life is elsewhere

These past few days back in Shenzhen, I have had several conversations about the fact that so many Chinese families are sending their children abroad to study. Moreover, since the point is to get the children out of China, the consensus seems to be, the sooner the children leave, the better and so more and more families are sending their only children to boarding schools.

The reasons are many — better education, better job opportunities, better environment, healthier food, more access to information — but all boil down to the perception that life is better in the United States than it is in China. This is also a sentiment I’ve heard from thoughtful American friends, who are frustrated by the lack of public accountability and trust in public projects (mostly overbuilding for profit) in both Shenzhen and the interior.

By sending their children abroad, friends and colleagues make a clear statement about their confidence in Shenzhen’s future. The situation has me wondering whether or not it is wise to remain in China. What’s more, these doubts seem more pervasive than previously. Cetainly it’s ironic that just as Shenzhen seems to have made the international headlines, the elite — both economic and academic — are opting out of the Shenzhen dream.

it’s not in the mail — hee!

The other day, the department secretary attempted to mail copies of Architectural Worlds and two packs of playing cards to a friend in Switzerland. The journal went through, however, the cards did not. The reason given was that it is illegal to send playing cards through the post because they are used for gambling. Who knew?

It is legal to print, transport, and sell playing cards in China. Indeed, there are decks designed specifically for collectors. But there are no decks of cards in Chinese post offices — except perhaps for those in the hands of postal workers who are relaxing over a game or two!

According to Item 37 of the Chinese Postal Code (第三十七条  任何单位和个人不得利用邮件寄递含有下列内容的物品) the list of seven types of materials that cannot be mailed are: (1) treasonous materials; (2) state secrets; (3) false information that contributes to social unrest; (4) materials that inflame inter-ethnic hatred; (5) propaganda on behalf of cults or superstitions; (6) smut, gambling, and terrorist materials, and (7) any other content that is not in compliance with Chinese law. The complete postal code, along with the list of items that cannot be shipped in the Chinese post  is online.

dec 2012: more hukou rumors

According to a knowledgeable friend, Shenzhen’s latest census results indicate that the city’s population has breached 17 million. However, the number of residents with hukou remains between 2 and 3 million. In other words, although the population continues to grow and despite liberalizing hukou regulations, nevertheless, the hukou population has remained relatively static.

What’s going on?

Another at the table said that although the regulations had been liberalized, nevertheless, applications had bottle-necked at different ministries and offices. The common denominator seems to be that its not enough to have fulfilled the requirements, but one must somehow exceed those requirements, offering something that will enhance Shenzhen’s statistical profile.

This rumor echoed similar rumors that I have heard about education. Although Shenzhen schools are required to admit waidi (outside) students in their cachment area, nevertheless, schools often refuse to admit these students unless they are incredibly talented and likely to produce results. Importantly, people emphasize that its not possible simply to buy one’s way into a school because teachers’ salaries and school rankings are at stake — no one wants to waste their time on students who will drag down class and school averages.

The general point seems to be that simply having money isn’t enough to buy one’s way into Shenzhen; one must also add cultural value to get in with the in crowd.

top ten concepts of shenzhen

On November 28, I participated in a symposium to celebrate the English language edition of Top Ten Concepts of Shenzhen (深圳十大观念 for Chinese i-pad version).

The production, organization and publication of the Top Ten have been very Shenzhen, so to speak. The Publishing House of Shenzhen Press Group (深圳报业集团出版社) created an online website, where people could vote for the slogans and campaigns that they though best represent the city’s history. These slogans and campaigns were then re-presented (re-issued?) as concepts that epitomize Shenzhen’s values and way of thinking. Thus, in his preface, Guangdong Provincial Committee Standing Member and Shenzhen Party Secretary, Wang Rong, “[T]he top 10 concepts are the concrete manifestation of the era’s zeitgeist and a vivid imprint of the reform and opening-up program.”

The ideological slippage from political slogans and campaigns to civic values and zeitgeist interests me because it points to Shenzhen’s simultaneously fraught and co-dependent relationship with Beijing. On the one hand, experimentation in Shekou and early Shenzhen legitimated ongoing policy debates in the Chinese capital. On the other hand, the Shenzhen model, specifically and the Guangdong model more generally continue to be at slight odds with the rest of the country. Specifically, Shenzhen continues to advocate a managerial approach to governance, promoting not simply business, but also entrepreneurship and a vibrant grassroots economy.

Two of the slogans did, in fact, challenge prevailing political currents and concomitant power structure. Yuan Geng provided the two most obvious examples — “Time is money, efficiency is life” (1981) and “Empty talk endangers the nation, practical work brings prosperity” (1992). The first was a clear challenge to the Maoist planned economy. The second not only expressed Shekou’s ongoing support of Reform policies, but also the industrial zone’s continued advocacy of talented young people with alternative ideas. The Top Ten discussion of “Empty talk” introduces the history of the Shekou Storm. At the time, Yuan Geng emphasized that while Beijing officials blathered on about ideology, Shekou youth were building the future. The decision to erect the “Empty talk” billboard in the aftermath of the June 4th Incident was especially telling because Shekou actively hired transferred hukou of intellectuals who had been sidelined for their support of students.

Nevertheless, thirty years later, those same slogans uncannily echo neo-liberal values throughout the world. “Time is money” quickly looses its oppositional potential when we remember that in Shenzhen, workers’ wages have not kept up with the price of housing; many white-collar workers are also unable to purchase homes. Likewise, “Empty talk” no longer seems  an effort to protect those with alternative ideas as it does the instruction to “suck it up”. It is therefore unsurprising that concepts 3-10 express the municipality’s ongoing efforts to promote neo-liberal neo-confucianism. More to the point, these concepts clearly resonate with Wang Yang’s call to deepen and extend neo-liberalism not only in Guangdong, but also throughout the rest of China.

I’m thinking that it is thus best to read the Top Ten as a list of double-edged swords. As political campaigns and slogans, the concepts reflect contemporaneous power games. “Shenzhen embraces the world”, for example, was a blatant attempt to justify outrageous spending on the 2011 Universiade, while “You’re a Shenzhener once you come” is the self-serving motto of the Shenzhen Volunteer Association; what exactly does it mean that everyone is a Shenzhener when less than 1/5 of the population has a Shenzhen hukou? However, when understood as exemplars of civic values and a city’s zeitgeist, the concepts illuminate cracks within the power structure and spaces for alternative practices, both in business and everyday life. Indeed, it would be wonderful if these slogans/values might in turn reshape Shenzhen’s neo-liberal juggernaut, creating spaces for legitimate political opposition and open debate on whither the next thirty years of reform.

The top ten concepts are: Time is money, efficiency is life; Empty talk endangers the nation, practical work brings prosperity; Dare to become the world’s first; Reform and innovation are the root and soul of Shenzhen; Let Shenzhen be respected for its enthusiasm for reading; Innovation encouraged and failure tolerated; Fulfilling the cultural rights of citizens; The fragrance of the rose lingers on the hand that gives; Shenzhen embraces the world; and You’re a Shenzhener once you come here.

China Daily and Shenzhen Daily coverage of the symposium online.

blue star blues

Yesterday, Ministry of Tofu translated a Southern Daily article about a Shenzhen elementary school teacher who marked students faces with blue stamps for misbehavior. They also published samples of weibo responses to this practice. No unexpectedly, there was general outrage over using humiliation as a means to correct student behavior. The article also mentioned that students received stamps for good behavior. Netizens were noticeably silent on this topic, no doubt because as long as I have been in Shenzhen, rewarding student behavior with stars and stickers has been standard practice in elementary schools.

In fact, public recognition and shaming are the most important motivators in the Shenzhen education system, where schools give and receive public recognition for “results (成绩)”. What’s more there is no question that we are speaking of test results, especially gaokao test results. At the high school level, municipal and district governments reward schools for the number of students sent on to first tier universities, in turn, the schools reward teachers for their students results, and teachers reward their students. In middle schools, public rewards are based on zhongkao, or high school entrance exam results with a similar system of bonuses for teachers who can produce results (出成绩) and students who get into top scores.

Given the importance of test scores their reputation and livelihood, Shenzhen teachers constantly seek ways to help students to improve their test scores. High school teachers run mandatory study sessions, while middle school teachers use classroom time to teach test taking skills. Moreover, most parents not only accept the primacy of test taking to education, but also arrange for their children to attend cram schools at night and over the weekend. In fact, many high school students often ask to attend cram schools in order to compete with their classmates.

Importantly, the system only works – Chinese schools infamously produce test-taking machines – to the extent that teachers and students accept test scores as their raison d’être. Consequently, elementary school schools and teachers have an awkward place in this system because it is their job to transition students from home life to the test life. At the same time and to a greater degree than their middle and high school colleagues, elementary teachers are expected to care for the total student, including their emotional and physical wellbeing. And there’s the rub: most young children and especially boys cannot sit still for long periods of time.

The restlessness of young bodies places elementary school teachers in a difficult position because in order to take tests, students must sit at desks for at least 40 minutes with an eye to eventually taking 2 to 2.5 hour tests that make up the gaokao. The 2012 Shenzhen gaokao, for example, took place on June 7 and 8. In the morning, candidates sat for 2.5 hours (Chinese on the 7th and humanities/science on the 8th) and in the afternoon they sat for 2 hours (humanities/science on the 7th and English on the 8th). The zhongkao was held on the 9th, with two 1.5 hour test periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Thus, more often than not, restless elementary students receive low test scores, their teachers are accused of ineffective pedagogy, and the schools are criticized for not doing their jobs.

In order to transform the restless body into a test-taking machine, elementary school teachers often use public recognition to encourage students. In fact, stickers and stamps are just two elements of a repertoire that also includes publicizing grades, issuing certificates and holding award ceremonies. During weekly flag raising ceremonies, top students receive public commendation and at the end of the year, the best students receive merit scholarships and their photos are hung in prominent places.

Obviously, this system creates pressure for the majority of students who cannot (by definition) earn the top scores. For these students, the desire to alleviate feelings of envy and shame sometimes become motivations to study. Or as often the case, middling students learn to live with second-rate status and find pleasure in non-academic activities. At the same time, teachers will attempt to use envy and shame to motivate students to overtake top students or to redeem themselves in the public eye.

Nor are teachers alone in celebrating top scores and denigrating poor results. Parental bragging about good students is rampant, while parental complaints about poor results are never simply good manners, but also strategies to motivate children to do better in school. Parents often negatively compare a child to another, even as some of the most brutal set downs entail parental complaints about lives wasted to support a student who has failed academically.

Point du jour: The blue star of shame on third grade faces are symptoms of a much larger problem that cannot be ameliorated by ridiculing the teacher herself or calling for different pedagogy. Rather, the system of Chinese education constitutes a problem so vast and entrenched that it is hard to know where to begin deconstructing it. Do we begin with the gaokao? Or with a more equitable system of job opportunities? Or allow for private schools that are certified even when they do not teach the national curriculum?

I am not posting this response to absolve the teacher from her responsibility in damaging her students’ self esteem. I am, however, posting this response to highlight the desperate hypocrisy of netizen complaints about blue stars. On the one hand, in a system that motivates through public recognition, shame is effective. Thus, issuing blue star demerits should be understood as a natural extension of extent pedagogy. On the other hand, until the system changes, parents and teachers find themselves in the desperate position of trying to force children to become test-taking machines in the gentlest manner possible. All recognize that the goal itself is violent, but hope getting there doesn’t have to hurt.

bo xilai: true heir to the revolution?

Bao Tong (鲍彤) was Zhao Ziyang’s secretary. Zhao Ziyang, of course, was the Secretary General of the CCP who fell from power because he supported a non-violent resolution to the Tian’anmen protests. Yesterday, Bao Tong chimed in on the Bo Xilai scandal and how it relates to the upcoming 18th National People’s Conference — and yes, whether or not Gu Kailai killed Niel Haywood is a matter of secondary importance, rather than being a question of life or death for the Party. For Bao Tong and like minded CCP politicos, the question is still one of the absolute authority of the Party.

Here’s the rub: Bo Xilai has become a negative example of abuses of Party authority and power. However, like Deng Xiaoping before him, Bo Xilai is the direct heir of Marxin, Lenin, Mao and Stalin. If the Party removes Bo Xilai, they have rejected the justification for absolute power. If they continue with Bo Xilai, then they must deal with the fact that Bo Xilai has been discredited. Bao Tong thus provocatively and accurately raises the question: If Bo Xilai (or someone like him) is the heir to the revolution, what’s the Party to do? Translation of Bao Tong’s op-ed piece, below.

There are Two Choices at the 18th NPC

Bo Xilai has already become history. The reason he has entered the annals of history isn’t because of his wife, Gu Kailai was convicted, but because he pursued the “Sing Red, Attack Black [mafia] (唱红打黑)” campaign.

Some have slandered Bo Xilai by saying he isn’t a filial descendent of the Party. This is unfair. He really was immoral and lawless, but wasn’t Mao Zedong?  Lenin openly defined revolution as “only dependent on the direct action of the masses and not dependent on any law”, and is thus the even more immoral and lawless ancestor. Under Lenin’s strategy and leadership, the Bolsheviks brazenly dispersed the elected All Russian Constituent Assembly, starting the age of Red Terrorism. Mao Zedong delighted in bragging about his lack of conscious and lawlessness. He didn’t believe this was a source of shame, but rather a source of honor. All Chinese people are familiar with this history. Bo Xilai was merely the direct heir to this tradition. There is no possible discussion about Mao Zedong and Stalin’s personal morality. Thus, if we are to fairly evaluate Bo Xilai, we cannot say that he was the unworthy son of the Party, but must say he was the Party’s worthy son, its skillful and finest son, most worthy in the extreme.

If we are speaking of Party nature (党性), who is more truly of the Party than Bo Xilai. Singing red is to walk with the Party, and attacking black is to struggle against those enemies that the Party has identified. This is the highest essence of revolution and strongest discipline. Bo Xilai had a strong body. During his youth, he was bewitched by Mao Zedong into entering a life or death struggle with his father, Bo Yibo, who Mao had called a traitor. Who else has demonstrated this level of innocent and pure revolutionary spirit and loyalty to the Party?

It must be pointed out that by calling the Chongqing Model “Sing Red, Attack Black”, Bo Xilai had completely digested the marrow of the Party’s authoritative government. Standing in the position of a Party leader, to sing red is to respect only the Party, and to attack Black is to suppress anyone else (异己).

For the masses, singing red is the obligatory way to serve the Party, and attacking black is the willingness to fight on the Party’s behalf. Without exaggeration, we can say that the existence of a political campaign called “Sing Red, Attack Black” signals that the Party’s monolithic control of government has ended. [Within the State Party system] Anything that does not belong to the system is beside the point. Even if it is important, it cannot be a life or death conflict. For example, the difference between Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping’s respective policies or that between Stalin and Hitler’s policies is no doubt one of better or worse, but these differences were differences within the context of serving the absolute political power of the Party.

Consequently, when cutting up a cake, there is always the question of who gets the bigger slice. On the the issues of public housing and hukou, Bo Xilai was not rigid, in fact he was extremely flexible. This is one of the reasons he won the hearts of the people. However, he he could only tentatively hold his deep seeded “follow me and flourish, oppose me and perish” attitude (“顺我者昌逆我者亡”这条命根子). He blatantly raised his “Sing Red, Attack Black” banner, brandishing his sword, declaring his strength and prosperity, without giving any quarter. What was this? This was nothing other than the Bo Xilai Model, or we could call it Bo-ism. It was also Maoism for the 21st century. Bo Xilai didn’t invent “follow me and flourish, oppose me and perish”. However, in order to call corruption a miracle and to paint cruel and inhuman philosophy as miraculous revolutionary truth, Bo Xilai needed extreme sincerity in order to succeed as he did.

Some argue that “Red is true! Black is crime!” Is this true? When were the “nine types of black” established in the legal domain? “The whole country is red” campaign was obviously an unprecedented catastrophe. Governance depends upon clear legal ideas, and does not require romanticism or catchy slogans, and does not permit illegal gutting and rewriting the law.

The especially pernicious aspect of singing red was that it called an ass a horse, sedating the people and deifying leadership. In Bo Xilai’s Sing Red campaign a “power grab” was mystified as “the great victory of democratic revolution”. The ongoing impoverishment and alienation was mystified as “the great victory of socialism”. The widening gap between rich and poor was mystified as “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Human rights abuses were mystified as “stability”. And immorality and lawlessness was mystified as “the greatest glory”. Of course, with respect to Bo Xilai himself, he was the new savior of the world.

The especially pernicious aspect of attacking black was using law to solve problems that could not be solved through legal means. It made people crazy to attack wherever the Party pointed: attack rightists, attack anti-rvolutionaries, attack liberalization, attack vulgar values, attack those protest, attack those with power, attack lawyers, attack those with the courage not to submit to the Party’s leaders, attack the enemy in Bo Xilai’s eye; charge with out fear of death, attack! All that was necessary was to raise children who daily sang red and attacked the black, and everyone would be in crazy sedation. The highest power would then naturally pass from generation to generation, flourishing for 1,000 years, the establishment of an imperial house. This was the perfect strategy concealed in Bo Xilai’s four characters “Sing Red, Attack Black”.

Even if this campaign had entered high levels of Party debate, nevertheless early on some clear sighted people saw it was unfeasible. Those who sang red were “Party parrots (党八股)”. Lin Biao advocated reading Mao everyday, but Minister of Propaganda Lu Ding disagreed. Lu Ding contradicted Lin Biao with the colloquialism “even delicious Yunnan ham if eaten everyday will cause indigestion”. Clearly, Lin Biao didn’t have Lu Ding’s experience in propaganda. Attacking black everyday was the same as doing the Cultural Revolution everyday. Likewise, how could Bo Xilai be more knowledgeable than the General Secretary in determining the importance of harmony to social stability? Unsurprisingly, when Bo Xilai first appeared on the list of potential candidates for the Standing Committee, how hard it was for people of understanding to stand like pillars in flowing water. They didn’t make a pilgrimage, they didn’t chant sutras, and they didn’t cheer! (With all the drama for becoming General Secretary, the situation is extremely complicated. Those who had risen by attacking black and made their living singing red were probably a small minority.)

The 18th National People’s Congresses faces a choice: either tie itself to Bo Xilai or cut him loose. If they are unwilling to open the 18th NPC under Bo Xilai’s shadow, then it is time to quietly begin ending the “Sing Red, Attack Black” campaign. Of course, if they are willing to openly and properly join Bo Xilai in singing red and attacking black, this is even more commendable, more deserving of everyone’s welcome and support.

killing the buddha in aurora

Eating lunch at a Taiwanese style buffet this afternoon, I experienced a bit of pop culture dissonance, when something vaguely “favorite instrumental love song from a Disney Film” followed Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie” on the music piped-in music. I’m not sure how these two songs ended up back-to-back, without commentary, either canned or live — my immediate neighbors, for example, wore sanitation jumpsuits and repeatedly asked each other if they had had enough to eat, seemingly oblivious to the music radio faux pas — but I’m thinking maybe the manager had purchased a shanzhai mix of “top love songs, 2010” to enhance the buffet’s image as “cool” and “not neidi“. It may also have been a moment of pastiche prophecy. Not a few alternative rockstars have transitioned from producing troubled hits to belting Disney classics, and I see no reason why either Eminem or Rihanna shouldn’t follow in the footsteps of Elton John and Melissa Etheridge.

I started actively listening to the music when I realized that I was humming along to the chorus of “Love the Way You Lie”. The melody hooked me not only because I like Rihanna’s voice, which is especially poignant in contrast to the desperate anger of Eminem’s lyrics, but also because I know too much (or not enough) about their lives and the way that themes of violence and redemption, suffering and atonement, yearning and self-justification weave through and between their public and private performances. Indeed, whatever their actual relationship to and experience of brutality, Eminem and Rihanna seem apt symbols for the US American confusion of pain with love; we work really, really hard, to sell the story that some killings are justified, and some beings exist to be shot — Oscar Wilde in prison, as if murder were the expression of bravery, while the rest of us cowards go on about wounding each other in social acceptable ways:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

And Oscar Wilde has nothing on the US American romance with death, destruction, mayhem, and murder. Consider alien invasion movies, where the aliens exist to be killed, and in process reveal the courage and fears of white (or whitened) humanity. Or westerns, where those black hatted fellers “get what’s coming to them”. I have joked that the formula for a US American soap opera is boy + girl + murder, and happy endings simply mean that the murder has brought the two characters together, while unhappy endings are more “hard core” because one of the lovers is the victim, while the other survives to achieve some kind of vengeance. And yet. When we stop to think about it, the extent to which US Americans confuse levels of hurt with intensities of love is distressing.

In thinking through the Aurora Massacre, Patrick S. O’Donnell at Religious Left Law refers to Erich Fromm’s idea of the “pathology of normalcy“, which refers to the ways that culture shapes human interaction, or a socially patterned defect. Importantly, on Fromm’s reading members of the same culture not only share the same defect, but also share behavioral patterns that enable us to live with a defect without becoming ill.

It is as if each culture provided the remedy against the outbreak of manifest neurotic symptoms which would result from the defect produced by it.

In this sense, Eminem and Rihanna might be thought of as symbolizing the American normal, enjoying a violent buzz but not actually killing anyone. In fact, because we know that love hurts, we expect some form of abuse or pain, but within limits. Not surprisingly, in our current fascination with BDSM, US Americans learn to ride the violence and pain to gendered forms of ecstasy.

Fromm also notes that for a minority the cultural pattern does not work. This “not working” has two forms — the expression of the pathology as individual neurosis and the recognition of the pathology as what it is, an unhealthy pattern of interaction. Here’s the point: a neurotic expression of normal All-American love would be if Eminem set Rihanna on fire and watched her burn to death. Neurotic on Fromm’s thesis because the underlying logic of burning a lover to death is the same as that of “normal Americans”; the more extreme one’s love, the more violently it will be expressed. And yes, we all know and derive various levels of pleasure from the formulation total love = total annihilation.

And there’s the rub. At Aurora, James Holmes crossed the fuzzy line separating normal from neurotic, the line in which its okay to play and sing and read about killing others, just not okay to actually kill.

More hopefully, however, there is a second maladaptation to the pathology of normalcy. In this maladaptation, an individual recognizes the pathology of normal life for what it is — a problematic pattern of interaction. We recognize, for example, that abuse within relationships is not an expression of love and thus our job is to learn to change hurtful patterns of behavior. We realize the need to nurture ourselves and others in non-violent relationships. We understand that this is precisely where we need help because changing deeply rooted patterns of interaction, patterns that are reinforced through popular culture and the lived expectations of friends and family, as well as our own conflicted desire requires courage and faith and the willingness to risk normal life for a healthier, happier life. A life, we might say, in which killing the buddha is not a made-for-telesion movie, but a koan.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama reminds us:

Before we can generate compassion and love, it is important to have a clear understanding of what we understand compassion and love to be. In simple terms, compassion and love can be defined as positive thoughts and feelings that give rise to such essential things in life as hope, courage, determination, and inner strength. In the Buddhist tradition, compassion and love are seen as two aspects of the same thing: Compassion is the wish for another being to be free from suffering; love is wanting them to have happiness. 

May the survivors of Aurora find healing. May we in the United States find the courage to look seriously at the normalcy of violence in our relationships. And, if we cannot yet love James Holmes, may we find the strength of heart not to wish him ill.