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.

 

 

From Harvard to the Chinese Internet

June 15, 2011

I have to do my part to make sure that Harvard friends see this: Thomas Friedman’s did a really fun piece this week about Michael Sandel’s “Justice” class which, if you didn’t know it, is a big deal in Asia.  The class, in which Sandel uses the arguments from famous philosophers to frame debate on contemporary moral dilemmas, is infamous at Harvard. Anecdotally I can confirm what Friedman says about the runaway popularity of the class in China; I have several friends who have downloaded and watched lecture videos from the whole class, which have at this point can be downloaded fully subtitled in Chinese. Sandel’s fame in China is, probably, second only to Greg Mankiew, whose intro economics textbook is used, as far as I can tell, almost universally in Chinese universities.

I would like to believe what Friedman suggests about the implications of Sandel’s popularity for the Chinese (and, more broadly, Asian) education system:

Sandel’s popularity in Asia reflects the intersection of three trends. One is the growth of online education, where students anywhere now can gain access to the best professors from everywhere. Another is the craving in Asia for a more creative, discussion-based style of teaching in order to produce more creative, innovative students. And the last is the hunger of young people to engage in moral reasoning and debates, rather than having their education confined to the dry technical aspects of economics, business or engineering.

I think he’s right that, at least in some small scale, Chinese universities are starting to experiment with the possibility of broader-based, interactive learning. The Yuanpei school at Peking University, which has taken the radical step of allowing students to choose their own majors in their second year rather than entering as freshmen into a particular department, is one of the most prominent examples. I know that it was my Chinese friends’ own dissatisfaction at the rigid nature of their university curricula that drove them to find external resources like “Justice.”

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.

I Got a Job!

May 13, 2011

Regular followers of this blog will know that I have been working a couple of internships in Washington, DC for most of this spring. After several months of feverishly writing cover letters, I’ve finally landed a real job, doing development and communications work for the Beijing-based NGO Teach for China. W00t!

Started in 2008, Teach for China, as its name would suggest, is using an approach similar to the Teach for America model to combat education inequality in China. The organization recruits talented recent graduates from both Chinese and American universities to serve as teachers in underserved schools, predominantly middle schools, in southern China. Teachers are stationed in 4-person teams of 2 Chinese and 2 Americans each; the American teachers teach English, while Chinese teachers teach Chinese and math. English, Chinese and Math are the three subjects which are weighed the most heavily in Chinese standardized testing; performance on standardized tests in these three areas play the biggest role in determining whether middle school students in these schools can get into a good high school. A shortage of qualified teachers is one of the biggest challenges facing the school systems in rural Yunnan where the majority of TFC’s teachers serve.

I interned for Teach for China (under its original name the China Education Initiative) when I was in Beijing last spring, and I’m particularly excited about the organization because at the same time that the organization works to improve equality of opportunity it is also working to strengthen US-China relations. 4-person teams of 2 Chinese and 2 American teachers each work side by side at each school to develop curriculum together, to reach out to the community, and deal with local school administration. Placed in a challenging environment and faced with a difficult task, they must work together to surmount common obstacles. My experience has shown that it is this type of sustained engagement, and cooperation toward a common goal, that really builds mutual cultural understanding and a sense of common commitment between people from both countries.

Of course, “people-to-people” ties have  already become a mainstay of the language that the US State Department and their Chinese counterparts use to build confidence in the relationship. Rhetoric aside, though, I can speak about the value of these types of exchanges from personal experience. A few of my earliest posts in this blog mentioned Project IMUSE, an exchange program between Chinese and American students that I helped to start as an undergrad at Harvard. A group of us at Harvard worked in tandem with a group of undergraduates at Peking and Tsinghua Universities to run a recruitment program for student delegates, and then design a conference for them to attend in Beijing. Only through an open exchange of opinions and ideas were we able to pull off a conference that both sides were happy with, and I believe that I left the organization with a much better sense of what the real cultural, social, and political differences are between Chinese and Americans. At the same time, it was the close friends that I made through IMUSE that really solidified my interest in China and really inspired my own personal interest in the Chinese-American relationship.

I’m really excited to be joining an organization that works to both improve the lives of individuals and to promote international cooperation on a broader scale. I’ll stop the sales pitch here; I plan to keep blogging from the Middle Kingdom once I return this summer, though, so stay posted. And if anyone has any tips about finding apartments in Beijing, let me know!

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.

Can the Number of American Students Studying in China Ever Catch Up to Chinese Students in the US?

March 30, 2011

The front gate of Peking University. Chinese students studying in the US dwarf the number of American students studying in China

My work with the US-China Education Trust has sent me digging for statistics again, this time to prepare an acceptance speech for Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, who is receiving an award this spring from NAFSA: The Association of International Educators. I spent part of this morning looking up statistics about the numbers of international students studying abroad in the US and China. Certainly it’s no surprise to anyone that the number of Chinese students studying in the US dwarfs the number of Americans going to China. I think it’s sobering (and, hopefully, somewhat inspiring), though, to be reminded just how wide the gap is:

In the 2009-2010 academic year nearly 128,000 Chinese students studied in the United States. Again, no surprise at how big this number is. It’s also probably not surprising to many people that Chinese students outnumbered international students from any other country, and together represented 19% of the international student population in the US last year.

What was somewhat more startling to me was to discover that the top three countries of origin for international students–China, India, and South Korea–together represent nearly half, 44%, of the total international student population in the United States.

While Asians make up the lion’s share of students studying in the United States, American students still overwhelmingly prefer to hang out in Europe. China ranked only fifth among international destinations for American students. American students studying in China last year, numbering some 13,600, were less than half as numerous as students studying in the United Kingdom. The other top three most popular destinations were Italy, Spain, and France.

To anyone who cares as much about US-China relations as I do, it’s certainly frustrating to see how many fewer American students are bothering to learn about China than Chinese students are learning about America. As with any cache of statistics, though, it is just as possible to find room for optimism:

China was by far the most popular destination for American students in Asia, and more than twice as many students went to China as went to the next most popular Asian destination, Japan. Also, China was the only one of the top-5 destination to see an increase in student travel from the previous year. American students studying in China last year were up 4% from the 2008-2009 academic year. Of course, a massive upswing in Chinese students to the US–who were up 30% from 2008-2009–dwarfs this figure.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that student interest in China is measurably increasing.  In my own anecdotal experience, I feel as if I am becoming increasingly aware of a much greater number of programs that offer exposure to China and to Chinese language for students at even younger ages. On a recent trip to visit my parents, who both work at the University of Kentucky, I found out that some of the high schools there even offer Chinese language classes. With Confucius Centers and other similar programs increasing in number, this phenomenon is certainly becoming more common. I had never even heard of a person studying Chinese when I was in high school (and, honestly, I’m a little jealous of the kids who, by virtue of being born later, will have the advantage of being able to start tackling the language at an earlier age).

The Institute for International Education, which is based in Washington, D.C., publishes a comprehensive report each year on statistics relating to American study abroad and international students studying in the United States.

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.