not just a china thing: thoughts on keep’um stupid governance and open access to academic publications

While in Beijing, I have been reading David Campbell’s Politics without Principle: Sovereignty, Ethics, and the Narratives of the Gulf War. I am grateful that Campbell has made a pdf of this important work available online not least because as an unaffiliated intellectual who happens to be based in Shenzhen, internet access structures my encounters to academic work. One would think that US institutions would be working to make more research available to more people, but alas this is not the case. University libraries and the virtual services they subscribe to continue to function as if they had limited paper copies of books and journals –with no lending privileges extended beyond their hedges.

As others have noted, the refusal of universities (and other research institutions) to share intellectual work through open access shamefully illustrates the relationship between the ongoing production of social value and knowledge.

On the one hand, only members of particular institutions can access on-campus resources. In this mindset, the university is thought to “own” the knowledge contained therein. But in fact, what they possess are books, journals, and documents; the knowledge is available to anyone who can read these materials. With virtual copies of any work limited only by interest and access to a computer, clearly not sharing work is a decision that institutions are making to achieve particular goals.

On the other hand, the knowledge produced through engagement with those resources is rarely directly compensated. Instead, universities and research institutions provide conditions for the production of knowledge to which they make proprietary claim. A university after all is only as good as the discoveries made there and so limiting access to institutional affiliates is one way of insuring that an institution’s researchers will do better work than researchers located at less endowed institutions.

Actually, renown and access are mutually implicated in research. This practice is even more pronounced in privatized research for product development. In short, by sequestering research within virtual ivory towers, US American universities have excluded international intellectuals in order to shore up their relative advantage and prestige within global a global knowledge market place.

(Snarky aside, given the relationship between knowledge, prestige and wealth is it any wonder intellectual property rights are so important?)

So why am I thinking about the question of open access?

Much has been made of the great firewall. Often the great firewall is (understandably) marshaled to demonstrate the level of unfreedom in China. In fact, faraway from my home modem here in the capital where Zhou Yongkang is being formally kicked out of the Party, I have unreliable internet service, and when I do have internet service it is often so slow that my proxy server doesn’t work. But here’s the rub. Even when I do have reliable internet service and a happy VPN (as I do back home in Shenzhen), I remain blocked from books and journal articles that would help me (and others) think critically about what is happening around us. There exists a virtual ivory tower around digital documents that prevents me and other independent intellectuals from reading much contemporary research.

The great firewall is part of “keep’um stupid governance (愚民政府)”. It prevents Mainland intellectuals and curious citizens from accessing alternative histories and accounts of ongoing events that do not jive with the Party line du jour. The great firewall not only frustrates many foreigners, but has also come to symbolize the CCP’s determination to control the thoughts and actions of the population.

However — and this is point du jour, the US universities’ refusal to open access to virtual resources serves the same function as the great firewall. Most people are unaware of what it means to be blocked from academic journals and books. Indeed, even with open access it’s difficult to imagine that virtual university libraries would be overrun with virtual users. But that’s in part the point — it wouldn’t matter if they were because a virtual copy is composed of information, not paper, ink and glue. All one needs (and yes this all is huge) is a computer or smart phone or tablet and one could be reading interesting ideas and engaging with broader debates.

Now, I’m pretty clear why the CCP is employing “keep’um stupid government”. But I’m saddened by the fact that US intellectuals and institutions who condemn the Great Firewall are not acting more proactively on open access because the inability to think critically is a learned handicap. Indeed, in too many ways closed access in the US academy is complicit with “keep’um stupid governance”. Inquiring minds want to know– what’s up with that?

cultural smog

I am in Tianjin where the smog is thick. It creates grey on grey cityscapes and irritates eyes and throats. My niece, a lovely and talented young woman jokes that, “Chinese people have iron lungs,” instantly showing up the dystopian anxieties that animate cyberpunk and urban fantasy (as popular literary genres, not simply as lifestyle choices).

I remember similarly edged jokes from my mother’s relatives and friends when we went back to the UP, where iron mining and tree harvesting for the paper mills had reshaped the wild north. “That,” they said with a half apologetic laugh when they glimpsed our pinched noses, “that is the smell of money.”

One of the consequences of industrialization, smog becomes meaningful through the stories we tell about it. My understanding of the relationship between smog and stories jives with Laclau and Mouffe’s elegant reformulation of the opposition between realism and idealism. To paraphrase from Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, a rock exists outside human thought. However, what we do with that rock (place it in a garden or throw it at our neighbor, for example) only becomes meaningful through what they call — following a string of literary minded postmarxist philosophers — discourse.

I take the term discourse to overlap with what anthropologists (especially after Geertz) have understood by the term culture. Culture comprises the patterns through which we “make sense” out of all we encounter. Was it a wink or a blink? Culture tells us that that flick of the eyelid was a message (oo la la), while another was just the body doing its thing (keeping the cornea moist). The critical edge to discourse analysis or critical ethnography lies in acknowledging that there is stuff undulating beyond and lapping against the beaches of coherence, stuff which can only be recognized and acted upon through the stories we tell about the world (his eye started twitching after he went to war; that flick of the eyelid is neither a flirt nor a natural function, but a symptom of post traumatic stress disorder).

So back to smog stories.

One smog story is the price of doing business. Industrial manufacturing produces smog, along with paper, toys, and smart phones. This smog story tells us that pollution is the inevitable outcome of modernization and modernization benefits society as a whole. However, when we talk about Chinese iron lungs, we are accepting smog as the inevitable consequence of industrialization. And perhaps in a one to one trade this would make some kind of equitable sense, if for example the people breathing in the smog actually could purchase relatively cheap paper, toys, and smart phones. But those high-quality cheap goods are shipped overseas. Instead, in Tianjin we are left with smog, shoddy goods and overpriced, possibly counterfeit products. This explains why those residents who can make shopping trips to Hong Kong and South Korea do so.

Consequently, another smog story alludes to the resentment that Hong Kong residents feel for the numbers of Mainland visitors who have reshaped the SAR’s tourist and commercial landscapes. These visitors are used to spending a lot for dodgy goods; paying the same price for certified products (or can be trusted products as they are known in Mandarin) is a no-brainier. The result, however, has been to drive up local prices, making it more expensive for Hong Kong people to purchase items. Hong Kong people who aren’t benefitting from this cross-border trade understandably don’t like a process which lowers their quality of life. Meanwhile, those who are getting richer from the process go shopping in the US, Canada, and Europe. In this sense, Mainland cross border tourism to Hong Kong is like Tianjin smog stories. A few people are enjoying the profits and everybody else is sucking up the carcinogens.

But people are not carcinogens and so this is where the story gets complicated, why why why inquiring mind want to know do we put up with systems that run on carcinogens and distrust?

Most smog stories split the narrative along cultural lines. I have heard Hong Kong people complain that “they” let children pee off a train in public spaces. And I have heard Mainlanders say scornfully, “they” were colonial slaves and didn’t do anything about it then, so what’s the fuss now? But in fact these stories are interwoven. Many Hong Kong people I’ve spoken with don’t understand the extent to which ordinary Mainland people have paid the physical price for the SAR’s prosperity and relatively clean environment. Similarly, many Mainland friends don’t know that there were protests in Hong Kong during the 1960s and are only vaguely aware that Hong Kong people have kept the memory of Tiananmen politically alive.

Breathing smog hurts. Today, I’m wondering how we might clear the air both here and there when we’re telling different smog stories.

occupy central: it’s not what you think

The US press, like many of my Chinese friends have focused on what the Hong Kong protestors won’t accomplish. This focus on future violence against students completely ignores the courageous possibilities that are offered in the present.

The assumption of inevitable state violence empowers the establishment because it accepts as already a fact state violence against unarmed students. In other words, assuming future defeats legitimates violence that has not yet happened. It is a form of ideological compliance in which it “makes more sense” for the government to attack its citizens than it does for government representatives to sit down and talk with them. This assumption of future violence also compels police officers to attack unarmed, non violent citizens, rather than protect them because it scripts only one response to civil disobedience.

The students have offered us a space for thinking of alternatives to state violence and fearful compliance. As older — and by no means wiser — citizens, we have a responsibility to pause and take note. Yes, the world can be otherwise, but only when we stop thinking we know what will happen and open ourselves to what is unfolding in the present moment.

Images from Tuesday night, October 14 and Friday morning, October 17, 2014.

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international community. china?

Over the weekend CZC curated a cultural exchange between the Dalang Street Office and Peter Moser of more music. A talented and inspirational music facilitator, Pete asks questions that go to the heart of community work — why this, why here? And the ever vexed question for moi (especially in light of the Hong Kong protests) — where do we draw the line between doing our work and our work becoming complicit with Party goals of social control at the expense of democracy and economic justice?

In Dalang, CZC collaborated with Luki, a young cultural functionary who studied dance and music at Shenzhen University. At the Dalang Street Office, he is responsible for organizing cultural events. For Pete’s visit, Luki packed the two days with tours of Dalang public cultural spaces, including a library (4-500 users a day), the Yangtai Mountain, the Girl’s school, Qilin Museum, and Dalang Idol which is located in the busiest commercial area in Dalang and is itself comprised of converted factories. Pete also had one afternoon with two hakka singers and then a full day with the Dalang Migrant Worker Choir.

Dalang has a migrant population of roughly 300,000 workers and several thousand locals. (Dalang is the most populated Street Office in Longhua New District has a population of 500,000 and 8,000 locals.) Inspired by social economist Li Jinkui (at Beijing Institute for Economic Research in Shenzhen University Town), Dalang has been pushing “the 3rd 8 hours” program. Roughly speaking that program involves providing cultural opportunities — vocational training, libraries, parks, and singing — for migrant workers during their down time. According to Vice Party Secretary of Dalang, the Street Office realizes that most migrants won’t stay in Dalang, either going back home or moving to more developed areas of Shenzhen. They hope to plant cultural seeds, so that when workers leave they will take change with them wherever they go. Not unexpectedly, the Street Office’s investment in public culture has had the bonus effect of keeping workers in place — many have said that Dalang is one of the best area’s to be a worker.

In fact, there is a tight relationship between Dalang Idol and the choir. Luki started Dalang Idol to provide a Saturday evening open mike. It proved so popular and some of the workers were so talented that the became members of the choir, which is directed by Mrs. Huang. Choir members are paid for rehearsal time and performances, which makes the choir semi-professional. Today, Dalang Idol has weekly open mikes, monthly competitions for week champions, and then an annual final for the month champions. Dalang invites representatives from the Municipal Ministry of Culture, TV stations and newspapers in order to make the competition a jumping board for young talents. Luki is currently lobbying to start up a local recording studio.

Observing Pete facilitate new music reminded me how necessary creative education is. Although the Hakka singers emphasized, for example, that traditional their mountain songs were part of a spontaneous call and response tradition, nevertheless that afternoon, they had to be coaxed into trying something new, even something based on their repertoire. The young workers had more time with Pete and were less committed to a repertoire, but also had to be convinced that they could collaborate in creating new music, to take ownership of their own creativity.

And this confidence is the necessary first step to encouraging reform — political, economic, social, educational — any reform that enhances human lives. Pete says he encourages “positive resonances” through his music. When we trust creativity and beauty the world does improve. The problem of course is fascist impulses to control other lives and reap the harvest of others’ creativity. And for cultural workers, we are almost by definition complicit because in many ways we embody much of the best our cultures. After all, even when we teach critical theory, we do so through standardized linguistic forms that both legitimate and are legitimated by our credentials from famous universities and such.

Back in the day, when I was a college student studying Mandarin in Taipei, I happened across a banner that read, “Welcome Asian Brothers and Representatives from Japan”. The banner was red and the characters bulky white, an aesthetic that I have also encountered in the Mainland. I remember nothing about where the banner was (a hotel?) and what kind of event it announced (a trade conference?), but the phrasing has stayed with me almost thirty years. At the time, I laughed with friends about the determination to keep Japan separate from Asia, but today — as I think of how I work with many Party members and government officials in order to create cultural interventions — I wonder: would acknowledging that Japan is part of Asia have made the event organizers complicit with the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, as Japan’s imperial project was spun in government propaganda? I mean, what’s really at stake when we engage “the enemy”, especially if we, like Pogo, have looked into the mirror and he is us?

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The song that Pete facilitated with the Dalang Migrant Worker Choir, below (translation follows):

Step by Step

年轻的地方 一个大家庭 让梦想飞翔 跟着太阳的光芒
我们在一起 我们在成长 step by step by step

乡路十八弯 一身白衣泪满面 月亮照进梦里面 奶奶煮汤圆 (合唱:奶奶煮汤圆)

那年的夏天 穿着白衬衣黑裤子 带上姥姥做的周豆腐 来到美丽异乡的大浪 (合唱:来到美丽异乡的大浪)

年轻的地方 一个大家庭 让梦想飞翔 跟着太阳的光芒
我们在一起 我们在成长 step by step by step

那年那天的早上 穿着皮鞋和西装 喜气洋洋离开村庄 来城里闯荡 国家繁荣富强 我们共同的愿望 (合唱:我们共同的愿望)

一件T恤穿身上 望着韶关的方向 读了大学校 追着梦想的方向 (合唱:追着梦想的方向)

年轻的地方 一个大家庭 让梦想飞翔 跟着太阳的光芒
我们在一起 我们在成长 step by step by step

A youthful place A great big family Let dreams fly Follow the sun’s rays
We’re together We’re growing up Step by step by step

There are eighteen twists in a country road
Wearing a white shirt, crying
The moon shines into your dreams
Where grandma makes sweet rice balls

That summer day
Wearing a white dress shirt, black slacks
I carried grandma’s smelly tofu
All the way to beautiful, but foreign Dalang

A youthful place A great big family Let dreams fly Follow the sun’s rays
We’re together We’re growing up Step by step by step

The morning of that day
Wearing leather shoes and business suit
I happily left the village
To take on the city
The country is prosperous and strong
We share a common dream

Wearing a t-shirt
I headed to Shaoguan
I went to college
I’m still following my dreams

A youthful place A great big family Let dreams fly Follow the sun’s rays
We’re together We’re growing up Step by step by step

the violence of rural (re)construction (5): lessons from shenzhen

So what am I learning about Shenzhen through my engagement with Meizhou forced evictions and the young people who are trying to figure out how to articulate new relations to their Hakka past and rural injustice?

First, I see more clearly the ideological work that Shenzhen performs within the national landscape.

On the one hand, although the transfer of land use rights from peasant collectives to the municiple government has been fraught and inconsistent (we are after all talking about alienating peasants from their traditional livelihoods and identities), nevertheless, the majority of compensation packages have enabled former peasants to find new lives for themselves within the city. These lives are not all happily ever after, but most have achieved solidly upper middle class lives. If there is grumbling it is over not being rich enough. Notable successes include old folk activity centers and scholarships for young villagers to study abroad. In Meizhou this model of rural urbanization is what villagers aspire to, although clearly they will accept much less.

On the other hand, the problems that have come with instant peasant wealth have shown up how little is available to help former villagers to transition for debased agricultural labor to having the option of choosing not to work. The failures of Shenzhen’s transition from village to city include drug addiction, mah jahng gambling bankruptcies, ennui, and a sense of arrogant entitlement that leads to grey accusations of rape and abuse that are and are not acknowledged. In Meizhou these negative examples are used by developers and some government officials to justify outrageously under compensating villagers for their land use rights.

Second, the can’t return, don’t belong syndrome of young Hakka migrants in particular, but also first generation Shenzhen migrants in general seems central to their involvement in preservation projects. They are looking for a homeland and it is not Shenzhen. How this orientation to the city will shape future decisions, I don’t know. However, it seems clear that to integrate young first generation migrants into the urban fabric, Shenzhen will have to do more than announce that “You are a Shenzhener when you arrive”.

Third, I sensed both outrage and resignation in the face of forced migrations and the scale of injustice currently informing rural urbanization in neidi. Moreover, this tension is linked to the difficulties of actually stopping the urban juggernaut. At times it seems that at every front — political, economic and cultural — there are no toeholds, no possible interventions that can be glossed as hopeful rather than quixotic. Thus, I find poignant nobility in their efforts to rethink class inequalities and possible social interventions.

All in all, Meizhou is reminding me how diverse the Chinese social landscape is. These differences have been created over the past thirty plus years by redeploying tha Maoist apparatus to capitalist ends. In the present, this diversity has been deployed by different levels of government to achieve dissimilar and sometimes antagonistic goals. Thus, village corporations in Shenzhen operate in a political terrain that recognizes their right to represent and work for the prosperity of former villagers. In contrast, the Meizhou government has chosen to unmake rural society through naked alienation of traditional rights, without providing any means to integrate these villagers into urban society.


The protest banner reads, “Land is expropriated one time, but being stuck [in the peasant class] is forever. The key cultural reference in the banner is 翻身, which William Hinton left untranslated in the classic account or China’s revolution, Fanshen. Character by character the expression means “turn over / body” and referred to the revolutionary transformation of peasant life under the communists.

The other five entries in this series are:

Part I/ Meizhou: The Violence of Rural Reconstruction

Part II/ Meizhou: Hoodlum Government

Part III/ Meizhou: Living Genealogies

Part IV: Meizhou: What Gets Preserved

Meizhou VI/ Meizhou: Selected Translations

the violence of rural (re)construction (4): what gets preserved

Monday I joined the Meizhou preservationists in Enning Neighborhood Guangzhou, where we met to talk about how we could intervene in what was happening in Meizhou. There were two issues at stake. The first was straight-forward lay human rights–how do we help people keep their homes or guarrante a replacement home? The second was more abstract–what kind of buildings and spaces “ought” to be preserved for their historic value?

A great distance separated these two issues. First, was the matter of class. We are urban residents who worked in various culture industries. The people in Meizhou are peasants who either take day jobs or farm threatened plots. Second was the fact of generation. We are a group primarily comprised of twenty and thirty something young people. The people in Meizhou are older or younger. Indeed, most of the village young people are working in factories or service in cities (Guangzhou and Shenzhen), while their parents take care of preschool children back home. Third was the illusive question of “representativeness”, or what buildings might actually preserve Hakka culture.

These issues have emerged in the cracks of rural disintegration and it’s replacement with a fractured modernity.

Previously, the expression 家乡 (jiā xiāng) described the taken-for-granted experience of a Chinese hometown. 家 of course means home and 乡 refers to land. Within imperial administration, a xiang was also a quasi-official alliance of villages. According to this world, one’s home was a particular place that was shared by an extended family network of grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins distant and near, as well as the location of an ancestral hall and the rites that constantly re-embedded a lineage into a specific landscape.

At present, policies and real estate development mean that the institutions and life ways that traditionally joined jia and xiang are being sundered. On the one hand, peasants have been alienated from their land rights. They have equity in the buildings on the land, but have lost the legitimacy to determine how land will be used and allocated. This means that one’s home (家) no longer is directly to one’s country (乡). On the other hand,young people leave to find work elsewhere. Many remit money to parents and siblings (usually sisters support brothers), but set up relatively independent households elsewhere.

These first generation immigrants yearn for a place to belong. They are vexed by what a friend described as “not being able to enter and not being able to return (进不去,回不去). She feels excluded from Shenzhen where she went to college and found a job, and distanced from her birth village. Importantly, although these first generation migrants identify with their hometowns, many of their children do not. Instead, they identify with their birth cities–Shenzhen for example, and more easily accept the “floating (漂)” sense of rootlessness that distresses their parents.

Approximately two-thirds of our group are first generation migrants from Meizhou to either Shenzhen or Guangzhou. They want to preserve some place back “home” where their children and grandchildren can make pilgrimages and learn about being Hakka. The Hakka are historically “guests” (literally “guest families/ lineages) in a strange land, and so there is a poignancy to their venture. Those with ancestral halls want in the best case to preserve their ancestral hall, in the next best case, they want to preserve as many ancestral halls as possible. Of course, this question abandons the question of peasant land rights. And there’s the painful rub.

The young preservationists and the villagers are differently invested in the homelands of Meizhou. Both groups identify as “Hakka”, but have different class alliances and different need of the land. Crudely put, for the preservationists the ancestral halls are placeholders for an imagined sense of belonging. In contrast, for the villagers, they are watching construction teams bulldoze their fields and demolish their homes. Finding common ground — in all senses of the term — is the conundrum that confronts us with painful urgency.

Impressions below.

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The other five entries in this series are:

Part I/ Meizhou: The Violence of Rural Reconstruction

Part II/ Meizhou: Hoodlum Government

Part III/ Meizhou: Living Genealogies

Part V/ Meizhou: Lessons from Shenzhen

Meizhou VI/ Meizhou: Selected Translations

the center besieged…

In several of my WeChat circles, an excerpt from the snarky classic, Fortress Besieged (围城) by Qian Zhongshu has been activated by those sympathetic to the Hong Kong students. It is however not unequivocal support, after all Fang Hongjian was not so much a hero, as a first generation off the farm urbanite caught between competing value systems, not quite at home in either China or the West. Conflicted and going about causing conflicts, intentionally and not, as he tries to live his life in Republican Shanghai. I have roughly translated the passage below:

Fang Hongjian returned from studying abroad and began to challenge the system of arranged marriage. His father was a local gentry, impervious and coarse. However, his son was already grown up and the father did have some scruples. After thinking the matter over, he made a harsh statement, “Free love is fine, but you have to chose from among the village girls I introduce you to. Otherwise, there’s no marriage to speak of. Prepare yourself to be a bachelor!” In response, Fang Hongjian said that he would die before following his father’s order. None of the village brothers and uncles understood, and everyone had something to say on the matter, but they did agree on one point: it was a shame that wealthy Mr. Fang had spent so much money to educate his son. If he had known how it was going to turn out, it would have been better to share the wealth with everyone. Many unmarried uncles and brothers also silently wondered if Fang Hongjian would clear a path for them. Then nobody would have to marry a woman chosen by their father, instead they wanted to go to the provincial capital and choose a pretty college girl…


Indeed, published almost 70 years ago, the passage uncannily anticipates the situation in Hong Kong and the emotional dissonance separating many Mainlanders and Hong Kong people. I have talked with many Mainlanders who feel that Hong Kong has had too many special privileges, and inexplicably they want more, as if they were westerners and not (in keeping with the metaphor) fellow villagers. Yet there are also generation and education gaps. Many young people in Shenzhen (tentatively like the silent wishes of the unmarried brothers and uncles) and many overseas students (enthusiastically like Fang Hongjian) support the students and their goal of universal sufferage. The passage also highlights the cultural political stakes in the transition from rural tradition to urbane modernity because individual desire has replaced filial duty as the meaning of a man’s life (and yes, it was a book about the changing measures of men’s lives). Suddenly, the older generation is displaced by a world outside their control. But that’s the rub. They’re not going quietly and don’t see any reason they should.

Fortress Besieged has also shaped young Hong Kong’s understanding of youth, it’s transformations and challenges. Below the song, “Fortress Besieged” by Hong Kong band, KOLOR:

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