in a globalized world, is the categorical imperative still “universal”?

Yesterday I attended a book launch for, Yang Lichuan’s second book, “The Transformation from Vertical Society to Horizontal Society: The Historical Philosophy of the Crash between Chinese and Western Civilizations (纵横之变:中西文明碰撞中的历史哲学)”. The two parts of the book title suggest the political thrust and method of intervention, respectively. The first part of the title expresses the author’s hope for social transformation to a more egalitarian society, while the second part captures the discourse–philosophy–through which this call for social transformation will be made. And yes, although the political call for social transformation was clear, the philosophical argument was as overwhelmingly comprehensive as the title suggests.  Continue reading

礼貌 and 文明: what’s the difference?

This is an open question to all speakers of Chinese: what’s the difference between 礼貌 and 文明? My sence is that 礼貌 are practices of appropriate intimacy, while 文明 refers to practices for navigating amongst strangers. In turn, 礼貌 would map onto the moral territory of 脸, while 文明 is about presentation and being seen, hence mapping onto 面子. Am I wildly off, or have I stumbled into a difference that makes a difference? Thoughts?

handshake 302 in nyc: describing the economic effects of political decisions

Yesterday I participated in an afternoon workshop and gave an evening lecture on our work at Handshake 302. I learned how “Chinese” my English has become, especially when speaking of Shenzhen society! Continue reading

retirement plans for older migrant workers?

Yesterday, a weixin article claimed that among China’s 230 million migrant workers, the number of workers over 50 years of age could be as high as 36 million. These 36 million, of course, were the first generation of migrant workers, who left their villages in 80s and early 90s — before reforms had spread beyond the borders of special economic zones and coastal cities, to work in China’s newly opened factories.

The article raises the important and increasingly pressing social question, where will these workers retire? And what will they do in the absence of retirement plans? The journalist interviewed older workers in the northern city of Lanzhou, where there is little option but to retire to their hometowns. According to a report published in 2010 by the Chinese Elder Workers Council, 84.7% of city and town residents have a pension, averaging 1,527 yuan a month. In contrast, the percentage of rural residents with a pension is 34.6% and the average income is 74 yuan a month.

In Shenzhen, the debate over what to do with older migrant workers has been ongoing since March 1987, when the city legalized the participation of rural migrants in pension plans. Indeed, Shenzhen has been at the forefront of reforming China’s pension plans, allowing self-employed entrepreneurs to buy into pension plans (1992), and provided pension supplements for regional workers and for non-Shenzhen residents to collect pension benefits in the city (1999). In 2007, twenty years after migrant workers were permited to buy into pension plans, there was a rash of articles about Guo Jinzhao (郭锦钊), the first migrant worker to collect a monthly pension in Shenzhen (at the time of the article 1,005 yuan a month).

Over 25 years since the debate about migrant workers began and the celebratory publicity campaigns notwithstanding, the majority of Shenzhen migrant workers has not earned enough to either retire in the city or to have purchased into pension plans. In 2012, Wen Qingqiang published a photoessay on the city’s “naked old tribe (裸老族)”. The gist of the article anticipates the Tencent post: older migrant workers can not afford to stay in the city where they have lived and worked for the past several decades. Instead, their most viable retirement option is returning to their hometowns.

Note about language: In Chinese, the expression for “rural urbanization” is more specific than its English translation, highlighting both extant labor regimes and the administrative structure of the Chinese state apparatus: 农村城镇化, literally means, “agriculture villages city town transformation”, or “the transformation of agricultural villages into cities and towns. The distinction between cities and towns is relevant, of course, because within the Chinese state apparatus, cities rank higher than towns (which rank higher than villages) and are thus more eligible for state funding and preferential policies. At the level of geopolitics, then, rural urbanization has referred to the restructuring of spatial hierarchies. The transformation of rural Bao’an County to Shenzhen Municipality remains the national poster child for successful rural urbanization.

Importantly, rural urbanization has also occurred through the migration of rural residents from agricultural villages and townships to the country’s cities. In fact, these workers are literally called “farmer-workers(农民工)”, an expression that not only emphasizes rural origins, but also their role within urban hierarchies. This point bears repeating because rural migrants have not been fully integrated into urban societies, either formally (through hukou and concomitant welfare benefits) or informally (through friendships and associations that might blur the distinction between urbanites and bumpkins). Here, although Shenzhen has taken initiatives to experiment with tweaking the hukou system, nevertheless, the ideological distinction between urbanites and bumpkins continues to shape both public policy and the concomitant imaginary of just who is (and is not) a Shenzhener.

yan’an by way of frankfurt

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s 1944 essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception helps us think through the idea that capitalism in the West functions like socialism in China. The point, of course, is the attempt to control social processes to benefit a few, whether they be investors (as in the States) or cadres (as in China).

In the quote below, for example, I have replaced “consumer” with “the People (人民)” and “producers” with “cadres”. Note that as with the critique of censorship in China, Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the Western cultural industry focuses on the enforced passivity of the intended audience. Note also that A&H lament the fact that the cultural industry has coopted enlightment to its own ends. Similarly, the critique of cultural production in contemporary China emphasizes how the progressive ideal of liberating workers, peasents, and soldiers has been subordinated to maintaining Party hegemony:

There is nothing left for the consumer People to classify. Producers Cadres have done it for him. Art for the masses has destroyed the dream but still conforms to the tenets of that dreaming idealism which critical idealism socialism baulked at.

The result of systematically subordinating human creativity to monolithic ends (profit in the West and political power in China) results in boring, predictable literature and art:

Not only are the hit songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but the specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears to change. The details are interchangeable. The short interval sequence which was effective in a hit song, the hero’s momentary fall from grace (which he accepts as good sport), the rough treatment which the beloved gets from the male star, the latter’s rugged defiance of the spoilt heiress, are, like all the other details, ready-made clichés to be slotted in anywhere; they never do anything more than fulfil the purpose allotted them in the overall plan.

Adorno and Horkheimer assumed that the extent to which art and literature liberate or nourish or enhance a human life pivots on the the extent to which an individual actively participates in the realization of a work. They followed Kant in understanding that this participation is rational; the work of appreciation is to classify and organize aesthetic experience, creating a critical consciousness. In the Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art (在延安文藝座談會上的講話), Mao Zedong also posited a beneficial kind of aesthetic engagement, albeit revolutionary rather than critical because he followed Marx. For Mao, socialist art and literature would facilitate the mental work of transforming one’s half-feudal, half-colonial consciousness into revolutionary consciousness.

I’m actually an advocate of both critical and revolutionary consciousnesses, especially when used to hone each other. Today, however, I’m wondering how it is that human societies end up in these painful and painfully similar cultural ruts. In other words: what’s the generalized (or mass) appeal of repeated bouts of boredom? Indeed, maybe what’s at stake isn’t boredom, but rather our anxiety about the fact that true repetition is impossible. In other words, what if we’d rather be bored than confront the irrefutable freshness of every moment? To the extent that we can’t step in the same river twice, it follows that we can’t watch the same movie model opera twice.

Thought du jour: when Mickey Mouse stepped through the looking glass, he found himself among a Red Brigade of Women, who were applying to study in the United States, where they might realize their Chinese dreams.

what is the party’s benevolence?

In news broadcasts and interviews, old peasents frequently evoke “the Party’s benevolence (党恩)” to explain their lives. Young and hip urbanites hear these interviews as more evidence that old peasents are the dupes of corrupt officials. However, when I take the time to listen to an old peasent’s life history, it’s clear that more often than not, these peasents did benefit from the establishment of the People’s Republic.

Yesterday afternoon at the Dalang Culture Center, for example, I helped conducted interviews with Uncle Chen and Aunt Zhang for an oral history project. Both Uncle Chen and Aunt Zhang were both born into peasant families in 1930 and 1940, respectively. Auntie’s family owned three single-story houses, while Uncle had left home early because his family did not have room for him. Auntie mentioned that at the turn of the last century, her grandparents went to Singapore to work. Her mother was “brought home” as a child bride for her father. In contrast, Uncle did not mention his family except when asked about how poor his family had been, he remarked that two of his sisters had been sold to strangers, but where they ended up was unclear.

As a poor man, Uncle could not afford to marry. Instead, he went to find work in Hong Kong. In 1951, Uncle became sick and returned to his hometown, where he could recieve care. In 1952, although he had a sporadic education, Uncle was able to secure the documents necessary to join the first test for admission to the Bao’an Normal School. He passed the test and was admitted to an elementary school teachers program, which was located in the Nantou High School building. Teacher Chen emphasized the extent to which his current wellbeing was a result of the Party’s benevolence. He was assigned to teach at Langkou Elementary School, where he met Auntie.

As a young girl, Auntie stayed at home and helped her parents. However, when she was 10 years old, Auntie began attending Langkou elementary school because her father asked the school principal to allow her to bring her brother. 10 year-old Auntie strapped her brother to her back and attended classes. At lunch time she fed her brother a bottle of condensed milk that had been thinned with water. Several years later, she carried her sister to school. Altogether, Auntie carried her siblings for six years. At the end of elementary school, Auntie tested into middle school, where she studied elementary education. Auntie emphasized that her teachers like her because she was a good student. Moreover, her younger siblings were well-behaved and didn’t cry during classtime.

After Auntie graduated from middle school, she married Uncle, who was still teaching at the village school. Auntie’s mother exhorted her to marrie Uncle because he “could do anything”. Uncle could not give Auntie any presents for the marriage. However, he did have housing at the elementary school, where Auntie was also hired to teach first and third grade. The school was located near Auntie’s parents’ house. Auntie did not attribute any of her life history to the Party’s benevolence, but rather emphasized her family background and her mother’s words.

Implicit in Uncle and Auntie’s simple story were the gendered contours of rural poverty in South China, where one of the most important events of a lifetime was to continue family lines through marriage and children. Uncle and Aunt were born into South Chinese villages, where bringing in wives or selling out daughters was a common practice before 1949. However, they married 10 years after the establishment of the People’s Republic, when some policies had already restructured traditional social structures. Auntie married because her family could afford to give her an education, but not to keep her at home. In contrast, Uncle had delayed marriage until he could afford a family, which was a direct result of attending teaching school. He described that opportunity — and all that followed, a job, a house, and eventually a wife and children — as an expression of the Party’s benevolence.

轮侯制: economizing moralities

In the United States, we make an economic distinction between “needs” and “wants”. We teach children (here, here, and here, for example) to recognize and manage the difference between their needs and wants. Subsequently, we re-code these management skills in terms of individual ethics — good people recognize their needs and wants, and then make rational choices to live within their means. In contrast, bad people make irrational choices based on uncontrolled desires that lead to debt and bankruptcy.


The flip response — “one girl’s need is an aging man’s want” — to this statement merely confirms the underlying double bind of this economizing morality. In this financial literacy exercise, for example, only the social facts of suburban car culture, supermarkets, and fast food restaurants conspire to make white bread, bottled water, and a tent vacation “needs” in contrast to the “wants” of a bicycle and a pizza. What if our built environment depended on bikes for transportation? What if we were homeless and the best we could cobble together was a tent made of discarded plastic and corrugated steel? In these situations, the economizing morality is to recalibrate our personal needs and wants rather than to challenge the inequality that poses this choice as reflecting real world conditions.

All this to say: the economizing morality of individual needs and wants is the elementary school version of neoliberal ethics.

I’m thinking about individual needs and wants and neoliberal immorality for two interrelated reasons. At the level of urban planning, given the prime location of urban villages and the lack of developable plats in Shenzhen, the villages were targeted for redevelopment (or renovation — 更新 as a verb). In turn, the need for neighborhoods for the working poor has been recoded as the need for individuals with Shenzhen hukou to find affordable housing. A shift of hand, and the debate ceases to be about communities and becomes one of individual economies. Moreover, convenience, access to schools and social infrastructure, as well as economic opportunities are concomitantly transvalued as wants to be satisfied through economizing.

res01_attpic_briefOn January 31, 2013 for example, the Municipality made available 13,496 units of public housing. Of that total, all are located in the outer districts (guanwai) and the majority (11,111) are located in Longgang, roughly 35 kms from the city center. To allocate these units, Shenzhen will be testing what is known as the 轮侯制 or “revolving wait system”. Basically, this system entails meeting conditions, including hukou status, time in Shenzhen, and maximum income to apply for a residence. When any of these conditions change, the family has to move out of the unit, thus opening it for another. The family also has to find another place to live.

In Shenzhen, those opposed to urban renovation projects have been reminding the Municipality out that urban villages like Baishizhou already provide low-cost housing and small scale economic opportunities for working poor families. Moreover, the given the Municipality’s demographics 13,496 housing units are sufficient to absorb displaced populations only when those with hukou may apply. Point du jour: locating public housing far from urban centers only makes moral sense (cents!) in a world in which individual economizing ideologically justifies disrupting neighborhoods for the working poor in order to pave the way for developers. And yes, this is just more evidence that China and the United States really are the same country.


So, a juxtaposition of Baishizhou and Denali, which may be achieved through visual flattening, but as lived required movement through time and space — from Shekou to Hong Kong international by way of Shenzhen Bay checkpoint to SeaTac and then on to Anchorage and passage on the Alaskan Railroad.

I look at snapshots taken here and there, searching for commonalities, for what we might call human universals, which Donald Brown has defined as “those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and mind that, so far as the record has been examined, are found among all peoples known to ethnography and history.”

There is, of course, the eye of the beholder — mine — which seems drawn (here, at least) to pink, but all this does is raise the question of whether or not what I experience in each of these places is what other people also experience. In Chinese poetics, this common — unquestionably and recognizably human — response would be called yijing (意境), which literally means “idea scape” and denotes the moment of union between interior and exterior states of being.  意, for example, is composed of characters meaning “sound (音) and heart (心)”, while 境 is composed of characters for “earth as soil or land (土)” and “final or complete (竟)”, which here functions as a sound marker for jìng.

What are the respective yijing‘s of Baishizhou and Denali? And can we confidently generalize our responses to say, “Just so and how could it be otherwise?”

These questions matter because both Baishizhou and Denali are the focus of conservation efforts, albeit of a different ilk. Both discussions assume a common response to a particular environment. Moreover, in both discussions, one’s response to the environment is taken as an expression of one’s humanity and there, of course, is where the debate rages.

At Baishizhou, the current discussion of how to raze and rebuild an urban village focuses on the experience of mass urbanization and the need for access to housing, food, and transit networks. The debate has two assumes. First, the debate assumes that inequality is a defining feature of human life and that the purpose of social life is to ascertain that level and take measures to insure that people do not live in inhuman conditions. In turn, the content of the debate is over where to draw the line between human, subhuman, and inhuman living conditions. Second, the debate also assumes that urban living is a desirable form of life because it results in access to cultural goods, such as medical care and education by way of intentionally crafted environments, such as hospitals, schools, restaurants, and entertainment districts. As debated, these two assumptions are hierarchically ranked into the Maslovian categories of “basic needs” and “higher needs”. Thus, as one debates, one is not simply drawing lines between this life and that, but also and more importantly, revealing one’s humanity as a function of social responsibility.

Likewise, at Denali a general assumption and its implementation shape debate, but here over the nature and value of wilderness. On the one hand, the debate assumes that the experience of wilderness reveals and cultivates the wild, untamed spirituality that makes us human and that the purpose of social life is to maintain and create spaces where people can realize this spirituality. In turn, one’s love of wilderness functions in this debate as a marker of one’s spirituality. On the other hand, the debate also assumes that wilderness occurs in the absence of human settlements, such that in order to build human settlements one must transform wilderness. As debated, these two assumptions are also ranked hierarchically in terms of what is essentially human (nature) and acceptable transformations of wilderness (culture). Thus, as one debates, one is not simply drawing lines between this life and that, but also and more importantly, revealing one’s humanity as a function of wild spirituality.

It is possible to note the Chineseness of the Baishizhou debate (all that Confucianism going down), just as it is easy to remark on how much Emerson and Muir continue to shape American understandings of our place in the world. And therein lies the challenge of cross-cultural debates about what it means to be human in a world where Baishizhou and Denali cross paths, so to speak. The question is not so much either / or — which is a more accurate definition of what it means to be human: social being or wild spirituality, but rather the question seems to be: what might the Baishizhou debate teach us about the cultural place of wilderness, and what might Denali remind us about the limits to human settlements?

just what is china studies anyway?

These past few days I have been reading essays on the social organization of power in the PRC. Most of these essays were written by political scientists and economists, but the odd anthropologist makes an appearance as does the occasional historian.

Here’s the rub: I can’t really tell the difference between this kind of scholarship and everyday gossip in Shenzhen.

Our gossip tends to be about people we know, but importantly also about people with power to make decisions that directly affect our well-being. We see someone do something and then speculate about how and why it happened. We try to anticipate what they will do and how we might get them on our side. But this data gathering and analysis is all tenuous and shaky, and often leaves me feeling both convinced I know what’s happening (vaguely), but also unwilling to make definitive statements because I don’t actually know. Instead, I have a residual belief that someone somewhere can explain what is happening; there is, we maintain, a position of knowing, just not with me, here.

Now it’s not as if this tendency to conflate gossipy analysis with research has gone unnoticed within scholarly circles. Consider, for example, the following 1995 quote from Frederick C Teiwes (Paradoxical Post-Mao Transition: From Obeying the Leader to Normal Politics):

Despite the unprecedented openness of the 1980s and a surfeit of purported inside information, in crucial respects we know less about politics at the top today than we do for the Maoist era. Given the secretive nature of the top leadership, it is hardly surprising that participants in the system often express the view that ‘nobody knows’ what goes on ‘up there’. … Even highly placed figures, including those with personal knowledge of the very top leaders, feel limited in what they know, and their assessments sometimes are at variance in significant ways with those of younger, more middle-level officials either in China or living in exile. Given these limitations, scholarship has unfortunately relied extensively and often indiscriminately on suspect Hong Kong sources to fill the gap. As Lyman Miller has observed, the Hong Kong press has recorded ‘a flood of reports, stories, rumors, and sometimes speculations and fantasies about political events in China’.

My speculative sense du jour is that 15 years after Teiwes cautioned us about how much could actually be known and methodologies for securing some kind of confidence in what we think we have learned about China’s highest ranking leaders, weibo may have allowed this unstable situation to perfect itself. The yearning to know, the speculation and furtive analysis. The 140 character limit, the anonymity, the instant forwarding of unconfirmed posts has blossomed in China not only because its fun, but also because it is parasitic upon and supplements the extant situation — what we know, we glean and extrapolate from conversations, incomplete news articles, and our experience of acting within and against everyday life, whether in China or abroad. Thus, I read caveats about how information and conclusions about China’s ruling elite might be and think, yup that tallies. Not just with my experience of unbridgeable distance between moi and the Center, but also with my experience trying to navigate office politics in Shenzhen unreliable and listening to my friends talk about their experiences trying to navigate even more complicated office politics.

So what?

I’m thinking that there’s a kind of cross-cultural overdetermination in the popularity of weibo and its increasing importance as a subject and source of academic knowledge about Chinese political culture. Chinese people use weibo to create public spaces and then scholars speculate on what it means about Chinese society because in large states, like China but also like the United States for that matter, none of us, even those of us in power actually know what’s happening. We live by creating networks of trust and when public trust falters, we turn elsewhere. Recently, Professor Zhao Dingxin (joint appointments at Chicago and Fudan) gave a talk on”Weibo, Political Public Space and Chinese Development” and Owen Lam has translated portions of the transcript and netizen responses to the talk. Zhao Dingxin asserted provocatively:

Weibo is an absolutely democratic but highly manipulative mode of communication. It is democratic in the sense that the user only need to write a few sentences. Once a person knows how to login, s/he can start writing regardless of the quality. It is manipulative in the sense that each voice does not register the character of an equal vote… If a person controls a lot of money or certain technology, s/he can hire an online army to magnify their voice and create fake public opinion. The space for manipulation is huge.

And my immediate response is, well, yes because within any human relationship the space for manipulation grows with levels of distrust and competing desires. But that space is within each of us and not simply the product of technology. Clearly, the kind of speculative practice that thrives on weibo pre-dated the invention of social technologies. Perhaps instead of an exclusive focus on technology, it might be helpful to ask what about human nature makes weibo so attractive? What fears and desires leave us open to manipulation by digital phrases? The Chinese government is trying to contain the effects of rampant rumors and gossip-mongering by instituting the real name registration system (实名制). I wonder if it wouldn’t be more useful to think creatively about how to rebuild public trust, knowing that this is itself the work of a lifetime.

three class theory: speculating on the scale and possibility of reforming china

A while back I heard a princeling turned Shenzhen nouveau riche (and they do surface every now and again, entrepreneurs in their late 50s and 60s, who came to the SEZ to live well below the national political radar, but nevertheless take advantage of their status to reap economic benefits in the city that launched Reform) half-mockingly challenge a lunch table of intellectuals, saying:

China has three classes — high ranking officials (高干), national intellectuals (高知), and peasants (农民). Officials need help governing and are good to those who help them, but that’s not the important issue. The real question is: do you really want to share power with peasants?

That smug question provoked self-conscious chortles because most at the table were low-level national intellectuals, not peasants, no, but certainly ecclesiastes, who Gramsci defined as the category of intellectuals “who for a long time…held a monopoly of a number of important services: religious ideology, that is the philosophy and science of the age, together with schools, education, morality, justice, charity, good works, etc. The category of ecclesiastes can be considered the category of intellectuals organically bound to the landed aristocracy.”

The a-ha moment in “three class theory” is the emphasis on political, rather than economic power. Take a look at Chinese society and what becomes obvious is that high-ranking officials are, by and large, China’s property-owning class and national intellectuals are, by and large, members of the bourgeoisie. Within each of these classes, of course, exist various opportunities to confirm and strengthen social status, as well as opportunities to transfer and exchange socially valued goods, including money, but also including housing, medical care, and other social benefits. In contrast, peasants are those organically tied to the land, with all that the status has historically entailed: providing quota grain under Maoist collectivism to fund socialist urbanization, and presently being excluded from China’s urban boom except as members of the proletariat. The point, of course, is that in Chinese society economic opportunity is a function of political and social status, rather than the reverse.

The status of peasants and their ties to land are at the center of Shenzhen’s development.On the one hand, as rural areas urbanize, the question of land comes to the fore and in it we see how officials and intellectuals cooperate to expropriate land and justify its expropriation. In this scenario, the class struggle is over the terms of proletarianization and the creation of what are called “peasant workers (农民工)”. On the other hand, to the extent that villages retain control of their land and pursue capitalist projects, we see the stability of the three class system as local systems reproduce this hierarchy, producing “local emperors (土皇帝)”.  In this parallel scenario, the struggle is over the extent to which local emperors and local intellectuals might launch themselves into national politics. Obviously, although both historical trajectories transform individual lives, it is also clear that these changes are not bringing about a more just society, but rather using previous injustices to make and legitimate power grabs and the concomitant distribution of the spoils.

As China enters its fourth decade of reform, Gramsci’s call for intellectuals to theorize and provide alternatives to the present situation still haunts us. The fact that US and Chinese leaders continue to cosy up to one another and that US and Chinese intellectuals find so much in common makes salient the compatibility of US neoliberal ideologies and Chinese ideologies of socialist exceptionalism. However, this ideological compatibility has blinded many of us to a simple truth; the quality of life for Chinese nongmin remains the standard for evaluating the scale, possibility, and social forms of Reform and Opening, not the cross-cultural comfort level of high-ranking officials and national intellectuals, whatever their passport status may be.