Archive for the ‘Chinese-American Relations’ Category

Nonprofits in the Chinese Context

June 12, 2011

Greetings from Beijing! I’ve been back in the smoggy city for just over a week and just finished week 1 at my new job at Teach For China. Already I’ve hit the ground running, having banged out a whole grant proposal in three days!

One of the most interesting experiences of being back so far though has, strangely enough, been the experience of simply explaining to Chinese people what exactly it is that I, and by extension what Teach For China, do.  Having interned for the organization as well as other nonprofits in China before, I have by this point collected into my Chinese vocabulary quite a number of words for NGOs: “non-profit organization” (fei zheng fu zu zhi 非政府组织), “non-profit organization” (fei ying li zu zhi 非营利组织), “non-corporate organization” (fei qi ye zu zhi 非企业组织), “charity” (ci shan 慈善), “community organization” (gong yi zu zhi 公益组织), etc. Over the past few days I’ve used these words in various succession in attempt to explain to cab drivers, real estate agents, and others what Teach For China is; no matter which term I’ve led with, though, I’ve invariably gotten blank looks until by some combination of synonyms and explanation in more detail of Teach For China’s model I’m finally able to get the point across.

The most interesting encounter so far came over this past weekend while visiting a potential apartment. The owner of the apartment had asked where I worked, and after “non-profit” 非营利组织 and “NGO” 非政府组织 had drawn no recognition, I went with “charity” 慈善. “Oh, you give out charity!” He said, “well you know, most of us Chinese are poor, we all need charity. Where do you hand out charity? Where’s my charity?” It took a good while to explain that the organization doesn’t simply hand out money, but implements a specific program.

Their confusion is, of course, understandable. As the nonprofit sector is still so new (and so tightly controlled by the government) in China, it is not as widely understood by the general public here as it is in the US. After all, it’s only in the last 10 years  that there’s been enough surplus wealth anywhere in China for nonprofit work to be possible. This means that Teach for China’s fundraising efforts (of which I am now a part) can potentially tap into the vast new resources of the recently wealthy in China. On the other hand, this is in some ways much more challenging than fundraising in the US, where large private foundations and corporate social responsibility initiatives operate under fairly well-established rules.  After one week, anyway, I’m excited to see where that takes us.


My 2 Cents on the “China vs. Egypt” Debate (part 2)

March 29, 2011

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, but the last time I wrote a full post it was about one of the main reasons why, in my estimation, we shouldn’t be too optimistic that the sort of wide-scale social unrest which has rocked the Middle East in the last two months could inspire significant political change in China in the near future. Specifically I argued that, although localized protests, particularly in impoverished and rural areas, have increased dramatically, the regime thus far has successfully co-opted the growing middle class which has benefitted the most from three decades of economic growth. Even in a society with what may be the fastest-growing income gap in the world, people remain satisfied with the material improvements in their own lives and optimistic for the future.

If domestic satisfaction with Communist Party rule is one half of the story that must be examined, than the other half is the government’s response to unrest. While we have certainly been hearing a lot about police states in the news in the last few weeks, I believe that the situation on the ground in China is significantly different from in any of the Middle Eastern states. On one hand, the government’s paranoid and disproportionate responses to protest have certainly fueled more resentment. On the other hand, I believe that the Chinese public security apparatus is significantly more sophisticated than the one in Egypt, or probably in any country, and has proved amazingly adept at stifling the growth of a national protest movement.

Elizabeth Economy from the Council on Foreign Relations testified a few weeks ago at the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission and spoke specifically about the upswing in violent but localized peasant protests in rural China—of which there have been more than 100,000 a year in recent years. When questioned about the government response, however, she concluded that the Chinese government has been uniquely adept at stopping revolts at the source and stemming their spread. Public security forces, she argued, proactively identify potential “centers” of organization around which dissatisfied citizens gather and stamp them out early. Localized protests are met with an overwhelming show of force that prevents any possibility of their spread to a neighboring county. The result, then, is that small, localized centers of unrest fizzle out before they can connect with one another and form a broader movement.

The role of Facebook and Twitter in the Middle East uprisings has, inevitably, drawn attention toward Internet controls in China as well. Foreigners often think of the “Great Fire Wall” as a bloated but static barrier, blocking off vast swathes of content but infinitely vulnerable to small, innovative circumventions by enterprising young people. My trusty VPN hasn’t failed me yet, at least, during my trips to China. However, the online security apparatus is in fact much more complex than that. I recently listened to a recording of a panel last year at the Brookings Institute on the role of the Internet in US-China relations. During the panel, Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis Defense Group Director James Mulvenon argued that the government has exceeded the expectations of many in its ability to adapt to new technologies and use them to monitor and limit internet protests. The scale of the Chinese government’s suppressive efforts, as well as its surprising flexibility, seems to me to differ sharply from conditions in Egypt and Tunisia, where vibrant online dissent communities were allowed to grow unchecked.

Advocates of political reform in China are quick to point out that the CCP’s bureaucracy has become calcified, that entrenched, corrupt bureaucrats are too distanced from their subjects to address cries for reform. I think that this image is true in many respects, and government unresponsiveness is certainly one of the main causes for domestic unrest. But we need to pay equal attention to—and perhaps need to be more afraid of—the other side of the Chinese government, which has proven itself to be adaptable and flexible. This same government has proven itself capable of identifying challenges quickly, and diverting large amounts of resources to attack—and crush—those challenges.

House Republicans don’t want NASA working with the Chinese?

March 17, 2011


China's first Chang'E lunar probe launch in 2007

One of these days I’ll get my act together and finish up the second half to the post I started about Chinese domestic stability. In the meantime, I just came across something surprising while doing research at my congressional internship: HR1, the continuing appropriations resolution which has been the focal point of the budget debates for the last two months, includes a specific provision forbidding future cooperation between NASA and Chinese agencies or companies:


Sec. 1339. (a) None of the funds made available by this division may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of enactment of this division.

It’s likely a direct Congressional response to the joint Chinese-American statement which followed Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States in January 2011, in which Obama and Hu pledged to “deepen dialogue and exchanges in the field of space.” The agreement included an invitation from the White House for a Chinese delegation to visit the NASA headquarters.

Despite commitment to further cooperation, space exploration is apparently becoming yet another field of Chinese-American competition. The Chinese robotic mission to the moon, launched in October 2010, and the potential of a manned Chinese moon expedition in the future, is probably fueling that sense. I’m skeptical that a Congressional decree like this will really be able to stop the general trend of increased technological and research cooperation between Chinese and American firms.

A New Gig, Michelle Kwan, and Awesome Videos of Cultural Revolution-era China

February 2, 2011

After two months of mailing cover letters, I’ve made my first, rather halting, steps toward actual employment. I’ve relocated to Washington, DC, where I’ve started two internships, one with California Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, and one with a small NGO called the US-China Education Trust. USCET sponsors sponsors scholarships for Chinese students, as well as a series of academic conferences and symposia, mostly in China, about politics, economics, and media.

I’m particularly excited about USCET, which I think will help me to gain more exposure to US-China partnerships and learn more about the different ways to be involved in US-China relations. Julia Chang Bloch, the former ambassador who runs it, seems to be really well connected within the DC diplomatic community–I got to attend a Chinese New Year party she threw last week, and met the second-in-command at the Chinese embassy, and Michelle Kwan!


Me and Michelle Kwan! pwned.



USCET held another cool event last week hosted by the chair of their advisory board, Nicholas Platt, a retired diplomat who went with Nixon on the first trip to China in 1972. He had the foresight to bring a video camera along with him, and took some amazing images of what China was like in the early 70’s. Luckily, some of these were posted online for a similar event he gave at the Asia Society in New York, and you can see them here.

It was all I could do to not completely nerd out while he was showing these; they of course visited all of the major tourist sights–Great Wall, Summer Palace, Hangzhou West Lake, Ming Tombs–but they’re all completely deserted. There’s a great image early on of a neighborhood in the center of Beijing, not far from the Forbidden City, but completely devoid of the massive buildings you’d see there today. It looks like any of the hutongs you’d see in the most run-down parts of Beijing today, complete with people brushing their teeth on the street. Unfortunately, the little clip that the Asia Society put online doesn’t include the most striking image, of Shanghai’s Pudong district. The area, now a massive forest of skyscrapers, was totally deserted when Platt visited, little more than a collection of little fishing huts.

I’m not quite sure how long I’m gonna be in DC. The “plan” (to avoid grad school and find something interesting to do instead) is still in its initial stages, and will depend a lot on how these internships go and how long it takes me to find something else from here. The first week has gone well though–look me up if you come to DC!


Yes, I’m Still Blogging

January 16, 2011

The few of you who still read this probably mostly know that for the last couple of months I have, in some sense, been blogging a lie. Although I’ve still been writing about my time in Sichuan, my gig with the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County ended in mid-November. Even as I was leaving, Yilong managed to throw me for a loop one last time. My train back to Beijing left from Nanchong, the nearest city large enough to have a train station. Since the night train didn’t leave until late at night, I waited until the evening to call a taxi to take me to Nanchong. However, I didn’t count on the late-night fog which accumulates in mountainous areas during the winter in Sichuan. The fog was literally so thick that we could barely see two meters in front of us. For most of the three-hour ride the driver crept along the road, completely blind except for a view of the painted lines immediately outside the car window which served as our only warning whenever the road entered a sharp hairpin turn.

I have now been back in the US for a little over two months, crashing with various friends and family in various states–mostly in California–and sending out more cover letters than I can count. I’m still not entirely sure where I’ll end up next, or what I’ll be doing, but with any luck it will still be something related to China. In any case, wherever I end up I intend, at least, to keep blogging, primarily about topics related to China, though the content may shift somewhat depending on what the focus of the next job is. I promise to attempt to remain relevant at least, so I hope my throngs of dedicated readers will keep checking back. Over the next couple of weeks I intend to keep writing about Sichuan, as I still have a lot of content saved up which for various reasons I didn’t think was fit to post on the Wokai blog.

So please keep reading!

Big Fish in a Poor Pond: Confronting Chinese Rural Poverty from a Position of Privilege

December 15, 2010

I’m famous! Check out this guest post just published on Akhila Kolisetty’s social justice blog, “Justice for All:”

Sorry, not really relevant, but this picture was too incredible not to share

Lay off, Mr. Friedman

December 7, 2010

My recent entrance into the world of (f)unemployment has, naturally, left me with more time to read and get riled up by the news. Usually just complaining to my grandfather about the news is enough to blow off the resulting steam, but Friedman’s “From WikiChina” editorial last week was so emblematic of everything that’s wrong with the New York Times’ China reporting that I had to get something down on paper. The piece takes the form of an imagined diplomatic cable from Chinese diplomats operating in the US back to Beijing, and highlights supposed sources of Chinese relief at growing American political gridlock and decay in national infrastructure. He portrays  China’s leaders as quietly maneuvering in the shadows to overturn American supremacy and delighting at each sign of American weakness:

“Things are going well here for China. America remains a deeply politically polarized country, which is certainly helpful for our goal of overtaking the U.S. as the world’s most powerful economy and nation. But we’re particularly optimistic because the Americans are polarized over all the wrong things.”

Each passage is worse than the last. The piece quickly moves from general antagonism to outdated Cold-War style bipolarism:

“They are fighting — we are happy to report — over the latest nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. It seems as if the Republicans are so interested in weakening President Obama that they are going to scuttle a treaty that would have fostered closer U.S.-Russian cooperation on issues like Iran. And since anything that brings Russia and America closer could end up isolating us, we are grateful to Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona for putting our interests ahead of America’s and blocking Senate ratification of the treaty. The ambassador has invited Senator Kyl and his wife for dinner at Mr. Kao’s Chinese restaurant to praise him for his steadfastness in protecting America’s (read: our) interests.”

Even worse is his insinuation that Chinese “efforts to dominate the wind, solar, nuclear and electric car industries” represent some kind of nefarious secret plot. Green technology isn’t a zero-sum game, and some of the most promising sustainable development initiatives currently in their early stages are joint efforts between Chinese and American firms. The sort of exaggerated competitiveness that he alludes to in this piece will only serve to obscure that.

He saves the worst threat-mongering, though, for the very end:

“… record numbers of U.S. high school students are now studying Chinese, which should guarantee us a steady supply of cheap labor that speaks our language here, as we use our $2.3 trillion in reserves to quietly buy up U.S. factories.”

Certainly China’s political and economic ascent on the world stage will undoubtedly continue to present new challenges to the United States, and should, as is Mr. Friedman’s intention, serve as a much-needed wake-up call. However, it is simply an absurd oversimplification to assume that China’s leaders greet each sign of American political and economic instability as stepping stones toward their coming world domination. Their first priority preservation and consolidation of its existing power and, given the current level of economic and political interdependence, American instability can only hurt China. The 2008 credit crisis demonstrated this, and Beijing avoided a larger catastrophe only through a massive government response.

China is heavily invested in the current American-dominated political and economic status quo, too. After all, it was this status quo, in which the United States assumed the greatest responsibility for reinforcing economic stability, which allowed China to grow prosperous. China’s leaders are too worried about the growth of internal unrest to dare assume more global leadership right now.

I am certainly among the first to agree with many of Mr. Friedman’s complaints about American politics. Following news of the healthcare debate from Beijing last year was a constant source of frustration for me. Certainly my own frequent use of the Chinese rail system, which is amazingly efficient and quite affordable, was a constant reminder to me of what sufficient government investment in national infrastructure can accomplish. But to couch this critique within such an alarmist scenario does nothing but further obscure the already mangled debate in this country over the Sino-American relationship. Effective engagement of China will require a sober and objective appraisal of the potential areas for cooperation and conflict. Mr. Friedman’s depiction of China in his writing as a looming malevolent threat is misleading and irresponsible and only serves to take us further from an effective response to the inevitable challenges of a rising China.