern Chinese history, particularly the part after 1949, has become a minefield. Barbed wires are being erected around the orthodox stories of liberation and progress. And trespassers will be punished. The Party’s online propaganda guards were quickly deployed to contain the rising tide of questioning. The Global Times editorial put this episode in the context of “rising historical nihilism” in recent years. Trying to be seen as fair, it declared Huangqingjiao’s Weibo post as an “inadvertent” offense, while warning that more sinister attacks of the sacred narrative are being propounded all over the Internet by those with ulterior “political motives”. “The history of New China is a history with capital H. The grandiose heroism of those involved cannot be judged by the petty bourgeois of today. However, even a great history will unavoidably involve personal misfortunes and miseries. Nevertheless, the mainstream sentiment among those females was one of pride and dignity, not of frustration and regret.”

But who represents “mainstream” and who are those individuals to be brushed aside as outliers? Anticipating questions like this, defenders of that history felt urged to protect “collectivism” against the assault of “individualism”, which they regarded as a luxury for those struggling in Xinjiang at that time. Their words can be vituperative at times, claiming that the “sacrifice of first generation Xinjiang constructors do not need the disgusting ‘sympathy’ from modern whores who only ask what the country can do for them.”

Those who defended the collectivist era maintained that personal sacrifices and devotion of that generation laid the foundation for the economic boom that followed the end of Mao’s reign over China. The buildup of basic industries and the accumulation of “demographic dividends”, the abundance of low cost labor, helped launch the Chinese economy into a sustained three-decade growth trajectory that became the envy of many other countries. And younger generations who enjoy the fruits of development should at least be grateful to their predecessors.

If gratitude is too much to ask for, an empathetic understanding is what many in the middle were suggesting. The ethics of a society, particularly those concerning personal rights, evolve over time, and it is probably unfair for today’s feminists to judge the 1950s using their value systems. The necessity of resettling hundreds of thousands of troops in the far west had the leaders’ hands tied at that time, who were more than aware of communist China’s promise of equality for women. Some argued that women going to Xinjiang in those years might have seen a “net improvement” of their situation by escaping their backward, poverty-stricken rural homes, and that the campaign should be more properly seen as a massive “blind dating event“, where the suppressed women of “old China” met a relatively well-regarded and well-paid group of young males, PLA officers.

More experienced observers noted the fact that this was not the first time that the history of “eight thousand Hunanese women” caused a stir in Chinese society. In the 1980s and 1990s, when materials about the buried memory resurfaced, there was a healthy discussion about the human dimension of the “grand history”. The experience was demystifying and even liberating for some: the “minority” who did feel hurt by that campaign were finally able to have their voices heard. Unfortunately, the “honest and pragmatic” approach to that history has been replaced by a much more ideologically rigid one of today, remarked commentator Song Zhibiao. The now familiar frame of “anti-historical nihilism” immediately trumped any attempt to reopen the history for critical review, and the otherwise debate-savvy feminists quickly retreated from their confrontational stance. “A debate about history has itself become part of Chinese history,” observed Song.

RELATED READING ON THIS BLOG: Down with the Nihilists!

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Patriotic July

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Celebrity actress/director Zhao Wei, the South China Sea, Kentucky Fried Chicken. In what kind of a mental universe can those three be organized into a recognizable constellation with meaning and significance? The answer seems to be the Chinese patriotic mind. In the past month, the cyberspace witnessed how patriotic sentiments built up with a grassroots campaign against Zhao Wei, climaxed with the vehement attack on the South China Sea ruling handed out by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, and subsided with offline protests against KFC in a bunch of Chinese cities.

The key to understanding this rather bizarre pathway of mobilization-escalation-demobilization is a close look at the interconnection between the patriotic discourse and its class struggle “sister”. While the latter adds fuel to the flame of the former, its destructive potency that threatens to tear society apart induces an uneasy response from the conservative establishment originally set to benefit the most from a nationalist uproar.

At first, the campaign against Zhao Wei looked like old news. Once again, netizens attacked celebrities who carried political values deemed problematic and demanded redress from whoever hired them. Zhao Wei’s new film (which she directs) features Taiwanese actor Dai Liren, who has been active in the social movement scene of Taiwan. Though Dai himself firmly declined, political vigilantes in the mainland branded him a Taiwan independence advocate and pressured the film to either have him “declare himself a Chinese” or drop him as a lead actor. The film originally resisted, but caved in at last.

If the campaign had stayed at that level, it probably would not move beyond the premise of a self-sufficient community of Neo-Maoists, establishment leftists and youth patriots. The increasingly belligerent alliance reaffirms its relevance each time through virtually lynching celebrities on politically charged issues such as Taiwan independence or Hongkong’s democratic movement. Most of their aggressions do not surface in mainstream media but occasionally they catch a big fish. Over the course of the past 6 months, at least two stars have fallen spectacularly to such attacks, Taiwanese actress Chou Tzu-Yu (whom this blog has featured), and Hong Kong singer Ho Wan See, whose appearance at a concert sponsored by French cosmetic brand Lancome was cancelled after mainland “patriots” went after her involvement in the Occupy Central movement. Successful mobilization injects refreshed energy into the cause, which seems to rely on such vitriolic cycles to keep itself activated.

Dai Liren might have been just another poor game that the hungry beast prey on, repeating the somewhat banal cycle of denounce-denial-escalation-apology. But this time development took an unexpected turn that fundamentally altered the nature of the whole affair.

On July 6, a Communist Youth League Weibo post reviewing the Zhao Wei/Dai Liren episode was temporarily deleted for unknown reasons. The abnormality stirred up more than just suspicion. A major paranoia attack clenched a segment of the campaign, which, all of a sudden, became super concerned with freedom of expression on the Internet. They believed Zhao Wei was somehow involved in getting that post deleted, through her well known connections in the top echelon of the Chinese business circle, particularly with e-commerce tycoon, Alibaba Group president Jack Ma. The accusation is far-fetched at best. But it grabbed the imagination of the sensitively-minded. If an actress could ask her boss friends to censor the Communist Youth League, what else could they not do? “Capital manipulates public opinion” became a hashtag on Weibo, and a cyber warfare would sweep through the Internet, making one feel as if millions of Chinese had converted to Michael Moore overnight.

 

On Jul 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague released its much anticipated ruling on the dispute between China and Philippines over the former’s claims in the South China Sea. It was a landslide win for Philippines, legally speaking. But Beijing refused to accept it, calling the decision void and null. As if on a cue, state media went on an all-out push to delegitimize the arbitration and the entire process.

The tone of the coordinated condemnation was vituperative and absolutist, leaving no space for negotiation. For a contemporary Chinese ear, the underlying message was familiar and clear: it’s a politically high-voltage line that one must not cross, no questions, no argument. It was in the same line as the response to the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and to the 2001 collision of US and Chinese military aircrafts near the Hainan island that killed a Chinese pilot. In both earlier cases, the government flooded the public space with its strong-worded position through the propaganda machinery and tried to unify public perception around that. This time, social media turned out to be the new territory that the state needed to occupy. People’s Daily put up on Weibo a poster declaring that “not a single (island) should be taken away“. Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin called the ruling “terrible as hell.” On WeChat, people posted the same set of slogans – the three “Nots”(not recognize, not participate, and not accept) – to flag their alignment with the state.

The high-pitched broadcasting of indignant denunciation, proud declaration and defiant sneer from the Chinese state media almost defined the tone of July. Everywhere on the Internet, people were condemning the United States, ridiculing Philippines and cursing Japan. At certain point, the collective glare turned toward the whole institution of the Law of the Sea itself. High level officials slighted the Arbitral Tribunal as a cheap, non-official body that would accept any case as long as someone paid for it. They questioned the composition of the panel, criticizing the five panelists for acting as puppets of Japan and not understanding Asia at all. They also picked on the location of the PCA, sarcastic about the fact that even if it sat at The Hague, it had nothing to do with the International Court of Justice (even though there was no sign that the PCA itself pretended to be the ICJ). At one point, the United Nations official Weibo account joined the chorus, implying that the Tribunal was just a “tenant” of the Peace Palace building, where both the PCA and the ICJ were stationed, and had nothing to do with the UN. A naughty “bye-bye” emoji was added at the end of that post.

The ideological hawks, who were busy attacking Zhao Wei at the time of the ruling, were briefly drawn into this national symphony of condemnation. But their attention quickly swayed back. After all, shouting at the United States or Philippines does not bring any visible “victories” or even response. But to keep a movement energized you always need vindication.

When observers look back at the whole Zhao Wei affair, they see what Philip Alden Kuhn described in his Soulstealers: the Chinese sorcery scare of 1768. In this bloody event that was the Qing Dynasty’s rough equivalence of the Salem witch-hunt, the country was caught in a panic attack of some weird rumors that sorcerers were stealing people’s souls by cutting off their pigtails, the long braid that Chinese people wore at that time. After Emperor Qianlong became concerned with the situation, heads started to get rolling, literally. Lower level officials needed convicts to fulfill their duty. And people turned against each other. As Kuhn puts it, the Emperor’s legitimizing of the scare was like “loaded guns left on the street”. People picked them up and started shooting at their own enemies.

The patriotism that saturated the air after the South China Sea ruling was that loaded gun. And the idea of an ideological “struggle” on the Internet, something President Xi suggested in a 2013 speech and the conservative Beijing Daily articulated in a follow-up editorial, provides politico-theoretical backing. In the much discussed editorial, the Internet is declared the “main battleground” of ideological struggle today. It is a “war without smoke” and its consequence is “either you live or they die”. The target: Western values dressed as “universal”.

The “struggle” approach redefines online debates, and for that matter, the expression of patriotism, which turns increasingly inward, in search of enemies to be crushed within the country. There should be no dialogue or conversation, only defeat, humiliation and subjugation. Life and death.

The escalation of the anti-Zhao-Wei campaign into a struggle against “capitalist control of media” means an enlarged hunting ground. Patriotic netizens cast their searchlight toward Zhao Wei’s web of connections, and big name institutions including Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group and Jet Lee’s One Foundation were dragged into the controversy. Both Ma and Lee, a legendary kung-fu-star-turned-philanthropist, were believed to be close friends of Zhao. Within days, both groups were alarmed to the extent that they issued official statements denouncing unspecified “online rumors” about their political associations. Alibaba had to explain that its donation to the Clinton Global Initiative, which netizens revealed amid the email leak of the Democratic National Committee, was purely philanthropic and not in any way political contributions to the Clintons or the United States. The One Foundation had to fend off more serious accusations that it served as a capitalist “Trojan horse” with the ulterior motive of overthrowing the regime through the gradual corrosion of the credibility of official institutions. Besides its founder Jet Lee, many of the foundation’s board members are business tycoons (i.e. capitalists) including Jack Ma and China Vanke President Wang Shi. Observers see the carefully worded response from Alibaba and One Foundation as an ominous sign of a fringe phenomenon collecting menacing power.

 

On July 17 a bunch of men and women showed up at the front door of a KFC restaurant in Laoting, Hebei province, with a banner that says “You eat KFC, our ancestors lose face”. The picketers tried to dissuade customers from dining at the restaurant, which had to close for that afternoon. This was one of the dozen small-scale KFC protests that happened in the aftermath of the South China Sea ruling, mostly in second and third-tier cities. For those familiar with Chinese patriotic “tradition”, American and Japanese restaurant chains are the usual vehicles for such expressions. Peter Hessler documented in his book Oracle Bones how students in Nanjing pelted and vandalized KFC and McDonald’s after the NATO bombing, which was probably the modern origin of this tradition.

What’s interesting this time is how swiftly state media came to disavow the protests, calling them irrational and stupid. The Weibo account of People’s Daily, which, only days earlier, was full of strong-worded denunciations of the ruling, turned around and lectured its audience why, in an era of interconnected international commerce, boycotts did not work. The 2012 tragedy where a poor Xi’an Toyota owner got his head smashed open by an anti-Japan protester seems to have permanently tarnished the image of such “acts of patriotism” from which state media are now eager to distance themselves. “Turning on each other only makes your enemy laugh,” as they would propagate. Hu Xijin, the Global Times editor, posted a photo of KFC chickens on his table as a gesture of him not buying into the KFC bullshit. He added one more twist: critics should never attribute such naïveté to proper patriotism.

As critics would argue, the official attempt to sever “patriotism” from unpopular offline activities and to confine the concept in a realm of noble civility is disingenuous at best, given the government’s promotion of an overall belligerent message through state media. But the distancing did create a tricky problem for the grassroots patriots who were still busying chasing Zhao Wei and her friends. And that tension reached to a flash point when two social media outlets openly clashed.

The day when protesters blocked the entrance to the KFC in Laoting, one of the People’s Daily’s offspring social media accounts, the influential Xiakedao, posted a scathing piece about the stupidity of the whole Zhao Wei affair and implied criticism of its source, Thought Torch, a weibo account that served as a center of ideological warfare on the Internet. It declared the campaign nothing but groundless conspiracy theory that took advantage of the nationalist nerve. “It’s the same nerve that directed ‘hot-blooded’ young men to vandalize Japanese cars owned by their fellow Chinese.”

Being scolded by a politically orthodox source did not silence the grassroots but piqued them. Their response was to incorporate the behavior of Xiakedao into their narrative: yet another dominant outlet being corrupted and compromised by capital. They sneered at Xiakedao as a sell-out that published for the money, a usurper of the People’s Daily’s red credential as the Party’s mouthpiece.

The open fight briefly caught the attention of Weibo’s top management, who implied suspicion of the Thought Torch’s claimed affiliation with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. But a shrewd commentator pointed out, half sarcastically, that such suspicion was probably ill-informed: the head of today’s CASS was among the first modern day intellectuals who advocate the resurrection of class struggle in social science studies.  It’s the kind of perplexing irony that will linger even after the patriotic fire of July gradually died down following coordinated official efforts to cool things down. In the interval, the ideological volcano of China awaits its next eruption.

Down with the Nihilists!

Cairo

Multiple Choice Question: Who brought victory to the Sino-Japanese War 70 years ago? A. Kuomintang, B. The Chinese Communists, C. The United States, D. The Soviet Union.

If your answer does not in some way include B, then BAM! You are a historical nihilist, even though you might not have read a single word by Nietzsche, the German philosopher who elaborated on this important concept in the 19th century. He declared nihilism as a characteristic of the modern age and “a moment of the deepest self-reflection for humanity”. The “death of God” and the dissolution of Christianity as a singular source of truth deprive the world of meaning, intrinsic value and destiny.

But what has nihilism to do with the Kuomintang? This obviously perplexed a few serious philosophy scholars and historians who took pains to organize a seminar at Tongji University in Shanghai earlier this month. The seminar was titled “Nihilism and the End of History: a Dialogue between Philosophy and History”. A consensus coming of it was that “recent criticism on ‘historical nihilism’ has nothing to do with the academic sense of the word.”

The academicians were responding to a tide of attacks on “historical nihilism” largely waged by party publications and leftist opinion leaders. Their targets are very simple: anything that challenges the historical orthodox that depicts the Party as the decisive force in the Chinese people’s struggle for independence and liberation from suppression. It is basically a move against what they consider to be revisionist views of contemporary Chinese history, but for some curious reasons they adopt “nihilism” as the label for their target, probably just for the forcefulness of the word in Chinese (“xuwu“). In the past year, a few controversies surrounding the veracity of communist war-time heroism hammered the term into modern Chinese vocabulary. For instance, in April this year, a beverage company got harangued by conservative commentators for associating itself publicly with a Weibo personality who once compared a Korean War hero to “barbecue” (as party propaganda maintained that he endured being burned alive by an incendiary bomb in complete silence in order not to expose his comrades). The Communist Youth League’s official mouthpiece triumphantly declared at the time that “the consistent condemnation (of the company) from the netizens shows that the public is no longer swayed by the historical nihilism that uses the excuse of ‘freedom of speech’ to smear heroes.” But reality was far from “consistent condemnation.” Actually, the questioning of the “physiological feasibility” of that heroic act was so strong that official media even had to use the example of the 1963 self-immolation of the Vietnamese monk to establish its validity.

The crusade against “historical nihilism” met with a major setback this month when the cause suffered from unexpected friendly fire. A film commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II that sets its scene at the Cairo Conference of 1943 induced widespread astonishment by highlighting Chairman Mao in its publicity campaign. To be clear, the film itself does not put Mao in Cairo, as that would have been outright fabrication (It was Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek who represented China at the conference). But in its posters, the film’s PR team gave Mao an equal treatment as Roosevelt and Churchill, overshadowing Chiang. Criticism immediately ensued, some even from across the Taiwan Strait. Put on defense, the filmmaker responded by saying that the Cairo Conference was the result of the sacrifice of the entire Chinese population, and the Chinese Communists were surely an important part of it. Spurred by the unapologetic tone in the response, netizens made fun of it by photoshopping unrelated public figures onto the poster, claiming that they could all have legitimately been at the conference, the climax being the Kim Jong-un version of the poster.

Some left-leaning online commentators took a confrontational stance. One of them even declared that Mao’s blown-up role in the posters was a place he “deserved”. And if anyone had a problem with it, he should “win a war to make his point”. The winner-writes-history cynicism was blaring in this instance. Compared with their online comrades, commentators at the Global Times were much more worried that the backlash might give opponents of the anti-nihilism campaign excuse to discredit it entirely. They regarded the posters “inappropriate” and argued that it was unnecessary to arbitrarily link the Party with every episode of that war, even if its role in it should not be denied. They even suggested last minute modifications to the film if it contained undue elevation of Mao.

The campaign against historical nihilism and the anxiety about its undone both betray a sense of insecurity. The Party is deeply disturbed by the risk of losing its righteous place in history. It might have a point though, as its war-time record, like its currency now, is being depreciated not only by domestic liberals but also international observers. The Economist, in a recent editorial, just gave the credit of resisting the Japanese invasion completely to the Kuomintang.

The Chinese theater of World War II was messy and intricate. At any given point, the Kuomintang, the Communists, the Kuomintang traitors and the Japanese were all fighting each other. The Soviet Union was involved from the very early stage, supporting the Kuomintang government (not the Communists) for a substantial period of the eight-year war. When the Pacific War broke out, the United States upped its ante in China by subjecting its China-Burma-India theater commander, General Stilwell, under Chiang Kai-shek as his chief of staff. In this intertwined situation, any attempt to claim full credit for the victory against Japan would be challenging if not outright impossible. The Kuomintang enjoys an advantage in this race as it was the “legitimate” government at the time of the war. That’s why it was Chiang Kai-shek who appeared in Cairo, and the reason why most of the international aid of that time (including that from the Soviet Union) went to Kuomintang during the war. And truth be told that as the government, Kuomintang organized the country’s major defense against the Japanese, and its soldiers suffered epic sacrifices.

But nominal legitimacy can only get you so far. As a corrupt, crude and incompetent dictatorship, the Kuomintang regime was not without its fierce criticizers for its humiliating military defeats, its startling mismanagement of the economy, and the brutal ways it treated its own people. The horrifying conscription programs that brought as much death and fear as the war itself was widely noted even by biographers sympathetic of Chiang. The tragic famine of 1942, in Henan province, became a whole chapter in Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby’s influential book about that war (both were Time magazine’s China correspondents at that time), which showed to the American public the cold-blooded indifference  of the Kuomintang government to the unbelievable suffering of the Chinese peasants. The book was written in 1946, when there was already widespread disillusion and discontent with the Kuomintang regime among US elites. But White and Jacoby’s account of the famine, which was based on first-hand personal experience, should still be read as an overall reflection of Kuomintang’s stage of decay at that time.

Within this context, where the Kuomintang’s real legitimacy was being contested, the Chinese Communists advanced their argument that they played a pivotal role in the fight against Japan. For one thing, their status as a partner against the Japanese invader was formally recognized by their 1937 “United Front” agreement with the Kuomintang, whereby they agreed to subject the Red Army under governmental line of command. That “partnership” proved to be fragile and unstable. Skirmishes (some of them quite bloody) between Kuomintang and Communist forces abounded in the years between 1937 and 1940, after which a new agreement had to be drawn which demarcated where both parties should operate (but mainly for the Communists). After that the Communists, and the millions of Chinese people living in the areas north of the Yellow River, were basically left on their own to bear the weight of Japanese savagery in that part of China. And in those years the Communists were the only protection that the people of North China could have. White and Jacoby estimated that at the peak of Japanese activity, forty percent of the Japanese military force in China was battling Communists. The estimation could have been influenced by both Communist and Kuomintang propaganda, but it is probably fair to say that Communist resistance to the Japanese invasion was not as trivial as some would perceive.

It is clear that the “nihilist” challenge that the Party faces today is partly fueled by dissatisfaction of its current rule. It is both a backfire of its own propaganda overkill (things such as the Cairo Declaration blunder) and an over-correction by romanticizing the China under Kuomintang’s reign. Lately, the “ROC Fever” (“ROC” stands for the Republic of China as opposed to the People’s Republic), which refers to a general nostalgia of the pre-communist China in some circles of the Chinese society, has become a cultural phenomenon. Part of it can also be attributed to the complete re-invention of the Kuomintang in Taiwan after the 1980s. Today’s Kuomintang is no longer the collection of reactionary warlords and capitalists that Chiang Kai-shek presided over 70 years ago. It has turned into a modern political party firmly committed to basic democratic values. One author even went so far as suggesting that the Kuomintang’s record in Taiwan proved Chiang to be the ultimate winner over Mao for his more superior political philosophy of Confucianism (“Mao won the battle, Chiang won the war.”) A relatively more positive light over today’s Kuomintang reinforces the feeling that the Communists “stole” the fruit of the WWII. In such an environment, the Party finds itself mired in an endless battle to defend once well-recognized historical “positions”.

George Orwell once famously said that “He who controls the past controls the future; He who controls the present controls the past.” A present with treacherous deep currents is making the past ever more slippery for the Party to hold on to. Much of the pain has been self-inflicted. In an article published last year, a PLA Major General explicitly criticizes past party propaganda about the Sino-Japanese War:

“In the past, our account of the War was often shaped by immediate political needs, which led to biases and exaggeration. Because of our post-war hostility towards the United States, and in order to highlight the power of ‘people’s war’, American victory in the Pacific was downplayed, while land mines and tunnels were depicted as the major weapons defeating the Japanese. After the Reform and Opening, mainland China proactively upheld Kuomintang’s role in the War. However, in the process some media outlets went too far by exaggerating the overall importance of the China theater in World War II. Even if this could somehow elevate the public’s spirit and pride, in the long run this would create distrust in such propaganda in general.”

So the real enemy is not so much “historical nihilism” but rather historical cynicism. Indeed, the victor CAN write history if he chooses to. But now he’s concerned that nobody gives a damn about what he has written.

Love Thy Country

TG

In early 2007, a chic, young CCTV news anchor called Rui Chenggang posted a blog on Sina.com titled “Why Starbucks Needs to Get Out of the Forbidden City?” In the blog, he declared the presence of a Starbucks shop in the Forbidden City “obscene” and demanded its removal. In a distinct style that later became his signature, he incidentally brought up, with apparent pride, his encounter with Starbucks CEO Jim Donald at a Yale event where he made the latter “flushed” in front of the audience with his challenging questions. The blog created a wave of support from the Chinese public, generating half a millions clicks, tons of media reports and awkward responses from both Starbucks and the Forbidden City administrator.  Six months after the blog’s appearance, the Starbucks store was closed, ending a 7 year presence in the very heart of Beijing.

The Starbucks incident in 2007 was a landmark of China’s surging nationalism at that time. And Rui stood for its new face: young, well-educated, confident and most importantly, sufficiently exposed to Western ideas and values. The last one was a defining feature of China’s new brand of nationalism: participants considered their nationalistic stance a well informed choice, rather than brainwashed parroting. The sense of agency, the feeling that “I know exactly what you Westerners are talking about yet I beg to differ”, adds to the vitality and potency of the surge, whose rising crescendo ultimately reached a peak around the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In Evan Osnos’s resounding piece (“Angry Youth”) that featured this new generation of young nationalists, his subjects were PhD students in western philosophy who took their ideas partly from the likes of Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield. Like Rui Chenggang’s criticism on Western businesses’ disrespectful encroaching into the sanctity of Chinese culture, these “angry youths” had their own target: the Western media’s biased portrayal of China. The “anti-CNN” website was the most well-known product that captured the Zeitgeist of the time.

Seven years have passed since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The interval has not only seen the relative decline of nationalism in Chinese online discourse, but also its complete degeneration into something unrecognizable. The recent controversy surrounding a “patriotic youth” called Hou Jusen demonstrates how nationalism (or “patriotism” more specifically) has changed into an obscure sub-culture of young people that contains troubling elements. And increasingly, this new nationalism is used against domestic, rather than foreign targets.

On Jul 22, in what seemed to be a regular street fight among a group of adolescents in Shandong province, a high school student called Hou Jusen was injured. He posted photos of his wounds on his Weibo account and cursed the ones who attacked him. He called them “Na Qu” (纳蛆), a code name that literally means “the Na maggots”. The post quickly got the attention of the Shandong Provincial Youth League, whose official Weibo account tweeted about the incident and @ed the police. Furthermore, it added a spin to the incident: “a patriotic youth was brutally attacked by a mob for expressing patriotism on the internet.” The framing immediately raised a few eyebrows. Elevating a street fight to an assault on patriotism is to excessively politicize the incident and further polarize the society, one argument goes. And this time, unlike previous cases that involved law enforcement, the local police reacted swiftly on the internet. It declared the case a mutual provocation, where both sides agreed on a rendezvous place for a fist fight. The conclusion negated the Provincial Youth League’s framing of the incident and won the police rare compliments on the internet.

But why would a group of adolescents taunt each other to a street fight in the first place? And what does it have to do with “patriotism”? A probe into those questions leads us to the curious and troubling world of online “adolescent political rivalry” that runs almost completely outside the spotlight of the grown-up occupied media .

Our first key is “Na Qu”, the supposedly derogative term used by Hou to refer to his attackers. To understand the meaning behind the code name, people should first get to know an online animation series titled “That Year, That Rabbit, Those Things”, which is apparently a “cult animation” popular among a quite large audience (the first episode so far has collected more than a million clicks on Youku.com). Viewing the animation (which now contains 11 episodes) is an utterly weird aesthetic experience. In terms of visual style, it betrays a heavy influence of Japanese manga; in terms of language, it is filled with the puns and catchphrases of today’s Chinese internet; and yet in terms of its theme, it touches upon an essentially solemn topic: contemporary Chinese history. The hero of the animation is a bunch of white rabbits with red stars on their bellies. Without further hints you can easily figure out that these rabbits represent the Chinese Communist Party. Their opponents are also humanized animals: Japan is represented by a chicken, Russia a bear and the United States, not surprisingly, an arrogant eagle. In a worse-than-simplistic way, the first episode of the series depicts how the rabbit, after witnessing other animals humiliating his hometown, allied with a bald head (reference to the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek) to beat the chicken (with the help of the eagle) and in turn kicked the dishonest bald head out of the country.

Why the rabbit? Some speculates that it’s a subtle reference to “TG”, a commonly used acronym on the internet that makes fun of the Party’s peasant roots (“Tu Gong”, meaning the country pumpkin communists). And in Chinese, Tu shares the same pronunciation as “rabbit”.

With the popularity of the animation also comes disparage. There are those who regard it as stupid and disgusting, who self-organized to attack fans of the animation. Their battle field is Baidu Tieba, a topic-based online forum created by China’s biggest search engine. To ridicule the Rabbit forum, netizens created the “Na Year, Na Rabbit, Na Things” forum (already banned), in which “Na” is simply a wordplay with the same pronunciation of “That”. Participants of the two forums taunt and abuse each other online. One side calls the other “Tu Za” (Rabbit Bastards) while the other refers to their enemies as “Na Qu” (Na Maggots). Their areas of dispute go way beyond the merit of the animation to touch on recurring debates that polarize Chinese cyber space constantly: Kuomintang vs. Communists; China vs. U.S./Japan; Democracy vs. Stability. Most of the time they are not real discussions but rather simple declarations, caricatures, and, worst of all, obscene personal attacks. “Bao Ba” (Burst the Forum) is a commonly used tactic which means posting tons of nonsensical shit on the other side’s forum to bury unfavorable contents.

The young Hou Jusen emerges out of such online shit fights. Materials dug up by netizens about his online track record depict a disconcerting picture. As a staunch Rabbit defender, he argues indefatigably with those who he disapproves. And this strong political leaning leads him into even weirder realms of online sub-culture: Soviet worship. He seems to be an ardent supporter of the Soviet Union and frequents the “Soviet Red Army” forum at Baidu. Participants of the forum share a common contempt for Gorbachev, referring to him as “Gorba-pig“. In one earlier exchange, Hou complained to fellow Soviet lovers that “My history teacher was again smearing the Stalinist model. I objected in class but he insisted.” Someone replied approvingly, “I recommend you to read ‘Da Guo Bei Ju’ (A Great Nation’s Tragedy). Next time you can challenge your teacher with those materials.” At one point, his allegiance to the Soviet cause even led him to question Mao directly: “If not for [Mao]’s petulance, we would not have departed with the Soviet Union!”

Online quarreling more often than not degrades into genital spattered mutual curses. And it creates enemies that transfer their online hostility off line. To intimidate each other, forum fighters deploy far more threatening tactics. “Gang search” is used to dig out one’s off-line personal information. And it is then used in many a “creative” ways. Hou has often been on the victim side of those tactics. His ID card information was leaked onto the internet. Before long, photoshopped pictures of him in shameful positions started to appear. His nemeses also posted his contact information on gay dating sites, which became an annoying intrusion of his daily life. Later on, his girlfriend was harassed, and had to put an end to their relationship. Hou claims that he only fought back verbally, often just by copy pasting the dirty language that was used against him. In Jun this year, he posted a long article on his Weibo account, lamenting his poignant experience of being a “patriot” but at the same time showing determination to persist. Weeks later, the aforementioned street fight happened.

What ultimately turned this high school kid into a national figure was the high pitched response of the country’s political establishment. Not only did the provincial Youth League tweeted about his experience, the Central Youth League also got publicly involved and tried to escalate the matter to the attention of the Ministry of Public Security. The central party organ adopted the same patriot-got-attacked narrative and made it into a hashtag. But the move backfired in a big way. Rarely do Chinese netizens side with the police on controversial issues, yet this time even some leftists criticized the Youth League for interfering with the due process of police investigation and over-politicizing an otherwise mundane case of affray. Probably emboldened by the support they enjoyed online, the local police defiantly talked back at the Central Youth League on Weibo, expressing frustration that their hard work to maintain social order was not appreciated, even though the post was later deleted.

The most urgent appeal came from Tsinghua University sociologist Sun Liping. Deeply troubled by the violent tendency of youth “patriotism”, the professor called for the stop of “any political mobilization among the juniors, especially the kind that stirs up hatred and violence.” The concern harks back at an earlier warning that China, especially its youth, is increasingly prone to the influence of militarist ideas. As a 2005 article by intellectual Wang Yi puts it, “Among all the countries, China is where military magazines are the most popular. Almost every middle school boy reads one or two military or weaponry related publications. It is probably also one of the few countries that not only do not restrict, but actually organizes children to watch war movies.”

The years in between Rui Chenggang and Hou Yusen witnessed Chinese nationalism’s metamorphosis from an expression of the young generation’s new found cultural confidence and assertiveness to an obscure sub-cultural phenomenon that is seething with anger and hatred. More importantly, the new brand of patriotism is becoming more and more introverted. Instead of bringing substantive grievances before multinational corporations, Western media and rival governments, the young patriots of today are busy chasing and intimidating Chinese “traitors”, speaking languages that only they themselves can understand.

* A side note on Rui Chenggang’s dramatic turn of fate: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-china-blog-28291107

China’s Ideological Spectrum and Why Those Behind It Are True Visionaries

ideology

Polling is a tricky business in China. For something that pollsters in a Western democracy do on a daily (or even hourly) basis, Chinese researchers and survey companies either cannot touch at all or need to get their questionnaires scrutinized by the statistical authority for approval. So you don’t just pick up the phone and start asking people questions like “on a scale from 1 to 5, how do you rate the President’s performance so far?” You can ask them about what toothpastes they use, but not on those questions. A few years ago, some group got into big trouble for doing “illegal surveys” in China. So you get the picture.

That’s why the dataset accumulated by the Chinese Political Compass project over the course of 8 years (2007-2014) becomes so unique. For those who don’t read Chinese, you may just go to the original Political Compass to get a general idea. Basically, it is an online test that locates a person’s ideological stance based on their reaction to 50 statements. A sample statement looks like this:

Indiscriminately imitating (systems of) western style freedom of speech will lead to social disorder in China.

A test taker chooses from “Strongly Disagree”, “Disagree”, “Agree” and “Strongly Agree” before s/he moves on to the next statement. After completing the whole survey, the test taker gets scores to indicate how liberal/conservative he or she is politically, economically and culturally. All 50 statements are tailor-made to capture the actual divides in the Chinese society that can be quite idiosyncratic. For instance, as the above sample statement shows, freedom of speech is still up for debate in China while in most Western democracies it is taken as a shared foundation of the society no matter whether you are liberal or conservative.

This brings us to the very unique situation where the Chinese labelling of “liberal” and “conservative” could be confusing for a Western audience. Part of the reason, as explained by Chinese scholar Qin Hui, is the fact that Western liberals and conservatives all operate above a certain bottom line that does not exist in China. With this bottom line as a basic constraint, “ideological options” are roughly defined by where the line of the state/individual boundary is drawn: those on the left advocate for more state intervention and responsibility (Welfare state), while those on the right stand for more individual liberty and less welfare. The constraint is a social contract that power matches responsibility. In such a society it would be very difficult for politicians to bargain for more state power (social control) and less responsibility (welfare) at the same time. That’s why you seldom see democracies with high tax and low welfare. Yet this is exactly the bottom line that is absent in a country like China, where you start to see ideas that could be unfathomable to a mind so accustomed to the basic social contract. A statist position that calls for an omnipresent state while simultaneously asking the people to make “sacrifices” on their welfare is deemed “leftist” in a Chinese context, but I’m sure Elizabeth Warren would find it horrendous. Much of the ideological split in China is actually along the lines that no longer divide Western societies (things like freedom of speech and constitutional democracy).  That’s why the Chinese left/right debates can be so perplexing. (Below is a table that summarizes the divides in the Chinese context).

left-right

From “China’s Ideological Spectrum

It is with those considerations that creators of the Chinese Political Compass came up with their original test back in 2007. It has been thence forth operating in a very low-profile way, with personal reference as its major way of spreading. I took the test back in 2008, when a friend of mine sent me the link on MSN messenger as if passing along banned books back in high school (disclosure: I’m a political 1, economic 0.5 and cultural 0.4). But apparently the test collected momentum even in such a discreet manner, with over one million people taking it in total. This approach of course does not generate a representative sample. The self-selected nature of the test takers fills the cohort with politically curious, male, college students. But this is probably as far as you can get in the current circumstances.

Early this year, the test website unfortunately caught the attention of the Great Firewall of China. People inside the country can no longer access the site unless they use a VPN to bypass that firewall. This deals a heavy blow to the site no just in the sense of lower traffic but, probably more damaging, of further strengthening the self-selection process of test takers (now only those who grasp how to handle a VPN can take it). After making the decision that future data will not be meaningful any more, the creator of the test made the raw data from previous years available for download.

As you can imagine, this dataset is a treasure island. Within less than ten days of its disclosue, a joint research paper by two Chinese students from Harvard and MIT emerged on the internet, which is titled “China’s Ideological Spectrum“. By analyzing the more than 170,000 answers from the test’s 2014 dataset, they come to a set of conclusions that shed light on a part of the Chinese national psyche that few have examined before. Probably the most important insight from this analysis is the finding that the ideological spectrum in China is really uni-dimensional (even though the survey is designed in three dimensions). In other words, those who are politically conservative are also likely to be economically and socially conservative, and the same applies to the liberals. In a sense, this shows that ideologically speaking, China is still not as diverse as advanced democracies where, for example, social and economic issues often constitute two separate dimensions. It will be difficult to find someone like Rand Paul in contemporary China, who is conservative on social issues but libertarian on the economics. The authors claim that this conclusion is likely to hold true even if they use a more representative sample. This I’ll leave to statistically savvier minds to judge.

Other findings from the paper are more expected. For example, liberalism in China is highly related with modernization, education and income. Those who are well educated and with a higher income are more likely to embrace free trade, government transparency and gay rights.

The very fact that the existence of an ideological spectrum in China (though uni-dimensional in nature) is being supported by empirical data is ground-breaking. It shows how far the country has moved away from a monolithic state of mind. And it is probably not going to be reversed. With diversity comes balance and equilibrium, as the left can be checked by the right, the fanatics checked by the moderate. That’s also partly why I started this blog: to show that there is diversity in the lively and noisy world of ideas in this country. And that, in itself, is empowering.

But the creators of Chinese Political Compass have done much more. As a bunch of college students back in 2007, they acted on an idea, held on to it and turned it into a great source of political self-awareness for a generation of Chinese and a treasure box of insights for the whole world. It is this kind of progressive volunteerism that is truly changing the spectrum of China. To quote one of the creators, who released a public statement on Apr 1 about his decision to offer the raw data for download:

We need to better understand our country and its people. This is not easy, and sometimes unpleasant. But this is our responsibility.