So, on Friday, May 27, the People’s Education Edition of forth grade textbooks set the internet ablaze. Seriously, despite everything else that was going on in the country–bank failures and Covid-crazy, rumors of upper level infighting and a tanking economy–the entire country was united in outrage over textbook illustrations. And frankly, the disgust is understandable. It’s as if some cynical artist whose work deconstructs authoritarian childhood was asked to draw the illustrations for books aimed at ten-year olds. There’s a whole level of critique going on that may not be accessible to children, even as their parents moan about aesthetic standards. “Ugly, ugly, ugly,” the crowd screams. And from where I sit that seems to be the point of the images. Just not the place? Or audience?Continue reading
I just read on we chat that all of the new history text books that were issued this semester were recalled without explanation. This was interpreted to mean that criticism of changing references to the Cultural Revolution as “the ten years of catastrophe (十年浩劫) to the ten years of “difficult exploration (艰幸探索)” had successfully pushed back Xi Jinping’s attempt to revise history. At any rate, students were told to go borrow copies of last year’s history books, while the new books are recooked.
So there actually is an office dedicated to “sweeping away black and removing evil (扫黑除恶办)” office in the Shenzhen Government and they’re sending text messages to my phone. The program aims to forward the spirit of Xi Jinping’s vision for society. My problem is that I don’t actually know what groups and or behaviors the phrase “黑恶势力 (forces of dark evil?!)” refers to. On the face of it, it might be corruption, but then again, the full title of the program is “扫黑除恶专项斗争 (a special struggle to sweep away black and remove evil)” which, of course, gives rise to all sorts of CR alarm bells, especially because we’ve been given telephone numbers to report on the evil forces in our midst. But who are they? In the cartoon, for example, the target seem to be village heads and rooting out traditional alliances. According to Baidu, the project is targeting gangs and triads. And if this is in fact the case, what are they doing in my middle class neighborhood? Am I living next to gang members? So its hard not to feel that the program seems less about “using law to govern (依法治国)” than it does about the increasing militarization of society.
I’ve just returned from time in North Carolina and what have I learned? In addition to realizing that Donald Trump and Xi Jinping both have distinctive and easily mocked hairstyles, I also learned that ordinary US Americans are as worried about the trade war as are ordinary Chinese citizens. Indeed, in both countries I’ve been advised to invest my money “over there.” Chinese friends encourage me to take the money and run back to a US bank, while American friends tried to convince me to invest more in the Chinese stock market. In both Shenzhen and NC, there is a sense of frustration and defeat over the antics of leaders who are not leading, but rather seem to be wandering aimless instead of dealing with real problems and the well-being of ordinary people.
(cartoon from scmp editorial)
I’ve just realized that all of Xi Jinping’s announcements refer to deepening “reform (改革).” Here’s the thing. Shenzhen has been about reform and opening (改革开放). I know. Quibble, quibble. But. I suddenly realized I wasn’t paying enough attention to the words used. And this in a country where words are serious politics. We were warned about the aggressive closing down of ideological alternatives, but because my eyes glazed over (from propaganda overload) when I got to “reform” in announcements, I unconsciously supplied the “opening” as if we were doing more of the same.
For those who haven’t visited the Shekou Museum of Reform and Opening, it’s worth a trip if only to check out where the story begins. All stories of the Special Economic Zone begin with Deng Xiaoping, however, the historical problems that Deng Xiaoping is said to have solve differ from museum to museum. At the Shenzhen Museum of History, for example, Deng Xiaoping solves the historic problem of colonialism. In contrast, at the Shekou Museum of Reform and Opening, he solves the social problems that were caused by political mistakes–famine during the Great Leap Forward and relative poverty during the Cultural Revolution.
I have come to think of “theories” in Chinese political culture to function like guidelines to acceptable behavior. The difficulty for folks in Shenzhen arise from contradictions between extant theories and changing social condititions, or what might be called “double bind theory”; General Secretary Xi Jinping has tightened the space of critical thinking and debate, even as his government, especially Premier Li Keqiang is exhorting people to be creative. But there’s the rub; people need to take critical stances in order to create new solutions to entrenched problems and critical stances have been routinely discouraged throughout the Reform and Opening era, begging the question: can Shenzhen evolve from “suck it up theory” to creativity? Continue reading
While in Tianjin a friend said to me that she wanted to forward one of my posts about the Hong Kong protests to her WeChat circles, but was afraid of being “harmonized” (被和谐掉) — a euphemism meaning “to be arrested for political activism”, or as Orwell might have said, the crime of speaking one’s position. The expression ironically activates Xi Jinping’s relentless calls for social harmony through a return to Chinese values, that might be otherwise expressed as “shut up and do what you’re told” much as Lee Kwan Yew deployed Neo-Confucianism in his pursuit of a well
ordered managed Singapore. Continue reading
There is a current blurb flitting through virtual space about a fictional meeting between Xi Jinping and Obama, who has just finished watching an episode of CCTV’s popular 舌尖上的中国后 (A Bite of China). A friend described this parody of bi-lateral mis/understanding as hilarious, another called it an example of literary talent, and yet another as nugget of cultural truth so Chinese it could not be translated!
High praise for a political side dish. So, I decided to create a taste challenge for bi-lingual readers, adapting the piece from Chinese to English. Four political facts might enhance appreciation of the spoof: (1) Obama is just Obama, but Xi Jinping is always, “General Secretary”; (2) there is an important role for overseas Chinese figured by US Ambassador to China Gary Faye Locke (骆家辉); (3) subtitled episodes of A Bite of China can be viewed on Youtube, which remains off menu for those of us dining chez Cafe le Firewall, and; (4) General Party Secretary Xi never mentions the iron rice bowl (铁饭碗), an expression used to described the difficulty of removing officials from their posts. Also of note, the expressions emphasize the acting of eating, not food. Consequently, more colloquial English would use variously use “take” or “swallow” or “suck up” or “eat” to translate 吃 — and therein, perhaps, is an experiential entry into cultural differences structuring Sino-American misunderstanding.
After viewing “A Bite of China [literally China on the Tongue]”, Obama said to General Secretary Xi Jinping, “I’ve realized that although Chinese culture consists of extensive knowlege and profound scholarship, it is really an eating culture. Consider: a job is called a rice bowl, working is called living from hand to mouth (糊口); to be employed is called getting enough to eat (混饭), getting by in style is called eating with gusto (吃得开), and things that are liked are said to whet one’s appetite（吃香); to be taken care of is called eating from the little stove (吃小灶), to spend your savings is called eating your principle (吃老本) to take advantage of a woman is called eating tofu (吃豆腐); to depend on your parents is called gnawing on the old (啃老); a man who spends a woman’s money is said to eat soft rice (吃软饭); to overwork is to eat without digesting (吃不消), to take advantage of someone is to eat an advantage (吃亏), jealousy is called eating vinegar (吃醋); to dither is called to eat indesively (吃不准), to do substandard work is to eat dry rice (吃干饭), to take advantage of anyone is also to eat tofu (吃豆腐), to be taken advantage of is to have swallowed the disadvantage (吃了亏), to be afraid to speak up is called a mute eats coptis root (哑巴吃黄连). To have nothing better to do than make trouble for others is called overeating (吃饱撑), to make a decision is called Eight Wang eats the scales (王八吃秤砣), to ignore an order is not to eat soft or hard (软硬不吃), and to have reached one’s limits is called can’t swallow and slink off (吃不了兜着走).
General Secretary Xi interupted him and said, “We should speak about Sino-American relations. Are you talking about this because you’ve overeaten?”
Obama fainted at these words!
When Obama had recovered, General Secretary Xi earnestly said, “With respect to the importance of Sino-American relations, we will eat deeply and throughly, because we haven’t any principle to eat. The way of the world is that big fish eat little fish, but Cold War thinking is no longer appetizing, and cooperating for mutual benefit is the only way to eat with gusto. Only if China and the United States join hands will the benefits be eaten together. There are those who eat at our table and secretly help others; they eat from the rice bowl of harming Sino-American relations. We eat too much bitterness because they eat vinegar, making us eat with effort to establish a partnership. We have to learn from eating the moat (吃一堑长一智), and prevent them from eating from their bowls with their eyes on the pot. This will also let the world eat heart balls of reassurance. Mister President, are you still eating indesively about these matters? If not, I’d like to dine with you in this compound.”
Obama was speachless, and said after a pause, “It really is too deep to be predicted! Only the last idea could be expressed without the character for eating!”
Gary Faye Locke was standing nearby and couldn’t resist reminding Obama, “That’s because he was actually inviting you to eat!”