Posts Tagged ‘China’

Complicit in a Secret Beijing Romance

December 14, 2012

Well it’s certainly been a while since I’ve updated this—in my defense, spending my 9-6 in front of computer writing grant proposals is a significant disincentive to writing at a computer in my spare time. In any case, I’ve spent the year and a half since returning to Beijing in the same apartment in Dongcheng, and in that time have fielded a rotation of roommates. The shortest-lived of these paid two months rent and didn’t spend a single night in the apartment.

This summer, after Cousin Katie moved out, I posted another ad on the Peking University bulletin board (bbs) for a new roommate. One girl who responded had gotten the ad from her boyfriend, an impending Beida graduate. Having met in high school and endured a long-distance romance throughout college, they found themselves triumphantly reunited as she prepared to move to Beijing for work. Amanda (my potential roommate’s chosen English pseudonym) visited the apartment and, after just a quick glance around, announced that it suited her. “I just moved to Beijing and I’m staying with my boyfriend for a few days while I get settled, but then I’ll move in here,” she said as she handed me two month’s rent.

After three weeks went by without any sign of her moving in, I called her to see what the deal was. Rather sheepishly, she explained that, in fact, after living in separate cities for the past few years she and her boyfriend had grown quite accustomed to living together and maybe she would just stay with him after all. This left me in a rather frustrating position—my next installment of rent was due to the landlord the following week, and I had been counting on Amanda to pay a third of that rent. She was understanding, though, and as the change of plans had been short notice she agreed to pay another month’s rent while I looked for a replacement. We settled the logistics of a rendezvous to hand-off the rent, at the end of which she said:

“Great, and when I come by to hand you the rent can you give me the spare set of keys to the apartment?”

“What? Why do you need the keys if you’re not moving in after all?”

“Right, but as long as I’m paying another month’s rent I’d like to store some things in the apartment for the next month.”

“What?”

“Right, I am staying with my boyfriend but actually I’d like to stay over at the apartment one day next month, just on October 8th.”

“…What?”

This was definitely one of the weirder phone conversations I’ve had. It took some wheedling, but finally I managed to get the back story out of her. Amanda’s parents were coming to visit her in Beijing for October Holiday. And she couldn’t simply receive them at the apartment where she was secretly living together with boyfriend, now could she? So my apartment had been drafted to serve as her alibi, which she would take her parents to in order to convince them that she was living alone and not in sin.

I’d certainly heard before of Chinese friends having to hide their romantic endeavors from conservative parents, but this was the first time that I’d actually been complicit in one. My other roommate was skeptical, but we worked out an arrangement where Amanda came by a week before, dropped off a couple sets of clothes and borrowed an apartment key. She didn’t even end up staying over, just taking her parents to see it one morning while I and my other roommate were at work. The bedroom must have looked pretty sparse, but as far as I know they were convinced.

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In Which the Narrator Catches a Bike Thief Red-Handed

May 8, 2012

One does not have to have lived in Beijing for very long to count bicycle thieves among the true scourges of your existence. While I have been lucky in my 2+ years of living here, I can think of countless stories from friends who have walked outside one morning or afternoon to find their bike, or at least a wheel or a seat, mysteriously gone. Cousin Katie lost two bikes last summer in the space of a month, locks and all. Bike theft in Beijing is so rampant that it is treated not so much as a preventable crime but rather with the same fatalism as the traffic or the smog. I have been told that actually trying to protect your bike with locks is futile (though my US-made Kryptonite lock has held up so far), but rather that the best protection you can offer is to discourage thieves by using dirt and scratches to make your bike look older, thereby making the next bike over more attractive by comparison.

Last week, I came face to face with a manifestation of this invisible, omnipresent force. I was

caught red-handed

walking out of the Teach For China office when, as I prepared to unlock my own bike, heard a soft sawing sound from just up the block. Looking up, I saw a man hunched over the bike several yards from mine, bent over the back wheel and, yes, sawing vigorously. He was making no effort to conceal it: people continued to cross the street nearby, no more than a few yards from the in-progress robbery. I flirted briefly with the notion of doing something heroic, of calling him out somehow, but wasn’t entirely sure what I would do or on whose authority I could confront him. So I opted instead to just stare in disbelief.

That was enough to get his attention at least. After a furtive look upward, he returned to his sawing. Pulling out my phone to take a picture, though, was enough to scare him off. He backed away from the bike and silently walked past me to the end of the block, throwing another guilty look over his

the lock was no match

shoulder before he turned the corner. I went over to take this photo of the lock on the bike once he was out of view: in just about a minute he had already sawed most of the way through the lock.

I got on my bike to leave again, turning the same corner to find him idling there. As soon as he saw me approaching he began ambling back to his victim. The brazenness was too much for me to resist; I circled around again to find him back at the same bike, and pulling out my camera to take another picture was enough to scare him off again. At that point, though, my heroic urge to defend the bike lost out against the realization that I was already late for something. I’ll never know if I had harassed him enough to scare him off or if he returned for a third time to claim his prize.

the villain makes his escape

Certainly this awkward confrontation was no more than confirmation of what we already knew. Even in broad daylight, with plenty of witnesses, your bike is not safe. I highly recommend the investment in a real Kryptonite lock.

New Years in the Middle of Nowhere pt. 2: Drunken Fireworks

February 4, 2012

My experience in Yiyang, Hunan included just a few brief respites from constant eating and drinking. After a massive dinner on New Year’s eve, and after chatting through several hours of the 春节晚会 (the New Year’s variety show which is sort of the Chinese equivalent to Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve), we went outside for the part of the evening that I’ve been looking forward to the most: fireworks. 博哥 knew how excited I was for this part, and I think I had his father prepare a particularly large haul for this year. Leaving the apartment, I helped haul a load of boxes out to the pedestrian street, which at this point was mostly deserted. These were filled with a massive assortment of fireworks of all shapes and sizes, including many of a size that I’m sure require some sort of professional license to use in the US.


(The video starts getting good about 15-20 seconds in)

The last time I was in China over Chunjie I remembered reading stories of fireworks-related burns and injuries—I’m sure, with the combination of professional-grade fireworks and heavy drinking that there are dozens of accidents a year. So I was a little nervous when Bo’s father lit a cigarette and thrust it into my hand. “Just touch the cigarette there and then run this way,” he said. As I walked up to the first case of fireworks, my boots slid a little on the pavement, which was smooth and slick with half-melted snow. I lit the fuse, though, hopping frantically over the slippery pavement as I heard it sizzle behind me. Looking up into the sky I was rewarded with explosions of the size that you’d only see at Fourth of July in the US.

While the show was amazing, it did little to quell my concerns about the irresponsibility of making such large explosives so widely available to drunk people. One uncle lit a box of big rockets and then, as the rockets began to shoot into the air, shuffled immediately to another box a few feet away so that he could set both off simultaneously. While the first few rockets launched into the air without a hitch, the third rocket only lofted a lazy ten feet into the air, exploding just above his head as he was crouching to light the second box. Another big rocket lit soon after gave off sparks but never got off the ground, instead exploding in a shower of green sparks just ten feet away from us. No one was injured, but it did make me wonder how often one comes across a defective firework. The big expensive fireworks were soon expended, leaving an assortment of sparklers, roman candles, and other novelties. My favorite among these, which they called a “butterfly,” consisted of a small rocket with a set of small cardboard wings. Once lit, a stream of sparks causes it to spin rapidly, such that it lifts into the air like a flying saucer, making an unearthly buzzing sound before exploding with a crack.

When we finished, a wasteland of smoking and discarded cardboard packages lay before us. This being China, after all, we of course simply left them behind us and took off for the last activity of the evening. The residents of Yiyang have a tradition of visiting a local temple to burn incense and make a prayer for the new year. More about that next week.

New Years in Middle of Nowhere, Hunan pt. 1

January 26, 2012

Cousin Katie and I spent Spring Festival 春节this year with 博哥’s family in Hunan. While this was the second Chunjie I’d spent in Asia, I

Picturesque Yi Yang

had spent the holiday during my year at Beida travelling outside China, and was thus excited for my first chance to have an authentic Chinese New Year experience. We flew into Changsha Hunan, early on Saturday morning, and 博哥’s mom (who I’ll call 李妈妈 for the purposes of the blog) and dad (李爸爸) met us at the airport for the drive to Yiyang 益阳, where 李妈妈’s family is from. Yiyang,a tiny (by Chinese standards) city of about half a million people, lies about an hour and a half northwest of Changsha. It’s got the rather drab uniform look of most middling Chinese cities: most of the buildings share a similar beige color and few are over eight stories high. We stayed in an apartment just off of the wide shop-lined pedestrian street (perhaps modeled after Shanghai’s Nanjing East Street) that is also a mainstay of all mid-level Chinese cities. It snowed most of the afternoon and evening of our first day there, such that the whole city was blanketed in snow by the second day. Covered in snow, the city resembled a less picturesque version of the homely town where the blockbuster Pepsi commercial I wrote about earlier this month is set.

We arrived in Yiyang mid-day on Saturday, in time for a massive meal with several aunts, uncles, and cousins, including a mid-sized bottle of baijiu split between the five men (including me) at the table. Unsurprisingly, non-stop eating and drinking were the dominant theme of the entire trip to Hunan, to the point of exhaustion. Every lunch and dinner became a big production,

All the meals were this awesome. Only thing missing from this photo is the boozeHanging out around the fire after a meal. It was too cold to do much else

with plenty of relatives crowded around a table piled high with food. The homemade food was, also unsurprisingly, amazing, although I was surprised that this Hunan crowd ate very little spicy food. Most meals consisted of a couple of large stews which boiled throughout the meal in electric kettles, flanked by an assortment of stir-fried dishes. As the meals wore on and the stir-fried dishes cooled, the remainders were dumped into the boiling electric pots, presumably to re-heat them and to soak up the flavor of the stew. Several family members live on farms, giving us ample access to amazing home-raised free-range chicken, and incredibly fresh home-grown vegetables, including some I’d never seen before.

Even this amazing food took a back seat to the single-mindedness with which a Chinese family at New Years pursues its alcohol. The level of drinking was

View from on top of a temple on a hill overlooking the city

exhausting. It felt like an act of physical exertion to drink heavily over a big lunch and then, just in time for the buzz from lunch to wear off, to start all over again. Luckily, this family was willing to spare us from drinking baijiu most of the time, leaving us to choose between beer and wine. The downside of drinking one of these, though, is that an appropriate toast often requires draining a full 5 ounce glass—whether it was full of beer or wine. According to custom, one is expected to toast everyone at the table, as well as be toasted back by the other drinkers. On several occasions, thus resulted in me finishing off more than a full bottle of wine to myself, to say nothing of the beer. A couple of times, 李爸爸 brought bottles of wine with him to toast us with when we went to visit other relatives. However, as the wine was mostly for our benefit (had it been up to them, they would have drunk just baijiu), few people had an opener handy. We watched instead as an uncle, showing remarkable ingenuity, drove an ordinary screw through the cork and used that as leverage to remove it.

While Chunjie festivities often last a whole week, the official start of the new

Burning "money" for ancestors to use in the afterlife

year was Sunday night. We gathered in an aunt’s apartment for the meal, but before we could eat, the family had to make a New Year’s offering to their ancestors. We gathered in the small apartment’s dining room, where several Mao posters overlook a round wooden table. We watched as Grandma laid out two plates of meat and a full stewed chicken in a bowl on the table, as well as a couple of plastic cups of rice, and two glasses each of water and baijiu. She placed a sprig of green onion over each of the dishes of meat, and lit a couple of sticks of incense. Each member of the family took turns bowing over the table, following which she burned a small handful of rough yellow paper, which I’d seen before to represent money. The little dish

Also from a temple overlooking the city. The low buildings in the background are a cement factory.

of incense was transferred to a small altar inset in the dining room wall.

I’ve decided to split this into a couple of entries since it’s too long for one blog post, but stay tuned next week for drunken fireworks.

Yup, rural China is still out there

August 15, 2011

It’s hard to believe I’m already nearing the three- month mark for my return to Beiijing.

Near a Teach For China placement school. I admit I didn't take it, but pretty nonetheless...

Work at Teach For China has been pretty exciting thus far; the work is really fast-paced, the office full of smart and motivated people rushing around in an attempt to get too much done in too little time. My first grant proposal, written frantically in my first week of work, unfortunately failed; the Canadian Embassy’s charitable fund decided this year to focus on women’s empowerment. However, the mild disappointment at this has been almost completely lost in the flurry of other new and exciting work. The Development team’s fall fundraising campaign is starting in earnest next week, and I’ve recently been anointed manager of Teach For China’s social media campaign. I blame this new gig primarily for my lapse in maintaining regular blog updates; tweeting is considerably more time-consuming than I ever would have guessed, and it’s hard to convince myself to sit and type at a co outer in my free time when I already do it from 9-6 Monday to Friday. In the absence of regular updates here, I instead make a shameless plug for the Teach For China WordPress, which I’ve now been updating with regular stories from teachers’ (called Fellows) lives in Yunnan. I’ve been gathering really great stories from their lives in the boonies, with great pictures to boot.

Though I’ve settled for now back in the big city, I was inspired to write this post the other day by a sudden reminder of my time in Sichuan. Devoted readers will remember Qiu Yukun, my friend in the rabbit-raising business who during my time in Sichuan tried to rope me into scheme of starting a restaurant in his hometown. He continued to try to sell me on this idea right up until I left Sichuan; and I, unsure of how to deal with the situation, continued to give him noncommittal responses right up until when I returned to the US. When I returned to Beijing this time, I sent him a text, but by then he had already switched phone numbers, and I feared I had lost touch with him for good. Then last week I happened to sign into QQ (the Chinese instant messenger) and to catch him online.

It really was quite a stroke of luck that I managed to run into him; Yukun rarely used QQ, and I hadn’t signed into the Chinese chat program since leaving Sichuan over half a year ago. Yukun was ecstatic to find me. When I met him last year he was already married, but I was shocked to hear that, in the time since I had left, his wife had given birth to a son. In the two years since graduating college, most of my friends have started some kind of graduate school, and only a tiny handful have gotten married; in the last couple of months, I’ve been so proud of myself for crossing such major milestones to adulthood like renting an apartment, and having a kitchen with actual pots and dishes. Speaking to Yukun was a jarring reminder of how, in a place like Yilong, Sichuan, real adulthood comes along a lot more quickly.

We exchanged phone numbers again, and since then, he’s called and texted repeatedly, but mostly during work hours and I, guiltily, sent only apologetic text messages in response. Today I happened to be already out the door of the office as his call came through. “Finally, you answered!” he exclaimed, but our exchange of pleasantries was followed by an awkward pause in which neither of us new quite what to say to each other. “When are you coming back to Sichuan?” he asked, and I struggled to find a diplomatic answer. I would, of course, love to go back, but as a real person with a real job now I only get a limited number of vacation days a year, and will inevitably spend many of those visiting family in the US. Yukun seemed equally uncertain of when he would have a chance to return to Beijing—he previously worked here has a migrant worker for several years, but now he has a family and a farm to take care of. “You should hurry back, I can introduce you to a nice girl to marry here too!” he insisted, and rattled off the appealing traits that I must surely be looking for in a future wife. “I know some very pretty ones, very tall, and with light skin!”

The conversation had the same anxious air that I remembered from conversations with him and some of my other friends in Yilong. I’m still the only foreigner he knows, and must still represent his only window into the larger world outside of rural northern Sichuan. As I’ve written about before, Yukun was one of several friends in Yilong who, throughout my time there, was constantly approaching me with new schemes of how we could go into business together. He seemed certain that I was the secret to getting rich quick—either as a source of American investment capital for his restaurant scheme, or simply as a front man who would attract business simply by virtue of being white. Somehow, as a foreigner, I represented an elusive alternative to the rather dismal choice that most young people in rural China face: stay at home and farm for menial gain; or live the hard but comparatively lucrative life of a migrant worker.

Unfortunately, the chances of my becoming the financial backer for his restaurant are pretty slim. I thus attempted to deflect his invitation politely, not wanting to get his hopes up. “I really want to come back to Yilong, I’m just not sure when I will have time,” I urged. Though I really meant it, the words sounded hollow, even to me. I suddenly remembered the attitude he and some of my other friends had taken on the day I left. I had insisted then that I would certainly come back, but many had seemed skeptical; foreigners had always passed through periodically, to teach English, or volunteer with Wokai or another international charity, but then they returned to their own lives. I realized that, just as Yukun was desperate to maintain a link to the outside world through me, so I, a suburban Midwesterner, want desperately to maintain some connection to his world, which I gained access to for a short period of time but even now remain intensely curious about.

I hope you can maintain a friendship on that.

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.

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.

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.

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?