“Can a society which has not...come to terms with its own past go on to have a successful future, or do the sins of the past somehow...come back to haunt it and reexpress themselves in some mutant form?”
This is a question that the seasoned historian and scholar of China, Orville Schell, has been thinking and publishing academic articles about in recent years, and is now writing a book on. Schell has stated that "nowhere is history more relevant to the future than in China, a nation that has for millennia seen its destiny inextricably connected to the dynastic record of what has preceded."
On the one hand, the idea that a psycho-reconciliation with the past is necessary for a country is a very Western, and a very Freudian, concept. But partly, that’s because it seems to have worked in the West — if Germany had not recognized its own past atrocities, could it have amicably dealt with its neighbors and become a leader in today’s Europe?
But the Chinese Communist Party’s official position is that no reconciliation is necessary. A Party communiqué called Document No. 9, which was leaked in 2013, made clear that certain historical events and ideas were strictly off limits, and that discussing them publicly was nothing but “historical nihilism.” That is not to say that there haven’t been attempts in China — by intellectuals, activists, and even the government, particularly in the 1980s leading up to 1989 — to critically analyze the past to avoid similar mistakes in the future. But the status of historical inquiry in China today is bleak, and Schell has a lot to say about what that may mean for the country’s future.
Orville: The works of the legendary writer Lu Xun, whose writings inspired by his love-hate relationship with the history, philosophy, and traditional culture of China remain a must-read for understanding why China is the way it is. Check out Wild Grass, translated by Xianyi Yang and Gladys Yang, and Jottings under Lamplight, a new compilation by Eileen J. Cheng and Kirk A. Denton.
Kaiser: The Amazon Echo Dot, a gadget that he uses for playing his Spotify playlists.
This week, our featured topic is Chinese students overseas. There are about 800,000 of them, and according to China’s Ministry of Education, nearly 80 percent choose to return to China soon after finishing their education. This group is referred to as “sea turtles” (海龟; a pun on 海归 hǎiguī, meaning “to return from overseas”) for their ambitious swim to and from faraway shores. Historically, overseas Chinese students were almost exclusively from the wealthiest and best-educated families in Chinese society, but nowadays, the group is dramatically more diverse. The new students abroad, however, face many of the same identity issues that the previous generations faced.
Chinese students who are studying at American universities are, as Eric Fish put it in an article on SupChina recently, caught in a cross fire. Many of these 300,000-plus students find themselves grappling with their Chinese — or, as most Americans simply see it, “Asian” — identity for the first time, and are taken aback by the biased views that many Americans have about China. They feel forced to choose: to either defend their country against ignorant attacks, or take very Americanized worldviews to prove that they are not “brainwashed.” But if they go too far and adopt too liberal of a viewpoint, they may get accused back home of being a “white-left” (白左 báizuǒ; a derogatory term for white Western liberals).
To discuss the ideology and identity issues at play, as well as more routine aspects of the Chinese student experience in America, we welcome Eric Fish — the author of China’s Millennials, who is now working on a second book about university students from China in the U.S. — and Siqi Tu — a graduate student in sociology at the City University of New York looking at Chinese high school students in America. The podcast was recorded live in New York at the China Institute on March 14.
Jeremy: For anyone who (like him) is having trouble with the American bureaucracy regulating septic tanks as they try to build a house in a holler (what people in Tennessee call a hollow, or a small valley between two hills), Jeremy recommends the Sun-Mar Compact Composting Toilet and the EcoJohn Waterless Incinerating Toilet. No septic permit necessary!
Siqi: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s written by a Nigerian immigrant to America about her experience figuring out racial identity in the country, finding love, and then undergoing reverse culture shock upon returning to Nigeria.
Eric: Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization, by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller. It’s about the experience of what is considered the first group of Chinese students to come over to the U.S., way back in 1872.
Kaiser: America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, by Anatol Lieven, an incredibly prescient book written six years ago.
There is no question that China has seen a miracle of poverty reduction. According to the World Bank, since the economic reforms that started in 1978, economic growth in China has “lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty.” Chinese state media regularly reminds us that the country has about 50 million people left in poverty, particularly in rural areas, but not to worry: President Xi Jinping will completely eliminate poverty by 2020!
About all this, there are many questions:
To answer all these questions and more, Jeremy and Kaiser sat down with Gao Qin, professor of social policy and social work, and director of the China Center for Social Policy at Columbia University. She is the author of an excellent book on the subject of social assistance in China published just last year called Welfare, Work, and Poverty: Social Assistance in China, which looks at dibao and the tens of millions of people that it covers.
Jeremy: The blog of Stephen Jones, an ethnographer who’s been traveling around China since the 1980s, documenting folk religion, theater, and other random things, particularly in rural life. Also see his Twitter feed @Stevejonesblog.
Qin: Life and Death in Shanghai, the autobiography of Cheng Nien, an ordinary mother whose life was dramatically impacted like so many others during the Cultural Revolution.
Kaiser: Grant, the biography of famed U.S. general and president Ulysses S. Grant, written by Ron Chernow.
This week, we have an inadvertently timely podcast on China’s authoritarian revival. Mere days before the episode’s recording, Chinese President Xi Jinping set the stage to extend his power to rule China indefinitely.
As Carl Minzner, professor of law at Fordham University, explains, the abolition of term limits for Xi was only the latest — and easiest for non-China specialists to understand — of many signs that China was heading down the path to strengthening its one-Party and one-man rule to an extent not seen since Mao. He details this path, and why he thinks it is limiting China’s development, in his new book, End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining Its Rise.
Unlike many commentators, Carl sees the signs of China’s illiberal turn as dating way back before 2008, when the unrest in Tibet in March and Olympics in August of that year demanded greater social control. It is then widely agreed that the signs of an authoritarian revival have rapidly accumulated since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013. Carl also has some interesting observations about how Xi’s “Chinese Dream” represents a surprising turn toward tradition (including a radical redefining of what is traditional Chinese culture) as the Party seeks legitimacy in the New Era of Xi Jinping.
All the while, Carl explores the underlying reasons for China’s hardening and approaches the question with admirable empathy. And though this topic is one that Kaiser and Jeremy have discussed before many times on the show, Carl brings fresh angles to the conversation, including an exploration of how changes in China’s educational system may be restricting social mobility in China.
Jeremy: “Carry the struggle to criticize Lin Piao and Confucius through to the end,” a Peking Review translation on Marxists.org of the original 1974 People’s Daily propaganda piece — once you read it, it will help you understand just how different a beast Xi Jinping is from Mao.
Carl: A variety of books related to his, but with different viewpoints: China's Future, by David Shambaugh; The Perfect Dictatorship, by Stein Ringen; and China's Trapped Transition and China's Crony Capitalism, by Minxin Pei, whose book on crony capitalism in particular helps us understand why Xi Jinping went in the direction he did, especially with the anti-corruption campaign.
Kaiser: David Brophy’s review in the Australian Book Review of Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, by Clive Hamilton. Kaiser says that Brophy’s perspective is highly applicable to the situation in the U.S., which Kaiser fears could become worse in many ways than our overreaction to Islamic fundamentalism.
"Having read hundreds and hundreds of these cases, I have decided that I'm never going to drive in China."
That is what Benjamin Liebman, the director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies at Columbia University, concluded after his extensive review of laws relating to traffic violations in Hubei Province.
Geoffrey Sant, a partner at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney, notes that traffic accidents in China are substantially more fatal than traffic accidents in the U.S. While the U.S. only sees about one death per 70 traffic accidents, China sees one death per four accidents.
Whether it be the explosion of car ownership and road infrastructure (new drivers in new places), more drunk and reckless driving, an expectation that traffic laws (such as stopping at red lights even when no one is coming) are "optional," or a variety of other factors, Chinese roads can be dangerous. There are also some quirks in the legal system that create perverse incentives, leading to some pretty extreme cases.
For example, as Geoffrey detailed in an article on Slate, more than a few videos have surfaced of drivers intentionally running over or otherwise killing people they have injured on the road. The reason for this? In China, the liability payout for an accidental traffic death is a small fraction of what you have to pay out if you cripple someone for years.
The way that courts deal with these extreme cases, as well as more routine traffic tort cases, reveals a lot about the function of courts in Chinese society. That is what Geoffrey and Ben argue and discuss in this live Sinica Podcast, recorded on February 26 at the offices of Dorsey & Whitney in New York.
Jeremy: The Twitter feed of Tong Bingxue 仝冰雪 (@tongbingxue), a great place to find rare old photos and videos of China.
Geoffrey: Persuasive Business Proposals: Writing to Win More Customers, Clients, and Contracts, written by his father, Tom Sant. It’s useful for writing pitches when you’re trying to get people to hire you — for example, when you’re a lawyer trying to get clients.
Ben: The Handpulled Noodle, a restaurant in New York at the corner of 148th and Broadway, which serves genuine Xinjiang noodles. And China in Ten Words, by Yu Hua, which explores the lack of trust in Chinese society.
Kaiser: The work of MacroPolo, specifically, a piece by Evan Feigenbaum titled “A Chinese Puzzle: Why Economic ‘Reform’ in Xi's China Has More Meanings than Market Liberalization.”