China is a police state. Why? Because the police are paid more than the teachers—a definition straight from the mouth of V.I. Lenin and one of the few I wholeheartedly agree with. Blame my Trot father for that.
Even if you don’t agree that the above definition, you will surely agree that China’s police force and its bungling subsidiary, the chengguan, are an ever-present feature of life here. I have seen uniformed police and chengguan attending concerts, guarding swimming pools, and hanging around my community watching older residents play cards.
I have no clue how many plainclothes police officers I have encountered during my time here; the only ones who gave themselves away were a pair whom I saw bust two guys on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road back in 2004. They tazered the men, then beat them up on the ground, in full view of the crowds of shoppers. The only others I can say for sure I’ve spotted are the ones meandering around Tiananmen Square, dressed like a child’s drawing of a spy.
Bottom line, the Chinese police—sorry, the Public Security Bureau’s operatives—are everywhere.
Before this year, I didn’t get philanthropy. I knew it was important, and gave a moderate amount when disasters like the Sichuan earthquake struck, but still, it rarely felt better to give than to receive. However, it’s been a tumultuous year for charity in China and I don’t think anyone living here feels quite the same about giving as they did a year ago.
In September of last year, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett met with 50 wealthy entrepreneurs in the name of promoting philanthropy but in 2010 donations from the largest state-owned enterprises was only 2% of net income and the numbers for 2011 are likely to be worse for one simple reason: Guo Meimei.
As a China watcher, the most remarkable aspect about the recent death of North Korea’s hereditary Dear Leader is the level to which it has exposed the Chinese media’s divorce from reality. Last night before bedtime, a CCTV news anchor read out a complete list of branches of the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, Navy and Airforce, and all major government ministries, all of whom “stand in solidarity with our North Korean comrades.” Finally, as an afterthought, she mentioned that the Chinese people shared in the grief of North Koreans, and offered their condolences at the passing of their leader, and their support for his heir, a man qualified only in happening to be his predecessor’s son. How very socialist.
Two hours prior to the anchor’s emotively-worded but utterly deadpan performance (which, along with her tearfully hyperbolic North Korean counterpart, deserve Oscar nominations), I had been discussing humorous cat anecdotes with a few of the Chinese people at my local gym. One of them, coincidentally, was a CCTV presenter, who told us her cat had learned to move its feces from its litter tray and onto the kitchen floor, thereby incriminating her pet dog. My boyfriend joined in the discussion. That afternoon, he had stood up in his office to announce the death of Kim Jong-il, China’s great pal, the guy whom the CCP never gets tired of shielding, and was met with utter indifference. “I don’t care about him,” remarked his deskmate. “I’m busy.”
The salmon sashimi platter at Golden Jaguar is never full. Every time the employee behind the counter slides some on, customers swarm around and snatch them all up. Since they don’t know when they might get more, each diner grabs enough for her whole table. The sight reminds me of those Chinese temples with fish that try to jump over each other to snatch a morsel of food, or piranhas at feeding time. If you’re having trouble visualizing the situation, try this:
I was eating lunch at the restaurant with some friends when my roommate remarked that he saw a woman literally pick up the platter and scrape half of the salmon sashimi onto her plate. I decided to see this for myself.
Perhaps it was the furious way diners descended on the sashimi like ravens on a deer carcass, or perhaps it was because I had just finished Jonathan Watts’ fabulous but depressing book When One Billion Chinese Jump, about environmental crises in China and what they mean for the world, but I suddenly had a vision of the apocalypse.
Only in Asia, it seems, is a tradition valuing the androgynous beauty of the meizhengtai (美正太)—the beautiful boy—enjoying a revival. Increasingly, the meizhengtai is seen as on par, if not exceeding, the appeal of his more typically masculine counterpart, the nanzihan (男子汉). While we have our androgynous sex icons in the West, too—Johnny Depp, Taylor Lautner and, though I shudder to say it, Justin Bieber—the sexuality of these people is always kept rigorously beyond doubt, at least in the media.
Here is where East and West divide. Sexual ambiguity in males, unlike androgyny, is not looked upon with favor by either men or women, and appreciation of the beautiful and unapologetically gay man remains taboo. Sure, we had our dandies, our fops and our New Romantics, but there have been countless casualties along the way.
Nearly everyday when I take the subway I hear the same refrain, “‘Respect the old and cherish the young’ is a traditional Chinese virtue.” So how does one make sense of the news that a two-year-old child was run over twice and passed by no less than 17 people before she was helped? “Girl Who Was [...]
I stepped on the train ready to die. I knew, rationally, that an accident was unlikely—thousands of passenger trains run everyday and recently the government had lowered the maximum speed on the fastest commutes and recalled a number of trains on the Beijing-Shanghai route over safety concerns. Still, my mind focused on the recent… malfunctions of the Chinese railway system.
The train pulled out of the station into a clear Beijing morning. As we got rolling, I played through various worst-case scenarios.
Most repressive regimes use the total authority they possess like a hammer—midnight arrests, curfews, executions, and the like. While China also utilizes these methods to a large degree, they tend to wield their power more like a scalpel, carefully calibrated to the offender and the offense.
The key to this proportional response comes from the government’s ability to apply direct and indirect pressure on offenders. They use a variety of enforcement methods to ensure cooperation from the subject.
The concept in China is called ruanjian (“soft prison”), perhaps roughly corresponding to house arrest in English. However, ruanjian is far more nuanced than simple house arrest. It can be as simple as an athletic young man in a crew-cut following you wherever you go and sitting in a car outside your house at night, to full-on imprisonment in a small rural cottage, surrounded by bright floodlights and blaring speakers, with no phones or visitors.
The first and most obvious feature of how Chinese government maintains order is through censorship. The Great Firewall of China, Xinhua News, and the censorship of books and publications is merely the most blunt instrument they have in their hands, but far from the only one.
By controlling the flow of information, they possess a strong ability to control the narrative of a given story. While it is not especially difficult to get around the Great Firewall, the question that most Chinese people ask themselves is: “Why bother?” China has successfully cast the media narrative as an “us vs them” situation, where foreign sources are automatically biased against China. The average Chinese person feels little incentive to seek out foreign sources of news for a different point of view. Similarly, despite there being almost no barriers to access, not many Americans actively seek out Al-Jazeera for a second opinon on world affairs.
Most Western media reports focus on the most basic of censorship methods—like blocked searches for sensitive keywords, deletion of blog posts, or media blackouts on certain news items. However, far more insidious than that is the censorship that editors impose upon themselves.
Ten years ago I was sitting in a high school classroom conjugating Japanese verbs when there was a distant boom. Our teacher, Fujita sensei, a retired air force vet, remarked that it sounded like an explosion. We laughed it off and I wondered silently what in northern Virginia was worth bombing. Fifteen minutes later I found out.
Ten years ago, I knew nothing of politics. I knew nothing of the struggle for power and the insatiable human lust for domination and violence. But I knew, from the faces of my teachers, that the world had shifted; that there was no going back to September 10.
In the last decade, regardless of what politicians say in their memorial speeches, Americans have lived, more or less, in the shadow of 9/11. The heightened awareness—some might say fear—of terrorism led to a new government department, two intractable wars, and an ongoing Islamophobia. Words like “international terrorism,” “Islamic fundamentalism,” and “suicide bomber” are now common parlance. Only the death of Osama bin Laden offered some scant comfort to anxious Americans.