Recalling Fang Lizhi as we watch Chen Guangcheng

I’m sure everybody reading this had been following the dramatic and confusing Chen Guangcheng1 story as it develops, and I also trust that all but the most enlightened remain as puzzled as I do regarding exactly what Chen, the United States, and Chinese authorities have negotiated, promised, lied about, achieved, failed, and intend to do regarding the still unfolding situation((Although, as I finalize this post, it does appear that Chen will be allowed to come to the US on a student visa.)).

I had certainly found the story interesting since it began, but had no particular thoughts regarding it until I read this New York Review of Books article comparing the Chen story with that of Fang Lizhi, a prominent Chinese dissident who similarly sought refuge in the US embassy following the Tiananmen Square Massacre and eventually settled in the US following similarly tense diplomacy, written by Perry Link, an American academic who was in Beijing at the time and helped Fang in his escape.

Fang, who died just under a month ago at the age of 76, after spending the latter part of his career as a professor of physics at the University of Arizona in Tucson, was a prominent dissident at the time of the 1989 protests, who sought—and received—protection at the US embassy in Beijing when the subsequent crackdown started. Before the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, he was already well enough known to be profiled in this May, 1988 Atlantic Magazine article.

I strongly recommend reading the entire piece, as well as Fang Lizhi’s “Confession” to Deng Xiaoping, and Fang’s own commentary on writing it, which was published in June of last year, also by the New York Review of Books.

I also found Perry Link’s concluding comparison between the Fang incident and the current situation to be quite interesting.

Today, for Chen Guangcheng, the two governments might agree that exile is the least awkward solution from their points of view, but Chen may not accept it. Chinese dissidents have learned over the past two decades that exile leads to a sharp decline in a person’s ability to make a difference inside China. Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who is now in his third year of an eleven-year prison sentence for “subversion,” made it clear after his arrest that he would not accept exile as an alternative to prison. From what friends of Chen in Beijing have been saying in recent days, it seems that Chen is taking a similar position.

Another important difference between the Chen and Fang cases is that Chen has a broader following among average Chinese people than Fang had. Fang was a hero to university students and some intellectuals. But most Chinese did not know him, and what they did hear of him were highly distorted accounts in the government-controlled press. Even before the 1989 crackdown, government television was broadcasting images of government-orchestrated “protests” in which farmers were burning Fang Lizhi in effigy. Many people, having no other sources on Fang, accepted such accounts. Today, though, with the Internet, far greater numbers of Chinese—millions of people including many outside of the big cities—know the true story of Chen than ever knew the story of Fang. And to judge from the many accounts circulating on microblogs and elsewhere, hardly anyone seems to view Chen with anything but sympathy.

But while it does seem likely that Chen has widespread support, I wonder what good that will do for him in America, other than provide a comfortable life for him and his family.

For example, look at how much support the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei received after his own unjust arrest, almost entirely enabled by the Internet. And in his case, not only did he receive the ephemeral support of Tweets and Facebook “likes”, but enough small donations (which the artist categorized as loans to be repaid in the future) from tens of thousands of donors to cover the Chinese government’s punitive taxes and fines (which Ai and his legal team continues to challenge).

But how contingent is that support on the fact that he is staying to fight? While there is no question that Ai Weiei, by all accounts charming and brilliant, would be a darling of intellectual and artistic as a political exile, he would also lose the ability to use his own ongoing on-and-off imprisonment as fodder for political artwork such as his recent and short-lifed self-surveillance “Weiweicam” project.

While much about the Chen Guangcheng case remains murky and mysterious, he does at least seem to wrestling with such a choice. Will he stay in China, despite the risk to himself and—apparently more importantly—his family, or will he seek exile2, where he would undoubtedly be safer and more comfortable((He certainly has plenty of supporters in the US, since if there is one things that the “Pro-life” and “Pro-choice” camps can agree on wholeheartedly, it’s that forced abortions are a bad thing.)), but also risk damaging his own credibility as an activist and his ability to help others.

The NYT had an article on Friday discussing this very possibility, saying “Based on past experience, China is often all too pleased to see its most nettlesome dissidents go into exile, where they almost invariably lose their ability to grab headlines in the West and to command widespread sympathy both in China and abroad.” The article goes on to mention how “If Mr. Chen receives a green light to depart for the United States, he will arrive to find a fractured tribe of Chinese dissidents and pro-democracy advocates shouting over one another.”

This line in particular made me think of a particular book I read several years ago, which had already been on my mind as I was catching up on the past week of Chen Guangcheng related coverage earlier today, In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture, By Geremie R. Barmé. Despite the bland and vague title, a significant portion, or even a majority of the book is devoted to Chinese counterculture and dissident protest, including quite a bit of discussion of the criticism and failure that prominent Chinese dissidents have faced in exile, including from one another.

Among exiled intellectuals for a time there was also a considerable amount of critical reflection on the events of 1989. Yuan Zhiming was another of the writers of River Elegy, the television series that was branded by the government as part of a wave of “cultural nihilism” that contributed to the protests. In an article published in January 1990, Yuan questioned what would have happened in 1989 if the most famous Chinese public intellectuals — Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan, Yan Jiaqi, Chen Yizi, and Su Xiaokang, had “courageously stood forward and led the movement.” He continues his speculation in the tone of a guilty survivor:

If we had formulated some mature, rational and feasible plan of action and organized a democratic front incorporating the students and civilians, if we had worked harmoniously together to struggle for dialogue with the authorities, how would it have turned out? Of course, we may still have been vanquished, but at least we could say we had done everything in our power to prevent defeat. 3

Barmé is also unimpressed with the post-exile efforts of dissident intellectuals, writing:

Prominent intellectuals and students had, bu the very fact of their exile, suffered a serious blow to their credibility. This was particularly so, since it was widely perceived on the mainland that many of the key agitators of 1989 had sought refuge with former imperialist powers (that is, France, England, and the United States((And we could add Japan to this list, which not only sheltered some refugees from China, but also applied pressure on the PRC government during the Fang Lizhi incident, using the carrot of development loans.))) and the KMT government in Taiwan. The mainland authorities were well aware of the jealous reaction of its people to reports of dissidents living off the fat of the land overseas, and the official media took delight in portraying them all as traitors to the nation.4

The remainder of the third chapter deals with this issue in greater depth, and I recommend it to anyone wondering how successful an activist Chen might be in exile.

Even though modern communications has greatly improved the ability of activists and supporters to coordinate better and more secretively across borders, it is hard to imagine how Chen Guangcheng, whose activism so far has largely taken the form of legal action that would be impossible to file from abroad, would be able to continue his activism in any substantial way after reaching NYU. Above, I cited speculation by a sympathetic Chinese intellectual over what would have been different had Fang Lizhi and his compatriots “courageously stood forward and led the movement” rather than accepting exile. In America, Fang was very successful in continuing his career as a physicist, but his post-exile activism was a mere footnote to the exile itself. How might Chen’s career develop if he comes to the US, and how might it develop if he does not?

  1. This 2006 NYT story is a good description of his career and legal troubles up to that point. []
  2. Or asylum, or “rest”, or “study abroad”. []
  3. Pages 51-52 []
  4. Page 44 []
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Death of Detroit: “The Karate Kid” vs. Eminem

I finally got around to seeing The Karate Kid (i.e. last year’s remake starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan) last weekend.

Though not a revolutionary classic of filmmaking by any means, it was still pretty enjoyable and interesting from my perspective. One reason is that it is the only Hollywood film I have seen that captures the modern experience of being an American expat in Asia — particularly of being an American kid coming to Asia. The protagonist, 12-year-old Dre Parker, goes through the same stages of frustration and emergence in Beijing that I went through as a 15-year-old in Osaka. This balances to hilarious effect with the “overawed clueless expat” character of Dre’s mother Sherry, who spends most of the movie fawning on the wonderfulness of everything Chinese.

The other interesting facet of the film is its historical context in the industrial decay of America and simultaneous emergence of China. At the very beginning of the film, Sherry and Dre move from a middle-class existence in Detroit to a middle-class existence in Beijing, and a long portion of the opening credits consists of shots of the decaying metropolis of Detroit. The reason for their move, which is only briefly mentioned in the film, is that Sherry worked at a car factory which closed down, and the only way she could keep working was to transfer to a factory in China. When Dre gets exasperated and wants to go home, Sherry emphatically tells him that they cannot go home because there is nothing left for them.

In short, it’s a movie primarily about a kid overcoming his weaknesses through kung fu discipline, and secondarily about America, China and the expat experience in the 21st century. On the latter point, it does a much less groan-worthy job than the likes of Rising Sun and Gung Ho did during the Japanese emergence of the late 1980s.

The decay of Detroit is, of course, nothing new; there have been a few big movies made on the theme, such as the non-fictional Roger & Me in 1989 and the fictional 8 Mile in 2002. Now Chrysler is using the legacy and the decaying grit of Detroit as selling points for their high-end cars; on Sunday, they ran the following ad during the Super Bowl, which is the most-watched TV program in the US just about every year, and got Eminem to pop in as a spokesman. (Hat tip to James Fallows for the link.)

The ad conveniently ignores the fact that Chrysler will be owned by Italians as soon as it pays off its debts to the US federal government. But hey, image is everything.

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Japanese expats

This chart on Japanese living abroad from Nikkei was too good not to share. When I was going to school in Washington and living in Bangkok, I had a fair amount of experience dealing with Japanese expats. I knew mostly students in DC, so these were by and large people who just wanted to learn enough English to either help them in their get a job after graduating from a Japanese university or earn some promotion points at their companies back home, if they were older.

Bangkok, however, was a different animal entirely. Perhaps because I was looking for work, I had the chance to speak with a lot of recruiters and translation agencies. Many of the Japanese people I met came to Bangkok with long-term plans to stay. For some of the younger people, working as a local employee of a Japanese company was a way around the shukatsu system, while some older men apparently just fell in love with the country (and probably its women as well), not so different from the throngs of British/European men with Thai wives that are common in the city.

There was another recent article in Asahi about how young Japanese are flocking to Shanghai for the job opportunities. I can certainly understand the draw. A big city in a fast-growing, developing country like Bangkok and Shanghai can be very exciting. Bangkok was bustling, full of interesting people from all walks of life, loud, had great food, and was just a treasure trove of new experiences, sights, and smells (some better than others). Add to that a well-paying job and for many it won’t compare to life back home. Compared to that, Tokyo can seem downright dull.

Chart source: Nikkei.com (sub req’d)

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Regarding Sovereignty of the Spratleys, and the threatening neighbor

I have already considered, and rejected, doing some sort of detailed post on this subject (at least for the time being) as there is no shortage of such reporting already, but I did just stumble on one citation that is too good not to post.

From the September, 1941 issue of Pacific Affairs, an article entitled Third Conquest of the Philippines?, begins with a summation of the Japanese threat at that moment, which perhaps sounds a bit hysterical until one recalls that Japan was in fact, at that time, working quite hard to conquer the entire Pacific, and that they would very soon after attack both Hawaii and Manila.

There is a shadow of Japan everywhere you turn your eyes in the Philippines. Stories of Japanese fishing depradations, for instance, are almost a daily routine in the papers. When you hear Philippines independence discussed, Japan and her imperial conquests are mentioned in the same breath. The fact is that Japan’s adventures in Manchuria and China have sent chills down the spines of nationalist Filipinos.[…]

For it is being made apparent in the most realistic fashion that such a political freedom-soon to be realized- may yet expose the Philippines as ripe for spoilation by a powerful militaristic neighbor. This is no chimera or idle preoccupation; it is born of facts which are tell-tale evidence of a Japanese plan of conquest of the entire Asiatic Continent including all the rich island tributaries along the coastline. Japan has methodically followed a very logical course of action. The seizure of Hainan Island at the gateway to French Indo-China gave Japan tactical control of the French and British sea-lane to the East Indies.

And after that introduction, we get to what was to the author of this piece (S.P. Vak, Jr. – a name that could almost be out of Star Wars) probably considered to be an idle aside, but in light of current events I found to be the most fascinating lines.

The seizure of the Spratley Islands has tactically brought Japan near to a complete encirclement of the Philippines. The Spratley Islands are barely 200 miles west of the Palawan group. (It is of interest to cite in this connection a farseeing move on the part of Hon. Elpidio Quirino, who as Secretary of the Interior of the Philippine Government memorialized the State Department at Washington in 1937 for a formal declaration of claims to the Spratleys for national defense purposes. Unhappily, the State Department did not see fit to act ion the question. The islands apparently had no official owners, though geographically the Philippines should have been their rightful claimant.)

While we know from both looking at a map and from the current controversy that “geographically,” claims on the islands by Okinawa or Taiwan (which were both Japanese territory at the time), and China via a more convoluted legal route, also seem quite feasible, but it is interesting to see that this author did not even so much as consider those options.

Let us also take a moment to remember that Japan was also considered somewhat of a trade threat at the time, although hardly on the scale that it was in the 80s, or China is now.

Japanese industrialists employ every possible device to flood the market [note: the Philippine market] with cheap imitations of popular American articles. In 1937, for instance, Japan sold 32 million pesos’ worth of commodities in spite of the high tariff barrier, reaching as high as 65 per cent ad valorem on some articles.

[…]

Japan, fighting tooth and nail for markets, has resorted to all sorts of weapons. She has unscrupulously copied patents and designs which are purportedly American in Origin. Peculiarly Filipino textiles of the Ilocos and Visaya regions, copied on Japanese looms, sell for less than the originals because of the advantages obtained in organization, technology and cheaper cost of labor.

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Breakin’ Supply: Electric Boogaloo

During the spat between China and Japan this week, China made headlines by temporarily cutting off the supply of rare earth metals to Japan, which were necessary for much of Japan’s high-end industrial production. The ban was reportedly repealed later in the week.

More interesting, and unfortunately much less widely reported: in the middle of all this, a publicly-funded Japanese research institute suddenly announced a cheaper alternative to rare-earth motors for hybrid vehicles, which would allow production to continue even if China kept the ban in place.

I want to say that this was a little victory for Japan, but now it’s pretty unsubstantial. So I would call it more of a warning to China: as any country gets more aggressive about screwing over foreign companies through economic restrictions for self-serving reasons, foreign companies will find ways to avoid that country. This is more true in the 21st century than it has ever been. Another good example of this, coincidentally in the same industry, is the recent Chinese rule requiring electric vehicles to be built in foreign-domestic joint ventures. Nissan bit the bullet and moved forward, but Peugeot decided to stand its ground and threatened to move production out of China.

For the comments (since nobody ever comments on economic pieces): Is “rascal” an acceptable translation for 野郎?

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White people for rent – not as innocent-sounding as it seems

A little while ago a story swept the Internet that “white people are available for rent in China.” Apparently, sometimes companies hire Western actors to pretend they’re either visiting foreign businessmen or high-level employees to make a positive impression.

For the purposes of this post, I am assuming the posts and CNN report are basically accurate, though I couldn’t find any corresponding job listings on a cursory Google search.

What surprised me about this story was the cool reaction of much of the reporting and reaction (I’m looking at you, CNN). The dominant explanation seemed to be that white people lend “face” to a company, a characteristic aspect of Chinese culture. But when does getting “face” cross the line into fraud? Sending a fake company representative might sound like a funny sitcom premise, but misrepresenting your company’s operations can have some serious negative consequences. Not that any of this crossed the minds of the winners in the video. By the way, who wears a wifebeater to their CNN interview?

For a case in point, let me point to this Asahi story about securities fraud among startup companies in Japan:

FOI Corp., a maker of chip production devices in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, pretended to have sold products to overseas companies when the goods were actually gathering dust in a warehouse in Machida, Tokyo.

To sell the story of its overseas business, FOI took CPAs abroad where they met the company’s supposed business partners. The translator hired by FOI lied to the accountants about the sales, sources said.

FOI was listed on the Mothers market in November last year after apparently window-dressing accounts starting in fiscal 2003.

The company reported fiscal 2008 sales of about 11.8 billion yen, but investigators suspect that 98 percent of the amount was fictitious. The company is now undergoing bankruptcy procedures.

FOI’s tactics fooled not only the CPAs, but also Mizuho Investors Securities Co., which advised the company on the listing, and the TSE.

I wonder if these “out of work actors” ever checked to see whether they were fronting for a real company. The overseas trips could easily have been to China, maybe even to a phony shop floor with real live white people.

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Chinese Tourists Need Housetraining

Also posted at ComingAnarchy — please weigh in with comments there.

On the summit of Jebel Hafeet, on the border of the UAE and Oman, I found this graffiti — the characters for “China” spray painted on the rock.

jebel hafeet graffiti

I saw similar graffiti in a natural valley in Sapa, Vietnam, back in 2005. As China grows richer, and its citizens find more opportunities for overseas tourism, I guess we should expect more of this kind of vulgar graffiti to pop up in the natural tourist sites of the world.

I’m happy that China’s economic development has created an upwardly mobile middle class that has the opportunity to travel overseas. I just wish they wouldn’t take out their lack-of-modern-empire-penis-envy frustrations on the natural environment of the world. And Japan, perhaps China’s biggest buggaboo, is possibly the biggest target for this graffiti as more and more Chinese tourists flood in to visit its temples, shrines and other monuments.

(It could be worse — at least the Chinese government doesn’t have management over tourist sites outside China, which would be a real disaster for human civilization).

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They know me from internet

Apparently my profile is high enough that someone in China wants to sell me Metal Fun. I guess they finally realized that I don’t need any Viagra?

Dear Sir/Madam,

We know you from internet. Take this opportunity, I want to introduce our company to you. Mingxiang Machinery Manufacturing Co., Ltd. Produce precision casting parts for automobile fitting, architecture machinery, agricultural mechanical fitting and bearing series, and also include the metal parts for doors.

These casting parts with machining have been exported all over the world for 10 years. The quality is the best thing for us in both aspects of metal products and material. But the price is reasonable also shipping is on time.

If you want to know more about us, please feel free to contact us. Hope we can cooperate with you in the near future.

Best Regards,

Herrick
Hangzhou Mingxiang Machine Manufacture CO., LTD.
Tel: 86-571-83869278,83869268
Fax: 86-571-83869258
MSN: hzbusiness@hotmail.com
Skype: Herrick1983
www.precisioncast.com.cn

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