Pomfret's China

May 2008 Archives

May 1, 2008 12:00 AM

The Ugly Chinese

Move over ugly American, make room for the ugly Chinese.

In Seoul on Sunday, groups of Chinese students accosted protesters demonstrating against China's treatment of North Korean refugees and Beijing's policies in Tibet. The attacks by the Chinese occurred as the Olympic torch wended its way on its seemingly never-ending journey around the world. The South Korean government was justifiably angry. China, after initially denying the events occurred, has now taken steps to still the waters. But the damage has been done. China's angry youth - called "fen qing" in Chinese - are ruining their country's reputation around the world and spelling the end of a decade-long honeymoon that the world has had with China.

The flare-up was the latest deeply troubling and profoundly weird event to mar the globe-trotting journey of the torch, which the Beijing government has dubbed "the sacred flame." (Remember, these dudes are officially atheists.) Before Seoul, we had Chinese cops in blue and white tracksuits manhandling demonstrators in Paris and London; we had a Chinese woman in the United States who participated in a pro-Tibet protest being identified on a listserv run by Chinese students; now her parents are on the run in China and her high school in Qingdao has revoked her diploma; and we've witnessed the incessant hounding of Tibetan and other speakers on US campuses by Chinese students. In cities around the world, the Chinese embassy has fanned the passions of the "angry youth" by encouraging them to demonstrate, handing out T-shirts and flags.

While I have no problem with displays of patriotic feeling, the only thing these "angry youth" are accomplishing is turning the world away from China. And they are not alone in this ill-fated effort to get China's point across. China's propaganda machine is also seriously in need of repairs.

For a few years there, the tone adopted by spokespeople of China's government was downright suave. Background briefings. Check. A quiet drink with journalists. Check. Even a bowling event without a government minder. Check. But these days, it seems like someone has disinterred Cultural Revolution propagandist and Gang of Four member Zhang Chunqiao and put him at the helm.

After the March riots in Tibet, the Tibetan government proclaimed a "people's war" against "splittism" (somebody should really tell them to lose that word) and the party boss there called the Dalai Lama "a jackal clothed in a monk's robes, and a vicious devil who is a beast in human form." A few days later the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "disgusting." And the amazing thing was the Chinese expected to be taken seriously.

Finally, there's China's "ship of shame" - packed with arms for the government of Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe - on its own troubled journey to first South Africa and now Angola. In both places, dock workers refused to unload the weapons. It's a coincidence but also a bad one because China has been focusing a lot of diplomatic capital on improving its ties to Africa and the rest of the Third World.

What does this all mean for China? To me, it means the end of an era of China's "soft power."

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May 6, 2008 12:35 PM

Hillary's China-Bashing

Every election cycle, somebody likes to bash China. (Remember Bill Clinton accusing George Bush of coddling “butchers in Beijing”?) China is an easy target, and bashing it is fun because it’s so much simpler to blame foreigners for our troubles than to focus on our own issues. But more broadly, I think, making a case for relations with China is tough for politicians who feel the need to dumb-down their rhetoric and identify an enemy.

Let’s take Hillary Clinton as an example. After mowing down NAFTA, Clinton has now turned her anti-aircraft heavy machine gun toward China. Here are a few snippets from her campaign:

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May 9, 2008 12:00 AM

China's Harmonious Diplomatic Symphony

While its propaganda machine might be sounding a little shrill lately, China's foreign policy is hitting all the right notes. In the past few weeks, President Hu Jintao has met twice with leading politicians from Taiwan following the election of Ma Ying-jeou. First Hu met with VP-elect Vincent Siew and then with KMT bigwig Lien Chan. There's a good possibility that the two sides will move a lot closer -- setting up direct flights and freight services -- once Ma takes power on May 20 and Taiwan's both incompetent and ideologically rigid president, Chen Shui-bian, leaves. Good for China and Taiwan.

What's more, last week, Hu spent five days in Japan using "smile" diplomacy with China's Asian nemesis. By all accounts, it was a pretty successful trip, a stark contrast to complete disaster that occurred when Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin visited Japan in 1998 and gave a screaming lecture about history. The lecture played well in China but not anywhere else. China and Japan have reason to buddy up. Last year, China replaced the US as Japan's biggest export market - a trend that isn't going to change.

Then, last weekend in Shenzhen, lower ranking Chinese officials met with representatives of the Dalai Lama. They've agreed to keep talking. No one expects this to go anywhere, but it's a whole lot better than yelling at each other via the media.

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May 13, 2008 8:46 AM

The Earthquake's Chinese Meaning

On July 28, 1976 at 3:42 A.M., an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale shook Tangshan, a coal mining town to the east of Beijing. Sixteen hours later another 7.8 trembler rocked Tangshan again. Chinese official sources say 242,000 died, making the Great Tangshan Quake the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century and the third deadliest of all time.

To the Chinese, however, the Tangshan Quake didn't just spell disaster, it augured change. Six weeks later (on Sept. 2), Chairman Mao died, ending the Cultural Revolution and sparking a battle to change China won ultimately by Deng Xiaoping. Two other major Communist figures had already "gone to meet Marx" that year.

Natural disasters in China mean more than they do in the West. Many Chinese hold a view that the government is responsible for maintaining the harmony under heaven. If the earth buckles and shakes, it's a harbinger of political or social upheaval.

China's Communist government spent decades trying to stamp out superstitions and feudal beliefs such as these, but it has failed. The last two decades of economic reform have sparked an explosion of traditional beliefs and a renewed interest in Chinese Buddhist-like sects. In recent years, even senior Party officials embraced traditional creeds, the precepts of feng shui, and qi gong. (China's current president Hu Jintao talks about the creation of a "harmonious" society - a clear nod to Chinese traditional views.) I've met spiritual advisers to senior Chinese officials (Nancy Reagan and her palm reader, anyone?). I met one of them at a boozy evening in Beijing, introduced to me by a senior official in China's ministry of foreign trade. I still have the King of Clubs he gave me for good luck.

So, now, we have the deadly earthquake in Sichuan. So far, at least 8,500 are believed dead. Six thousand soldiers from the People's Liberation Army have been dispatched into the area to help with rescue operations. And already I have notes from several friends wondering is this dynasty next.

May 14, 2008 9:27 AM

China's Earthquake Chief

The man at the center of China’s rush to deliver aid and succor to the thousands affected by Monday’s tragic earthquake is Wang Zhenyao. Wang is a department chief in the Ministry of Civil Affairs in Beijing. He’s also a guy who has experienced great privation and some amazing success. Wang is known to and beloved by a small group of China watchers. Before he got this job, he was involved in China’s campaign to carry out elections in China’s villages. He was moved into his current post in 1998 apparently because he promoted real democratic reforms.

Here’s an excerpt from a story on Wang by Steve Mufson, who blogs on energy for PostGlobal and who preceded me in Beijing:

Born in 1954 in a village in Henan province, Wang's first political memory is hunger. Mao's economic program, the Great Leap Forward initiated in 1958, had failed spectacularly. Though Mao wouldn't admit that the economy was collapsing, in villages like the one where Wang grew up it was no secret. Fuel and cooking oil were in short supply. The cooking pots had been melted down to meet Mao's unrealistic steel production targets.

To survive, Wang ate raw tree bark. "We ate it raw, right off the tree," he said. "For my generation, the first deep impression is hunger. We were very, very hungry."

His area barely had time to recover from the Great Leap Forward when the Cultural Revolution began. In November 1966, at age 12, Wang spent two weeks in distant Beijing with his classmates to catch a glimpse of the revered Mao in Tiananmen Square. When Mao appeared in the square, he was greeted by Wang and half a million other screaming youths waving their little red books of Mao's quotations and chanting "Long live Chairman Mao."

"My generation really believed we were red," Wang recalls. "We believed in Chairman Mao and that we should devote ourselves to Chairman Mao."

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