Yesterday, I participated in a day-long conference to promote environmentalism. I think I was invited for some combination of two reasons: I’m a recognized foreign friend of the city and anthropologists tell better stories than scientists do. Although technically, I’m a scientist, too! (Social science for the win–hee!) Anyway, the other guests have been diligently working alongside and via the government apparatus to create green spaces throughout the city. Event host, Nan Zhaoxu 南兆旭, for example, wrote The Shenzhen Natural History Encyclopedia 深圳自然博物百科 and event organizer, Meng Xiangwei 孟祥伟 has been director of the OCT Wetlands Field School since its establishment seven years ago. Their efforts have been instrumental in elevating district-level events to municipal, provincial and even national levels, not only contributing to Shenzhen’s status as China’s greenest first-tier city, but also to getting environmental sustainability on the city’s urban planning laundry list.
So, now you’re wondering: what was my takeaway from the event? Just how sustainable is Shenzhen’s environment? And what can environmentally conscious people do via an apparatus that is structured to sustain a political environment, rather than an economic let alone non-human environment? Unfortunately my thoughts are not so grand. Instead, I ended up thinking about the cultural forms of environmentalism:
I recently downloaded this sheet of Covid stickers and emoticons. I really like them because they reference specific features of Shenzhen’s experience during the February and March 2022 Omicron outbreak. However, I haven’t yet used any of them because I’m feeling nervous about being called out for cultural incompetence if I misuse them. Or even more scary is that I won’t be called out and I’ll just continue making the same mistake over and over again. That said, I don’t actually want to use emoticons enough that I am willing to learn how to use them by stumbling along and making mistakes. And there’s the rub: emoticons don’t actually resonate with me. They’re just part of a dialect that I recognize has overtaken me, but even so, I haven’t really put in any effort to learn.
So why don’t I emote-icon with confidence? What am I missing when chosen family and friends insert emoticons into a dialog? And why do I feel more comfortable writing in 普通话 than I do texting in either English or Mandarin?
人才是第一资源。古往今来，人才都是富国之本、兴邦大计。我说过，要把我们的事业发展好，就要聚天下英才而用之。要干一番大事业，就要有这种眼界、这种魄力、这种气度。Talent is the first resource. Through the ages, talented people have been the foundation of a country's wealth as well as great plans to rejuvenate the country. I have said that to develop our cause, we should gather talents from all over the world and use them. To realize a great cause, we must have this vision, this courage and this bearing. -- Xi Jinping, 2018
In some of my more fanciful moments, I imagine Confucius and Ignatius Loyola sitting down together to talk education, “Just how,” they muse, “do we cultivate the kinds of people we need to properly govern/ shepherd our people?” They agree to disagree about just how the will of god/ heaven should–and they enjoy a frisson of pleasure as they impose their shoulds on young bodies–manifest locally, but they share the supremely feudal idea that the purpose of education is to cultivate talents who will be of use to god/ heaven and the king/ emperor. And yes, the idea of education as a means of cultivating particular kinds of ideological subjects is feudal, directly contradicting the modern idea that the purpose of education is to cultivate enlightened and independent thinkers. (How feudal our minds are is topic for another post. Maybe.) Anyway, this is why it makes sense that before the protestant evangelicals sailed into Victoria Harbor, HK on the ships of predatory traders, Jesuits enjoyed over two hundred years of pleasant chats with Confucian scholars about grandiose topics, such as wither the world? (Check out The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire by Thomas Reilly for an insightful account of why Matteo Ricci and his Jesuit brethren received warm welcome in Beijing, whereas the protestant mission was criminalized because it informed rebellion.)
To believe or not to believe? China has a “Big White Earth God Shrine” corona test site. Is it performance art or is it an actual test site? After all, zero-Covid is based on science, not irrational commitment to a political policy, which in practice looks a lot like, well, in practice zero-Covid looks a lot like folk religion:
When I speak with U.S. Americans about China’s commitment to zero-Covid, I find myself comparing it to north American support for second amendment rights. We are no longer talking about a policy that is or is not working, but rather about a belief that the country itself is in danger. In China, the central government is acting as if any form of living with Covid will harm the country more than disrupting daily life for millions of people; and many agree. Similarly, the NRA acts as if the foundations of U.S. American democracy will be permanently damaged by background checks on people who want to purchase guns; and many agree. In both cases, what seems from the outside as an irrational escalation of commitment to an outdated policy, from the inside looks like a fight to maintain an imperiled way of life.
Yesterday, Xinhuashe circulated #动态清零怎么看怎么干# (image below), which translates as #how to understand and implement dynamic zero-Covid. Inside the parentheses, the question is raised: “if so many countries are ‘lying down,’ #why are we persisting with dynamic zero-Covid#? The answer to the question hinges on how population governance works in China. According to the article to which the weibo tweet refers, there are over 50 million elderly Chinese who have not yet been vaccinated. They are all vulnerable to catching and dying from Covid. Anyone who doesn’t comply with current protocols is (implicitly) threatening the health of those 50 million elders. Indeed, the rhetorical power of these tweet hinges on an unspoken assumption: what is more anti-social than threatening the lives of elders? Thus, alternative opinions on how the outbreak should be handled are not simply debates about public health protocols, but also and more importantly pose a serious challenge to social stability because they are intrinsically anti-social behaviors.
In trying to think through the logic behind the connections between public debate about health protocols and social stability, re-reading Susan Greenhalgh‘s work on population governance has proven incredibly useful. Her basic point is that the politics of reproduction is a key feature of modern government, especially how we imagine embodied relationships between past and future. Population governance touches on all aspects of citizen rights and obligations, specifically access to birth control and abortion. However, during the late 20th century, population governance has expanded to include how societies organize access to healthcare, economics (workforce ratios), environmental issues (population densities) and the meaning of human life (gerontology as an expanding field of study, for example). Population governance also shows up how eugenics have shaped modern politics throughout the world. In other words, population governance has become central not only to how we imagine ourselves as belonging (or not) to society, but also to how governments justify which public health programs to pursue and how to implement them.
This past week, the story of Xiao Huamei, the woman who gave birth to eight children under suspicious circumstances has unleashed other stories about human trafficking in rural China and the complicity of low-level government officials, who have overlooked obvious violations of Chinese law to facilitate…what? Chinese public opinion has focused on the Xuzhou government’s inept handling of the case, outraged at their indifference to the rights of women and children. Family life, they rightly assume, should be a safe place for all members. I’ve been thinking the question is worthy of a dissertation: Why has it been so important for marginalized rural men to marry that local and regional officials, not to mention family and friends, have ignored the illegality of these households for decades? Xiao Huamei’s videotaped answer is quite clear, “This world doesn’t want us.”
My inner North Americanwants to snark: are these incels with Chinese characteristics? But this is bitter humor, a laugh that obscures as much as it reveals about cultural difference and demographic transition. On the one hand, China’s rural wife-purchasers, like North American incels seem to truly believe that they are owed a woman, albeit to satisfy different desires. And in both China and North America questions of women’s roles continue to be framed in terms of men’s needs. Sigh.
On the other hand, these Chinese and north American forms of male chauvinism and misogyny are cultivated in and deployed to sustain different communities. In rural China, for example, the network of traffickers who have supplied women and the family, friends and officials who have made sure (both actively and through negligence) women don’t escape share beliefs about the filial obligation to continue family lines, which are traced from father to son. In these narratives, women are means to masculine ends–the birth of a son and social coming of age. It is a generalized value judgement, held by many who oppose human trafficking. For example, rural wives who don’t give birth are known as “hens who can’t lay (下不了鸡蛋的).” It is an ugly, dismissive label that emphasizes a woman’s reproductive function without or despite her rights as a human being. In contrast, participants in north American online forums where young men are groomed and radicalized share ideas about how sexual intercourse makes men out of boys. In these narratives, women are means to masculine ends–by ejaculating into a vagina a boy comes of age. It is also a generalized value judgement, held even by those who maintain that consent is fundamental to healthy sexual relations. A north American woman, for example, who doesn’t put out is known as a bitch. And yes, the short linguistic jump from not putting out to being put down hovers at the tips of our collective tongues. Incels, many now suggest, are terrorist threats, even as Chinese intellectuals and urban residents continue to frame the nation’s problems in terms of improving the quality of its rural population.
Here’s a story for a Monday morning: My husband and I recently bought a condo in Dali, where we plan to retire. This past Chinese New Year, we opened the condo, calling the gas company to send someone over to connect our gas line. A team of three people showed up. The best dressed of the group carried a clipboard and explained to us what was happening. One of the electricians set to connecting the line. The third was there to oversee the young man making the connection and insure that he didn’t make any mistakes. The entire process–explaining, connecting, and checking the connection–took about ten minutes. Once they had finished their work, they moved on to the next condo.
I found it ridiculous to send three people to complete the job. However, when I told a 20-something friend this story she half-jokingly responded, “Wow, Dali is really efficient!” She then told me that most government and central enterprises had an even higher ratio of bureaucrats and supervisors to actual workers. At her company, she explained, actual work didn’t start until Wednesday because on Monday mornings top level executives met to decide on the week’s work, Monday afternoons, vice-executives informed managers of their responsibilities, on Tuesday mornings, managers further refined jobs for office heads, and then on Tuesday afternoon, office heads assigned tasks to actual workers. I laughed (as I was supposed to) and then clarified, “You’re exaggerating, right?” And she said, “Not really. There are at least four or five levels of management above my level, where the work actually happens. Even in Shenzhen, it has all become too guanliao.”
This year I was in the Chinese northland during the first week of the Trump presidency, a fact which had me thinking about national geographies of opportunity and despair. (Honestly, how could I resist when we were celebrating the Year of the Cock?!) Of note? The pride and resentment, wellbeing and jealousy that I encountered in the Chinese interior resonated with my experience of the American heartland, where my parents were born, even as the valuation of Shenzhen and other southern cities seemed much like American valuations of the progressive northeast, where I was raised. Continue reading →
100 rmb notes and US C notes go together like boy and girl, like modernity and tradition, like Mao Zedong and Benjamin Franklin, like officialdom (guanfang) and society (minjian), like yang and yin. I was thinking about how in Shenzhen du jour tradition is being (re)constituted through economic reform–specifically, I was thinking about how tradition has become the vehicle that naturalizes the demolition of (unnatural) urbanized villages in a city long described as “lacking history,” and this matched New Years set shows up on the entrance to my apartment building. As with many symbols of Chimerica, gender suggests the multiple forms of power that create particular subject positions, especially in the figuring of ideal relationships, where even if the male, head-of-house holds money that is ostensibly worth less than the female, nevertheless, in Chimerica East the primacy of renminbi makes sense (cents) precisely because “tradition” keeps us in place.