Category Archives: China

The Unswerving Values of Ye Fei

In Memoriam: 叶飞 (Ye Fei) (1985 – 2017)

On an unremarkable weekday evening in early 2016, as I was preparing to go to sleep, I received a message on my phone from my friend and colleague Ye Fei. It had been almost two weeks since our last message, and this message, sent at nearly midnight, had no introduction or pleasantries. It did not matter that I would see him at the office the next day; such an important question could not wait. Ye Fei asked: “Why is New Hampshire called the first primary state when it’s actually Iowa?”

It would not have surprised me if Ye Fei had sat up all night reading about American politics, analyzing Politico and The New Yorker in English, and then sifting through social media portals like Weibo and WeChat in Chinese. During the day, at his desk, he devoured whatever information he could find online; when it was time for lunch, he plugged in his earphones and turned on a politics podcast, usually BBC or NPR, and, back slightly hunched over, ambled out the door. He would return to his desk, unplug his earphones, and plug back into the internet, digesting and processing the endless stream of politics that flowed across his screen.

He was fluent in English and Chinese; in American politics and Chinese politics; and, most importantly for anyone in China, in both text and subtext. If anyone wanted me to help them peer beyond the news headlines and government pronouncements of the Chinese party-state, I would simply tell them to ask Ye Fei. He would sigh deeply, tilting his head forward or shaking his head while his thoughts coalesced. If you had the patience to wait for the response, when it eventually came, you would be duly rewarded: after the deep sigh and shake of his head would come an incisive answer, slowly spilling forth from Ye Fei’s vast storehouse of knowledge.

Or, even better, in place of a boring response, Ye Fei would offer a snide rebuke aimed squarely at whatever ridiculous phenomenon he was tasked with explaining. His comic timing had the power to deflate even the most hardened bubbles or egos. Our office started a list of memorable quotations; it was, in effect, a list of things uttered by Ye Fei.

I do not write this because I need to share my feelings. I write this because I want there to be a permanent record, somewhere, marking Ye Fei’s life and what he stood for: namely, the ideals of liberal democracy. I didn’t always agree with him, and he never missed an opportunity to tease me for my support of socialism à la Bernie Sanders. My own arguments could not sway Ye Fei: he knew what he stood for, and why it was important. Everything he did—each article he devoured, each comic takedown he delivered, each lesson he taught—was in service of this idea.

Ye Fei had incredible patience for long, drawn out discussions of politics, but he had no patience for people who sympathized with illiberalism. He could laugh off poorly made propaganda, but he could not hide his visceral disgust for wayward intellectuals who used their position to support unjust authority. Ye Fei wanted more than anything to push the world, even marginally, toward a place that was slightly more free and open. Any person or event that stood in the way was not worthy of his sympathy.

Ye Fei was endlessly fascinated by American politics. We watched the 2016 presidential election, the ultimate spectacle of American democracy, together with a few friends. As the results trickled in and we began to see that Donald Trump was going to be president, Ye Fei was even more distraught than any of the Americans among us. For Ye Fei, a black mark on America was a black mark on liberal democracy around the world. What happened in America mattered for the causes he cared about in China. Many of his fellow liberal Chinese intellectuals embraced Trump as part of their general embrace of the US Republican Party, but Ye Fei did not budge. He did not need party lines to define him: the only thing that mattered was free and open expression.

There is no place for someone like Ye Fei in China today. His views were too large; his passions for politics too great. Most people like him left the mainland long ago, but Ye Fei never did. Instead, he surrounded himself—whether on purpose or by accident I am not sure—with people who wanted to learn from him. And learn we did.

A few days before his passing, Ye Fei and I went to lunch. I asked Ye Fei about recent government policies, and his plate of food got cold as he lectured about history far and near. Our wide-ranging conversation, as always, touched on the bigger questions of Chinese development; the next day, unprompted, he sent me an essay by the influential sociologist Sun Liping. Attached to the article, he wrote: “May his essays help you better grasp what’s going on here.”

It encapsulates Ye Fei: overflowing knowledge, a willingness to share and teach, and perfectly manicured English with a touch of formal literary flair. Of course, there was one thing missing—but he duly rectified that a few hours later, again unprompted, by sending me an article ridiculing Donald Trump.

There will be many times in the coming days, weeks, and years, when each of us will want to turn to Ye Fei and seek his counsel, knowing the depth of his passions and for what he stood. It is these moments that will remind us of how deeply we feel this loss.

China’s Four Reform Futures

In 2012, the liberal sociologist Sun Liping argued that the social strains of China’s embrace of extreme capitalism were starting to show. For Sun, a reform advocate, China was in danger of falling into a “transition trap” in which institutional reform grinds to a halt and vested interests solidify their power.

This week, Sun reposted his article on his WeChat account. It was summarily removed by China’s censors (they weren’t too pleased with his ideas before, either). Fortunately, I forgot to close the tab once I had it open: my natural inability to keep my browser under 100 tabs at any moment is a natural loophole to China’s censorship apparatus.

Sun offers four possible directions in which China can go: return to the past, try to make the best of the current reforms, protect the status quo, or pursue a new reform path prioritizing equality rather than the overzealous pursuit of profit. And despite obvious political institutional difference, the four reform paths that Sun proposes for China are similar to those facing the United States as it faces the need to rebuild public trust in institutions and reduce vast inequalities.

One: At some level, return to the old system
The sentiment underlying the need to “Make America Great Again” would resonate with a growing number of today’s Chinese, who feel like they are falling behind while society leaps forward without moral stewardship. Every year, China is rocked by scandals in which companies insert something toxic into their products to save a few dollars; at the same time, while some people safely climb the ladder of the new economy into China’s emerging middle class, others work tirelessly, only to face wage arrears, lack of retirement benefits, and unaffordable health bills.

A couple of years ago, I attended an informal lecture that proposed an alternative history of the Cultural Revolution. The ruthless campaign that destroyed thousands of years of Chinese intellectual heritage—not to mention families, communities, and even individual lives—was, they argued, a time of unprecedented social coherence. The speakers were frustrated by China’s endless pursuit of profit at the expense of all else; at least during the Cultural Revolution there was an idea of public consensus, even if it was targeted at the wrong places. For those fed up with the moral perversity of today’s society, the past offers a refuge, no matter how wrong-headed it may seem to the outside observer.

“Although there was a short period of equalization, as reform deepened — especially after restructuring of state-owned enterprises in the 1990s—the disadvantageous position of those at the bottom rungs of society became even clearer…Therefore, some people look back for hope, and this is natural,” writes Sun. He cites Bo Xilai’s Chongqing model, in which a re-embrace of a strong, centralized Communist past was embraced due to public dissatisfaction about corruption and social polarization. Despite its obvious flaws, Sun writes, we should not overlook how “the Chongqing model positively responded to these very real problems.”

For most people, the horrors of China’s recent history are enough to dispel any further turn toward the past. But if nothing changes, Sun argues, and the struggles of the new wave of “little white collar” (xiao bai ling) service workers continue to grow, the appeal of the past may continue to strengthen.

Two: Continue with the reform path of the last 30 years
Nearly every Chinese policy document contains the words “deepening reform,” and there is a Deepening Reform Leadership Group mapping policy direction at the highest level of the government. But if deepening reform means not going back to the past, what does it say about going forward? The current reform path is “ambiguous and vague,” Sun argues: Continue reading

Destruction as Development

When the Beijing government first started tearing down and bricking up bars, restaurants, and shops throughout the city center, I didn’t really care. After all, I rarely go out to these bars and restaurants (by choice, I think), and having to deal with frustrations like the growing pains of a maturing city is probably within the terms of the implicit contract you commit to when living overseas.

But hip hangouts are only collateral damage. The main reason for the demolition, stated both publicly and privately, is to limit the size of the city. The Beijing government has committed itself to reducing the sprawling city’s population; it has decided that the most effective way to do so is, basically, to kick out as many poor people as possible. The poor in Beijing all come from elsewhere in the country; if taking a wrecking ball to their shops doesn’t drive these upwardly mobile migrants out, rising rents elsewhere will. It is an organized campaign of what US Republicans sometimes call “self-deportation”: make migrants’ lives so hellish that they will choose to leave.

The reason Beijing is home to so many migrants, of course, is because of the effects of the last campaign of destruction as development. In the early years of its tenure, Mao’s government decided to show its authority by destroying the old and bringing in the new. They brought in Soviet planners and cast aside the opinions of those who suggested preserving Beijing as a center of culture and administration. In Chinese Shadows, excerpted in the New York Review of Books, the ever-prescient Simon Leys describes the destruction of Beijing, while also throwing some serious shade in the direction of neighboring Tianjin.

For what they wanted to do to their own capital city, the rulers of the People’s Republic would have been better inspired to have a hideous modern city such as Tientsin [Tianjin], for instance; they could have bulldozed whole neighborhoods, laid out grids of those endless straight boulevards they seem to be so fond of; created vast esplanades and exalting deserts of tarmac for their mass manifestations in the best Stalino-Fascist style; in a word; they could have slaked their thirst for destruction without causing irreparable damage to the monumental legacy of Chinese civilization.

They chose Beijing because it was the center of power, and to declare the capital there was to invoke the continuity and legitimacy of their power. Beijing could not just be the center of culture and administration, but it had to be the center of industry, too. An article on the legacy of building expert Liang Sicheng, who argued to preserve Beijing’s historic core, explains the central vision of destruction as development in the eyes of Mao.

Columnist and writer Ma Dingsheng once wrote: in 1949, in the early stages of building the capital, Beijing mayor Peng Zhen told Liang Sicheng on top of the gate tower at Tiananmen: “Standing here, Chairman Mao wants to look out and see chimney smoke everywhere.” Liang Sicheng was surprised; he believed that Beijing was a city of ancient culture and architecture, and it should not develop industry. It would be best for it to be like Washington, DC, to become a center for government and culture.

Liang’s preservationist aims did not come to pass. Eventually, when the economy opened up, people flooded into where there were jobs; and so they came to Beijing. Not because they wanted to, but because they needed to make a living and this, as the center of everything, was where there was money to be made.

It seems to be a key feature of development in modern China that a new government plan must be accompanied by the elimination of whatever existed before. Leys, for one, does not buy the argument that this destruction is necessary. It is not part of any sort of progress, but a mere facade to hide the fact that there is actually limited progress taking place. For the Maoists, it was revolution; for the current regime, it is stable economic development. Leys:

What makes the Maoist vandalism so odious and so pathetic is not that it is irreparably mutilating an ancient civilization but rather that by doing so it gives itself an alibi for not grappling with the true revolutionary tasks. The extent of their depredations gives Maoists the cheap illusion that they have done a great deal; they persuade themselves that they can rid themselves of the past by attacking its material manifestations; but in fact they remain its slaves, bound the more tightly because they refuse to realize the effect of the old traditions within their revolution.

Leaders now realize that the previous destruction was a mistake. The new plan is to make central Beijing an administrative and cultural center, more like Washington, DC. The path to get there is to tear more buildings down. If the government kicks out all of the migrants who live in Beijing, the theory seems to be, it will be able to keep its center of power while avoiding the pesky overcrowding problem it created in the last round of development as destruction.

It is like a live-action version of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: a government overlooks how local society functions and instead reorganizes it in service of an abstract idea. Here, the Beijing government envisions a clean, functional, “international” city — except that there will be nobody to clean or make the city function, because those people will have all been pushed out. And, unfortunately, this performance, although less destructive than previous stagings, is once again more likely to be a tragedy than a lighthearted romp.

Like it or hate it, Beijing feeds off renao — the noise and liveliness on the streets. It exudes life and energy. People come to Beijing because it is where things are happening, and the city responds in kind. But somehow renao has become incompatible with modernization. Beijing will be pushed toward becoming a sterile, lifeless mess until its residents find a way to inhabit the gray areas and make Beijing come alive once again.

Leys describes the aftermath of the first destruction, and it sticks:

For those who knew it in the past, Peking now appears to be a murdered town. The body is still there, the soul has gone. The life of Peking, which created never-ending theater in its streets and squares, the noisy and enjoyable life of the city has gone, leaving only the physical presence of a mute and monochromatic crowd, oppressed by a silence broken only by the tinkle of bicycle bells.

The Language of Noodles (Linguistic Notes on Understanding Chongqing Xiaomian)

I like noodles in an amateur, casual sort of way. Brother Lamp, whom I wrote about in my recent article “Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive,” is in a different category. He’s obsessed. He’s crazy about them. He’s so infatuated that an outside observer might categorize his relationship to noodles as a sickness.

The term “noodle obsessive” is an awkward translation: it captures some, but not all of this passion. This is a translation issue: in Chinese, Lamp is a 面痴 (mianchi).

The first character, mian 面, means noodles. The second character, chi 痴, means infatuation; it is literally translated as “silly or idiotic; crazy about something; insane or mad.” The character can be broken down into two parts: the outer section 疒, which represents an illness of some kind; and the inner part zhi 知, which means to know and provides the overall sound of the word (zhi —> chi). To be a 痴 is to be an obsessive, sure, but it is a level above and beyond. It is not just crazy about something in the way that we are all crazy about something, but literally crazy, linguistically more similar to a disease than a love.

Brother Lamp’s preferred noodle, Chongqing xiaomian, is itself confusing. It means “little noodle,” yet its distinct importance comes from the fact that it is not, in fact, little. Walk down any street in China and you will see stores selling all kinds of local snacks, or xiaochi 小吃 — little eats. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and Chongqing’s neighbor to the northwest, is a hotbed of world-famous xiaochi, including dan dan mian 担担面. (Dan 担 means to carry on your shoulder; the name dan dan mian comes from the Sichuanese street vendors who carry it on a pole on their shoulders to sell it).

Some versions of Chongqing xiaomian, bursting with Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil, taste indistinguishable from Sichuan-style dan dan mian. Many people who are not Brother Lamp consider the differences to be marginal; yet to a true mianchi there is a key distinction: dan dan mian is a snack (xiaochi), while xiaomian is a staple food (zhushi).

Historically, xiaomian was served in portions of 150 grams, or three liang, a Chinese unit of measure equivalent to 50 grams. Dan dan mian, meanwhile, was only two liang. A two-liang bowl, Brother Lamp says, leaves you hungry for more; it is merely a snack. A three-liang bowl of noodles — and I will attest to this fact, having eaten far too many three-liang bowls of noodles — will leave you full. Extraordinarily, painfully full.

This linguistic difference is irrelevant in modern society, obliterated by consumer choice. At any xiaomian stall, you can order two or three liang bowls; at some, like Zhu Lin Beef Noodles, you can order a mere one liang. Yet during the early years of the People’s Republic of China, when food was rationed and resources limited, the difference between a two liang bowl and a three liang bowl meant something more.

To Lamp, the difference matters. After all, his identity depends on it. 

Administration in China’s Higher Ed System: A Problem of Kind, Not Degree

Where there is a problem in an American university, a university administrator will be hired to address it. It does not matter if the problem has a solution: as Stanford sociologist John Meyer cynically explained in a lecture this week in Beijing, as formal organizations such as universities expand beyond their core mission, the answer is to hire a professional to accommodate each additional new function, no matter how difficult or unnecessary it may seem. “You have to hire a professional,” he said. “That’s how you prove that someone is doing something when they should be doing nothing.”

While the American higher education system has been dominated by growth in the number of administrators, the crux of China’s higher education shift in the last decade-plus has been an unprecedented expansion in the number of students. The Chinese higher education system counted 36.5 million students in 2852 postsecondary institutions in 2015. From 2003 to 2013, total enrollments increased more than 200 percent, more than 10 times the growth in the United States over the same period

The 2016 budget expenditures for the 73 national universities in China. Even if you don't read Chinese, you can figure out that the numbers drop off pretty quickly.

The 2016 budget expenditures for the 73 national universities in China. Even if you don’t read Chinese, you can figure out that the numbers drop off pretty quickly.

Since the Chinese government began the latest round of higher education expansion in 1999, at the tail end of the Asian Financial Crisis, it has excelled at enrolling students but struggled to actually educate them. Most students will enter middle- and lower-tier schools, but funding and attention remain concentrated on the most elite schools — even compared to merely elite institutions. Tsinghua University, one of China’s top two schools, is slated to spend 18.2 billion yuan in 2016; more than double every other school in the nation except Peking University, Zhejiang University, and Shanghai Jiaotong University. (see chart, right)

Many scholars and commentators criticize the university’s administrative system for holding back the development of China’s higher education. But although the inequality between schools is reminiscent of problems in the United States, the administrative issue that plagues China’s higher education system is a difference of kind, not of degree. As I explain in my new piece in this month’s Washington Monthly, China’s problem of over-administration is a question of concentrated political power, not of administrative bloat.

Administrative expansion, combined with decreasing state funding, more price discrimination, and the Chivas Regal effect that equates higher price with higher quality, has spurred massive tuition increases in American higher education. It is extraordinarily expensive to go to college in the United States: the annual cost of attending an elite private college, or a public college for out-of-state students, is far higher than the median household income in the country.

None of this can apply in China because the state controls all of these levers. Tuition levels are set by the state and have not increased in a decade. Most schools rely almost entirely on government funding for their revenue; few universities except for the most elite schools can draw a significant amount of money from other sources, such as donations or external grants. Continue reading

China’s Overseas NGO Law: Further Philosophical Thoughts

A few weeks ago, I wrote about trying to understand China’s perspective on the recently-passed Overseas NGO Activity Management Law in Foreign Affairs. I mostly talked about practical consequences, but the law raises further, more philosophical questions — the kind of questions that no editor in their right mind will allow to be casually introduced in a 1,200 word article. And thus God invented the follow-up blog post.

Part of the difficulty of interpreting the law is that there is good reason to be deeply conflicted about foreign NGO activity anywhere in the world. Overseas NGOs made major contributions to China’s development; in part due to their success, foreign NGOs such as the Global Fund have now rerouted much of their development aid to poorer, less-developed nations. China has become both a recipient of foreign assistance and a provider, as more Chinese NGOs are going abroad. Lifting China’s status as an equal global player was part of the motivation of the law: as Peking University’s Jin Jinping argues, Chinese groups operating abroad “face the restraint of local laws in the countries where they are operating.” Overseas groups in China, therefore, should do the same. By codifying the rules of NGO activity, the overseas NGO law tells foreign NGOs: if they want to operate in China, they have to play by China’s rules.

This is an inevitable stage of NGO development across national borders and political systems. The Catholic priest and radical writer Ivan Illich famously argued in 1968 that all volunteer activity abroad was to “pretentiously impose” a foreign set of values on a country. Volunteers should focus on problems within their own societies, rather than go elsewhere. Regardless of a volunteer’s intentions—and why he titled his argument “To Hell with Good Intentions”—Western volunteers abroad are “salesmen for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise.” (In this framing, China’s push for its NGOs to go abroad is its own form of the opposite push: selling a delusive ballet in the ideas of non-democracy, hierarchical governance, and state intervention. I call it “Good Intentions with Chinese Characteristics”) Continue reading

In Which I Launch a Righteous Crusade for Justice in the Wanfujing Apple Store, Beijing, China

If you are a foreigner in China who speaks even the slightest bit of Chinese, the first three sentences of every conversation are identical. The simplest poorly pronounced ni hao elicits effusive praise about your intelligence. You assure your conversation partner that your Chinese is, in fact, quite poor; they respond with further praise or genuine disbelief. The first few times I had this interaction, right after I moved to China, I kept messing up halfway through: I could not properly demur because my Chinese was not good enough to understand that I was being complimented on my Chinese.

You swear to yourself that you will not let the constant flurry of undeserved compliments get to your head. Your language skills — amazing! Your ability to use non-fork cutlery — impressive! Your ability to enjoy fresh, delicious local cuisine — without parallel! But it invariably does: what is meant as encouragement seeps into a pervasive sense that your ability to perform basic tasks gives you a path around any and all barriers in your way. We claim to not want to be treated as special, but of course, deep down, we find it hard to refuse. Privilege, like cheap wine at a catered reception, is constantly on offer for no reason except that you happened to show up.

This, I believe, was my state of mind when I set out to for the Beijing Apple Store to fight the paradoxes of modern capitalism filled with the fervor of righteous justice. Read the whole thing on Medium.

Chinese Foreign Policy Initiative or Independent Boutique Shop?

China’s foreign policy initiatives claim to be forward-looking. Hipster fashion: the opposite. Beijing-based cross-cultural comedian Jesse Appell and I worked together to try to find where they meet. Welcome to: Is this a Chinese Foreign Policy Initiative or Independent Boutique Shop?

    1. Belt and Road
    2. Aggregate Supply
    3. Friends and Neighbors
    4. Going Global
    5. Gravel and Gold
    6. The Rising States
    7. Give and Take
    8. The Silk Road
    9. The New Silk Road
    10. Trend of the Times
    11. Band Together
    12. Dream Collective
    13. Community of Shared Destiny
    14. Timeless Trends
    15. Neighborly
    16. Strut
    17. New Stone Age
    18. Peaceful Rise
    19. String of Pearls
    20. Supply and Advise
    21. Iron and Resin
    22. Win-Win
    23. Modern Cooperative
    24. March West
    25. Coolly Observe, Calmly Deal with Things, Hold our Position, Hide our Capabilities, Bide our Time, and Accomplish Things Where Possible

—-

Answer key:

Independent Boutique Shop: 2 [San Francisco, CA], 3 [Austin, TX], 5 [San Francisco, CA], 6 [New York, NY], 7 [Portland, OR], 8 [Bronxville, NY], 11 [Meridian, ID], 12 [Los Angeles, CA], 14 [Thurmont, MD], 15 [Chicago, IL], 16 [South Austin, TX], 17 [Los Angeles, CA], 20 [Miami, FL], 21 [San Francisco, CA], 23 [Chicago, IL]

Chinese Foreign Policy Initiative: 1, 9, 10, 13, 18, 22, 24, 25

Both: 4 [Toronto, Ontario] and strategy to encourage business investment abroad, 19 [Elmira, Michigan] and description of China’s military activity in the Indian Ocean

Life Under the Dome: The Political Economy of Pollution in China

A subset of my thoughts on pollution in China, particularly about why it’s so hard to fix, is up on Priceonomics.

In short, it’s part of the detritus lingering over a larger pattern of uneven development in China. In Beijing, which has reached a much higher stage of development than its neighboring areas, the desire to cut down on pollution has reached levels both high (top government) and low (a growing sense of frustration and awareness from people who previously thought nothing of it).

And of course there is a gratuitous and strangely specific metaphor about pizza-making establishments. Because China is a land of metaphors, in addition to the pollution.

Recent Activity: On China, On China, On China

I have finally had a chance to reflect on some of my experiences being an American in China.

Previously, I reflected on some of my experiences being an unproductive American in China.

I have also had a chance to reflect on some of the major themes that I encountered in my preliminary research in China. These are broad outlines, and my current research is aimed at digging more deeply into these issues, how they are reflected in policy, and what that means for, like, the world or whatever.