Category Archives: China

Ancient Ruins and a Week-and-a-Half-Long Food Coma: Reflections on Italy

I went to Italy for vacation, which is a thing that people apparently do to “relax” and “enjoy themselves.” I am unfamiliar with these concepts, but I figured I would give it a try, as per this video

While I have plenty of thoughts on pasta in Italy (it’s amazing), sandwiches in Italy (they’re amazing), and pizza in Italy (it’s fine), what was most notable about Italy — and Rome especially — was the overlapping histories from ancient to the present. The Colosseum makes a great photo-op, the various Fora are impressive, and my side trip to Ostia Antica, the ancient port city accessible by train, was fascinating; it was, however, a poor choice to explore all of these ruins—which almost by definition have no roofs—in the blistering 100 degree heat of the Italian summer. I guess this is why they wore togas. (I did not pack a toga.)

But it is not just that Rome has this incredible history; rather, you can feel in the streets how each successive source of political and cultural power wanted to lay claim to the inheritance of this tradition. The act of turning the Pantheon — literally, “of all the gods” — into a Christian church (only one supreme being, last time I checked) is one example of this. So too is how many of the key churches and other important political buildings preserve the remnants of ancient Roman columns as part of their facade to show the direct connection between themselves and the tradition of Rome itself. 

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of Mussolini’s fascist regime, which undertook major physical alterations of a city whose center otherwise feels somewhat unchanged from earlier eras. Mussolini bulldozed a wide lane between the center of his government and the Coliseum so that he could see the structure directly from his office. Mussolini’s government was not just a response to the crisis of modernity in the early 20th century; rather, it claimed to be the inheritor of the great history of Rome.

I took a brief pit stop at EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma), a business district that was the model for Mussolini’s vision of a new, Fascist Italy. The district features extra-wide roads; imposing, sprawling structures that overwhelm a normal human scale; and plenty of monuments and manicured parks. It feels empty and cold, even in the 100 degree heat. It also feels imposing and hostile, showing the power of massive architecture and efficiency over the potential for narrow, complex, and unplanned human interaction.

At the heart of EUR is the Palace of Italian Civilization, better known as the Square Colosseum. Perched at the top of a hill and towering over everything around it, the gleaming white building features Colosseum-like arches covering the outside of a cubic tower. It is a modern building, yet it is designed to invoke all the power of ancient civilization. (Ironically, it now houses the headquarters of luxury fashion brand Fendi.) Not only do the arches mimic those of the Coliseum, the building is ringed by Romanesque statues invoking the virtues of the Italian people, as well as horse-riding statues at each corner featuring Castor and Pollux of Greek and Roman mythological fame. The virtues of the contemporary Italian population, the building suggests, are features of Italian Civilization that date back to its unique founding. Embracing the claims to this civilization and its founding gave Mussolini the authority to root his political power in tradition.

The power of civilization and history brings to life the writings of Hannah Arendt, who focused on the experience of Rome as the key example to highlight the importance of authority — or its lack thereof — in the modern world. Rome, she argues, shows how political authority throughout history has always sought to tie itself to some kind of historical or civilizational “founding.” The Roman vision of political authority lay entirely in the past, she says, “in the foundation of Rome and the greatness of ancestors.” Arendt writes:

The authority of the living was always derivative, depending upon the auctores imperil Romani conditoresque, as Pliny puts it, upon the authority of the founders, who no longer were among the living. Authority, in contradistinction to power (potestas), had its roots in the past, but this past was no less present in the actual life of the city than the power and strength of the living.

Those who lay claim to authority did so on the basis that they were inheritors of the past, of the founding, of something external to which they alone could appeal. Authority begets obedience without resorting to pure and unmitigated force and is essential for effective rule.

The pervasiveness of Christianity, too, she argues, follows the same script. If the innumerable churches that dot every street corner of Rome — and the fact that nearly all of the major works of art for 1000 years in Europe are “Madonna with Child” (or “Madonna with Child featuring John the Baptist”) — show that the power and authority of Rome passed down into the hands of the Church, the Church, too, attempted to stake a claim to inheritance of the Roman founding. This stood out to me in how the churches, sculptures, and art intertwined themselves with ancient civilizational symbols (not only Roman but also Egyptian; see the hieroglyphics on statues in downtown Rome, for example). Arendt argues that this is part of the continuity:

The extraordinary strength and endurance of this Roman spirit or the extraordinary reliability of the founding principle for the creation of bodies politic were subjected to a decisive test and proved themselves conspicuously after the decline of the Roman Empire, when Rome’s political and spiritual heritage passed to the Christian Church. Confronted with this very real mundane task, the Church became so “Roman” and adapted itself so thoroughly to Roman thinking in matters of politics that it made the death and resurrection of Christ the cornerstone of a new foundation, erecting on it a new human institution of tremendous durability. 

In a city like Rome, where the lineage of history is so palpable, the power of continuity is unmissable. Even when new political orders are founded on rejections of the past, they still try to absorb the existing authority of the past while superseding it. This was what was so fascinating about Rome: from the pagan, pantheistic Roman Empire to the hyper-religious medieval Church to the Fascist rise and fall, every successive generation overlaid their authority on that of their predecessors. This was especially true in physical space, where they tried to situate themselves on the same ground as the prior regimes, and in the symbolic art and architecture, with direct references to sucking up the power of the past. Walking through the streets, it is not possible to easily separate between the ancient, the medieval, and the modern, for they all overlap and lay claim to each other. 

The power of the authority of inheritance is not limited to ancient Rome. Because I spend a lot of my time thinking about China, I cannot help but make reference to a similar phenomenon further East: Mao’s decision to put the heart of the Communist government in Beijing. As the writer Simon Leys pointed out (and which I wrote about here), Mao explicitly chose to put a massive monument in the center of Tiananmen Square, right at the heart of the line of power from the gates of the ancient city. 

The point of this decision was to appropriate the power and authority of the imperial space, thus connecting the authority of Mao’s government to the millennia of imperial rule. Leys writes, not concealing his frustration with the decision to ruin Beijing in the process: 

The brutal silliness of the Monument to the Heroes of the People, which disrupts and annihilates the energy-field of the old imperial space by trying to appropriate it, epitomizes, alas, the manner in which the Maoist regime has used Peking: it has chosen the old capital in order to give its power a foundation of prestige; in taking over this city, it has destroyed it.

So, too, the contemporary Chinese leadership has put extra effort into drawing a direct connection between the history of Chinese civilization and their own claims to power. The CCP claims to be the inheritor of Chineseness, not only through occupying the physical space of Beijing but through attempts to connect the philosophy of the Party with the ideas and history of Chinese tradition. Just as successive waves of Italian political leaders tied the virtues and authority of ancient Rome to their own rule, contemporary Chinese leaders are attempting to do something similar to bolster their authority — which, Arendt says, is central to understanding politics in any era because it “gives the world the permanence and durability which human beings need precisely because they are mortals.”

Let me finish by saying one more thing: the pasta in Italy is amazing. What are we doing wrong in America? Perhaps our pasta lacks some kind of foundational myth. Or we just overcook it. 

Some Brief Thoughts on the Taiwanese Election

Election season in Taiwan is fun: I just received my first robocall, with one candidate accusing another of being an interloper who has mansions in California and China. I cannot vote, but it’s nice to feel included!

There are many interesting macro storylines taking place in this election: the unpopularity of the DPP, the technopopulism of Ko Wen-je and the TPP, the changing political views of young people, and, of course, whatever last-minute craziness always crops up in the run-up to an election. All of these are interesting and important; what I want to elaborate here is one possible alternative way of thinking about the election to make sense of some of the macro cleavages underlying the party competition.

While most external articles of the Taiwanese election focus on China and its outsize role as both a topic of electoral conversation and potential source of election interference, I think it is much more interesting—and much more enlightening—to frame the core issue at stake here as competing claims to democracy. The most significant difference between the parties is less in their stated attitudes toward China—even the relatively China-friendly KMT opposes unification and “one country, two systems”—but rather about how each party conceives of the core way to protect the shared value of democracy and oppose the specter of authoritarianism. Given Taiwan’s relatively recent democratization, it makes sense that the importance of protecting democracy plays a central role in Taiwanese politics; what is interesting is how each party has portrayed its relation to the protection of democracy.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is currently in power, has built its campaign around the notion of taking the “democratic road.” (The main DPP ad this cycle features the outgoing president and incoming presidential candidate driving a car down “democracy road”; it is not subtle.) The DPP’s claims to democracy rest on its opposition to China: the party and its supporters view China as the fundamental threat to Taiwanese democracy; therefore, the best way to promote democracy is to keep Taiwan as separate as possible from China. 

In its purest form, the DPP position is that any engagement with China potentially threatens Taiwanese democracy because it opens up potential channels through which China can infiltrate Taiwan, destroy Taiwan’s freedoms, and subsume Taiwan into China’s authoritarian system. If China is the largest threat, the DPP argues, then the sure path to protecting democracy is creating as much separation as possible from China: building up Taiwan’s defenses, opposing Chinese attempts at interference, and insisting on a more liberal, progressive politics domestically.

At DPP rallies and in conversations with DPP supporters, the distrust of engagement with China is palpable. Even if the KMT claims it does not favor unification, the DPP views this as a smokescreen for slowly allowing China to take over. More engagement will not reduce tensions between China and Taiwan, they argue, but rather a path toward Taiwan losing its democracy at the hands of Chinese authoritarianism. In one DPP advertisement, time unfolds in reverse, from today’s democratic society through the student-led Sunflower Movement in 2014 all the way back to the era of martial law that lasted from 1949 through the late 1980s under KMT rule. If the KMT regains power, the ad implies, democratic progress will be lost, and Taiwan will return to its authoritarian past. 

This is not the only claim to democracy at stake, however. The KMT, which has its own complicated past with both authoritarianism and democracy, argues that the DPP, not China, is the main threat to Taiwanese democracy. The KMT has adopted the position that democracy requires rotating party power; if one party dominates politics endlessly, democracy has been lost. The KMT slogan for this election is, “Democracy requires a balanced system.” Or, as another slogan states, “The rotating of the seasons is the will of nature; the rotating of the political parties is the will of the people.”

There are two criticisms underlying this, both of which I think are relevant to Taiwanese voters but are rarely discussed in international discussions. First, critics of the current DPP administration allege that the party has acted anti-democratically during its time in power. The KMT (and others) accuse the DPP of abusing its power, cracking down on dissent, and using authoritarian tactics to bully opposition. These critics point to a number of particular instances that they claim represent DPP overreach and anti-democratic action: the decision to shut down a pro-KMT (and pro-China) television station; the year-long refusal to confirm a president of National Taiwan University, which critics claim was due to the academic’s support for the KMT; and excessive consolidation of power during COVID-19, during which authority was centralized under a pandemic control center that reported directly to the president.

While I cannot comment on the complexities of all of these cases, and this may well be partisan nitpicking, I have been surprised over the last few months how many people have raised these concerns about the DPP. Even avowed DPP supporters expressed their discontent with what they felt were excessively strong-armed tactics the DPP has used to get their way. Some of this relates to internal factional struggles within the DPP, and others personal vendettas; regardless, the ubiquity of the complaints suggests that there is a significant share of Taiwanese who think the DPP has pushed the boundaries of appropriate democratic behavior.

Second, and perhaps I am imposing larger theories onto the actual situation at hand, but there is an additional argument behind the KMT’s position that the DPP is endangering democracy. The KMT emphasizes that the DPP’s strong opposition to engagement with China in nearly any form is increasing tensions and making Taiwan less safe. Insofar as the largest threat to Taiwanese democracy comes from a forcible takeover of the island by Chinese forces, the KMT’s willingness to try to ratchet down tensions and keep China relatively mollified is a way of decreasing the likelihood of an invasion and therefore protecting Taiwanese democracy. If the threat of invasion is more damaging than the threat of infiltration, one could argue, then the KMT position is plausibly more likely to protect democracy than the DPP’s more aggressive stance. 

Finally, Ko Wen-je, the technopopulist Taiwan People’s Party candidate, locates the problem with democracy in institutional sclerosis. He claims that democracy requires breaking out of the ossified two-party system: Democracy requires not only the rotation of parties but rotation past the same two parties, injecting new vitality into an otherwise inflexible system. Ko has also called for other institutional reforms, including replacing Taiwan’s presidential system into a parliamentary democracy and switching his role from president to prime minister, lowering the threshold for small parties to gain legislative seats, and increasing supervision of the executive branch.

Part of why it is hard to view the whole election only through the lens of China is that Ko’s positions on China (or on anything) are not entirely clear. On democracy, though, he has a strong institutional and procedural criticism. Ko has staked his claim that the existing two-party system has failed to adequately serve the people of Taiwan. Only through internal institutional reforms can Taiwan be more democratic and therefore preserve its democracy. The threat to democracy is not coming from across the Strait so much as in the internal design of domestic institutions — a message that has resonated with a significant number of supporters, who consistently told me that the parties were only looking out for their own interests and Taiwan’s democracy needed to find ways to speak for the people as a whole, rather than narrow party priorities.

The three claims to democracy represent distinct conceptions of what democracy means as the fundamental value of Taiwanese politics—and where the threat to democracy lies. The DPP sees the threat to democracy in engaging with China; the KMT with the DPP’s domestic structure and its unwillingness to engage with China; and the TPP in failing to overhaul the internal system.

In short, despite the common framing that the fundamental question of this election is about the level of China threat, the parties themselves are starting with the central agreed-upon value of democracy and all making claims to the most viable defender of democracy. Some of this includes China, but not all of it; and there are multiple competing claims for where the largest threat lies. While most Western observers have a natural affinity for the DPP’s position, the contestation over the meaning of democracy is worth taking seriously: it is not obvious to me that devolving the election into a question that focuses only on China as the sole source of anti-democracy is useful for understanding the unique character of Taiwanese politics, or of the complexities of the Taiwan-China relationship.

A very abridged Chinese (Beijing) to Chinese (Taiwan) dictionary

I spend much of my life embarrassing myself in one form or another, but there is nothing quite so embarrassing as going to a place and thinking you speak the language only to draw blank stares. When I showed up in Taiwan earlier this year, I thought I spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese — only to learn that people in Taiwan have different words for just about everything. It was not the harsh, guttural, and “r”-inflected accent that gave away the fact that I learned all of my Chinese in Beijing; instead, it was the fact that I used the wrong word for everything. (The accent probably didn’t help, though.)

Language skills are very malleable, and my accent quickly veered toward the more mellifluous intonations of Taiwan. Expanding my vocabulary took a bit more effort. I gave up trying to order specific types of fish at sushi restaurants (all the fish words seem to be different in Taiwan, and, let’s be honest, I want the chef’s assortment anyway). I came to understand that the reason I could never find a trash can in Taipei was not only because there are basically no trash cans in Taipei, but also because I wasn’t using the right word for garbage. (It’s the same word, but pronounced differently. The difference in pronunciation does not explain the lack of trash cans, however.)

I spent much of the next four months chronicling every time people raised their eyebrows at me and said, “We don’t use that word here” or “What the heck are you saying?” I developed the following handy (but nowhere near comprehensive) dictionary to translate Mandarin Chinese as spoken in Beijing (putonghua 普通話) to Mandarin Chinese as spoken in Taiwan (guoyu 國語). I am sure some of these are wrong, and I am happy to take suggestions to add more.

I cannot guarantee that I will spare you any embarrassment, but at least you’ll know why you are embarrassed.

Updated/expanded 1/12/24 — they keep coming…

Trash垃圾 (pronounced: laji)垃圾 (pronounced: lese)
Public Transit公交車公車
Hotel酒店飯店 (saying 酒店 means something much seedier than a normal hotel, which I found out the hard way when I told everyone I was staying in a 酒店 for the first few nights when I arrived)
You’re Welcome (No Worries)不用不會
New (place name)新 (as in New Zealand, 新西蘭)紐 (紐西蘭)
Eat In在這吃內用
Pick a name起名 (pronounced qi-mingrrrrrrr)取名
Taxi出租車 (rental car)計程車 (meter car)
Bicycle自行車 (self-driven vehicle)腳踏車 (foot-stamping vehicle)
Phone signal信號訊號
Farmhouse for tourists農家樂土雞城
Draft beer扎啤生啤
Stir fry with random stuff you have around隨便炒黑白切
Pretty good挺好的蠻好的 (You can’t say 挺…的 in Taiwan, they think it’s weird)
Percentage成/百分之趴 (According to Wikipedia: “趴 as “percent” originates from Japanese パーセント pāsento. This usage is also unique to Guoyu”)
Good morning/good night早上好/晚上好早安/晚安
Profile picture頭像大頭貼
Charging pack充電寶行動電源
Scrolling on the phone玩手機滑手機 (no matter what phrasing you use, people do a lot of it in both places)
Software app軟件軟體
Potato土豆馬鈴薯 (土豆, or dirt-bean, means peanut in Taiwan. To be fair, they are both dirt-beans, of a sort)
Rollercoaster過山車 (passing-through-the-mountains car)雲霄飛車 (flying-through-the-clouds car)
Italian pasta意麵義大利麵 (意麵 somehow means an egg noodle dish from southern China, not Italian pasta)
Authentically local地道道地 (reverse, reverse!)
Electric scooter電動車 (electric-powered vehicle)Gogoro (a brand name)
Electric-powered car新能源汽車 (new energy car)電動車 (electric-powered vehicle)
Instant noodles方便面 (convenient noodles)泡麵 (soaked noodles)
To hire招聘誠徵
Tissues纸巾 or 餐纸衛生紙 (this means toilet paper in China, and it means all tissue related products in Taiwan. The lack of specificity here does not work in Taiwan’s favor)
Snail蜗牛(pronounced wo niu)蝸牛 (pronounced gua niu)
Ping pong乒乓球 (ping pong)桌球 (table tennis)

Nothing is Real: Some Thoughts on China’s Housing Bubble

My body and I have drawn two conclusions from a couple of weeks of traveling through southwest China and eating copious amounts of tongue-numbingly spicy food: China’s public bathrooms have (very marginally) improved, but the urban planning has not. (I had a lot of time to think about urban planning while utilizing those public bathrooms, due to the aforementioned spicy food). Provincial capitals like Kunming and Changsha were expansive last time I visited a few years ago; the cities have only grown larger since, sprawling further and further from what used to be the city center. Thirty-story apartment buildings sit stacked in neat rows, stretching for miles in every direction, as though they were stamped there by a bureaucrat over-using the copy-paste function on his computer. Huge new tracts of former farmland on the outskirts of the city have been razed and flattened in preparation for further expansion. It takes an hour to drive from one side of the city to the other not because of bad traffic but because there are tens of millions of housing units, spaced far apart, that take up an incredible amount of physical space. It should be obvious to any observer that these cities have way more housing units than people. People may be living in houses in the city center, or they may be living in houses on the outskirts of town, but they can’t be living in both.

For a number of years, fears of a Chinese housing bubble rested on “ghost cities”: brand-new cities, built on local government debt and backroom deals, rising from nothing in the middle of nowhere and devoid of people. Developers were building with no regard for demand, so apartment blocks would sit unbought, unwanted, and slowly crumbling into oblivion. Excess housing stock is a problem in some places, but it pales in comparison to a related, and possibly more sinister issue. Vacant homes sit empty, but they have already been purchased as a second, third, or fourth home. Unwanted and unused are not synonyms in a country with no property taxes, an economy driven by real estate, negative real returns on regular bank deposits, and a volatile stock market.

Housing demand is insatiable not because people want to live in houses, but because they want to own houses. As I wrote about last year in Hebei (the New Jersey of China, if you will), even working class families purchase multiple houses. (If you trust the advice of a real estate company’s blog, a single family should buy six homes to feel financially stable: one to live in, one for each set of parents to live in, two for their children’s future use, and one to rent out.) Up to 25 percent of all housing in China is owned but not occupied as of 2015, a rate far higher than in other countries around the world. In China, housing is simply money that you can sometimes live in. There is no tax on holding property, so unused housing can sit there and increase in value. When you earn more money, you want to store it away in a place that is relatively safe and will earn high rates of return, which it seems, in China, means buying houses that nobody lives in but might come in handy later when your children can’t afford to buy one or you need to get a lump sum of cash to send your child to school in the United States.

We tend to think of bank deposits as safe and real estate investment as risky. Such a view, however, is built on the premise that the government will protect our money and that in the long term, interest rates will gradually create a small but stable return. Neither of those is obvious in China. Without much political trust in the banking system (controlled and operated by the state), why would a citizen choose to put their money in an invisible, liquid asset rather than an actual tower of concrete and steel? A fixed asset is more reliable in the minds of many Chinese citizens because it literally cannot be moved or disappeared with one stroke of a pen. After decades of real estate investment, from officials with hundreds of off-the-books apartments to single families saving up to buy a second or third home so their children can be socially eligible to marry, enough people’s assets are in the form of housing that housing has become a de facto banking system.

With so many people’s wealth tied up in the housing market, the ultimate fear is that housing prices will decline. If housing is a bank, allowing housing prices to drop is equivalent to banks losing money and all of their customers taking a hit. It would presage deflationary pressure and financial instability, if not a crisis, for housing prices to take a hit, so the government has to implicitly guarantee that they will not decline. The policy options for corralling an overheated market are somewhat constrained by the simple fact that allowing housing prices to decline, even if they are wildly overvalued, would presage large-scale financial instability. And if you haven’t heard by now, the Chinese government is not a big fan of instability, nor are they looking for massive deflation. Continue reading

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