China in 10 Words – from the best books 0f 2011

It will be a very long time before Chinese writers cease to mine the seemingly inexhaustible vein of material that comes from the ten years of chaos and upheaval of  the Cultural Revolution.

Indeed, Yu Hua, the author of the seventh book to appear on this list, China in Ten Words himself has come up with his own graphic way of taking note of this. If all the stories of fortunes reversed and lives thrust into chaos “were laid out one after another, they would stretch as endlessly as a highway and be as hard to tally as the forest.”

For people who follow China  seriously, this produces something of an occupational hazard. After a while, so much that is written about this turbulent period (1966-’76) begins to  sound familiar, and even when the stories are extraordinary, as they so often are, the effect becomes somewhat repetitive — even monotonous. This is made worse when people write about the period – and there are many of them – more or less to to pander.

Yu Hua, who hails from Hangzhou, a metropolis that few Americans have ever heard of and  yet is bigger than almost any city in the United States, has none of these issues. As the previous author, most famously, of Brothers, and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, he has long earned his stripes as a highly original writer, and one who revels in taking on big social and historical themes.

At 225 pages, China in Ten Words is so brief that one couldn’t be blamed for suspected it as one of those tossed off efforts that famous writers sometimes lend themselves to, whether out of boredom, or contract requirements, or the need for funds, or simply because they can, which means for the heck of it. To the contrary, the result is one of the most intriguing recent contributions on the subject of the Cultural Revolution that this reader has come across.

No, Yu Hua has not come up with some astounding new material, or even a genuinely new perspective on the period. All in all, his stories of growing up in that era of generalized violence, and of yet of striking innocence in terms of some things, such as social and sexual mores, sound rather familiar. The breakthrough instead, if it is not too grand a claim to call it that, comes in the form of the extended parallels he draws between that era in China and our own. And here, I believe, Yu Hu, ever the astute social critic, has stumbled upon something really quite interesting.

The Cultural Revolution was an era of extraordinary concentration of power in the person of Mao Zedong. The Party remains powerful, of course, but by the measures of the past, authority has become highly diffuse. Both result in great violence, both in great injustices, even if their nature and description vary dramatically.

Here and there, Yu Hua takes great pleasure in skewering a body of opinion that exists in China (and which is nursed by the state) which is smug and self satisfied. “Our economic miracle — or should we say, the economic gain in which we so revel — relies to a significant extent on the absolute authority of local governments, for an administrative order on a piece of paper is all that’s required to implement drastic change.”

He is speaking, of course, of the administrative hocus pokus that has propelled real estate speculation and made huge fortunes out of thin air, while cheating ordinary people, the nameless masses, out of their land and their homes or their livelihoods, fueling combustible anger in places like Wukan and many other places.

He is mostly impressed by the great waste that accompanied the economic boom, likening it to useless backyard steel furnaces of the Great Leap Forward that boosted statistics but left the countryside polluted and denuded of trees.

“When I left South Africa at the end of a visit during the 2010 World Cup, the duty-free shop at Johannesburgs airport was selling vuvuzelas — Chinese-made plastic horns — for the equivalent of 100 yuan each, but on my return home I learned that the export price was only 2.6 yuan apiece,” he writes. “One company in Zhejiang manufactured 20 million vuvuzelas but ended up making a profit of only about 100,000 yuan. This examples gives a sense of China’s lopsided development: year after year chemical plants will dump industrial waste into our rivers, and although a single plant might succeed in generating a thirty-million-yuan boost to China’s GDP, to clean up the rivers it has ruined will cost ten times that amount. An authority I respect has put it this way: China’s model of development is to spend 100 yuan to gain 10 yuan in increased GDP.”

There is an extended meditation here about the seemingly almost arbitrary reversals of fates that the two eras, the Cultural Revolution and now, have brought about in the lives of Chinese people. Back then, as Yu Hua notes, Wang Hongwen, a simply security guard, rose at age 38 to officially become the country’s third leading politician, after Mao and Zhou En Lai. Today, it is seemingly ordinary people from the grassroots who dominate the lists of richest people. They are people who “think and dare to act,” and who “will adopt any method,” legal or not, to get ahead.

In the popular idiom of the revolutionary 1960s China, this was called “flipping pancakes,” he tells us. “Everyone was just a pancake, sizzling on the griddle, flipped from side to side by the hand of fate.”

For Yu Hua, the forms of the past may have changed but the essence of so many things has remained the same. We have gone from an era of radical redistribution of political power to an era of radical redistribution of economic power, but the arbitrary nature of fate and the injustices that it inevitably deals have remained constant.

“What is revolution,” Yu Hua asks? “The answer I have heard take many forms. Revolution fills life with unknowables, and one’s fate can take an entirely different course overnight; some people soar high in the blink of an eye, and others just as quickly stumble into the deepest pit. In revolution the social ties that bind one person to another are formed and broken unpredictably, and today’s brother-in-arms may become tomorrow’s class enemy.”

Or indeed today’s.

Here’s a profile from the New York Times magazine of the author, written by the formidable Pankaj Mishra:

Havel, China and Africa

I am eager to read Chinese news accounts of the life and death of Vaclav Havel, whose central message might be summed up as the necessity for individuals everywhere to cast off their apathy and assume their rights – and agency – as citizens.

The death of this figure of major importance to the history of the late- and post-Cold War world will inevitably generate talk that is heavily focused on Europe, just as the attention of the Western media and foreign ministries tended to stay almost exclusively bracketed on this region (with China, for a time, serving as a crucial exception) as the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union crumbled.

Scarcely noted around that time, were citizens’ democratic uprisings in Africa (Benin 1990-’91, Mali and Zambia ’91) that opened history’s door for a new era of participatory representative politics around the continent. I say scarcely noted by the press, but also scarcely heeded by Western chancelleries, which judged such events to be small beer when compared to the exciting things happening in more “important” places elsewhere.

Little diplomatic energy was invested in supporting this early wave of African democratization. In part, this was due to the fact that it seemed to violate tenets of conventional wisdom in political science, and hence diplomacy, which held that democracy could not take root in countries that did not have a substantial middle class.

What contributes to making China so interesting today is that the country now boasts a large and fast-growing middle class, making it ever riper, some theorists hold, for the emergence of real citizens’ movements that can push back the frontiers of the state and win greater space for the individual, and for civil society.

Havel’s death coincides interestingly with an example of just what the tender green roots of such a movement might look like, meaning of course the protests underway in Wukan.  Six years ago, I covered a remarkable, and remarkably similar uprising in Shanwei, in the very same part of southeastern China.

It was ruthlessly put down by paramilitary police, and mention of it in the Chinese press and Internet was largely suppressed. In all likelihood, the state will find a way to quash the Wukan protests, as well, but even as it works furiously to censor the Internet, word of the uprising, and of its significance for the emergence of a broadening rights consciousness in China, is getting around.

In Africa, largely ignored and scarcely supported by the outside world, a similar kind of rights consciousness began to spread and take root in the 1990s. That it was able to do so without the existence of a robust middle class in so many places remains an important and largely untold story; a fertile subject awaiting book-length exploration by enterprising journalists and historians.

Western Europe and the United States ignored African calls for a Marshall Plan for the continent, as it emerged from the ruinous misrule common during the Cold War. Remarkably, in more recent times, Africa has gradually begun to harness its own wealth, so long stolen and misappropriated. Growth is said to be fast and accelerating on the continent, which finds itself in a demographic sweet spot, and courted by rich new players, conspicuously led by China. Middle classes, ever more familiarly globalized, are emerging nearly everywhere one looks.

Whether this growth will lead to real and solid development remains an open question. Outcomes will naturally be very different according to the country. Here’s my wager, though, that the emergence (or not) of the Havelian citizen, the networked individual who is jealous of his rights and demanding of the state, will be decisive.


Book Four – My Best Reads of 2011

My first choice of fiction in this list is Yiyun Li’s Golden Boy, Emerald Girl.

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Li’s extraordinary book (published late in 2010) is a collection of dense yet luminous stories of women’s lives, alternately lived in claustrophobic or numbingly pragmatic ways in response to the brutal and alarming changes that China has undergone from late in the Cultural Revolution until the recent past.

The subtext throughout is about the coping mechanisms that these people adopt to manage their inner lives and shield themselves from despair, as they settle for far less n life than they once might have dreamed. Most of the stories pack intense emotional power, and yet the language is restrained and delicate and tightly controlled throughout.

Li’s unforgettable characters include a young female inductee into the People’s Liberation Army, whose childhood with unusually remote parents has forged its own distance from others in her. The results are seen through poignant, arms-length ties with her much older childhood tutor, and with a young female officer who eagerly seeks to befriend her.

In another story, a couple of emigrants to the U.S. have lost their child and return to China  to “replace” her. This results in search in one of China’s innumerable half-developed inland towns for a surrogate mother, who they find, with striking results in terms of the dynamics between husband and wife, and wife and birth mother.

These stories resonated with all the more emotional truth for me because I read them during a year of extensive travel in Africa, where I met with scores of uprooted Chinese who have been driven by a very similar pragmatism as they have traveled far from home in middle age in search of more livable lives; in search of relief from the untold, disorienting stresses of the booming China of newspaper headlines.

Many of them were uncomplaining survivors of the Cultural Revolution, each in possession of an extraordinary oral history, and yet often surprised in our encounters that their lives could be of interest to a stranger at all.

A Review from The Guardian:

Yiyun Li interview, NPR:

My other picks so far:

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How Africa Gets Covered (or Doesn’t)

As regions go, Africa has always been the stepchild of the American media.
It is the continent where inexperienced reporters have been historically sent for their first overseas assignments, on the theory that if they screw up in Africa, it won’t be much noticed.
The assignment required little-to-no preparation, no languages, no history or study. All you needed was a young reporter willing to plunge into chaos and mayhem and black mischief and serve up the goods, colorfully if you please.
It is the continent where newspapers and magazines, and long, long ago, American television networks, figured that they could get away with a single bureau to cover all of the “black’ part. (North Africa, the “white” part, was traditionally stripped off and arbitrarily attached to the Middle East, or to southern Europe.
To get an idea of how absurd these propositions are, maps can be quite instructive, especially if they’re not of the Mercator Projection variety, meaning that they show Africa relative to the other continents at its true size.
It is the continent where, once newspapers got around to promoting African-Americans to their foreign staffs, itself a painfully belated occurrence, Africa became for a long time and for many the obligatory “one-and-done” assignment.
Finally, it is the continent where editors have always stretched credulity and good sense to speak commonly of events or trends taking place “in Africa.” This, on the theory that something short of a major catastrophe happening in any given African country was too insignificant to warrant the commission of precious column inches. Hence the silly phraseology — and you should watch for it — “across Africa…”
The best test for whether this is prudent, or even coherent usage is to take the formula and alter it thusly: “across Asia…” or “across South America…”
To be sure, there are occasionally continent-wide phenomena worth chronicling — witness the European financial crisis. But absent unusual events such as these, the “across____” formulation invites due ridicule, which brings us back to its lazy and commonplace use on the subject of Africa. One wishes to ask why use such vacuous wording?
There was a more immediate source of inspiration for this brief item, though. Yes, I almost forgot.
It was the Washington Post‘s “coverage” of the Congo electoral crisis in today’s paper (link attached). The astute reader will see that it doesn’t come from the Washington Post at all. No. It is an Associated Press article.
I have nothing against the AP, but the last thing the big, and still rich and influential American news outlets need to be doing is outsourcing their coverage of what is already the worst covered part of the world.
The Post, in fact, has a great tradition of Africa coverage. Many years ago, I got my start as a stringer for them, inspired and mentored by the formidable Leon Dash.
Let me tick off some other names (and this is surely not an exhaustive rundown):
Blaine Harden, Neil Henry, Lynne Duke, Emily Wax, Karl Vick, Doug Farah, Stephanie McCrummen, John Pomfret, Keith Richburg.
There is immense value in the kind of investment that this list implies — value for American media, and value for a news consuming public that has been historically and woefully underserved in terms of African news and analysis.
These objections of mine are far from sentimental. Many times, we’ve seen the cost (a la Rwanda) of being underinvested in African news when a major historical crisis erupts on the continent. Anyone who re-reads coverage of the first 30 days of the genocide in that country — which is instructive on many levels — will immediately know what this means and understand its importance.
Today is a time of opportunity on the continent. It is a continent with a middle class larger than India’s. China knows this, but do Americans? Click to read more about African growth
By mid-century, Africa will have nearly as many people as China and India combined. Can farmed out news coverage, like today’s story on the Congo, really be justified under the circumstances? Can the lazy old posting patterns, of no languages or prior study or training really be justified?
Africa deserves better, and so does the American public. Click to read the Post piece

In Africa, an Election Reveals Skepticism of Chinese Involvement (Atlantic)

An excerpt:

On the eve of Zambia’s presidential elections last week, one of the most common tropes about the vote was to describe it as a referendum on China. For a long time now, Zambia has been at the leading edge of China’s drive to expand its relations with the continent. Chinese have migrated to Zambia by the thousands, setting themselves up in mining, farming, commerce and small industry.

Although China is a latecomer to Zambia’s decades-old copper industry, it has quickly established itself as an ambitious rival to “traditional” mining partners like Australia and South Africa. As almost everywhere in Africa these days, Chinese contractors are building highways, dams, and other large infrastructure projects. Zambia even boasts two Chinese-built special economic zones, and has recently allowed banking in the Chinese renminbi instead of the kwacha, dollar, or euro to facilitate trade with China.

But these are not the only developments that have set Zambia apart, or at least placed it ahead of the pack in terms of observable trends in its relations with China. Zambia was one of the first African countries where the role of China and of Chinese people in the country became an explicit and potent political issue. During the campaigning for elections in 2006 and 2008, the newly elected leader, Michael Sata, made a sport of baiting China, calling its businesspeople in the country “profiteers,” not investors, and denouncing Chinese for “bringing in their own people to push wheelbarrows instead of hiring local people.”

“Zambia has become a province of China,” Sata thundered in one campaign rally back then. “The Chinese are the most unpopular people in the country because no one trusts them. The Chinaman is coming just to invade and exploit Africa.”