Saturday, July 31, 2010

Seeking the Soul of China


Christianity as a "brand" was a tough sell in the conversion of souls business. Even before getting to the message there was the problem of the "logo."  Horrific images of the crucifixion as in the Grunewald above to potential "consumers:"

Christian:  "Sinner, flock hither and be SAVED!"

Heathen:  "What that is?"

Christian:  "Christ on the Cross, Pilgrim. CRUCIFIED so that you will be SAVED!"

Heathen:  "That the Lord?"

Christian: "Nailed to a cross, for YOUR eternal salvation!"

Heathen:  "Where the virgins at?"

Christianity had difficulty competing with Islam. And for a while it didn't compete, it lost. Repeatedly. Islam was the first universal religion and it not so much expanded as exploded. Converts flocked to it. It was a "male" religion, one of power; a master's religion. Christianity was a "female" religion, it was the religion of the powerless;  it taught, in Nietzsche's phrase, a "slave's morality" of passivity.  Crucifixion imagery symbolized all of that and it was unappealing to "prospects."  Christianity changed, and with it, the imagery.

Mohammed founded Islam in 610 AD. At his death in 632 most of the Arabian peninsula was under Muslim rule. In 641 Iran was conquered and in 642 Egypt. By 732 all of northern Africa had fallen as had Spain and Portugal to the west and India and Indonesia to the east. Islam was the dominant and fastest-growing empire in the world.

The expansion into Europe brought Islam into natural conflict with Christianity for followers and territory.  Islamic penetration was first stopped by France at the Battle of Tours in 732. Starting in 1095 Christianity began the attempt to take back the territory lost to Islam in the previous three centuries. The Crusades were to last for the next two hundred years. Gone was Christian passivity. The biblical injunction to "turn the other cheek" gave way to the biblical injunction of "an eye for an eye."  Gone too was the universal imagery of Christianity, the pitiful sight of man's savior, barely clothed, nailed to a cross alongside two common criminals.

                                                                Not a girly-man

                                           Christian, girded with more than a loin cloth.


                                                   "Onward Christian Soldiers."

                                                  The Cross doing battle with the Crescent.

                                                 The Crescent falls to the Cross.

                                                            Cool new logo.

The image, and the imagery, of Christianity changed with the Crusades from the Crucifixion to the Cross.  Not universally, for the Crucifixion is still a common motif of course. But from universality.  No longer was the Crucifixion the sole image of the religion. The Cross became an accepted second image. In the language of
art, the Crucifixion is art realism; the Cross, abstract art.

What we now consider to be the great art of Christianity was, for the Church, not art at all, but it's means of instruction for the faithful illiterate. Biblical stories had to be told with images, in paintings across panels and walls and ceilings, and in carvings and architecture. That was true during the Crusades, as well. The literacy rates in the Middle Ages were perhaps 15%-20%. The Crucifixion however was a part of Christianity's narrative that could stand alone. To anyone within Christendom (and to some without) the Cross didn't need the body of Jesus of Nazareth nailed to it to convey the message.  The Cross was the West's first symbol. 

Part of the reason for the acceptability of the Cross also was the medium becoming the message. The Crusaders did not offer walls and ceilings for Christian imagery; they offered only their breast-plates and uniforms.  The Crucifixion was too "busy" for such a limited canvass. The Cross was indeed a sleek, stylized "logo."

Abstract art abstracts away from realism; in the case of the Cross, it abstracts away from the human suffering palpable in the Crucifixion. The Cross turned the symbol of Christianity from one of ugliness to one of beauty.   
Today, the Cross has probably supplanted the Crucifixion as the symbol of the religion. 

In contemporary society the beauty of the Cross's simplicity has further abstracted it away from the Crucifixion so that even it's religious content is subsumed.  The Cross has become stylish, as well as stylized.  The Cross has become art. 

With the Cross, Christendom took Christ out of the Crucifixion and human suffering with it. Human beings do not want to see human suffering but it is there. The Baptist points to it.


What's wrong with not wanting to see the horrific? What's wrong with turning a vivid image of cruelty and suffering into a beautiful symbol?  I don't know.  I don't know if there's anything wrong with either of those.  We in the West, maybe I should speak for myself now, I want to know, and to see.  It is very "Western" to want to know, I think.  We are an inquisitive people. Curious. Chinese don't want to know; it seems to me that they don't want to know as badly as "Westerners" do. No, I'll remove the comparative from that.  Chinese don't want to know. They didn't even explore.

Does it do any good to know?  Hasn't done me any good.  易子而食: that means "swap child, make food," exchanging children and eating them:

"The worst thing that happened during the [GLF] famine was this: ...a mother would say to her daughter, 'You have to go and see your granny in heaven.'  They stopped giving the girl children food...Then they swopped the body of their daughter with that of a neighbor's. About five to seven women would agree to do this among themselves. Then they boiled the corpses into a kind of soup."(1)

Most Chinese don't even know about the GLF famine, much less about 易子而食.
Knowing can make you go mad.

(1)  Hungry Ghosts, Jaspar Becker, 137-8.

Friday, July 30, 2010



Over the years as the number of posts on this site increased, we occasionally published an abridged list of those that didn't appear on the first page.  Those lists consisted of just what we liked.  This time, we're culling from the list created by Google's famous, and famously inscrutable, algorithm under "more from"  We've culled all China-related posts and all those from 2010.

1. The 133rd Pennsylvania Volunteers Regiment at Fredericksburg, June 3, 2008.

5. We are all Pittsburghers, December 2, 2007.

6.  New York Times: Pope Should Apologize, September 16, 2006.

7. Islam Has Bloody Borders, October 7, 2007.

8. For Verbal Provocation of Islam, September 17, 2006.

11. To the Future, June 23, 2002.

Photo: "The Wanderer," Caspar David Friedrich, 1818.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

There is an occasional series on this blog titled "What a Wonderful World."  The email below reminded me how occasional that series has been recently. 

The "Big Stuff" that gets written about on this little blog is usually not humorous. The stuff recently posted under Seeking the Soul of China was excruciating, for readers and the guy who posted them. The "ugly things" my friend refers to in his email are those posts I know, because he wrote me about them too, and the anguish he felt at reading them and seeing the photos, but also, as he says here, about the ugliness in the world generally that is there for all to see, and hard to avoid even if we don't want to see.  We, or at least I, must see those things.  But other things too, the humorous, and the beautiful.

Since, as I've come to realize and admit, all things really do come back to China with me, getting my friend's email reminded me of Jonathan Spence's beautiful, moving beginning to The Search for Modern China which I included in the post below, which may be the last time I posted under "What a Wonderful World."  I laughed at the quotes in my friend's email and responded with some of my own and the subject of the post below was to me and millions of others truly "miraculous" (which is not going to get me off on religious Big Stuff right now).  Enjoy my friend's email and Susan Boyle.

Hi, Ben:

You may enjoy reading the attached quotes, for a change from what surrounds us
in this world. Whenever I see ugly things, I always try to remember "the world
is neither so good not so bad as we think it is." (Guy de Maupassant).

These glorious insults are from an era before the English language changed to 4-letter words.

A Member of Parliament to Disraeli: "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease."

"That depends, Sir," said Disraeli, "whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."

"He had delusions of adequacy."
Walter Kerr

"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.
Winston Churchill

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure."  Clarence Darrow

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway).

"Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it." - Moses Hadas

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

China's Great Wall of Silence From My Translator.


A reader wrote last week to ask when the translation of "Remembrance" was going to be posted. The email (not the reader) "pushed my buttons."  Because it's been been...about two months...and I had been wondering the same thing. A colleague has been dealing with the translator for me; he found him, negotiated with him, paid him, etc. So I fired off an email to my friend and he fired at the translator.  I got "part one" yesterday...but it needs translating. It reads like a translation, the syntax and whatnot are a little off.  I got parte deux yesterday.  I don't know how many partes there are.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

War with North Korea: Let it Be.



From Reuters:

North Korea Declares “Sacred War” on U.S. and South

“The Army and people of the DPRK will start a retaliatory sacred war of their own style based on nuclear deterrent any time necessary in order to counter the U.S. imperialists and the South Korean puppet forces deliberately pushing the situation to the brink of a war,” the North’s National Defense commission said.

Eight years ago Public Occurrences began as a (pro) war blog. In the first few years American foreign and military policy dominated as completely as all-things-China do today.  The distillation of all that pixel wastage was the concept (which would be called a "doctrine" if proposed by one other than an idiot blogger) of "International Federalism." It argued for an American foreign policy analogized to the principals of the American governmental structure: limited and greatly reduced American involvement in the world, replacement of national "interest" with national "security" as the trip-wire for American military involvement, and the use of decisive force when that wire was tripped. Consistent with the first of these precepts we advocated ending alliances, such as NATO, whose raison d'etre, containing Soviet communism, had disappeared. No raison, no d'etre.  In the event, policy makers, academics, and think tank residents did not flock hither. Flocks were espied many places--most any other place imaginable, actually--but mostly these birds of strange plumage remained at their familiar roosts: NATO was expanded not disbanded and American soldiers are now committed to die in defense of Vilnius as surely as in defense of Washington, D.C.  Similarly we also advocated ending American military alliances with Taiwan, and, coming back to our point now, South Korea.  And the alliance with South Korea continued as if the world had not changed since 1953.
It is grievous aggravation to doctrine-proposers when the world behaves in ways predicted and the Flocks, and one's country, step in a shit puddle over which the proposed doctrine would have provided an elegant Leap.  Such was the case in 2006 when the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (DPRK, in Flockage) took the first steps toward building nuclear weapons. Then (see post here October 15, 2006), we proposed giving in to the North's demands for face-to-face negotiations, rather than the five-party or six-party, I forget which, roundtable we were insisting upon.  If memory serves (and it may not) that's what ended up happening, face-to-face negotiations, and the crisis was avoided and we all went back to joining hands and singing We are the World. The DPRK however went back to building nuclear weapons, verifiably detonating one or more atomic bombs underground, and test launching missiles with which to deliver them, at least one of which flew over the Straits of Japan. Through this and similar stimuli in the years since 2006, aggravated doctrine-proposers stayed their keyboards and wrote about China, American tackle football, and futbol instead.

Comes now the intelligence at top.  North Korea is a pustule on the anus of mankind.  Under prevailing Flock Doctrine there is ample justification for American military action(1) on humanitarian grounds, as America intervened in Bosnia under President Clinton to worthy effect.  We International Federalists however are not down with that.  We have not evolved to the point of seeing all of mankind as one beautiful tapestry.  We are Americans. We International Federalist Americans are extremely reluctant to get America involved in any international pustule-popping unless our national security requires it. But we want to!  

And thus the intelligence at top is not unhappily received by us for if the North Koreans "start a retaliatory sacred war" and American soldiers in South Korea (where they would not be if we International Federalist Americans had had our way) are killed then the second of the Elegant Precepts above will be met and there will be other--and many--nuclear-tipped missiles flying over the Straits of Japan, but in the opposite direction (Elegant Precept Three), toward Pyongyang not from Pyongyang, where they will land and blow up and the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea with them.

Thus it will be if International Federalist Americans have their way which we won't and so we align our keyboards back toward China, which only declares war on its own people.

(1) See e.g. Christopher Hitchens, “A Nation of Racist Dwarfs,” Slate, February 1, 2010.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Seeking the Soul of China





We are all witnesses in the West.  We bear witness in Christianity, that is publicly
affirm our faith.  We believe, as the fine print in the Nike ad says. We must 
believe in God even as we see what He let be done to his son. We must look
over and over again, countless times, at the imagery of the torture of the
Crucifixion. We must see.

We must be witnesses in our courts of law to acts of torture and murder too.We
are compelled in order to affirm our belief in the transcendence of law over man
just as belief in the face of the Crucifixion affirms the transcendence of God over

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Seeking the Soul of China


Death by Slicing  is, more accurately, dismemberment.  In the photo a woman first has her breasts cut off and then it proceeds from there. This is a public punishment as can be seen. 

Jung Chang once said to me, "Well of course, Mr. Harris, there is a greater tolerance for cruelty among Chinese."  That statement made a big impact on me.  It made a big impact on me because at the time, mid-March 2007, I was beginning to have similar thoughts about China, that is China generally, not specific Chinese, and hearing another person say the words one is thinking is different from reading them.  And that was before I read about cannibalism in China, a subject Ms. Chang wrote about in Wild Swans.  When I did, two months later, I remember pushing back from my desk and pacing in my apartment, needing a break from Jasper Becker's Hungry Ghosts which is about the Great Leap Forward famine and the cannibalism that occurred at the time. I was reading Mr. Becker's chapter on "learned"--as distinguished from "survival"--cannibalism in China at the time.

Westerners, including this one, react viscerally to reading, and especially viewing photographs, of death by slicing and learned cannibalism.  May we always.  For to want to learn about another people does not mean one takes the position, "I'm okay, you're okay."  We Westerners have always reacted viscerally to these subjects.  And that reaction has affected the entire Western view of China. Maybe it should, I don't know; I don't know what I think right now, I'm too upset by this. 

These subjects are deeply embarrassing to some Chinese too, and I count some Chinese among my friends, and one does not like to embarrass one's friends. There are some--I have heard them--who defend, excuse, or minimize the GLF; maybe there are some who do likewise with death by slicing, or learned cannibalism. But there is, I believe, pretty much a consensus in the academy that these are historical facts and that they cannot be defended, excused, or minimized. There is, in fact, a new book on the GLF coming out in October.

It seems to me that Chinese, today and always, care more about what the rest of the world thinks of them than do some other peoples.  Image is very important to Chinese (Exhibit A: Beijing Olympics) because Chinese self-image is so fragile. I believe that this is another manifestation of the deep need for security that is a big part of China's soul.

For those who believe in God, I imagine that the subjects of this post are difficult for some to reconcile with a God such as we were raised to believe exists, in the same way that the Holocaust caused doubt. For us nonbelievers these subjects are no less disturbing.  The American philosopher Nelson Goodman offered God as a concept as  alternative to the deity and defined God so-considered as "the collective conscience of mankind." China is one-quarter of that collective conscience. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Seeking the Soul of China

"In the case of  rebellion and high treason [the perpetrator]...will be put to death by slicing.  The paternal grandfather, father, sons, sons' sons, brothers, and those living in the same household and male relatives sixteen years or older, will all be beheaded.  [The perp's male relatives] fifteen years or younger, as well as his mother, daughter, wife, concubines, and sisters will all be given into the households of meritorious officials as slaves." (1)
                   -Qing Code (photo)

No dinner party that.

The Qing dynasty was China's last, ending in 1911 with the establishment of Sun Yat-sen's Republic of China. The efficacious means of deterrence above was thus in effect well into the twentieth century.  

There is no example of human behavior that exists only in one society.  There is no imaginable means of pain infliction that has not been put into practice by some human being somewhere and probably a few that we cannot imagine.  The differences in human behavior that exist between peoples are on a continuum.  They are differences of degree and not kind. The foregoing is not de riguer genuflection to political correctness.  I believe it, whether it's correct or not, and regardless of political politeness.  I will add too that to view differences as of degree and not kind is not to diminish their significance: the difference between ice and boiling water is one of degree also, and hugely significant. 

Death by slicing was a punishment of the state, codified, not an isolated act of an individual or group without official sanction. The practice also was not confined to the Qing dynasty (1644-1912).  According to one source it existed in China as far back as 900 AD. Both it's official status and it's long standing justify its consideration as a potential marker to a part of China's soul. 

There is also additional punishment prescribed in the section of the Qing Code excerpted above, the killing off of relatives of the perpetrator.  It too was common enough to have a name, the Nine Exterminations (zhu lian jiu zu, or zu zhu), and if anything it has a longer history in China, going back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600 BC-256 BC).  

What is it in China's soul that makes the practices of death by slicing and the Nine Exterminations official punishment?  The desire for stability, and the fear of chaos.

1. The Great Qing Code, William C. Jones (1994), 237, as cited in China's Legal Soul, John W. Head (2009), 37.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Seeking the Soul of China


I have presumed to write about China’s Cultural Revolution without any formal academic training in the field. I circumscribed that presumption by concentrating on one day, a very important day in that period, August 5, 1966.  I have written about that day from the perspective of the American criminal law in which I do have formal training, as well as experience as a prosecutor and now a criminal defense attorney. American, criminal law, non-scholar, and I should add male: those are the, or among the, perspectives from which I have written about China’s Cultural Revolution, and perspectives are biases. With those same biases, and limitations, I have removed all circumscription and.since the fall of 2009 have begun to write about the soul of China. It is of doing such things that the English poet Alexander Pope cautioned, "fools rush in where angels fear to tread" but I am no angel, and I'm in a hurry. 

I do see China everywhere, as my girlfriend has bemoaned, even in American pop culture. I see the religious imagery associated with LeBron James and I think of China, one of the least religious nations on earth.  In the movie Chinatown, I hear John Huston say to Jack Nicholson, "I don't blame myself. You see Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of ANYTHING," and I think of the Red Guards.  In Crimes and Misdemeanors I hear Martin Landau explain how his murderer’s guilt eventually passed and he went on living his successful, prosperous life, and I think of the Red Guards again. It is this aspect of the soul that I have most thought about recently, the aspect that has to do with the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage and of the West’s most religious country, America. A significant sub-component of my American bias therefore is also this religious bias. That religious bias is derivative for I am not personally religious.

Foremost, I see China in my work, in the people charged with murder, whom I now defend, whom I formerly prosecuted.  There is no other human institution that so reflects the values of its people as the criminal law.  It is moral philosophy with teeth.  American criminal law is based on the English, and both are grounded in the Bible.  As our religious heritage divides heaven and earth into good and evil, Anglo-American law divides the courtroom between the prosecution (mostly seen as good) and defense (mostly seen as evil).  The Bible is judgmental, there is a Judgment Day where you’re either in or out; the criminal law is judgmental: the verdict is either guilty or not guilty and the ruler of the law is called a Judge. And I am judgmental.

China has little of this; has never had much of any of it. Its closest religious analogue, Confucianism, is more an ethical system. It has no comparable criminal jurisprudence.  Yet the Chinese civilization has endured, and not only endured but has always been one of the world’s great civilizations--for five thousand years. There is nothing comparable to that in the West.  Ancient and modern, Greek and Roman, Spanish and English, the great civilizations of the West have risen and fallen.  The ethical systems of ancient Greece and Rome did not prevent their decline, and Christianity did not sustain the greatness of Spain or England.

Is it just size that explains this?  Athens and Rome were city-states; England an island-nation; Spain a large country only by European standards.  Their civilizations were made by conquest.  There is a sense in which the West’s great civilizations were made vulnerable and ultimately defeated by their supply lines: “One hundred thousand Englishmen cannot control 350 million Indians,” Mohatma Gandhi is supposed to have said.(1) English and Spanish rule over their empires stopped when their subjects refused to be ruled by England and Spain.  China has never been too small, nor had too few people.

Numbers don’t explain it all, however.  China never had a supply-line problem because China has seldom had supply lines: China has never been remotely as imperial as the West’s great civilizations. China has never been remotely as interested in exploring the world as the West either. China did not make contact with the West; the West made contact with it; a Chinese did not discover the “New World,” a Norse (and a Genoan) did. A Portuguese circumnavigated the globe. And so on.  Nothing about China has made a bigger impact upon me than this. Here is Wikipedia’s list of explorers  It runs fifteen pages long and contains hundreds of names. There are four Chinese on the list. Four. The same number as followers of this blog.  Besides the usual suspects, there’s a Pole, a Finn, a Hungarian, several Irish, a Swiss, a Moroccan, and a few Croats.  And these are the areas of the world the Chinese on the list explored:

-Japan (Xu Fu, 3rd century BC).  Whoa, that’s pretty adventuresome, huh?

-Central Asia (Zhang Qian, 2nd century BC).

-Indian subcontinent and Central Asia—finishing up on what Zhang Qian started? (Xuanzang, 7th century AD).

-South Asia, Southeast Asia (central Asia completed by Zhang Qian and Xuanzang), the Middle East, and the East African coast (Zheng He, 15th century).

Only Zheng He ventured out of his hutong.  Perhaps significantly also, Wikipedia lists Zheng’s nationality as “Chinese Muslim” (proselytizing being imperialism by another name).  It is astonishing that the most continuously great of the world’s civilizations did not explore.(2)

Numbers don’t explain it all in another sense, too.  The context in which Gandhi is supposed to have made the statement quoted above is:

Lord Irwin’s Lieutenant: “You don’t think we’re just going to walk out of India?”

Gandhi (to Lord Irwin): “Yes, in the end, you will walk out because 100,000 Englishman simply cannot control 350,000,000 Indians, if those Indians refuse to cooperate. And that is what we intend to achieve—peaceful, nonviolent, non-cooperation until you, yourself, see the wisdom of leaving, Your Excellency.” (3)

"Non-Cooperation."  That is a very civilized tool for an independence movement to use. Mao Zedong said "revolution is not a dinner party."  Non-cooperation is a dinner party in independence movement terms. Gandhi’s strategy could not have succeeded without a receptive soul in his dinner companions, the English, and Gandhi knew England’s soul.  He was an English-trained lawyer, he knew the Christian religion that was the basis of English law and morality, he had a favorable view of Christianity (“I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians”), and Gandhi bet that England’s soul (and the supply-line problem) would not permit it to be so brutal.

China has never had a problem with brutality either.


(1)    I have not been able to verify this quote quickly.  It’s in the movie but not in an authoritative source on the web that I could quickly locate. If Gandhi didn’t say it however, the point is the same for the purpose here.
(2)  This is not a controversial point. See e.g. The Search for Modern China, Jonathan Spence, 136, citing to Hegel, The Philosophy of History.
(3)    Bullies, Tyrants, and Impossible People: How to Beat Them without Joining Them (Like I said, I couldn’t find an authoritative source.), 218.  Ronald M. Shapiro, Mark A. Jankowski, James Dale, Jim Dale. Crown Business. (2005)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

China's Great Wall of Silence.

My oh my the things you can find in your old emails.  A couple of days ago I did a search for something--I don't remember now what--in my account and found this.  A reader sent it to me in 2007 and I done forgot all about it.  

Far Eastern Economic Review
Have China Scholars All Been Bought?
April 2007
by Carsten A. Holz 
Academics who study China, which includes the author, habitually please the Chinese Communist Party, sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously. Our incentives are to conform, and we do so in numerous ways: through the research questions we ask or don’t ask, through the facts we report or ignore, through our use of language, and through what and how we teach.

Foreign academics must cooperate with academics in China to collect data and co-author research. Surveys are conducted in a manner that is acceptable to the Party, and their content is limited to politically acceptable questions. For academics in China, such choices come naturally. The Western side plays along.
China researchers are equally constrained in their solo research. Some Western China scholars have relatives in China. Others own apartments there. Those China scholars whose mother tongue is not Chinese have studied the language for years and have built their careers on this large and nontransferable investment. We benefit from our connections in China to obtain information and insights, and we protect these connections. Everybody is happy, Western readers for the up-to-date view from academia, we ourselves for prospering in our jobs, and the Party for getting us to do its advertising. China is fairly unique in that the incentives for academics all go one way: One does not upset the Party.
What happens when we don’t play along is all too obvious. We can’t attract Chinese collaborators. When we poke around in China to do research we run into trouble. Li Shaomin, associate professor in the marketing department of City University in Hong Kong and a U.S. citizen, spent five months in a Chinese jail on charges of “endangering state security.” In his own words, his crimes were his critical views of China’s political system, his visits to Taiwan, his use of Taiwanese funds to conduct research on politically sensitive issues, and his collecting research data in China. City University offered no support, and once he was released he went to teach at Old Dominion University in Virginia. One may wonder what five months in the hands of Chinese secret police does to one’s psyche, and what means the Party used to silence Mr. Li. To academics in Hong Kong, the signal was not lost.
China researchers across different disciplines may not all be equally affected. Economists and political scientists are likely to come up against the Party constraint frequently, and perhaps severely. But even sociologists or ethnographers can reach the forbidden zone when doing network studies or examining ethnic minority cultures.
Our self-censorship takes many forms. We ask Western instead of China-relevant questions. We try to explain the profitability of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) by basic economic factors, when it may make more sense to explain it by the quality of enterprise management (hand-picked by the Party’s “Organization Department”), or by the political constraints an enterprise faces, or by the political and bureaucratic channels through which an enterprise interacts with its owners, employees, suppliers and buyers. But how to collect systematic information about the influence of the Party on the operation of a state-owned or state-controlled enterprise, when these are typically matters that nobody in the enterprise will speak about?
We talk about economic institutions and their development over time as if they were institutions in the West. “Price administration” regulations, central and local, abound, giving officials far-reaching powers to interfere in the price-setting process. Yet we accept official statistics that show 90% of all prices, by trading value, to be market-determined. We do not question the meaning of the Chinese word shichang, translated as “market,” but presume it to be the same as in the West.
Similarly, we take at face value China’s Company Law, which makes no mention of the Party, even though the Party is likely to still call the shots in the companies organized under the Company Law. Only if one digs deeper will one find unambiguous evidence: The Shaanxi Provincial Party Committee and the Shaanxi government in a joint circular of 2006 explicitly require the Party cell in state-owned enterprises (including “companies”) to participate in all major enterprise decisions; the circular also requests that in all provincial state-owned enterprises the chairman of the board of directors and the Party secretary, in principle, are one and the same person. At the national level, the leadership of the 50 largest central state-owned enterprises—enterprises that invest around the world—is directly appointed by the Politburo. Economists do not ask what it means if the Party center increasingly runs enterprises in the U.S. and Europe.
The governor and Party secretary of China’s central bank, Zhou Xiaochuan, writes extensively in Chinese about “comprehensively accelerating central bank work” based on the “three represents” (the Party represents the “advanced productive forces, the advanced Chinese culture and the basic interests of the Chinese people”). He describes the three represents as “guiding macroeconomic policy” in ways that defy any Western concept of logic. And yet we take this person as seriously as if we were dealing with the governor of a Western central bank, as if China’s central bank were truly setting monetary policy, and as if the channels through which monetary policy operates in China and the impact monetary policy has on the economy are the same as in the West.
Are we naïve? Or are we justified in ignoring the central bank governor’s second—or rather, first—life as Party secretary? Are we subconsciously shutting out something that we do not comprehend, or something we do not want to see because it doesn’t fit into our neat, Western economic concepts?
Article after article pores over the potential economic reasons for the increase in income inequality in China. We ignore the fact that of the 3,220 Chinese citizens with a personal wealth of 100 million yuan ($13 million) or more, 2, 932 are children of high-level cadres. Of the key positions in the five industrial sectors—finance, foreign trade, land development, large-scale engineering and securities—85% to 90% are held by children of high-level cadres.
With the introduction of each new element of reform and transition, cadres enrich themselves: the dual track price system, the nonperforming loans, the asset-stripping of SOEs, the misuse of funds in investment companies and in private pension accounts. The overwhelmingly irregular transformation of rural into urban land may well qualify as “systematic looting” by local “leaders.” Local cadres are heavily invested in the small, unsafe coal mines they are supposed to close, and nobody knows how they obtained their stakes in these operations.
A general dearth of economic information shapes our research. Statistics on specific current issues are collected by the National Bureau of Statistics on special request of the Party Central Committee and the State Council. None of this information is likely to be available to the public. The quality of the statistics that are published comes with a large question mark. Outside the realm of official statistics, government departments at all levels collect and control internal information. What is published tends to be propaganda—pieces of information released with an ulterior objective in mind. One solution for China economists then is to resign themselves to conducting sterilized surveys and to building abstract models on the basis of convenient assumptions—of perfect competition, profit maximization given a production technology, household utility maximization with respect to consumption and subject to financial constraints, etc. How much this can tell us about China is unclear.
Other China economists openly accept favors from the Party. We can use our connections to link up with government cadres. We may be hosted in field research by local governments and local Party committees. A local Party committee, at one point, helped me out by providing a car, a Party cadre and a local government official. They directed me to enterprise managers who, presumably, gave all the right answers. The hosts were invariably highly supportive, but I ended up working in exactly the box in which they were thinking and operating. (This seems to be the only research project that I never completed.) Furthermore, those who go to the field and interview cadres may not only unwillingly become a tool of the Party, but also a tool in departmental infighting.
Our use of language to conform to the image the Party wishes to project is pervasive. Would the description “a secret society characterized by an attitude of popular hostility to law and government” not properly describe the secrecy of the Party’s operations, its supremacy above the law and its total control of government? In Webster’s New World College Dictionary, this is the definition of “mafia.”
We speak of the Chinese “government” without further qualification when more than 95% of the “leadership cadres” are Party members, key decisions are reached by leadership cadres in their function as members of Party work committees, the staff of the government Personnel Ministry is virtually identical to the staff of the Party Organization Department, the staff of the Supervision Ministry is virtually identical to the staff of the Party Disciplinary Commission, and the staff of the PRC Central Military Commission is usually 100% identical to the staff of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission. Does China’s government actually govern China, or is it merely an organ that implements Party decisions? By using the word “government,” is it correct to grant the Chinese “government” this association with other, in particular Western, governments, or would it not be more accurate to call it the “government with Chinese characteristics” or the “mafia’s front man”? Who questions the legitimacy of the Party leadership to rule China, and to rule it the way it does?
The Party’s—or, the mafia’s—terminology pervades our writing and teaching. We do not ask if the Chinese Communist Party is communist, the People’s Congresses are congresses of the people, the People’s Liberation Army is liberating or suppressing the people, or if the judges are not all appointed by the Party and answer to the Party. We say “Tiananmen incident,” in conformance with Party terminology, but called it “Tiananmen massacre” right after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, when “incident” would have made us look too submissive to the Party.
Which Western textbook on China’s political system elaborates on the Party’s selection and de facto appointment of government officials and parliamentary delegates, and, furthermore, points out these procedures as different from how we view political parties, government and parliament in the West? By following the Party’s lead in giving the names of Western institutions to fake Chinese imitations, we sanctify the Party’s pretenses. We are not even willing to call China what its own constitution calls it: a dictatorship (a “people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants, which is in essence the dictatorship of the proletariat”).
Who lays out the systematic sale of leadership positions across Chinese governments and Party committees? The Heilongjiang scandal provides the going price list from the province down to the county level, a list not to be found in any textbook. The publicly known scope of the sale of positions does not leave much room for interpretation. For these salesmen and saleswomen of government positions to have nothing to fear, the rule of the mafia and its code of silence must be powerful beyond imagination.
What is not normal is accepted as normal for China. Hackers were collecting the incoming emails of a faculty member of the University of Hong Kong from the university’s server until they were found out in June 2005, when they accidentally deleted emails. The hackers came from three mainland Internet provider addresses, and all three IP addresses are state telecommunications firms. Within China, the staff of the foreign students’ dormitories includes public security officials who keep tabs on foreign students and compile each student’s file. In a Shanghai institution of tertiary education, typing “Jiang Zemin” into a search engine from a computer located on campus, three times in a row, leads to the automatic shutdown of access to that search engine for the whole campus. The Party is rumored to employ tens of thousands of Internet “police.” Phone calls are listened to, if not systematically recorded. Emails are filtered and sometimes not delivered. Who will not learn to instinctively avoid what the Party does not want them to think or do?
Party propaganda has found its way deeply into our thinking. The importance of “social stability” and nowadays a “harmonious society” are accepted unconditionally as important for China. But is a country with more than 200 incidents of social unrest every day really socially stable, and its society harmonious? Or does “socially stable” mean no more than acceptance of the rule of the mafia?
“Local government bad, central government good” is another propaganda truism that is accepted unquestioningly in the foreign research community, informing and shaping research questions. Yet, viewing the Party as a mafia, there is no room for such niceties, and reporting outside academia indeed suggests that the center hides a rather hideous second face, and inevitably does so for a purpose.
We see the “ends”—successful reform—and don’t question the “means.” The Party’s growth mantra is faithfully accepted as the overarching objective for the country and the one measure of successful reform. Nobody lingers on the political mechanisms through which growth is achieved. The mafia runs China rather efficiently, so why worry about how it is done, and what the “side effects” are? We obviously know of the labor camps into which people disappear without judiciary review, of torture inflicted by the personnel of state “security” organs, and of the treatment of Falun Gong, but choose to move on with our sterilized research and teaching. We ignore that China’s political system is responsible for 30 million dead from starvation in the Great Leap Forward, and 750,000 to 1.5 million murders during the Cultural Revolution. What can make Western academics stop and think twice about who they have bedded down with?
If academics don’t, who will? The World Bank and other international organizations won’t because they profit from dealing with China. Their banking relationship depends on amicable cooperation with the Party, and a de facto requirement of their research collaboration is that the final report and the public statements are acceptable to Party censors. The research departments of Western investment banks won’t because the banks’ other arms likely depend on business with China.
Does this all matter? Does it matter if China researchers ignore the political context in which they operate and the political constraints that shape their work? Does it matter if we present China to the West the way the Party leadership must like us to present China, providing narrow answers to our self-censored research questions and offering a sanitized picture of China’s political system?
The size of China’s economy will exceed that of the U.S., in purchasing power terms, by 2008 or 2009. China is a country with which Western economies are increasingly intertwined: A quarter of Chinese industry is foreign-owned and we depend on Chinese industry for cheap consumer goods. Ultimately, our pensions, invested in multinationals that increasingly produce in China, depend on the continued economic rise of China. But does the West understand that country and its rulers? At what point, and through what channels, will the Party leadership with its different views of human rights and the citizens’ rights affect our choices of political organization and political freedoms in the West (as it has affected academic research and teaching)? And to what extent are China researchers guilty of putting their own rice bowl before honest thinking and teaching?
Mr. Holz is an economist and professor in the social science division of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology