China Book Reviews

 

Han Dongping, The Unknown Cultural Revolution, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2008.

ISBN: 978-1-58367-180-1




Han Dongping, The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2008.

by Jason Lee

Dongping Han's The Unknown Cultural Revolution challenges the established narrative of China's Cultural Revolution, which assumes that this period of great social upheaval led to economic disaster, the persecution of intellectuals and senseless violence, and for this reason the book makes a great companion piece to Mobo Gao's The Battle for China's Past and Paul Clark's The Chinese Cultural Revolution - both of which I reviewed here on this site last year.

While Clark focusses on creativity and innovation in the arts, Dongping Han offers instead a powerful account of the dramatic improvements in the living conditions, infrastructure, and agricultural practices of China's rural population that emerged during this period. Drawing on extensive local interviews and records in rural Jimo County, in Shandong Province, Han shows that the Cultural Revolution helped overthrow local hierarchies, establish participatory democracy and economic planning in the communes and expanded education and public services. The political convulsions of the Cultural Revolution "democratized village political culture and spurred the growth of rural education," writes Han, "leading to substantial and rapid economic development." (p.1)

According to Han, ordinary villagers, "being at the very bottom of the Chinese social hierarchy," were "accustomed to oppression and abuse." (p.18) Abuse and corruption during the years immediately following the coming to power of the Chinese Communist Party "took place in rural China not only because the laws and regulations banning abuses of power and corruption were insufficient," but also because "the common people did not know how, or were not predisposed, to use the existing laws and regulations to fight corrupt and abusive officials. In order to empower ordinary villagers it was necessary to transform their political culture of submissiveness and to increase both literacy and political awareness." (p.19)

The Chinese Communist Party also inherited the legacy of pre-1949 policies that had financed urban education at the expense of the countryside. "While the Communists had denounced the social injustices inherent in this educational system when they were in opposition," notes Han, "once in power, CCP officials began to entrench themselves and their families in urban areas and began to see the existing educational inequality in a different light." (p.23) Without appropriate supervision from the people, adds Han, "the Party bosses at all levels possessed the human tendency to become arrogant and corrupt." (p.49)

The Cultural Revolution then, insists Han, was launched by Mao with the aim of empowering the masses so as to prevent the Party from being transformed into a corrupt institution under bourgeois control. "China's pre-Cultural Revolution political culture had provided fertile soil for the growth of tuhuangdi (local emperors)," says Han, pointing out that former rebel leaders in Jimo County like Lan Chengwu and Wang Sibo at the time viewed the Cultural Revolution as something that had been introduced by Mao "because he wanted to cultivate a more democratic political culture in order to eradicate the tuhuangdi phenomenon." (p.55)


According to Han, most of Jimo's workers and farmers, unlike the young students who had naive and noble notions about the Cultural Revolution, joined for very practical reasons. "They rebelled because they were not happy with the local Jimo Party bosses, and with the ways some Party leaders conducted their official business. They accused the Party leaders of turning their units into small independent kingdoms (duli wangguo), of distorting Central Government policies and enacting their own arbitrary rules, of oppressing people who challenge their authority, and of pilfering public funds." (p.57) This explains, says Han, why during the Cultural Revolution their challenges "were labeled anti-Party and anti-revolutionary by the local Party bosses." The workers and farmers however, responded to such claims by appealing to Mao's 16 Points, which stressed that the targets of the Cultural Revolution were the capitalist roaders inside the Party. "Chairman Mao supports us," they said, "and we will not let Chairman Mao down." (p.57)


The picture Han Dongping paints of the conflicts that occurred in Jimo County between local Party leaders and students and rebel worker and farmer associations during the 1960s bear a striking resemblance to the kinds of conflicts that commonly occur throughout much of rural China today. "In the beginning the rebels were not able to engage in these political activities without harassment," Han observes. For example, "Li Hu, a policeman from Chengguan Police Station, tried to stop Lan Chengwu and his comrade Yan Libo from distributing their newspapers in the market places. They resisted. Li Hu took them to police headquarters. Inside the police station, Li Hu confiscated all their newspapers and searched their bodies. After harassing both students for some time, Li Hu dismissed them in the usual off-handed manner. But the two students refused to leave and demanded an apology for the illegal harassment. When they did not get an apology, they immediately started a hunger strike inside the police headquarters. Farmers, workers, students and teachers swarmed the police station to support the two students." In the end, the police were forced to back down and to apologize. "When rebels such as Lan Chengwu and Yan Libo defended themselves and subjected the arrogant and aggressive Party leaders to vehement criticism and physical harassment," concludes Han, "defenders of traditional political culture condemned this as 'disaster' and 'chaos'. But this 'disaster' and 'chaos' also empowered masses to talk back to people in authority." (p.58)

Like Mobo Gao, Han Dongping believes that the militancy of today's rural workforce in China is a direct legacy of the Cultural Revolution.
As Han points out, most mass associations during the Cultural Revolution "claimed allegiance to Mao Zedong thought and to the agenda of the Cultural Revolution because they empowered them," though Han also acknowledges the fact that in most villages, mass associations "were divided into two major sides." Usually one side "was made up of people who had grievances against village Party leaders and saw the Cultural Revolution as an opportunity to settle past wrongs" while the other "was composed of people who were more favorably disposed toward the former village Party leaders and wanted to protect them." (p.59)  Different mass associations would often compete with one another for the allegiance of villagers, and sometimes village Party leaders were subjected to violence, but nevertheless concludes Han, "these violent explosions of anger and frustration by villagers had some very positive consequences in the process of empowerment for rural people." (p.59)

When looking at the 80,000 or so rural disturbances that now occur every year throughout rural China, argues Han, it is important to recognize the past as prologue.

 

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, China's Brave New World - And Other Tales of Global Times, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2007.

ISBN: 978-0-253-21908-4


 


Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, China's Brave New World - And Other Tales of Global Times, Indiania University Press, Bloomington, 2007.

by Jason Lee

Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom argues that the simplistic views of China commonly produced by our soundbite-driven media serve us poorly, preventing us from understanding China's real place in the world. He challenges the often held belief among globalization critics that China, and much of the world, is becoming increasingly Westernized, which itself has become equated with the idea of Americanization. "The media," he says, "continually measure the economic and cultural distance the Chinese have come in recent years in specifically American terms - the number of KFC franchises or Starbucks outlets per city, for example." (pp.4-5) This however, suggests Wasserstrom, "obscures the extent to which China is being influenced by many foreign cultures, not just America's; karaoke bars are more numerous than bowling alleys in Shanghai, for example, and sushi is as popular as Starbucks." (p.5)

Like Mark Anthony Jones, whose book Flowing Waters Never Stale I reviewed earlier in the year, and Frank Dikotter's Things Modern: Material Culture and Everyday Life in China (which Jones draws heavily from), Wasserstom too is clearly influenced by the works of Michel de Certeau, whose classic book, The Practice of Everyday Life, invites us to favor the role of human agency in the processes of consumption. To consume, argues de Certeau, is to appropriate - ordinary people have a habit of subverting the rituals and representations that institutions seek to impose upon them.

Even the "most seemingly 'global' or 'universal' symbols can end up meaning very different things in different places," says Wasserstrom. "One should never assume that buying a stock or watching a Disney cartoon has the same significance in China as in the United States." (p.7) Just as Jones uses the example of alcohol consumption and Dikotter the example of mirrors, Wasserstrom draws our attention to the way Mickey Mouse has been appropriated by the Chinese. "Mickey's fame, plus the fact that the 'laoshu' in his Chinese name can be translated as either 'rat' or 'mouse', made it natural that when an official effort to eliminate vermin was launced, some local artists began showing him being stabbed through the heart with a stake and being subjected to other violent fates that the creator of such cartoons such as Steamboat Willie never imagined his best-known character suffering." (p.7)


Like Jones, Wasserstrom also refers to Yan Yunxing's study on the Chinese appropriation of McDonald's, taken from the now classic Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia, noting how this study demonstrates further the "creative process by which people react to new products and practices and put localized spins on transnational phenomena." (pp.10-12)

This may be so, but it is important also to recognize, as Douglas Kellner does, that Yan's study valorizes McDonald’s as bringing "modernity itself" to China,  by praising as it does McDonald's "for its efficient production methods, its cleanliness and orderliness." In doing so, argues Kellner, Yan promotes McDonald's as a commodity spectacle. McDonald's food may very well be consumed differently in China, "appropriated in ways that are culturally specific", as Jones says, but the flowering of the Golden Arches across China's visual landscape surely nevertheless represents a form of both economic and cultural imperialism? For  Wasserstrom, it is a mistake to view globalization as a process that is reducing the world to a drab state of Americanized conformity. Globalization, from his perspective, is a complex process that runs in multiple directions and so is always subject to localization. While this is a very sound line of reasoning, Wasserstrom's problem is that he, like Jones and Dikotter, spends too much time accentuating the positives of globalization while largely ignoring its more destructive and homogenizing effects - though he does at least admit that "Chinese children are more familiar with the face of Colonel Sanders than that of any current political leader". (pp.13-14)

Despite its shortcomings, Wasserstrom has produced a brave new book - one that is certainly well worth a read, for his text is full of fascinating insights, with his browsings through China's bookstores for example, revealing much about China's current academic trends. The philosophy sections for instance, are no longer dominated by the works of Marx and Lenin as they were in the 70s and 80s, but are now full of postmodern texts - the works of Heidegger, Foucault and Barthes - works by Barthes, apparently, have even "sold more copies in Chinese than in French." (p.18)

 

 

Paul Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-521-69786-6




Paul Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

by Jason Lee


In his new book, The Chinese Cultural Revolution, Paul Clark explodes several myths about the ten year period by examining a wide range of cultural forms - film, operas, dance, other stage arts, music, literature, and even architecture. Rather than unearthing a decade characterized by chaos and destruction, Clark discovers great innovation and creativity. The promotion of mass participation in cultural production and a vigorous promotion of the modern is what instead characterized the Cultural Revolution, concludes Clark. “Indeed, the commercial commodification of culture that has characterized Chinese artistic life in the last quarter-century was made possible by the ideological commodification of culture during the Cultural Revolution. Constant and repeated re-working of model works in those ten years included what we might now identify as cross-genre product tie-ins. A hero of a model opera would appear in posters, songs, comic books, even on pencil cases and enamel mugs. This commodification made the rise of the cultural marketplace in the 1980s and 1990s seem less of a break with the past than has generally been assumed.” (p.4)

Clark forces us to fundamentally reassess our understanding of the Cultural Revolution, a period which he sees as the product of innovation in conflict with the effort by political leaders to enforce a top-down modernity. He argues, very convincingly, that instead of being an aberration, “these years are better approached in the context of certain tendencies in Chinese cultural and social development in the twentieth century.” (p.5)

Clark traces the seeds of the Cultural Revolution at least as far back as the May Fourth Movement, whose advocates “called for the complete abandonment of Chinese values, personified for many by Confucianism, and their replacement by foreign morality and ways of organizing society. From among the exponents of radical change came men involved with founding the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. A Western ideology, Marxism, in its Leninist iteration, would provide a way forward for stagnant Chinese society…The powerful themes of the Cultural Revolution, including mass mobilization and the renewed push to combine Western and Chinese elements in a new-style mass culture, fit well with the previous decades’ obsessions.” (pp.5-9)


“The kind of hybridity see, for example, in the mix of Chinese and Western dance steps in the Cultural Revolution was a distinctly modern element in these cultural productions,” notes Clark. “Chinese folk dance, martial arts, and more high cultural dance movement were added to orthodox ballet or modern dance movement to create a new style of performance. These unique dances were clearly Chinese but based on international models. The modernized operas similarly incorporated movement, blocking, lighting, and other staging elements from the spoken drama  stage to produce a new kind of Chinese musical theatre.” (p.251)

Running counter to the rise of the modern specialist, these years, argues Clark, also “saw a renewed emphasis on amateur creation and performance. Mao Zedong had set up the Cultural Revolution in motion from his determination to undermine what he saw as elitist, increasingly entrenched superiority in political and professional life. Instead of well-paid, privileged holders of power and influence, ‘the broad masses’ would be encouraged to seize influence and topple those who felt born to rule, even as Communists. For many educated Chinese, used to lives of relative comfort and privilege, these years saw an appalling challenge to the normal way of the world in which, in many places, uneducated boors took charge and barked orders. Likewise, in the sphere of cultural production, the amateur challenged the entrenched elitism of the professional. Poetry writing, for example, was further popularized in these years. The quintessential cultural practice for educated Chinese over the millennia, poetry writing had been transformed in the twentieth century, at least I the rise of modern-style verse that could eschew the emphasis on rules, literary allusion, and precedent of traditional verse.” (pp.253-254) During the Cultural Revolution, as Clark demonstrates, the popularization of poetry writing was “facilitated by the greater availability in the revived literary journals and radio broadcasts of the early 1970s of models of poetry for emulation. The peasant painters…took another traditional scholar’s skill to folk producers and, through posters, to mass consumers.” (p.254)

Clark convincingly reconstructs the place of culture in people's lives during the 1960s and 1970s by focusing on the production, dissemination, and reception of the arts rather than on the factional and ideological struggles they represented. “The policies of the Cultural Revolution effort to produce a modern Chinese culture ultimately defeated the attempt,” concludes Clark. “The composers, choreographers, and theatre directors undertook their work in a political system obsessed with concepts of correctness. This fever over ideological right and wrong, in an era when factional rivalries became even more vicious, made public innovation on occasion too risky. Experimentation was so politically charged in most instances that artists, writers and audiences chose to avoid risk, at least in public.” (pp.250-251)

But the innovation encouraged in the early years of the Cultural Revolution simply went underground from 1968 onwards, as the “internal migration of millions of young people to the countryside set up conditions for the growth of less-controlled, unofficial cultural life.” (p.250) The private, unofficial pleasures of the hand-copied novel, “some of which were highly salacious,” co-existed with ritual enjoyment of more orthodox new art and literature. “Red Guards took their mid-1960s urban experiments in new performance forms and strange combinations of Chinese and foreign contents and settings and, as sent-down youth in the countryside, reproduced these kinds of innovation for themselves, often far from official interference or knowledge.” (p.251)

For example, a mimeograph machine at a propaganda station on the Inner Mongolian steppes might produce in daytime a broadsheet for the entertainment and edification of young people settled there from Beijing. “But at night the machine could be turned over to the production of hand-bound stories that gave a more emotionally florid and satisfying expression to the sent-down youth experience on the grassland. Amateur performing talent, cultivated to present model workers or heroes in spoken drama or dance, could stage, when the circumstances allowed, unapproved, heart-felt works that referred to real experience rather than idealized lives. Many such amateurs had gotten the taste for producing works of topical immediacy as Red Guard performers before being dispatched to the countryside after 1968. " (p.255)

Even in official contexts, say Clark, "the innovation and degree of experimentation by the mid-1970s in fields such as music and dance were striking.” (p.251) The opera, dance, and musical model performances of the Cultural Revolution era, concludes Clark, "represented an unprecedented degree of experimentation, even as they were appropriated by the cultural leadership. Red Guard innovation in the late 1960s [can be noted] in new-style stage works, even if the purposes were pure agitprop. As controls eased and possibilities widened, starting in 1972, various attempts to combine the specialist and the amateur, the conventional and the new, and the international with the Chinese made the era similar to other periods of Chinese cultural development in the twentieth century. Throughout the century, Chinese artists and audiences responded creatively to the new possibilities thrown up by China's changing engagement with modernity." (p.259)

This is a highly valuable, scholarly and detailed work, backed by a wealth of empirically-verifiable evidence, and one that I consider essential reading for anyone interested in this period of China's history.

 

Mobo Gao, The Battle for China's Past, Pluto Press, London, 2008.

ISBN: 978-0-7453-2780-8






Mobo Gao, The Battle for China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, Pluto Press, London, 2008.

by Jason Lee

Mao Zedong and his policies have long been demonized in the West, with the Cultural Revolution considered a fundamental violation of human rights. As China embraces capitalism, the Mao era is also being surgically denigrated by the Chinese political and intellectual elite.

In his new book,
The Battle for China’s Past, Professor Mobo Gao attempts to rescue the Cultural Revolution by claiming that it benefited both China and the broad masses of the Chinese people. In the process, Gao dismisses the neo-liberal agenda of the "capitalist counter-revolutionaries" inside the Chinese Communist Party and unmasks the reality of the growing divide between urban and rural China."

Mao's political experiment, the Cultural Revolution," writes Gao, "like all other social revolutions before it, claimed many victims. It did however, again like all other social revolutions, have some positive outcomes. It encouraged grassroots participation in management and it also inspired the idea of popular democracy. The mass criticism practised in the era of Mao in general and during the Cultural Revolution in particular, though ritualized and mobilized from the top, did provide a rich repertoire of protest techniques." (p.6)


The Red Guards, says Gao, "were not just passive followers of a charismatic leader, but agents actively involved in a variety of ideological disputes and contests for power. The Chinese were not the brainless masses manipulated by a ruthless dictator so often portrayed in the Western media. They must be seen as agents of history and subjects of their own lives like any other people. " (p.6)


Gao is of course correct to argue that the Cultural Revolution involved many millions of people "who willingly participated" in what they at the time saw as a movement to better Chinese society. A whole range of ideas from politics to education and healthcare, from literature to the arts and industrial and agricultural policies were examined, tried and tested. As Gao says, some of these experiments succeeded, some failed, and some did not have time to come to fruition before they were prematurely terminated. Considerable scientific progress was indeed made at this time. The archaeological discoveries at Mawangdui "led to the discovery of a Chinese medical remedy for malaria, while the delivery of primary healthcare, the development of integrated techniques for controlling insect pests, and the advance of earthquake predictions are examples of the the scientific progress made at the time." (p.5)
Gao also notes that "the average life expectancy of the majority of Chinese increased from 35 in 1949 to 63 by 1975," and that Mao's revolution also "brought unity and stability to a nation tortured for so long by disunity and instability. It was a revolution that carried out land reform, promoted women's status, improved popular literacy, and eventually transformed Chinese society beyond recognition." (p.81)

In later chapters, Gao deconstructs the dominant contemporary Chinese elite discourse about the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s policies, showing how the elite’s identification with Western values has shaped their remembering of the past. The consequence of this is that whereas Chairman Mao pursued policies designed to narrow the gap between the cities and the countryside, between agriculture and industry, and between mental and manual labor, the current leadership is prepared to exacerbate them, to allow the Gini co-efficient to rise to crisis point, in order to benefit themselves through a pursuit of policies designed to narrow the gap between China and the West.


Gao offers scathing criticisms of Jung Chang’s
Wild Swans, Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The memoirs of Mao’s personal physician, and Chang and Halliday’s Mao: The Untold Story. He does not have the space to comprehensively rebut these works that have influenced the way millions in the West now view Mao and the Cultural Revolution, but he does offer sufficient critiquing of their dishonesty and unreliability as to strip away their general credibility.

For example, Gao convincingly challenges the Jung/Halliday claim that 38 million people starved to death during the Great Leap Forward, noting that (1) there were never any reliable demographic censuses to make possible an accurate figure, (2) it is hard to know whether some casualties during the great Leap Forward were deaths by hunger or premature deaths due to hardship, and (3) some estimates try to  assess the 'missing' population on the basis of normal death and birth rates and therefore most likely would have included millions who might not have even been born. The result of using dubious methods produces "unrealistic and inflated" figures. (p.85)
A fourth problem is that natural disasters such as floods and droughts were not considered as a factor in causing the famine. Some parts of China during this period were hit with "the worst floods in a century". For Jung and Halliday's 38 million death figure to be accurate, it would have meant that one in every twenty Chinese had died during this period - which clearly couldn't have been the case, and would have been "something the authorities could not have hidden away no matter how hard they tried." (p.86)

Gao also argues that it is unreasonable to describe those who died from famine as having been "murdered" by the Chairman. "Mao should certainly be held primarily responsible for the consequences of the Great Leap Forward," suggests Gao. "First he should be held responsible for initiating the movement by criticizing Zhou Enlai, Deng Zihui and other more cautious leaders before the Great leap Forward started. Second, Mao was mainly responsible for the quick and dramatic collectivization around the winter of 1957 and spring of 1958. The sudden change in organization from co-ops to big collective communes meant that no adequate supervision and monitoring systems could be implemented to manage grain production. This organizational failure undoubtedly had detrimental consequences in grain production. Eventually there was a food shortage everywhere in China and disastrous famine in some areas. But to identify Mao as the person responsible for policy disaster is not the same as to say Mao was the murderer of so many people. Who is supposed to be the murderer of the millions of Russians whose life expectancy has been shortened by ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union?" (p.86)


Aside from this, the increase of life expectancy achieved during the Mao era alone has given an estimated 35 billion extra collective years of life to the Chinese people, and although living standards remained low, and were for many at subsistence level, "it is plain truth," says Gao, "that except for the Great Leap Forward years of 1959 and 1960 and the Cultural Revolution years of 1967 and 1968, Chinese economic growth was not only steady but also outpaced most developing countries. By 1976 China had laid down a sound industrial and agricultural base for an economic take off. These facts are proved and accepted by both Chinese and Western scholars in their macro studies (Meisner 1986, Lardy 1978, Rawski 1993, Chow 1985, Perkins 1985, and Field 1986) as well as micro case studies (Forster 2003, Bramall 1993 and Endicott 1989). Even the Chinese official statistics released by the post-Mao authorities who shout loud anti-Mao rhetoric of economic calamities cannot deny these facts." (p.87)


Professor Gao is right to rescue the Mao era from those who would have us believe that the period was a total disaster, with no worthwhile legacies, just as he is right to highlight the inequalities behind the glitter of present-day China. The problem I have with Gao's thesis though, is this: he fails to acknowledge the fact that per capita literacy levels continued to climb  throughout the Deng and Zhang periods, as did per capita life expectancy and overall living standards. Market reforms may have increased inequalities, but they have also brought about many improvements. Mao laid the foundations solidly enough to enable the "capitalist counter-revolutionaries" to introduce their market reforms, that is true, but today's China isn't the great disaster that Gao makes it out to be.


 

James West, Beijing Blur: a head-spinning journey into modern China, Penguin, Melbourne, 2008.

ISBN: 9-780143-006756




A journey into the new gay China: James West's Beijing Blur

by Jason Lee

In Riding the Iron Rooster, first published in 1988, Paul Theroux painted a rather bleak portrait of China, filling his text with continual references to Red Guards and Cultural Revolution horrors. The China that he constructed was of an Orwellian nightmare, full of naïve citizens incapable of thinking for themselves. In the country’s “gloomy” high schools, he encountered entire “armies” of students, all “toiling” over creaking desks, the lights dim. China, he wrote rather disdainfully, was a country so lacking in privacy that it “was a wonder that any children were conceived.”

This perceived lack of individualism was also a constantly recurring theme of Colin Thubron’s, who in his much read narrative,
Behind the Wall, described Beijing as a city full of commuters who “moved in unisexual flocks, all jacketed in olive green and boilersuit blue.” Everyone it seemed, had “conspired to fulfil Western clichés of themselves: inscrutable and all alike.”

Despite the dramatic changes that have occurred over the past twenty years as a result of China’s modernization efforts, such negative images continue to enjoy currency, with many of today’s media analysts still prone to the idea of a totalitarian China, controlling its citizens’ thought-processes through the use of an anachronistic education system that emphasizes the mindless rote learning of texts. In the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, the Washington Post for example, ran an article by its former China correspondent, John Pomfret, describing the country as “an authoritarian state” that “stifles ingenuity” by placing too many limits on the free flow of information.

This image of a regimented people, lacking in both individual creativity and intellect, is now beginning to be challenged by a new, younger generation of travel writers: Rob Gifford's China Road, Kirsty Needham's A Season in Red and Mark Anthony Jones' Flowing Waters Never Stale (reviewed earlier in the year on this site) all present the urban youth of today's China as being generally well educated and internet savvy - connected to the world - and as sexually liberated, creative, optimistic individuals, many of them well traveled.

James West's Beijing Blur is the latest in the genre, offering readers a detailed insight into the world of Beijing's over-sexed youth. Throughout the course of his narrative, West enters a brave new world of bloggers, punk-rock dens and underground queer culture - all of which makes for a fascinating read.

What West was initially expecting from China was a "display of kitsch, old-school communism: messages daubed on walls, Mao sculptures propped up against cash registers, crumbling socialist monoliths." But once his eyes hit Beijing for the first time, "all this fell away." (p.13)

Landing himself a job as a journalist with China Radio International, West, a 23 year old Australian, soon finds himself a local lover named Jason. With "flawless" skin and several piercings down each ear, Chinese Jason struts around in baseball caps, his t-shirts often novel.

West is at times surprisingly open and revealing of his romantic encounters: "...he told me to follow him through the hutong bends, my hand in his. We stopped at a roller door next to what looked like a hospital. He put his hand on my stomach under my t-shirt. It was the first time we had touched like this." (p.83)

Then later:

"He stuck out his tongue....I kissed him back, swapping top and bottom lips. His piercing clinked against my teeth." (p.84)

Three entire chapters are devoted to a discussion of Beijing's vibrant gay and lesbian scene, with West interviewing members of the Beijing Gay and Lesbian Alliance, as well as detailing his numerous excursions into gay bars like Destination. "I watched the alliance balloon with queer Chinese kids wanting to share their stories," he writes. "The strength of the alliance was tapping into this need to talk. It filled the gap. The agenda was wide-ranging and relevant: safe sex, dating, politics, film screenings, research, community activities....It felt like the salad days of an awakening gay movement." (pp.129-130)

What one learns from West's book is that gay Beijing is thriving despite a political climate that tries to keep the topic of homosexuality marginalized from mainstream discourse. One member of the alliance for example, expresses to West the view that "Chinese society is actually a very fractured society,"  the boy still angry after the government had shut down the mainland's first ever queer celebration, the Beijing Gay and Lesbian Culture Festival. "He was angry about the shutdown," notes West. "He saw it as an assertion of traditional Chinese values clamping down on difference. 'They won't allow anything unstable to break the balance of family, of normal relationships,' he said. The problem with the festival was that gay people had started to talk." (p.131)

"It might be years before pink really went with red," West later laments, "but at first glance, being gay in Beijing was OK. Bars like Destination were packed every weekend, even though they couldn't advertise. Gay kids were hooking up and starting relationships. At Destination boys were kissing boys, girls were kissing girls. But the message was clear. Don't get political. Just don't talk about it." (p.131)

Unlike the earlier generation of travelers to China, West takes the time to engage with the culture of his hosts rather than merely treating it with disdain for being some unknowable and presumably inferior Other. This especially comes across when West tries to make sense of the differences in gay culture between East and West:

"...my culture made sexuality the biggest thing about me. Pool Boy's culture didn't have a direct translation for the English word 'sexuality'. Until the 1990s, his culture had never treated sex or sexuality as something that could exist outside the highly structured system of family...Pool Boy felt uncomfortable with my divisions of gay and straight. Did living as a gay man mean he couldn't get married? Did it mean he had to love and have sex with one person, a man, his whole life? And what about his parents? Did it mean that he wouldn't fulfill his role for them in being married and having children? ....Becoming 'gay' or 'lesbian' made sexuality more important than having a family, and that was too high a price to pay. Pool Boy might even cease to exist." (p..137-139)

You might see guys like Pool Boy "blowing each other in the bathrooms of Destination," adds West, "but ask the same guys whether they love and cherish their girlfriends and they'll answer yes, absolutely-why-would-you-ask, yes."

"My cultural bias at the time thought that Pool Boy couldn't see the contradictions in the way he lived because he was a bit dumb...or worse, not brave enough. But in the end, Pool Boy had never thought about it, and my obsession with a homo-hetero divide didn't make sense to a boy fucking both genders without any complaints from either." (p.138)

Wrapping up his year in Beijing, West says that he felt ambivalent about the understanding of China that he had acquired: "China was many things I aspired to be myself: an optimist, sincerely accommodating of change. But there lingered questions of freedom and how to deal with the past. While it seemed clear that China wanted to drop the cultural suitcases at the bottom of the stairs and climb up into the future without them, would that forfeit something of the intellectual and cultural evolution that must accompany lasting economic success?" (p.223)

This is indeed a question worth pondering over.

 

Melissa Schrift, Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge: the creation and mass consumption of a personality cult, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2001.

ISBN 0-8135-2937-9




Melissa Schrift, Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge: the creation and mass consumption of a personality cult, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2001.

by Jason Lee

With the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966, the regime of Chairman Mao Zedong launched a propaganda campaign aimed at disseminating inspiring images of himself to a skeptical populace. Thus was born the "Mao Badge" - a political icon in the form of a pin that was widely distributed to create, sustain and inflate the Mao personality cult. It is estimated that over two billion Mao badges were produced, featuring over fifty thousand different designs and themes.

"As visual texts featuring the most basic, if any, text," writes Schrift, "early Mao badges transcended vast differences in literacy and education levels and provided a sense of familiarity by invoking traditional cultural symbols." (p.8) Their adornment by so many, she adds, gave the appearance of unanimity, creating "the illusion of conformity to political dictum..." (p.8)

While Schrift has crafted a fascinating book that contributes to our understanding of the Cultural Revolution, she does at times employ a language that is convoluted and difficult to fully comprehend, which may alienate some of readers. "Mao badges were especially potent in accommodating cultural change by virtue of the intertextuality they offered," she says, as there are advantages of employing "certain propaganda forms of hybridity that can be defined as the combination of pictorials and text: Mao badges combined a rich visual and written text with a multitude of meaningful aesthetic stimuli through their imagery, text, color, shape, size, and material components. As material and symbolic collages, badges embodied a wealth of aesthetic resources through which even the most subtle semiotic conflation was possible." (p.9) She then goes on to talk about the "infusion" of state-sponsored "narratives' with "polysemy' and "unidirectional" consumption.

For me, the most interesting part of the book lies with Schrift's discussion of how these iconic Mao badges have taken on new meanings, with people now wearing and talking about them in subversive new ways. Clearly influenced by the theories of Michel de Certeau, she shows, quite convincingly, how many Chinese today have "appropriated" Mao's image, allowing badges to develop "lives" that far surpass the intentions of their creators, as the Chinese ironically commodified them, both during the Cultural Revolution and today.

Many Westerners too, harbor a fetish for Mao's image. "The revival of Mao image consumption," concludes Schrift, reflects the desire among both Chinese and Westerners to 'return to the primitive' that characterizes tourists' desires in Third World countries." (p.200) Representations of the Cultural Revolution allow tourists, argues Schrift, "to mingle with the sanitized yet savage era through Mao relics and retire in the luxury of economic reform. The irony, of course, is that the pilgrimage to the depths of China's historical underbelly is, in reality, remarkably shallow." (p.200)

This is a great read, so long as you can cope with the postmodern jargon, for it contributes not only to our understanding of Chinese society, but, more generally, of our understanding of the "tactics" that ordinary people employ in responding to and transforming the meaning of official propaganda campaigns and symbols.

 

Minxin Pei, China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy, Harvard University Press, 2006.

ISBN 0674021959




Minxin Pei on China's Trapped Transition

by Jason Lee

In his new book, China’s Trapped Transition, Minxin Pei views the Chinese state as being neo-authoritarian in nature, and therefore self-destructive. Rising economic prosperity ‘can provide at best, a short-time life to the prospects of such regimes because of the self-destructive political dynamics inherent in an autocracy caught up in rapid socio-economic change,’ he argues. (p.20) The state, he says, simply has no effective means to address the current problems facing China, given its inherent institutional weaknesses, characterized by pervasive corruption and the lack of mechanisms to enhance political accountability.
According to Pei, China’s legislative institutions are ineffective, and its courts far from independent. More critically, the central government, says Pei, has failed to provide the people with education, public health, a clean environment, or safe workplaces, mainly because its revenues as a share of GDP have fallen since the beginning of the reform era. The ‘regime’ consequently faces discontent among both rural residents and the urban unemployed.

In chapter four, Pei identifies the core problem as corruption, which he says is both ‘endemic’ and ‘systemic.’ Over the past few decades, the government has become larger and more decentralized, allowing it to also become more predatory. Political decentralization was introduced with the intention of stimulating economic initiative, which it successfully did, but it has also led to greater levels of corruption and the frequent bribery of local officials. Some local governments, says Pei, have become ‘mafia states’ allied with criminal gangs. (p.132) Rather than enforcing honesty, the party survives through patronage.

It is not only at the local level that corruption poses a serious problem either, notes Pei: ‘In the decentralized predatory state, corruption tends to be centralized as well, with the regime’s top leaders being the most corrupt figures and gaining a larger share of the looted wealth.’ (pp.132-133)

The present regime, says Pei, has survived for this long thanks only to the country’s rising economic prosperity, for the political elite have so far been able to cream off resources without impoverishing the nouveaux riche - its main support base. According to Pei, reform has stalled, and so the sense of progress that was key to the regime’s legitimacy throughout the 1990s is beginning to disappear - as is evidenced by the many thousands of riots and street demonstrations that are now taking place throughout China's countryside each year.

Pei’s energetically argued book, like that of John Lee’s Will China Fail? (also reviewed on this site) provides a useful corrective for those who see only construction cranes and impressive new skyscrapers when they look at China. His is a commonly held view, his arguments similar to those of Gordon Chang, Will Hutton, John Pomfret and Ross Terrill. It is nevertheless a one-sided view that Pei presents, his use of evidence selective. Pei however, articulates the China gloom thesis more articulately than most, and is well worth reading.

 

Mark Leonard, What does China think? Fourth Estate, London, 2008.

ISBN 978-0-00-723068-6




Mark Leonard, What does China think? Fourth Estate, London, 2008.

by Jason Lee

This is a worthwhile read, as it provides a fascinating perspective on the debates that are currently raging within Chinese society. Particularly interesting are the chapters that deal with the issue of democracy. Leonard outlines for example, the views of Pan Wei, a professor in the School of International Studies and Global Affairs at Beijing University. His paper on "Consultative Rule of Law" calls on China to model its political system on Singapore rather than on the Western liberal model. "Pan Wei berates Westerners for misunderstanding their own political systems," observes Leonard, "We assume, he says, that our countries are stable and prosperous because of democracy. But we confuse the benefits we get from democracy with those that we get from the rule of law. Pan Wei argues that democracy and the rule of law do not need to go together - in fact, like 'Ying' and 'Yang' they are in constant conflict with one another." (pp.64-65) For example, democracy is about giving power to the people, while the rule of law is about putting limits on that power. Democracy is about making laws, the rule of law is about enforcing them, and the "powerbase of democracy lies in the officials we vote for - parliamentarians, ministers, prime ministers and presidents. But the power of the rule of law comes from people who are deliberately not elected - independent civil servants, judges and auditors." (p.65)

Pan does not ignores the fact that 'Ying' and 'Yang', as concepts, are binary opposites, and as Leonard informs us, he believes that the West can only afford to enjoy both because "we have reached a level of material wealth and modernity that allows the two to live side by side, balancing each other in permanent tension." (p.65)

Pan certainly does offer some legitimate arguments against the possibility of developing countries being able to successfully enjoy the luxury of both, pointing out that many of those developing countries that have to date chosen democracy without first developing the rule of law have failed, as populist regimes have a tendency to exploit ethnic tensions "to get their hands on power." Citing Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, Rwanda, Angola and Lebanon as examples, Pan, says Leonard, makes the point that "it is the premature introduction of democracy that has undermined the rule of law and modernization, forcing leaders to pander to popular sentiment rather than making painful reforms for the long term." (p.65)

Pan points to Singapore and Hong Kong as examples of developing societies that have adopted the rule of law without democracy, noting that they have "known nothing but success: their economies have grown steadily, they have attracted investment, wiped out corruption and developed strong national identities." (p.65) Despite the fact that Pan overstates his case with his claim that Singapore and Hong Kong have "wiped out corruption", the overall success of these societies cannot be denied, and so it is little wonder that Chinese authorities and policy-makers are taking so much notice of Pan Wei's demythologising of democracy, separating it, as he does, from the rule of law. "Although it is a long way from reality," writes Leonard, "Pan Wei has a vision of a high-tech consultative dictatorship, where there are no elections but decisions made by a responsive government, bound by law, and in touch with its citizens' aspirations." (p.66)

Leonard then goes on to outline the views of two other Chinese political scientists, Wang Shaoguang and Fang Ning, both of whom have developed models very similar to the one espoused by Pan Wei. Leonard does a good job at alerting us to the many creative experiments with democracy that, over the last decade, have been taking place all throughout the China. In Zeguo township, in Wenling City, Zhejiang Province for example, "deliberative polling" has been introduced - the brainchild of Stanford University political scientist, James Fishkin.

Of course, not all Chinese political scientists agree with the model proposed by Pan Wei, Wang Shaoguang and Fang Ning. As Leonard points out, there are some, like Tsinghua University professor, Wang Hui for example, who argue that the rule of law is meaningless without democracy, noting that the affluent middle classes are "lukewarm about democracy" because they fear that their assets would be appropriated by the masses through the forced introduction of fairer labor laws and greater welfare expenditure. (p.75)

This is a truly fascinating and insightful book, shedding much needed light on some of the many important debates that are raging among today's Chinese intellectuals. A must read for all serious China-watchers!

 

Mark Anthony Jones, Flowing Waters Never Stale: journeys through China, Zeus Publications, Burleigh MDC, Queensland, 2008.

ISBN 978-1-921406-32-4 (pbk.)




Mark Anthony Jones, Flowing Waters Never Stale: journeys through China.

by Jason Lee

Written over a five year period from early 2002 to February 2007, Flowing Waters Never Stale is one of the most insightful China travel narratives that I have ever read, though it is also the most unusual. Unlike most travel books, this one does not employ the use of a continuous narrative to propel the reader forward, recalling the past not as a continuous, unbroken series of events, “but as fragments, nonlinear, as they spring to mind.” As the “composer” himself explains, his text comprises “little more than a collection of memories, of fragmented versions of reality – snapshots that when viewed together in the one volume, and in any order, can be used to form a broader, more detailed picture” – a collage, but of a China viewed through his eyes, as he experienced it.

“Although the reader may notice some recurring themes,” he adds, “no attempt is made to conclude with a grand unknotting, for ‘China is too big a country, and her national life has too many facets, for her not to be open to the most diverse and contradictory of interpretations,’ as the Chinese writer Lin Yutang once warned. ‘The truth,’ he added, ‘can never be proved; it can only be hinted at.’” (p.5)

In typical postmodern style, the “composer” of this text - Australian high school English teacher Mark Anthony Jones – provides “responders” with a China wrapped in various layers of meaning. In order to convey his multiple readings, Jones builds his narrative around the dialectical relationship he has with his Chinese-born girlfriend, Xiaojing. When, in the third chapter for example, they stroll into a Buddhist temple playing host to a Snoopy doll exhibition, Jones’ initial reaction is one of cynicism and disappointment. “The integrity of the site was seriously compromised the day we visited,” he complains. “The decision to house a Snoopy exhibition, within the compounds of the city’s oldest and most important Buddhist temple, speaks volumes about present-day China. Monks today consider the faithful to be consumers, and their temples as mere money-making ‘attractions’.” (pp.23-24) The legitimacy of his reading is challenged by Xiaojing, who cautions him against the romanticisation of a past that never existed: “…you’ll end up being like one of those New Age Orientalists – a mindless consumer of Shangri-la,” she warns. By reminding him that Buddhist monasteries were never places of “safe transcendent peace”, but were always instead “businesses that ran factories and farms and sometimes even armies,” he is prompted to devise an alternative reading, drawing on the works of numerous historians to help piece together his new line of reasoning: “What I had witnessed in Xishan temple, I realised, was not an example of cultural vandalism, of the subjugation of one culture by another, though on the surface it certainly looked that way. What had taken place instead was the appropriation of Snoopy and friends, exploited in a culturally specific way to reflect the strong entrepreneurialism common among the organisers and advocates of Chinese Buddhism.’ (p.27)


The same device is employed effectively in chapter six, when the two visit the Meridian View Centre, located on the 69th floor of Shenzhen’s tallest building, the Diwang. Jones’ initial response is to interpret his experience of Asia’s “first high-rise theme sightseeing and entertainment scenic spot” via a reading of Jean Baudrillard’s
Precession of Simulacra. Drawing on various historical sources, both primary and secondary, Jones convincingly outlines the various ways in which the theme park mythologizes Shenzhen’s past. “The Meridian View Centre’s entertainment certainly did distort the city’s past and present in the way that it presented a nationalist cause centred on economic development and the country’s One-China Policy,” he writes, “and by its glorification of past anti-imperialist struggles, pitted against successive waves of foreign invaders by hero-pirates. It masked reality, with its claim that ‘the cultures, the style and features of both Shenzhen and Hong Kong have merged here beautifully,’ and that both Shenzhen and Hong Kong share histories as ‘one continuous line, nurtured by the long Shenzhen River’ whose ‘people have grown up on both sides’ – whose common cause and whose shared destinies had been interrupted only briefly, by the colonial exploits of a foreign power. The fact that the Qing navy’s ability to resist foreign fleets had been seriously weakened by their own struggles with home-grown pirates, whose numbers are thought to have exceeded forty thousand, had simply been left out of the picture, omitted from the entertainment.” (p.56)

The Meridian View Centre also “distorted China’s sexual history” by omitting from its infotainment the fact that its most celebrated hero pirate was bisexual, and that homosexuality was common among not only those who took to the high seas, but among the Chinese population in general, with even many of China’s emperors over the centuries having had various male lovers: “Even human sexuality it would seem, our own nature as human beings, has been derealised – substituted instead by a discourse that ‘naturalises’ monogamous heterosexual relationships bound legally by marriage as the only ‘normal’ practice of sexual behaviour and instinct – a discourse which is purely ideological and historical, but which is instead presented as being fundamentally inherent to our collective natures, and therefore unbroken by time. The simulacrum functions not only to entertain, but also to create and to maintain societal amnesia.” (p.58)

It is while staring out over the city from Diwang’s impressive heights that Jones reaches the conclusion that he and Xiaojing had been sold “a fake reality, a conceptual and mythologised model of reality, but with no connection to reality, and with no origin in reality – marketable precisely because it was able to claim itself as being something more exciting and pleasant than reality.” The panoramic view overlooking the “real” Shenzhen that one is able to enjoy from this building’s great height he says, “is simply not inspiring enough in itself, it would seem. The reality of Shenzhen’s cityscape is that it looks little different from all other Chinese cities of similar size. It is nothing special, nothing most people would be willing to pay sixty yuan to catch a glimpse of. The view from the Meridian View Centre is only marketable if the city’s history of economic development itself is mythologised, and if it is packaged together with other ‘attractions’ – a ‘high-rise theme sightseeing and entertainment scenic spot,’ as my brochure proclaimed.” (p.60)

Yet just when we, as his “responders”, think that we have the Diwang building all figured out, his cynicism is once again challenged by his feisty other half, whose lecture prompts him to make a 180 degree turn around, re-reading his experience via Michel de Certeau’s
The practice of everyday life, thereby giving currency to the idea that we can never really know what is true, for his alternative “reading” seems every bit as convincing.

Not only is Jones’ narrative fragmented in time and space, and by a multitude of voices, but also if offers a considerable diversity of style, with the first half of the book written in the past tense, the second in the present. Some chapters are dialogue-driven, and there is plenty of light humor throughout the text to maintain the “responder’s” momentum. At times the writing is even poetic, like that of a Kerouac:


“Here in Mong Kok, pedestrians cross the road in waves, sometimes tidal, flooding the sidewalk and drowning all those who are caught in the flow. Like moths they come – sprawling masses that fly up out of the subway and onto the street, and like me are seduced here, are dazzled by the neon nightscape. Xiaojing and I stroll south along Portland Street, the distant sound of thunder. Young girls in fishnet stockings and high stilettos, colourful in their makeup, stand beneath flashing barber poles, enticing passers-by up flights of narrow stairs that pulsate out onto the street with the bass lines of Cantopop, or with the crashing sounds of hip-hop and acid jazz.” (pp.121-122)

In other places the poetry is more subdued and melancholic, though just as evocative, but with an economy of words:

“Water drips from the eaves, rippling pond waters and pattering on stone – the tranquil aftermath of a storm just passed.” (p.100)


Then there’s this line, on the following page:


“Rising smoke curls, twists through the air – offerings of incense that provide us with some momentary relief from the wafts of rotting river, and in the distance, the laughter of children at play remind us that this is still a living community, in spite of its dereliction, in spite of its dead waterway.”


The chapter on Tibet opens with colorful personification, creating for the “responder” an explosion in sensual pleasure:


“Here in the forests of Diqing, the autumn colours riot furiously as maple soldiers shower the forest floor with their arsenal of leaves – bright yellows and oranges yell loudly as they collide with blood crimsons on the battlefield, all carried by the breeze, they twist and turn against one another as they meet in mid-air frenzy before exploding into kaleidoscopes more beautiful than any fireworks against this backdrop of perfect blue sky on late October day of sunshine.” (p.128)

His views on the Tibet issue are complex and nuanced, and are likely to prove controversial, though his analysis of the separatist movement seems to have foreshadowed recent events: “…for the waves of illiterate young men, becoming a monk is all too often their only viable option in life. Once in the monasteries though, they are easily exploited, for their feelings of jealousy, anger and resentment make them receptive to those who are keen to push the separatist agenda – people who blame the Han for all of Tibet’s social ills, both imagined and real. Their gripe then, not surprisingly, is usually articulated along ethnic lines, often chauvinistically, their anti-Han sentiments sometimes spilling over into racial violence on the streets.” (p.142)

Flowing Waters Never Stale
, if anything, certainly captures much of the diversity of this fascinating country, and is a highly entertaining read, full of colorful characters and plentiful facts. My only real criticism is that its “composer” relies too heavily at times on “other voices” – stitching together in places too many quotes. His writing at times can be academic and dry, though when he relies on his own voice, his descriptions tend to be poetic and moving, even hauntingly beautiful.

 

Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes: threat to the West, or model for the rest? Oxford University Press, New York, 2007.

ISBN 0-19-920834-4




Randall Peerenboom's China Modernizes

by Jason Lee

In Randall Peerenboom’s view, China is following the East Asian Model of state-led development, which he argues is a more appropriate model for China to embrace than the Washington Consensus. Peerenboom links China’s economic development with the evolution of a “thin” rule of law, and builds his book around the four pillars of modernity: economics, human rights, the rule of law and democratization. He looks favorably on the Central Government’s economic management of China, with its “pragmatic” and successful approach to reforms. While embracing the market, China, according to Peerenboom, has resisted the attempts of international financial institutions and foreign experts to engage in shock therapy, pursuing instead a more gradual pace of reform. “Rather than blindly following the advice of the IMF or the World Bank,” he notes, “the government has taken care to adapt basic economic principles to China’s current circumstances”, for “contrary to neoliberal prescriptions, the state has actively intervened in the Chinese economy and played a key role in setting economic policy, establishing government institutions, regulating foreign investment, and mitigating the adverse effects of globalization on domestic constituencies.” (p.5)

Unlike most American China watchers, Peerenboom praises China’s political leadership for pursuing economic reforms before, arguing that whatever defects may characterize China’s record on political and civil rights, they are offset by its impressive performance in improving overall social and economic conditions. (p.158)

On the issue of human rights, Peerenboom acknowledges the ongoing problems and torture and capital punishment, but challenges the way these problems are characterized or quantified by the international human rights community. Responding to criticisms of China’s repression of religion, particularly in minority areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, Peerenboom suggests that China’s policies and practices are understandable in light of its need for stability and that they generally satisfy international law requirements. (pp.148-152)

Peerenboom then goes on to link performance on human rights standards, including measures of civil and political rights, to a country’s level of wealth, drawing heavily on the World Bank Good Governance Indicators as empirical evidence to support his claims.

Perhaps the main strength of this book is that it is relies heavily on empirical studies to demonstrate how China performs relative to other countries. The book demonstrates convincingly that rule of law, good governance and virtually all rights including civil and political rights, are highly correlated with wealth. “Comparing China to much wealthier countries,” says Peerenboom, “leads to the unsurprising conclusion that China has more problems: there are more deviations from the rule of law, government institutions that are weaker, less efficient and more corrupt; and citizens enjoy fewer freedoms while living shorter and more impoverished lives.” (p.11)


But what is more revealing, suggests Peerenboom, is how well a country does compared to the average country in its income class. China’s Gini coefficient, he argues, is roughly comparable to that of other economies in Asia, with China meeting or exceeding expectations on most measures.
China’s economic performance has been “phenomenal” notes Peerenboom, lifting roughly 250 million of its people out of poverty. China’s legal system for example, “now outperforms the average in its income class on the World Bank’s rule of law index,” and China also “outperforms the average country in its income class on most major indicators of human rights and well-being.” (p.20)

So why then, does the Western media single out China for so much criticism? Much of the reporting on China by the general media and human rights monitors, says Peerenboom, tends to focus on particular horrific cases of human rights violations: “the emphasis on individual cases, especially heart-wrenching cases that are not representative of the system as a whole, creates a misleading impression of how serious the problems are and a distorted image abroad.” (p.171) Much of the reporting “continues to be framed by the narrative of ‘good dissidents’ battling the ‘oppressive authoritarian state’ in a noble quest for democracy and social justice,” a fact which Peerenboom says reflects a bias in favor of liberal democratic states:

The US State Department reports for China invariably start with a description of the nature of the political regime, as if that were the most significant determinant for rights in the country, he writes. To be sure, the reports only discuss civil and political rights, in itself a clear indicator of bias. The 2004 report for China begins: ‘The People’s Republic of China . . . is an authoritarian state in which. . . . the Chinese Communist Party . . . . is the paramount source of power.’ Imagine it began instead: ‘Human rights and other indicators of well-being across the board are highly correlated with wealth. China outperforms the average country in its lower-middle income category on every major indicator except civil and political rights (as is generally true for other East Asian countries).” (p.173)

Randall Peerenboom's China Modernizes is a breath of fresh air. It is an insightful and important book, and is essential reading for anybody who is interested in today's China. Of all of the books currently available on the market that deal with today's China, Peerenboom's is the most worthwhile reading, with the exception perhaps, of Doug Guthrie's China and Globalization.