School Buses and Political Consciousness

One of the regularly offered predictions in the debate over the political future of China is the idea that as incomes, freedom, and access to information increase, movement toward liberal-democratic government becomes inevitable. The way a story about a deadly school bus crash this week is raising deep seated social concerns shows how that idea just might be right.

On Wednesday a kindergarten school bus in rural, western Gansu crashed killing 21 students, the driver and teacher. The bus was extremely overcrowded. The back seats had been removed and children were packed in on small benches without seatbelts. What to western eyes would be a van that could carry maybe 9 or 10 was carrying 61 people.

This kind of overcrowding is not uncommon. It’s understood as common practice around the country. Recently, 2 students were killed in Beijing when an overcrowded school bus taking migrant children to their unlicensed school on the outskirts of town crashed.

The public reaction has brought up government corruption. Why are students crammed into tiny vans when government officials all drive fancy cars? Why are school buildings falling apart while officials work in palatial office buildings? There’s also talk of mismanagement. Where is the system of safety regulation that should keep children safe?

Then there’s the reaction that brings up social inequalities. These students were being bussed from their small rural villages to school in a nearby town, for many this means long commutes each day. They are also achingly poor. Many are separated from their parents who work in faraway cities. The contrast between that and some of the pampered children in big east coast cities is stark.

What is tacitly acknowledged in all of these criticisms is that these problems are systemic. This is not just one school bus in one province. And that’s the politically transformative part: people acknowledging wide-spread failures in the system. Sounds a lot like the foundation of a political consciousness, or at least the source of some political pressure that needs to be appeased.

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A Crisis of Trust

I’ve written before about the way a competing claims from government, media, and individuals creates a reality where truth is slippery and misinformation hard to root out, but the theme has come back in recent weeks with examples of how the culture of bombastic accusations, rebuttals and uncertain information not only destabilizes truth but can be traced to a deep, pervasive sense of distrust in society.

But this is only allowed to persist, and in fact is given space to exist, because of the understanding that even the central government has limits to their sincere commitment to honesty. There seems to be a general understanding that stability and harmony are more important than truth.

This is most easily seen in the human rights stories that show up in the western media. For example, several human rights cases that have cropped recently: one a movement to free a blind activist lawyer from house arrest; the other a tale of brutal police torture to secure a confession. What doesn’t make it into the western press is the credibility battle waged in Chinese media.

In the case of the blind lawyer, Sina, the major microblog website, released information that a microblog account of a heroic trip to visit the blind lawyer in his detention was in fact a hoax. In the tale of police torture, a story (English/Chinese) appeared in the local paper detailing an official investigation of the torture claims that concluded the man was faking his injuries to get public sympathy. But those are just two examples, in both cases the debate involves a complicated back and forth of rival claims.

The role of the government, and at what level, in these kinds of incidents is unclear and doesn’t really matter. The mainstream news of course gets censored, and newspapers appropriated to voice the concerns of whoever can muster the power or money.

The website ESWN provides regular coverage of the conflicting media reports that often appear in these cases. The result is that observers have to decide which source they trust, and would be reasonable to end up trusting no one.

These are the kind of incidents that the central government wants to keep under wraps. According to the logic, if these cases gain too much public support they might spark open conflict that could undermine stability, and with it progress. The debate over how important stability is to progress, and whether the Chinese government has a good vision of stability or the ability to achieve it notwithstanding, the need for stability becomes fundamental and justifies extreme action.

One of the outgrowths of this tacit acceptance of extra-legal measures in the name of stability is the opening up of opportunities for local officials to subvert the law under the guise of preserving social harmony but in service of personal gain. With official power over news sources, more and more slanted, untrustworthy reports appear and media credibility is further undermined, and with it public trust, not only in information but the value of truth.

It would be unfair however to blame media’s lack of credibility entirely on government manipulation. Admittedly, the media undermines its own credibility. There are not a few cases of the media publishing sensationalized stories to draw readership (too lazy to track down links right now though).

But the ultimate impact of a credibility crisis in government and a credibility crisis in media is a credibility crisis in society. If all sources of information are undermined, starting with the government and extended into the media, quickly there becomes no one left to trust.

The salient recent example is the public sensation caused by the story of a baby that was run over by several cars and ignored by several passers-by before being taken to the hospital; she has severe brain damage. The common explanation is that people were too afraid to help. Helping someone is akin to an admission of guilt, or at the least potentially costly entanglement. The toddler story is often recounted along with the story of an old woman who, when helped by a young college student to the hospital after falling in the street, accused the student of pushing her and was supported by a court case that made the student pay significant damages. The lesson: don’t help someone because you can’t trust them or the system to back you up.

That’s just one example. I was told recently that a big reason China can’t change the system of reliance on a single exam for entrance to college is that people would find ways to lie about their talents and experience, making a test the fairest way. Add to that the prevalence of fakes, frauds, and manipulations and you get a sense of how distrust is a rational response to daily life.

But… a recent high profile editorial spoke directly to this phenomenon. It criticized the way official commitment to maintaining stability above all else undermines the government’s ability to work toward the rule of law, alleviating poverty, and harnessing corruption. I would add that removing unqualified government support for stability preservation would also help people trust each other.

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Mao’s Big Bumbling Legacy

Mao Xinyu at the CPPCC this year. Photo from here

Mao Xinyu is Mao Zedong’s only grandson, and he is not only quite rotund but also noticeably lacking in rhetorical ability. Both qualities are on display in this recent video (chinese). For all that however, Grandson Mao holds a Ph.D in military history, sits in China’s legislative body the CPPCC, and last year became the youngest ever Major General of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

If that list of accomplishments itself isn’t enough to make clear why some have cried nepotism, it doesn’t help that Mao the younger is know for constantly playing up his ancestry. The title of Mao Xinyu’s book: Grandfather Mao Zedong. Rounding out his resume as a  role model Grandson Mao has two kids in a country where most are allowed only one.

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Urban Planning and Chinese Society

This picture is taken from a google image search for "Beijing"

There’s a connection to be made between urban planning and the state of Chinese society. A couple of quotes recently drew my attention to how the design of cities is a deep reflection of social values.

Take the comments of Ai Weiwei, the anti-establishment Chinese artist, in an op-ed after being illegally detained without charge for weeks. His subject is not government oppression, freedom, or rights, but the city of Beijing:

“You don’t see yourself as part of the city—there are no places that you relate to, that you love to go. No corner, no area touched by a certain kind of light. You have no memory of any material, texture, shape. Everything is constantly changing, according to somebody else’s will, somebody else’s power.”

Compare that with the thoughts of Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book written in 1961 against the ascendant planning theory of the time that has become the intellectual foundation of a lot of modern urban planning:

“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretend order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”

Both Jacobs and Ai hint at a reciprocal relationship between life in a city and social values, even if from different angles. Ai sees what he feels is a failure of Chinese society reflected in his home city. Jacobs fears the constricting effects of bad city planning on social vitality.

The planning theory Jacobs was speaking against was the “Radiant City” and “Garden City” planning popular in America in the 1950s that emphasized large-scale super blocks of single use development boxed in by massive roads and large swaths of greenspace. The point of her book was to say that this prescription ignored the basic function of cities, replacing the messy reality of diversity with clean, oversimplified idealism. About Le Corbusier, the father of Radiant City planning:

“His city was like a wonderful mechanical toy. Furthermore, his conception, as an architectural work, had a dazzling clarity, simplicity and harmony. It was so orderly, so visible, so easy to understand. It said everything in a flash, like a good advertisement.”

For Jacobs this blind whitewashing was indicative of a deeper attitude that she called “authoritarian” and “paternalistic”:

“As in all utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.”

It’s not hard to see this attitude in China’s “harmonious society” and the government’s staunch dedication to centralized planning, so maybe it’s no wonder that China’s cities look almost exactly like the plans Jacobs decried. Beijing, with it’s 5 ring roads, walled-off office parks, old dying mega-malls knocked down to make way for new glitzy soon to be old mega-malls, endless rows of residential high rises, and ubiquitous green spaces stranded in the middle of highways, is an almost eerie example.

But Jacob’s book didn’t just point out the shortcomings of 50s planning, it tried to point out how cities could facilitate social and economic interaction. In her view, it’s all about diversity. Diversity is the source of city vitality. This means small streets so there is plenty of space for businesses and people to interact, and a healthy variety of commerce and residence so the streets are constantly populated by people with different schedules and goals.

Interestingly, Ai Weiwei, 50 years later, comes to a similar conclusion about what makes a successful city, but without all the detailed talk about streets and mixed uses:

“To properly design Beijing, you’d have to let the city have space for different interests, so that people can coexist, so that there is a full body to society. A city is a place that can offer maximum freedom. Otherwise it’s incomplete.”

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What a Maserati and Jet Li Say about Civil Society

A supposed Red Cross employee with her Maserati and Jet Li supporting his charity, The One Foundation.

A while ago the Chinese internet latched onto the story of Guo Meimei, a young woman who posted pictures of herself wearing luxury clothes and driving a Maserati. The controversy is that the girl also claimed she worked for the Red Cross Society of China. She doesn’t, but the Red Cross already had a touchy reputation and the pictures prompted a general public outcry against charity corruption.

The story is a symbol for the current state of civil society organizations in China, if only to show they’re having trouble with some of the basics. It’s a reminder that charities and non-profits are a new thing for Chinese society, and face huge challenges just getting up and running let alone doing effective work. Just look at Jet Li and his charity, The One Foundation.

Jet Li started The One Foundation in 2007 and appears to have put about as much effort negotiating the organizational details as actually engaging in charity. The charity started as a project under the Red Cross Association of China because of the difficulty of independent registration. Because of a contorted financial relationship Jet Li has been moving toward greater autonomy ever since, but still maintains an unclear association with the Red Cross. In 2008 the charity became Shanghai’s One Foundation and just this year moved it’s registration to Shenzhen, all in an attempt to gain more legal acceptance.

(Shenzhen is the city just across from Hong Kong that became the experimental center for market reforms after ’79. It’s still administered under different rules than most of the country and has consistently been used to test new policies. Jet Li’s foundation moving to Shenzhen is a part of a new experiment; the city is a test center for civil affairs reform.)

Beyond registration issues, the foundation takes great pains to allay corruption fears. In addition to strict auditing standards, it’s enough just to read a few of Jet Li’s quotes on the issue. There’s, “Money is not a big problem. Breaking a donor’s heart (because of corruption) is a bigger one.” and, “We respect every yuan of One Foundation’s funds just like we respect every heart that does good.”

But perhaps most telling is what Jet Li’s foundation actually spends it’s time doing. In addition to disaster relief the foundation’s two other main projects are “Developing Awareness of Charity and Philanthropy” and “Awards for Philanthropy”. That means a huge chunk of their effort is spent simply getting the word out about what charity is and how it can benefit society. Talking about starting from square one, they’re working just to get people used to the concept of civil society.

An example: in the next year The One Foundation plans to spend one quarter of their funds training their own employees. And, in recognition of the fact that across China there is a lack of training the foundation recently set up a Philanthropy Research Institute at Beijing Normal University. The whole field is just so new that no one knows what they’re doing yet.

The other component of that, however, is that they are growing. Perhaps the best illustration is a statistic. In a recent survey, 65.7 percent of 451 sampled NGOs plan to hire more staff in 2011. They’re also getting more support, like the experiment in Shenzhen. Just listen to the director of the Civil Affairs Bureau there, “It’s time to give free rein to China’s grassroots foundations and time to consciously fade out the government monopoly.”

What Jet Li’s foundation says about civil society organizations is actually part of a bigger theme in China these days: institution building. It’s happening in the private sector where companies are focusing on research and development and moving up the design “food chain” and in the public sector with tons of new efforts from food safety, environmental protection and budget transparency to higher education and health-care. China is organizing.

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The Banyan Tree: China Writes Fiction

Marriage War is the most popular internet novel on Banyan Tree

In China, like anywhere else, young people often stare or poke at their cell phones. A little different is that what they’re looking at is quite likely fiction—short, written for cell phone, internet-downloaded fiction. What’s awesome about this is not just that someone is using technology in a new way, but that Chinese youth aren’t just reading these novels, they’re writing them too. In a country famous for a lack of creativity the internet/cell phone novel is a rare example of mass artistic expression.

This world centers around a group of websites where anyone can upload and share their work. One of the most popular is called Under The Banyan Tree. While famous names like Han Han have published through the site most of the content is written by amateurs. It’s like Youtube but for literature, and as popular too; the hottest books get millions of hits.

The most popular all time book on Under the Banyan Tree, with over 13 million hits, is a romantic comedy of errors called Wedding War. The teaser reads, “With a crazy mother-in-law, arrogant sister-in-law, and the ex-girlfriend of her new husband all recently divorced, XiaoYu’s life is bound to get complicated.”

Some of these success stories end in publishing deals and film contracts. For example another romantic hijinx web-novel, Naked Marriage, was not only published in paper and ink but recently turned into a popular tv show. But those are just some of the more sensational examples.

But most of the novels start online and stay online. They also tend to be genre fiction. And while the majority of the most popular are girl-targetted the boy genres of science-fiction and Kung Fu are well represented. It’s light reading, and in my eyes significantly driven by a desire among people, especially young people, to get away from the pressure of raised expectations as people strive to move into the middle-class.

In addition to being a sociologists dream, this is a really cool addition to how the internet is democratizing culture. We’re accustomed to blogs where people are free to write down the mundanity of the world around them (or ham on about things they know nothing about), but we aren’t used to everyone being an author, invited to create, imagine, and entertain. It’s wild that that’s happening in China.

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Chinese-US Immigration: Some Basics

The famous picture taken in 1869 at Promontory Point doesn't show any of the Chinese who helped build the railroad

A few fast facts about Chinese immigration culled from Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882 by Roger Daniels

For over 60 years Chinese were completely barred from immigrating to the US. In 1882 Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act which made it illegal for Chinese to immigrate until it’s repeal in 1943.

The act was the culmination of an anti-Chinese movement originating in California where the majority of Chinese Immigrants lived. They had mostly come to take part in the Gold Rush. In addition, an estimated 10,000 of around 60,000 Chinese living in the US worked to build the transcontinental railroad.

Before the act excluding all Chinese immigrants, Congress passed a law in 1870 to limit the migration of Chinese women due to their reputation as prostitutes, particularly in San Francisco’s Chinatown. This despite the fact that at the time most Chinese living in the US were men, by a ratio of more than 20 to 1.

Chinese exclusion was one of the first steps toward a more and more restrictive immigration policy culminating in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921 which instituted a national quota system and severely limited immigration until 1965.

After the quota system ended in 1965 immigration from China picked up and today there are an estimated 1.6 million people of Chinese origin living in the US, the 4th largest national group. In 2010 the US gave green cards to 70,000 Chinese, second only to Mexicans.

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