Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Dissidence

June 22, 2011

I was walking back from lunch near the Teach For China office with some colleagues the other day when I was surprised to come across a line of protest graffiti scrawled across the barrier outside a nearby construction site. In my estimation, news coverage of protests and acts of dissent, at least in Western news, seems to be on the rise. It would be hard to read only the New York Times coverage of China and not believe that the country is going to crumble under grassroots protests any day. However, public acts of dissent are still quite rare in Beijing, and I can’t remember ever coming across such a public one as this graffiti. Most of what I could read on the walk back was protesting the results of overconstruction and pollution in Beijing:

楼距太近侵害我们采光权利隐私 | “Constructing buildings too close together invades our natural right to privacy!"

 

..卫生工程污染环境危害我们的健康!| "Pollution from sanitation projects threaten our health!"

Environmental woes are one of the main driving forces behind the rising frequency of protests in China, and while protests in rural areas are usually dealt with swiftly and harshly, the government has actually by necessity become, in some instances, more responsive to the demands of middle class and urban Chinese. Elizabeth Economy’s statement at this Congressional hearing in DC this spring gives a good summary of the recent trends.

The big Chinese dissident news of the day, though, is of course that Ai Weiwei, the increasingly world-famous artist-turned-activist, was finally released after three months of detention. The New York Times argues that this is a rare instance in which the Chinese government actually caved to international pressure.

 

 

Advertisements

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.

National Security After Bin Laden? Spend More on Education

May 4, 2011

Obama and members of his national security team receiving an update on the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden. Source: New York Times

The headlines on May 1 were dominated by breathless announcements of the death of Bin Laden, while nearly every newspaper gave an entire section on May 2 over to an extended description of the harrowing Navy Seal raid, then coverage in the couple of days since has gradually shifted to the question of, “now what? What does this mean for American national security policy?”

Yesterday, Jim Dwyer in the New York Times offered one suggestion with his coverage of Capt. Wayne Porter and Col. Mark Mykleby, who are both special strategic assistants to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last month the two military advisors released a white paper through the Woodrow Wilson Center which, in the tradition of George Kennan’s 1947 “long telegram” about Soviet aggression, attempts to redefine a new “strategic narrative” for American defense policy. The document dramatically argues that national security in the age of globalization cannot end simply at the identification and pursuit of threats, but must more holistically encompass domestic prosperity as well:

The term ‘national security’ only entered the foreign policy lexicon after 1947 to reflect the merger of defense and foreign affairs…“national security” has become a trump card, justifying military spending even as the domestic foundations of our national strength are crumbling. “National prosperity and security” reminds us where our true security begins.

In particular, the paper calls for increased investment in three main “investment priorities,” as needed for maintaining American strength and influence:

1. Education: The document clearly and decisively defines education, and the preparation of globally competitive workers, scientists, and leaders, as a matter of national security:

“By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans – the scientists, statesmen, industrialists, farmers, inventors, educators, clergy, artists, service members, and parents, of tomorrow – we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future.”

2. “Sustainable Security:” The authors link traditional military measures of national defense with other tools of foreign policy influence, like economic exchange and diplomacy, as equally vital in maintaining America’s position and influence abroad. In a sense, this priority is a summary of “smart power,” a doctrine first coined by foreign policy scholar Joseph Nye, which calls for the effective integration of both military “hard power” and “soft power,” such as cultural and economic influence.

3. Environmental Sustainability: Lastly, it ties environmental sustainability to national security by identifying the protection of natural resources with economic prosperity.

Anyone who has been following the budget debates over the last six months (as I, from my internship on Capitol Hill have) will recognize this rhetoric as very similar to the language which Democrats and their allies have begun to increasingly rely on to justify domestic spending. Increased spending on education and environmental protection have been core planks of the Democratic Party platform for decades; however, I would argue that there has been a major shift in the way that these programs are defended and justified.

The most prominent example, of course, was Obama’s “Win the Future” State of the Union address this year, in which he framed investments in education, infrastructure, and clean energy almost entirely in terms of America’s need to maintain parity with China and other rising powers:

“Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports.”

Even Obama’s push for more education funding is framed primarily in terms of international economic competition:

“Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future — if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas — then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”

Extensive federal funding for and involvement in public education dates back to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, passed as part of  Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. At the time, though, improvements in education were justified in a much different way. Johnson argued that the “Great Society” would allow “every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.” Education, in his vision, was the path to individual achievement, not necessarily to national competitiveness.

Environmental protection in the Great Society was justified not in terms of natural resources and economic viability, but simply out of the need to protect natural beauty:

“We have always prided ourselves on being not only America the strong and America the free, but America the beautiful. Today that beauty is in danger. The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing.”

Overall, Great Society programs unapologetically sought to reduce socioeconomic and racial inequality in the United States. Johnson called for programs to create “abundance and liberty for all” and to help all Americans “escape from the crushing weight of poverty.”

The confrontation of inequality has almost entirely vanished from the rhetoric that supporters of increased domestic spending, both in and outside of the Administration, use today. In fact, the words “poverty” and “inequality” don’t appear in the last State of the Union once. The partisan in me would argue that, in today’s political climate, where almost any mention of reducing inequality as a goal is branded as “class warfare” and “socialism,” liberals have abandoned the rhetoric entirely in favor of this new narrative focused entirely on national competitiveness.

This new rhetoric had been circulating the liberal community for a while before the Obama Administration picked up on it. Thomas Friedman is particularly fond of using China as a foil to argue for increased domestic spending, as he did in this article I criticized last fall. Fareed Zakariah used the specter of American decline to argue for increased education funding in an article a couple of months ago.  Porter and Mykleby’s white paper may indicate, however, that this new viewpoint is trickling into the military and national security committee as well. If education and sustainability could be successfully case as issues of national security, it would make it much harder for fiscal hawks to oppose them.

Beida vs. “Radical Students” and the Difficulty of Objective Reporting on China

April 9, 2011

Last week I wrote about a puzzling new policy announced by Peking University to screen students and identify “students with radical thoughts, psychological fragility, poverty…” and other supposed difficulties and provide them with some sort of “consultation.” A few China bloggers bemoaned this as yet another example of what’s now being called the “Big Chill,” a sudden ramping-up of censorship, police pressure, and detainments of dissidents and activists.

I have a fair number of friends in Beijing who went to or still go to Beida, and I wrote them this week to ask if they had heard of the policy or if it had affected them at all. Apparently the announcement of this policy did elicit considerable criticism on Weibo微博–the Chinese Twitter.

A good friend of mine graduated from Beida’s prestigious Yuanpei college (the one department at Beida where students get to choose their own majors after entering) and is currently working as a reporter at a major newspaper. She was recently asked to go back to the school and interview teachers in students in preparation for an article about the new policy.

My friend told me that she had a hard time gleaning any substantive knowledge about the program. Faculty members whom she interviewed knew that it was a sensitive topic and were all reluctant to give information. However, she did find out that Yuanpei was apparently selected as a test site for the new policy last November. In five months, though, only three students have been singled out. All three had been identified as suffering academically, but as a result of either “serious illness” or “internet addiction,” both of which are among the other conditions the policy was meant to target. All three, she insisted, had been on the verge of dropping out of school due to poor academic performance, and had since been allowed to continue at the university.

In one of her interviews with a school official my friend discovered that this policy was not quite as new as I had been led to believe. For as long as five years, she found, professors have been obliged to hand in the names of students thought to fall into one of several “problem areas”–including politically radical beliefs, extreme poverty, and possible psychological illness–to the university’s branch of the Communist Youth League. The Communist Youth League, she was then informed, would plan hiking trips, games, and other activities for these students in an attempt to integrate them more socially–and, therefore, help to ensure “stability” on campus.

Surely the idea that Beida is keeping tabs on its “radical” students is troubling–I think perhaps we should be even more troubled by the idea that political beliefs are being considered as a category of mental illness. It’s certainly not a new policy, though, and it certainly isn’t heralding the onset of some Orwellian nightmare at China’s most prestigious (and probably most independent) university–at least not yet.

Learning about this policy has once again gotten me thinking about just how difficult it is for any of us to sort through the competing narratives on China and figure out exactly what is going on. The newspaper my friend works for is not even remotely in the business of challenging government policy. The reporting assignment came with explicit instructions to portray the university in a positive light. On the other hand, there is no denying that Western reporting on China often takes on an exaggerated accusing tone. An anecdote in the New York Times’ story about increasing digital censorship in China several weeks ago left the impression that anyone saying the word “protest” during a phone conversation would be automatically cut off–and set off a wave of Beijing expats yelling “protest” into their cell phones in unsuccessful attempts to duplicate the incident. These kinds of incidents highlight just how hard the current media climate makes it to form a complete and objective picture of what’s going on in China.

Peking University to Start Screening Students for “Radical Thoughts?”

April 1, 2011

 

PKU's library near the West Gate, which I walked by nearly every day during my stay there last year

I found a link this morning on rudenoon’s China blog to this article in the Guardian about a forthcoming new policy by Peking University to screen and identify “students with radical thoughts, psychological fragility, poverty, registration changes, eccentricity, Internet addiction, job difficulties, serious illnesses, and discipline violations.”

 

PKU’s official announcement on the program explains that they intend to implement “consultations” with students in these categories regarding problems in academic performance. In essence, the announcement attempts to frame the new policy as a mental health provision. I should point out that mental health services are one of the several aspects of student life, so common on American campuses, which are routinely–if not always–ignored on Chinese campuses. It certainly goes almost completely unaddressed  at Peking University–I had students in my class last year complain to me several times that there was no one whom they could go to on campus to talk about the pressure and stress they were dealing with.

The announcement on the new policy is quite–and probably deliberately–vague. However, I agree with the Guardian that this specific targeting of non-mainstream political opinions is really scary. PKU is known as a particularly liberal and reform-minded university. I would even argue that the school allows more intellectual freedom and forward thinking than nearly any other institution in the country.

Whether this month’s protests have really been wide enough in scale to merit being called China’s own “Jasmine Revolution,” the scope of the government’s paranoid reaction to them seems to be expanding. Harassment and detainment of journalists is now being supplemented by preemtive screening and singling out of students thought to be politically dissatisfied. Though I argued earlier this week that Beijing has effectively kept a tight leash on political dissent thus far, the leadership is clearly scared of what’s been happening in the last month. It’s anyone’s guess, however, how much they’ll be willing to tighten the noose this time.

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.

Some Stats for International Women’s Day

March 8, 2011

So I know it’s remarkably ambitious of me to post three times in one week, but with today being International Women’s Day (at least for 5 more minutes on the East Coast) and all, the timing was just too good.

Among the grab-bag of my work at the US-China Education Trust has been the opportunity to help the president, former Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, prepare remarks for some of the variety of speeches/keynote addresses/bar mitzvahs that she is invited to give from time to time. Next week she’s speaking at a luncheon as part of a “Women in Politics” seminar series at Gettysburg College’s Eisenhower Institute. I’ve been doing research the past week about changes in the career conditions of women between when Ambassador Bloch started her career as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-60’s and today. Not surprising, women are doing a bit better now than they were then–but the statistics vary in some interesting ways.

My job has been made a lot easier by the release of the White House Council on Women and Girls’ Women in America report earlier this month. The report details the current state of women in the US in a variety of ways, focusing in particular on family dynamics, education, employment, and health. The education section highlights a trend which, while old news at this point, is still remarkable. Women are outpacing men almost across the board in the American higher education system. Women constituted 57% of enrolled undergraduates in the 2007-2008 year, and earned 57% of degrees conferred in that year. They’re earning more masters’ and doctoral degrees. The only fields in which men still significantly outnumber women are in the hard sciences, and they still dominate engineering and computer science fields. Women earned less than 20% of the engineering/comp sci degrees awarded in 2008.

The biggest  headline-grabber of this report, however, has been the data on earnings figures. Despite now roughly equaling male presence in the workplace, and despite notable gains in most career fields which had previously been male-dominated, women still continue to earn significantly less than men on overall.

At all levels of education, women earned about75 percent as much as their male counterpartsin 2009

Even more interesting, though, is the report’s breakdown of earning gaps by race:

Compared to the earnings of all men (of allrace and ethnic groups), Black women earned71 percent and Hispanic women earned 62 percent as much in 2009. White and Asian women earned 82 percent and 95 percent as much as all men, respectively.

Compared to their direct male counterparts,however, White women earned 79 percent as much as White men in 2009, while Asianwomen earned 82 percent as much as Asian men. For Blacks and Hispanics, the figures were 94 percent and 90 percent, respectively

So Asian women trail overall men’s earnings by the least, but remain equally outpaced by the disproportionately high earnings of Asian men. On the other hand, Black and Hispanic men have a much less significant earnings advantage over Black and Hispanic women.

What might be some possible explanations for this? Why don’t Blacks and Hispanics have the same employment gaps between genders that other ethnic groups seem to have?

I should note along with this, though, that earnings data for Asians is particularly problematic. In the course of doing research for another keynote address, this one for an Asian American advocacy group in DC, I’ve been doing some research on the demographics of Asian Americans.

  • According to the most recent community survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for Asians nationwide was higher than that of non-Hispanic whites.
  • HOWEVER, the nationwide poverty rate for Asian-Americans, 12%, is also significantly higher than the 9% poverty level among whites. The poverty rate for Asian Americans is also higher than the rate across immigrant groups of all ethnicities in the United States.

So Asian Americans straddle both the top and the bottom of earnings groups in the United States. So the “model minority” image is much more complicated than often portrayed: the “Asian American” demographic includes both high-achieving middle class families and a significant percentage of working poor, mostly first-generation immigrants, who struggle at low-paying jobs in major cities.

What was I talking about? Women? Anyway, these numbers left me really curious, and I would love to hear some other responses. How should we reconcile these gender achievement gaps with ethnic achievement gaps?

Is China’s “Jasmine Revolution” a Clever Fake-Out?

March 7, 2011

Amazing article from Barbara Demick in the LA times, who basically argues that calls for weekly “strolls” by Chinese dissident bloggers have been an elaborate ruse to bait Chinese security forces into an overblown response:

The crackdown has only emboldened the organizers of the protests, who remain anonymous and appear to be operating from outside China. For this weekend, they’ve named 55 locations in 41 cities, all popular gathering places, such as aStarbucks in Guangzhou and a spot in front of the statue of Mao Tse-tung in Chengdu.

“The Chinese government is its own worst enemy,” said Minxin Pei, a Chinese-born political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “You can see that the level of paranoia and insecurity at the top levels of the Chinese government is truly beyond what you would imagine.”

What makes the 2 p.m. Sunday demonstrations so difficult to stop is that the organizers of the so-called jasmine revolution, so named in homage to the Middle East and North African uprisings, are simply asking people to come out and stroll, thus circumventing the bans on public protest in China.

If the original goal was just to spook the government into freaking out, then it seems to be working.

My 2 Cents on the “China vs. Egypt” debate (part 1)

March 6, 2011

The new favorite pastime of the Chinese blogger community has become, in the last few weeks, to compare China to Egypt and Tunisia. It’s certainly a topic that’s been heavy in my mind the last couple of weeks, and it’s been fascinating to read just how widely the analysis seems to vary, and to defy easy summary.

I was lucky to attend a hearing hosted by the Congressional US-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing a couple of weeks ago which highlighted to me, more than I had previously aware, of just how much domestic anger is bubbling under the surface in some parts of the country. Small, localized demonstrations or protests, or “mass incidents,” as the government calls them, have been ballooning in number over the past decade, and already number over 100,000 every year. Elizabeth Economy from the Council on Foreign Relations gave a vivid example:

“In one case in July 2010 for example, officials in Gangkou, Jiangxi Province, offered to relocate villagers away from a heavily polluted site that had sickened them but provided only minimal compensation. When police beat two female petitioners into a coma, thousands of angry citizens used bricks and stones to smash windows and overturn police cars”

Events often start as small personal grievances, inspired by public health hazards due to environmental pollution, by forced evictions, by unfair labor practices, by official corruption, or any of the other dozen serious complaints of China’s underprivileged. Ham-handed management by the police can easily turn one family’s protest into a village-wide riot. Without a doubt, then, public dissatisfaction is growing, and is leading a disenfranchised population, with no open or transparent way to redress grievances against the government, to act out violently.

However, many scholars and journalists point out that China differs from Egypt in one fundamental capacity: the Chinese government’s uncompromising pursuit of economic growth has raised the living standard of vast sectors of the population and garnered overall allegiance from the all-important growing middle class. Egypt’s economy has grown significantly over the last ten years as well. However, as Evan Osnos summarizes,

“Egypt and Tunisia were vulnerable to unrest not because their economies were ailing, but precisely because their economies had improved in recent years, which only accentuated how far the economic gains were outpacing political liberalization.”

Egypt and Tunisia’s middle class turned against the government because “rising expectations” outstripped the ability of a growing (though increasingly corrupt—not so different from China) economy to deliver on those expectations. Consider a series of public opinion surveys conducted in Egypt by Gallup in the years before the revolution, which found that levels of “life satisfaction and optimism” in Egypt were as low as those in the truly stagnating Palestine. Young people and the middle class, particularly those who expected to do well, were disappointed with their share of the economic growth.

Certainly the economic situation in China is quite different. Economic growth there has been not simply strong, but mind-blowingly fast, and without a doubt has raised the living standards of a vast percentage of the population in the last several decades. What is perhaps more important, though, is that the population as a whole perceives that increasing economic prosperity is widespread and is meeting an increasing number of their needs. Harvard Sociologist Martin Whyte, who testified at the same hearing, shared the results of a fascinating public opinion survey on perceptions of economic inequality in China. His research found that, while a majority of people in China recognize the widening income gap (now the largest of any low to middle-income country in the world), they tend to attribute prosperity differences to differences in talent and effort, and remain optimistic about their own chance to get ahead eventually. Even Chinese who have garnered only modest economic gains in recent years trust that their lives, too, will continue to get better under the current regime.

My understanding is that these factors—public satisfaction over domestic, particularly economic, conditions—make up one half of the debate over continued domestic stability in China. I’ve managed to fill up more space already than I intended to, so the other half—government success at maintaining domestic control—will have to wait for another post.