dishing on sino-american relations

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!”

奥巴马看了《舌尖上的中国》,后对习近平总书记说:我发现中华文化博大精深,其实就是吃的文化。你看:岗位叫饭碗,谋生叫糊口;受雇叫混饭,混得好叫吃得开,受人欢迎叫吃香;受到照顾叫吃小灶,花积蓄叫吃老本;占女人便宜叫吃豆腐;靠长辈生活叫啃老;男人老是用女人的钱叫吃软饭;干活多了叫吃不消,受人伤害叫吃亏,男女嫉妒叫吃醋;犹豫不决叫吃不准,办事不力叫吃干饭, 占人便宜叫吃豆腐,被占便宜叫吃了亏,还不敢声张叫哑巴吃黄连。没事找事叫吃饱撑的,下定决心叫王八吃秤砣,不听劝告叫软硬不吃,收不了场叫吃不了兜着走。

monkey see…


The monkey is reading about the “three represents“, a direct dig at former General Party Secretary Jiang Zemin. And, if weixin memes are to be believed — if not totally, perhaps partially — then current General Party Secretary Xi Jinping is targeting neibu, or inner circle folks.

In fact, online Xi Jinping’s talks are repeatedly characterized as “strict (严厉)”. The adjective, of course, emphasizes the current administration’s explicit task to broaden reforms. In the aftermath of mixed messages, we’re still trying to figure out what that means. A larger political role for civil society and public debate? Or are we simply talking about a new purge? Excerpts of “strict” talking suggest the both/ and muddling of the current political landscape.

Of note? The ongoing use of classical CCP rhetoric to make veiled attacks on opponents. There’s a fight going on, but who’s the actual target? Also of note, The fact that the “Talk on the meeting about development work” took place in September, but the memes are still circulating. I received these memes yesterday.

A picture (for a sense of the Xi Jinping meme aesthetic), three excerpts and translation:

20139619571399354Today some people are using reform like a tiger skin, [frightening] the people so they don’t speak or make judgments. In my opinion, this is using reform for anti-reform purposes.

We’re not not reforming, we’re actually reforming, actually satisfying the people, pursuing a reform that will increase and further reforms. And what has been the status of reform these past years? Handcuffing productive capacities, perverted models of economic development, and serious environmental problems; we’re killing the goose [reform] that lays golden eggs.
The gap between the rich and poor is too wide. This is not only a problem of individual abilities, but also a result of unequal access to opportunity and power. All along we’ve been saying that we want to empower society, that we want to liberate productive capacity, that we want to realize sustainable development and a stable society, but we haven’t done anything because within the Party there are small mafias (的利益集团的黑手) who benefit too much from the current situation. Is a tiger willing to spit out the meat in its mouth? All that can be done is fight the tiger.

There are many such memes and, whatever the actuall status of Xi Jinping’s reform efforts, the memes resonate. What’s more, the memes are online, which means they have tacit support from the Center. Have we truly entered virtual political world of “monkey see, monkey reform”?

contradictions within the party?

Happened upon a newspaper article that quoted Tianjin Party Secretary, Sun Chunlan (孙春兰)as saying,

We must thoroughly study and understand the spirit of General Party Secretary Xi Jiping’s important talks, and deeply realize that criticism and self-criticism are vital weapons for resolving contradictions within the Party (要深入学习领会习近平总书记重要讲话精神,深刻领会批评和自我批评是解决党内矛盾的有力量武器。。。)

Talk of reform and harmony has characterized post Mao political discourse in China, so when a major player such as the Tianjin Party Secretary starts speaking of contradictions within the Party inquiring minds want to know — just how entrenched are political differences between top leaders and, more practically, to what extent has the legal system become an important arena for these ongoing battles?

Of note, the public execution of Xia Junfeng and the equally public non-conviction of Bo Xilai. In the former, an ordinary citizen was executed for defending himself against two Shenyang urban managers (城管). In the later, the court found Bo Xilai guilty of illegally owning a French villa. By today’s standards if that was all he did he was a clean official (清官)!

But. These rulings had obvious and interrelated political messages. In the case of Xia Junfeng, the courts made it clear that they will support the urban management officers in any and all disputes with ordinary citizens. In the case of Bo Xilai, the courts made it clear that the high ranking leaders can engage in all sorts of criminal activities, including accessory to murder, so long as they hold the Party line.

In other words, the Xia Junfeng and Bo Xilai convictions expressed the same political logic — hold the Party line and you will be protected. Fail to hold the line and you may find yourself in a life or death battle to resolve those pesky contradictions within the Party. Those outside the Party must fend for themselves as best they can.

Happy National Day!

dream of a red china

On November 29, 2012, in one of his first appearances as the General Party Secretary of the People’s Republic, Xi Jinping defined “China’s Dream”, saying, “everyone is debating what China’s Dream is. I think that since the modern era, the greatest dream of the Chinese nation has been the renaissance of the Chinese people (大家都在讨论中国梦。我认为,实现中华民族伟大复兴,就是中华民族以来最伟大的梦想。).”

In support of Xi Jinping’s exhortation, the walls surrounding Shenzhen’s construction sites have been covered in posters that define this dream in terms of Chinese tradition. Visually, this is achieved through folk paintings of children learning to use a calligraphy brush or symbols of new year’s prosperity. However, given that folk nationalism was such an important part of early Maoism, these posters also reference the joys of labor and strengthening the country.

Shenzhen’s take on the campaign interests me because the posters reference Maoism indirectly through a visual rhetoric that reiterates 1950s folk nationalism. Traditional activities and visual styles further evoke a nostalgia for the good old days. Moreover, these posters explicitly celebrate Confucianism. All this to say, the current Shenzhen interpretation of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream takes the form of nostalgia for a past that ever happened creates a Chinese identity that is explicitly cultural, rather that political.

I’m not sure if Shenzhen’s take on China’s Dream is the same as in other cities. A quick google of 中国梦, for example, brings up illustrations that are more scientific and futuristic that these colorful posters. Thus, there is something determinedly anti-socialist realism in the Shenzhen campaign, which might lead us to think that Shenzhen’s leaders are ambivalent about the Party. Certainly, it leaves me wondering just how far the current regime will distance itself from its former incarnations in order to maintain hegemony without sharing power.

Examples of these posters, below:

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carry the purse, gentlemen!

5198cc4ejw1e326t05m2gjMeme du jour: Even the most impressive have to carry their wife’s purse (在牛逼的爷们也得帮媳妇拎包).

Yes, it’s true. Xi Jinping carryies wife, Peng Liyuan (彭丽媛)’s purse and the Chinese internet is gleefully sharing the news. I know that many westerners-in-China have been disconcerted by the fact during a Chinese courtship, men carry their girlfriend’s purse. After marriage,  many men — especially those “caring alpha” types — carry their wife’s purse. And now Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan have brought this bit of intimacy to the international scene.

My friends have been thrilled by Peng Liyuan’s performance as China’s First Lady. Now, they’re ecstatic that she’s reminding their menfolk about what it means to be a gentleman.

bao tong analyzes the southern weekend incident

baotongZhao Ziyang’s former secretary, Bao Tong has weighed in on the Southern Weekend Incident. And once again, his quirky take sheds all sorts of light into the dark corners of power at the top of China’s massive state apparatus.

Bao Tong suggests that the Southern Weekend Incident has raised three questions.

First, inquiring minds want to know, who’s actually opposing Xi Jinping? According to Bao Tong, all seven members of the Central Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China had to agree on Xi Jinping’s take on constitutionalism before he announced it. Thus, when the Southern Weekend decided to run “China’s dream, the dream of constitutional government”, they were doing their job, pushing forward the national agenda. Thus, what struck Bao Tong as abnormal wasn’t that an opinion piece was unilaterally changed, but that we don’t know who actually did it because none of the top seven have said, “I’m opposed to the national agenda.” In other words, on Bao Tong’s reading, we still don’t know who exactly is opposing constitutional reform. Is it someone in Guangdong? In Bejing? In the Ministry of information? Somewhere higher and deeper?

Second, inquiring minds want to know, why haven’t the seven just said, yes China has a constitution and it is the legal standard in the country? The seven announced that they would participate in reforming the constitution. They also announced that the constitution was the legitimating authority in China. But when the Southern Weekend encountered a force that was anti-constitution, none of the Standing members said anything. Surely, any and all of them could have said, yes, Constitution, good? So, Bao Tong wants to know, in this case where speaking was more natural than not speaking, what exactly does the seven’s collective silence mean?

Third and most seriously, at present, the role of the constitution is unclear. If the seven aren’t talking in support of the constitution, is it because the constitution doesn’t actually matter? Or if the opposition to the constitution is so strong, why not just admit that constitutional government in China isn’t really an option?  Bao Tong’s actual words go right to the point, “If China’s constitution doesn’t have legitimacy, then we should take the opportunity to tell everyone to stop hoping for constitutional government. This way we can avoid the people dreaming their way onto an evil road and blindly wasting their time (如果憲政在中國沒有合法性,應該趁早叫大家死了這條心,免得全國全民在夢中走上邪路瞎折騰).”

Last year, as Chongqing Turns became an international melodrama, Bao Tong provided one of the most interesting takes on Bo Xilai, arguing that Chongqing’s most infamous Party secretary was in fact Mao’s true heir because he was not afraid to use power to achieve political ends.

thinking about the southern weekend event

It’s called “the Southern Weekend Incident (南周事件)” in Mandarin and refers to a standoff between the Guangdong Provincial Minister of Information, Tuo Zhen and the editorial board of the Southern Weekend News Weekly (南方周末). If you’ve been following the story in the western press, you are well aware that at stake in the standoff is the question of just how free China’s press should be. However, if you’ve been following the story in Chinese, you’re also aware that what the Incident has revealed how serious disagreement between the two main factions in the central government are.

So what happened and what might it mean?

At the beginning of the year, the Southern Weekend editorial board decided to use “China’s dream, the dream of constitutional government “中国梦,宪政梦)” as the headline for their social commentary page.  With the support of the National Minister of Information, Liu Yunshan, GD Provincial Minister Tuo Zhen change the headline to read “China is closer than it has ever been to achieving its dreams (我们比任何时候都更接近梦想)”.

Apparently, Tuo Zhen made the changes after the editorial board had gone on holiday to celebrate the new year. On January 3, when they discovered what had happened, they went to weibo and announced that “After the Southern Weekend had already decided on its final draft, the editorial board left work, and thus were completely unaware that the Guangdong Provincial Standing Committee Member and Minister of Information Tuo Zhen directed the New Year’s words to be change and altered, leading to many mistakes. On January 4 the editorial board went on strike to protest Tuo Zhen’s heavy-handed intervention, garnering widespread support.

Importantly, the content of the two editorials represent different factions within the central government. The expression “China’s dream, the dream of constitutional government” are quotations of current General Party Secretary Xi Jinping. In contrast, the idea that “China is closer than it has ever been to achieving its dreams” reflects the position of the Jiang Gang, who are supporters of the former General Party Secretary Jiang Zemin.

Thus, the stakes in the conflict were two-fold: (1) the formal question of freedom of the press and (2) the political question of the Jiang Gang’s blatant challenge to Xi Jinping’s reforms.

The day after the Incident became public, Xi Jinping gave a talk that went after one of the primary conflicts with the Jiang Gang — dismantling the labor camp system. Liu Yunshan responded by way of “The Southern Weekend‘s ‘to our readers’ Really Makes one Reflect (南方周末“致读者”实在令人深思)” an editorial that was published in the Global Times (环球时报). Subsequently, the Ministry of Information demanded that all subordinate newspapers print the editorial, supporting Tuo Zhen and attacking Southern Weekend. Not unexpectedly, there were different levels of cooperation with the Ministry; the editor-in-chief of New Beijing Times (新景报), Da Zigeng resigned in protest.

Yesterday, in his first public appearance since the Southern Weekend Incident, Tuo Zhen was unrepentant. He opened the Guangdong Ministry of Information Meetings by announcing that the meetings transmitted the spirit of the national Ministry of Information, rather than the spirit of the new General Secretary’s reforms. The opposition to Xi Jinping was straight forward because on January 4 during its meetings, the national Ministry had made it clear that the mission of the Ministry of Information was to “continue to be guided by of Deng Xiaoping theory, the three represents thought, and the perspective of scientific development (要坚持以邓小平理论、‘三个代表’重要思想、科学发展观为指导)”. Thus in his opening speech, Liu Yunshan explicitly invoked Jiang Zemin’s political project (the three represents) and did not mention Xi Jinping’s project (constitutional government).

So what happens now that Tuo Zhen has backed off, but not really, and an abbreviated version of the Southern Weekend came out as scheduled yesterday? Well the two meetings (两会) are upon us. The Chinese People’s Consultative Committee (全国政协) will meet March 3, 2013 and the National People’s Congress (全国人大) will convene on March 5, 2013. As important government positions are filled, inquiring minds are curious to see how successful the Jiang Gang’s attack on Xi Jinping will be, or whether Xi Jinping and the Princelings will solidify their authority. We’re also wondering whether or not the embattled General Secretary will be able to wrest control of the Ministry of Information away from the Liu Yunshan and Jiang Gang supporters, or if no matter what he does, it will be at odds with the truth that the Jiang Gang is putting forward.

All this to say, more freedom of the press would be welcome precisely because we need open debate about these two positions — constitutional reform versus maintaining the status quo. Indeed, open debate would also allow for alternative voices to enter the conversation, allowing us to see how deep and far-reaching Xi Jinping’s reforms might actually be.