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Chinese Dreamers

A dream, in the truest sense, is a solo act. It can’t be created by committee or replicated en masse. Try as you might, you can’t compel your neighbor to conjure up the reverie that you envision. And therein lies the latent, uncertain energy in the concept of the “Chinese Dream.” As the new central motto of Chinese politics, introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, it is an expression of the Communist Party’s attempt to acknowledge the aspirations of its people. At the same time, wittingly or not, it is a provocative invitation to the public imagination.

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China’s Favorite Villainess

Many U.S. viewers identify with serial killer Morgan Dexter of Dexter, inveterate womanizer Don Draper of Mad Men, or family man turned meth kingpin Walter White of Breaking Bad—however morally bankrupt they may be. Now, China has its own anti-hero, one that citizens love—and authorities merely tolerate. Concubine-turned-Empress Zhen Huan is the protagonist of Empress in the Palace, a fictitious television drama series set during the Qing dynasty reign of Emperor Yong Zheng, who assumed the throne in 1722. The show is a hit; not only has it set viewership records for some of the many local networks that broadcast it, it’s also a web sensation, with over 4.4 billion total views on Letv, a Chinese video-streaming site.

While China’s leaders have sought to promote an optimistic worldview with slogans like the “Chinese Dream” and an emphasis on “positive energy,” Zhen epitomizes everything but. Her rise to power is nasty, brutish, and rapid. In the first episode, which aired in November 2011, the seventeen-year-old Zhen is uninterested in politics, and does not even wish to join the emperor’s retinue; nonetheless, she is eventually selected as a concubine because of her beauty. Over the course of the seventy-six-episode series, now complete, Zhen’s outlook darkens, and she ascends the palace hierarchy by destroying those who stand in her way. Zhen poisons a friend-turned-enemy, causing the woman to miscarry. Later in the show, she frames the empress for causing Zhen herself to miscarry—and uses that to usurp the empress’s throne.

The show’s web-savvy viewers have taken Zhen’s machinations to heart. Many feel the series reflects contemporary Chinese society, in which the unwritten rules of a system based more on connections and corruption than merit often force a choice between success and integrity. And Zhen has taught them that the quickest path to success is a willingness and ability to be more manipulative than anyone else. Zhen’s journey, one web user wrote, “makes people aware that society is dark, a society that makes bad people worse, and good people bad.”

Television antiheros have been popular in places like the United States for decades, but in China, where the government sits in final judgment on the moral correctness of television content, Zhen is something new and potentially threatening. Chinese censors have not moved to quash Empress in the Palace: the show is a “historical drama,” a permitted typology unlike “time travel” dramas, which are banned for their “frivolous” treatment of history.

Zhen is anything but frivolous, but to a Communist Party trying to promote positivity she may simply be too nasty. On September 19, the newspaper People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, published a widely discussed op-ed by Tao Dongfeng, a professor of cultural studies at Beijing’s Capital Normal University, critiquing Empress in the Palace for its potential to negatively impact social mores. Tao maintained that television should serve as a “vehicle” by which to bolster a culture of integrity. “Artistic works should be superior to reality,” he wrote. “They should not simply copy it.”

Many Chinese, or at least those with an Internet connection, disagree. In an ongoing survey conducted by Sina, one of China’s largest Internet portals, only about twenty-nine percent of 219,000 respondents thus far agree that “shows and movies should transmit positive energy; Empress in the Palace, which encourages an ethical race to the bottom,” is not worthy of promotion. The majority, about sixty-eight percent, felt that “a gap between art and reality” leads to “fake and monotonous” work. The masses have spoken, and they want their anti-heroes.

Why Chinese TV Viewers Can’t Get Enough of a Qing-Era Concubine

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By Jianyu Hou. This article was first published by Tea Leaf Nation.

Dreams of a Different China

Last November, China’s newly installed leader, Xi Jinping, asked his fellow Chinese to help realize a “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation. In the months since then, his talk has been seen as a marker in the new leadership’s thinking, especially as Xi has pursued a policy of robustly defending territorial claims and called on the United States to explore “a new type of great power relationship.” These actions, unthinkable a decade ago when China was still a much smaller, less important global player, were evidence that Xi intended to realize his dream.

Xi carefully chose the stage where he made his call. It wasn’t at a meeting of parliament or a trip abroad, but during a visit to an exhibition in the National Museum of China. Located on the east end of Tiananmen Square, the museum is a cavernous structure of severe columns adorned with a national crest and a stylized billowing red flag. The architecture’s overtly political themes are reflected in the building’s tumultuous history: since its launch in 1959, the museum has been closed more often than open, as successive leaders have squabbled over what should be presented inside. In its present incarnation, it was redesigned by a German architecture firm to be the world’s largest museum and reopened in 2011.1 One of its permanent exhibitions is the show Xi visited, “The Road to Rejuvenation.”

That show tells a story that every Chinese child learns at school: China was humiliated for a hundred years by outsiders from the mid-nineteenth century onward and, despite brave attempts by well-meaning but misguided patriots in the years after, only really got back on track when the Communists took power in 1949. From there, the country went from strength to strength, the inevitable triumph of Communist will and ideology. It was against this backdrop that Xi declared, “I think that achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is the greatest Chinese dream in modern times.”2

Xi’s definition of China’s dream has caused much discussion. While the slogan seems to directly mimic the term “American dream,” it is almost the antithesis of that dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—personal goals that in Xi’s vision are replaced by a collective, national pursuit. The Economist even posited that Xi was echoing a call made a few weeks earlier by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who said that China needed its own dream—its own guiding principle like the American version.3 (Friedman had something more environmentally friendly in mind, hoping that China wouldn’t develop the suburban sprawl and energy appetite of the United States.) Xi’s vision might have disappointed utopians, but as Orville Schell and John Delury point out in their new book, Wealth and Power, this desire for national gloire has been the driving force behind Chinese thinkers for nearly two centuries.

Their book’s title derives from the Chinese term fuqiang, wealth and power, which the authors identify as the guiding idea behind the people who have led China since the early nineteenth century. Schell and Delury describe a series of eleven thinkers, activists, and leaders in their stylishly written, provocative book. They say the idea for it came from a simple but important question: “How did China’s modern history of relentless humiliation and backwardness…suddenly morph into such a story of triumph?” The answer is an “abiding quest” for wealth and power. Through these figures—writers, revolutionaries, and even a dowager empress—we see that Xi’s dream is firmly in the tradition of those who went before.

Identifying this—correctly, I think—as the dominant discourse over the past nearly two hundred years allows the authors to make several important points. One is that unlike other revolutions, China’s was not started for idealistic reasons, such as freedom or liberty, but for utilitarian purposes: restoring national glory. The Chinese version of liberté, égalité, and fraternité, they say, was “wealth, strength, and honor.” Hence the relentless pragmatism that one sees—anything for the desired result. Yes, Deng Xiaoping’s jettisoning of Communist ideology was seen as shocking, but he was firmly in the mold of earlier leaders who in prior decades had tried on communism, fascism, and authoritarianism. In one of their many memorable phrases, the authors say that China has gone through “serial economic, intellectual, cultural, and political organ transplants.”

* * *

The traditional beginning of this narrative, then, isn’t a glorious revolution but humiliation: the Opium War. Smartly, however, Schell and Delury give a more nuanced version of events by starting the story earlier, with the early-nineteenth-century thinker and official Wei Yuan. Even before the Opium War, Wei believed that the Qing dynasty was in decline and turned to an old Chinese school of statecraft, legalism, for solutions. He believed the government needed to invest in an advanced military, encourage commerce, and maintain order through tough laws. Schell and Delury write, “Their list of priorities and principles bears a sometimes uncanny resemblance to today’s ‘China model’ of authoritarian, state-led capitalism.”

Wei also wrote arguably the first realistic geopolitical assessment of Western expansion and its implications for the region—in contrast to previous worldviews, which emphasized China’s centrality and superiority. He is a fascinating figure and it’s shocking to realize that no full-length treatment of him exists in English, making this chapter alone worth the price of the book.

Another principal figure in Wealth and Power is Feng Guifen, who wrote in the mid-nineteenth century and likely coined the term “self-strengthening,” which became a leitmotif for decades to come. Feng called for China to selectively borrow from the West—which, arguably, has been China’s course for the past century and a half. Feng also reflects another theme of the book: the tension between adopting technocratic fixes and making deeper changes to the political and ideological system. Feng noticed that a significant part of the West’s strength was the accountability of its governments to its people. Although he believed in the emperor’s right to rule, he suggested adopting village democracy and open budgetary processes—two reforms bandied about in recent decades by the Communist Party but still not realized.

As the book moves toward current times, it includes better-known figures. We meet the Empress Dowager Cixi, as well as the great publicist and thinker Liang Qichao, who adopted a Japanese term, “destructivism,” which would acquire an eerie resonance in the twentieth century.

Marching through the decades, the desire to try something, anything, is evident. But as always, a unifying factor is a strong state. Even Sun Yat-sen, who helped overthrow the Qing and whose ideology including “people’s rights,” saw such rights as a necessity to strengthen the country, not as God-given or natural rights to counterbalance a powerful state. Mostly, he argued that Chinese needed more discipline to counteract what he felt had been centuries of weak government.

Another common feature shared by most of the influential Chinese in the volume is the desire to salvage parts of China’s indigenous tradition—something shared by peoples around the world when confronted with the brutal logic of modernization. Even early Communists like Chen Duxiu hoped to maintain some traditions, as did “destructionists” like Liang. Indeed, many of these radical reformers first thought of discarding the past and then thought better of it—a reversal of how one might imagine people to react to their country’s decline. They were willing to try the worst but later restrained themselves.

* * *

The exception was Mao, who believed that prior reformers didn’t go far enough in attacking traditional thought and culture. Mao gets two chapters and it’s here that I had some hesitations. The authors’ argument is that Mao was necessary for Deng’s reforms—that he laid the groundwork for the subsequent economic takeoff. At the national museum off Tiananmen Square, these three decades of Mao’s rule are called the “construction” period when borders were secured, infrastructure built, and heavy industry promoted.

Schell and Delury likewise argue for the necessity of Mao’s rule, although in very different terms: while criticizing him for his violence and brutality, they say Mao tore down so much of Chinese society that he left a “shovel-ready” greenfield site for Deng’s edifice of economic construction. The term they most often use is “creative destruction,” purposefully echoing the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, who said the destruction of firms and industries in capitalism could lead to new, more efficient economic life. Applied to China, it meant that Mao wiped out enough of something inefficient—traditional Chinese culture—to allow new growth to shoot out:

Looked at through the cold eye of history, however, it may have been precisely those periods of Mao’s most uncompromising nihilism that finally managed to bring about what no previous reformer or revolutionary had been able to, namely, a forceful enough demolition job on China’s “old society” to finally free Chinese from their traditional moorings. Seen this way, Mao’s brutal interim was perhaps the essential, but paradoxical, precursor to China’s subsequent boom under Deng Xiaoping….

I have to admit to extreme skepticism about this argument. One problem is that it assumes that traditions were a detriment to development and their destruction was needed to “finally neutralize their drag on modernization,” as the authors put it. It goes without saying that modernization has destroyed traditions in every country it has touched, but some countries have kept far more of their traditions than China and still modernized—one thinks of Japan, South Korea, and, more relevantly, Taiwan. It isn’t clear what aspects of tradition were so bad that they needed annihilating, and which of them Mao eliminated.

It also supposes that prior to Mao, China was on a dead-end path—that essentially it needed a Mao or it wouldn’t have modernized. This used to be a fairly conventional view, but many historians now believe that the pre–World War II Nationalists were well on their way to modernizing China and likely would have stayed in power if Japan had not invaded. Schell and Delury are aware of this argument, and mention a “golden decade” of development in their chapter on Chiang Kai-shek; but they don’t follow through on its implications. If Chiang and the Nationalists were succeeding, then why was Mao’s destruction necessary?

Rather, it seems to me that the authors could more easily have portrayed the Mao years as motivated by fuqiang—and thus not at odds with their overall narrative—but as a period that, nevertheless, led China down a dead-end street. One could even go further and say that the Mao years helped prepare for economic takeoff by creating a literate and healthy workforce—two real accomplishments—while they also laid the Communist Party so low that Deng was forced to experiment with capitalist-style reforms. Instead, there is almost a teleological argument that Mao was necessary, perhaps to give meaning to the series of catastrophes that defined his years in power, such as widespread death by famine during the Great Leap Forward and the millions more who perished in political campaigns like the Cultural Revolution.

I was reminded of the authors’ argument when thinking of how some have explained the success of post–World War II West Germany. At the end of his great work, Germany 1866–1945, the historian Gordon A. Craig wrote that Hitler “destroyed the basis of the traditional resistance to modernity.” But in Germany’s case, the disaster of World War II wiped out the arch-conservative, military-landowning class that had opposed German liberalism during the Weimar period and allowed Hitler’s rise. Thus, the disaster of Hitler eliminated forces that might have hindered a successful recreation of German society after the war. In Mao’s case, he might have destroyed much of the traditional society, but it’s not clear that its survival would have prevented China’s rise. Far more, it was Mao’s own death (and Deng’s coup d’état that removed the Maoists from power) that freed China to pursue modernization—to get back on the halting but not hopeless track it had pursued before the war and that other countries in the region had been following with great success.

Moreover, Mao’s rule left China with immense problems—not just an antidemocratic ruling party, but social and moral problems caused by his violent attacks on religion and traditional values, not to mention his disastrous policies that led to widespread death and brutalization. Otherwise, how to explain the state’s almost desperate efforts to turn back the clock by reinstituting traditional values? These are fairly conventional criticisms of Mao’s rule that are widely discussed in China; I would have liked to have seen Schell and Delury discuss them more thoroughly before concluding that Mao’s was a tragic but necessary period of Chinese history.

* * *

The authors end their engaging book with a chapter on the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. (According to the precedents we have, this choice guarantees that the book will not be published in China.) Liu brings us up through the last decade, showing how some Chinese are struggling with the fallout of the search for wealth and power by the Chinese leaders: the result is a virtually unchecked state that can mobilize capital and defend China like no other state in the past two centuries, but which is also highly intrusive and corrupt.

The authors, however, almost undercut their choice of Liu by saying that dissidents like Liu are not part of dominant currents of thought. While it’s true that statist modernizers have held sway in China for the past century and a half, people like Liu have always existed—the yin to the technocrats’ yang. From the start, as indeed Schell and Delury note in earlier chapters, some Chinese have recognized the need for personal freedoms to counterbalance a strong state. Instead of seeing people like Liu as outliers, it might instead be better to have portrayed them as the core problem that China still needs to address if it is to move forward to true national greatness.

These sort of unfulfilled aspirations are at the heart of investment banker Timothy Beardson’s Stumbling Giant, a work by an old-style China business hand—engaged with the country for decades, familiar with its history and interested in more than price–earnings ratios. Beardson’s thesis is clear and succinct: the fuqiang that Schell and Delury explain is real and China is not in danger of collapse. But China’s trajectory is limited for a variety of reasons; and these call into question whether the Chinese project of modernization has been completed or is just entering a new, arguably trickier phase.

Perhaps the least interesting part of the book is chapters on serious issues that need fixing, but that are not unfixable—the technical issues facing many countries on the planet, such as energy and pollution. The most interesting of them is demographics, which he says will hobble China’s rise. He argues that with an aging and ultimately shrinking population, China may not be the overwhelmingly powerful country around 2100 that it seems at the start of this century. He notes that now China holds a 4:1 advantage in population over the United States, but that by 2100, this ratio is likely to be just 1.9:1, with the United States having a much younger population.

If the United States can maintain its economic creativity, Beardson writes, there’s no reason to think that it won’t stay the world’s dominant country through this century. For China to offset its demographic disadvantage, he says, the country will have to face some of the issues neglected during the period of state-building that Schell and Delury explain so well.

One is the sense of humiliation that Schell and Delury see as driving China’s search for the wealth and power of fuqiang. Beardson believes that it is incorrect to see China’s problems as stemming from the Opium War; instead, he says, it’s the far more humiliating fact that outsiders—Mongols and Manchus—have run the country for two of its last three dynasties. Beardson sees the 1911 revolution as strongly influenced by Han Chinese desire to get rid of the Manchus, a one-time nomadic people who founded the Qing dynasty in 1644 and had been running the country since then. While Schell and Delury portray the 1911 revolution as overwhelmingly patriotic or nationalistic, Beardson notes that the revolution began with anti-Manchu pogroms and massacres.

Ironically, the regimes that succeeded the Manchus simply took over the borders that the Manchus had constructed through a series of conquests in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, leaving today’s China as probably the last major multiethnic empire on the planet. Beardson’s conclusion—impossible for any Chinese leader to realize, although entirely sensible—is that China should jettison some of its restive regions, such as parts of Tibet and Xinjiang:

China might be richer, more powerful, more stable, more respected, more modern, more secure and happier as a Han Chinese nation state with a cohesive view of itself, its history, its values and its goals—and, let’s say, with 90–95 percent of its current land mass.

These deep structural issues, however, are unlikely to be solved, hobbling China as it seeks a role for itself in the world. Coupled with its demographic woes and an unclear political future, Beardson says that China will not supplant the United States as the world’s most powerful country.

* * *

This certainly isn’t the conventional wisdom. Reading other books, such as Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo’s China’s Silent Army, one might be forgiven for thinking that China had already conquered the planet. The work of two Spanish journalists, it reflects many interviews and much travel around the world to show the extent of China’s influence on other countries. But the book is so marred by baroque and hyperbolic language, as well as glib analysis, that it can’t really be taken seriously.

Right at the beginning, in the introduction, the authors claim that the disgraced senior leader Bo Xilai was about to ascend to the top echelons of power before being ousted last year, even though this is purely speculative and highly unlikely. They also say the 2008 Olympics “immediately wiped away” the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, even though this is not the case at all. They also say it was the first Olympics in a developing country, forgetting Mexico in 1968. These errors of fact are compounded by infantilistic, short-term analysis: “What is happening is crystal clear. While the West suffers the consequences of the 2008 crisis, China goes from strength to strength.”

Worse is an ingrained prejudice on the part of the two writers that evokes the Kaiser’s warnings about the yellow peril. They lead off one chapter with a quote saying the Chinese are invisible but “everywhere,” and when crossing the border from Manchuria to Siberia, they write that “the coarse facial features of northern China give way suddenly to the slender figures, pale skin and blond hair of the Caucasian race.” Perhaps this sounds acceptable in Spanish but in English, to a North American ear, the language borders on racism, or at best ludicrously naive views of race.

Books like this are more useful as evidence of the sort of distrust that China’s rise has caused—the sort of issues that Beardson analyzes, or that Edward Luttwak raised in his recent book.4 Another book analyzing how to manage China’s rise is Cool War by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman. This book comes to the unsurprising conclusion that, with its current political system, China will remain an opponent of the United States for some time.

This is because China is not democratic, nor is it likely to become a democracy, Feldman argues, while for the United States, the belief that human rights and democracy are pillars of a legitimate state will continue to lead many Americans to hold that China’s government is illegitimate. A related source of tension is growing nationalism in China, which the party has to foster to maintain legitimacy but which is already causing serious conflicts with its neighbors, most of whom also happen to be U.S. allies. Neither of these problems are likely to abate in the coming decades; on the contrary, Feldman only sees them growing. Sensibly, however, Feldman says that this doesn’t have to mean a new cold war but instead could lead to a protracted period of political competition as well as economic interdependency.

A similar point is made by the Australian international relations expert Hugh White, who writes in China Dreams at least takes the discussion out of the theoretical world of historical forces and hypothetical scenarios, and gives modern Chinese a voice. He does this by considering twenty prominent public intellectuals in China and what they have to say about the China Dream.

Presciently, Callahan focuses on nongovernmental players; of his twenty voices, only three are government officials: Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao, and Bo Xilai. The rest are members—some more, some less—of independent civil society groups. We have quasi-government officials like the economist Justin Lin Yifu,5 nationalists like the political scientist Pan Wei, filmmakers, and bloggers. Some sketch a dystopian future for China, such as the Beijing-based Hong Kong novelist Chan Koonchung. Artists like Cai Guoqiang emphasize the part played by peasants in China’s modernization.

Here we come full circle to Schell and Delury’s historical look at how the Chinese have tried to save their country. Their narrative, especially in the era of the People’s Republic, is dominated by government officials (Mao, Deng, and Zhu Rongji), with the last chapter shifting to Liu Xiaobo and his call for civic reform. Likewise, Callahan sees a bigger role for nonofficial voices. This may be where the best of these books converge: on a realization that China’s future will also be determined by ordinary Chinese citizens themselves. The central question is whether this comes through some form of regularized political participation—currently not possible—or through pressure from below.

  1. See Ian Johnson, “At China’s New Museum, History Toes Party Line,” The New York Times, April 4, 2011.
  2. See “CPC Leaders Visit ‘Road to Revival,’”, November 30, 2012.
  3. The Economist’s analysis, see “Chasing the Chinese Dream,” May 4, 2013, and a subsequent blog that went further into this point: “The Role of Thomas Friedman,” May 6, 2013. For the original Friedman column, see “China Needs Its Own Dream,” The New York Times, October 3, 2012.
  4. See my review in these pages, April 4, 2013.
  5. I reviewed his most recent book, Demystifying the Chinese Economy, in these pages, September 27, 2012.
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President Xi Jinping during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People, November 7, 2013.
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This article was first published in the New York Review of Books on November 21, 2013.

Reviewed in This Article

Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century
by Orville Schell and John Delury
Random House, 478 pp.
Author Intervew in our Books section

Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China’s Future
by Timothy Beardson
Yale University Press, 517 pp.
Author Intervew in our Books section

China’s Silent Army: The Pioneers, Traders, Fixers and Workers Who Are Remaking the World in Beijing’s Image
by Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo, translated from the Spanish by Catherine Mansfield
Crown, 350 pp.

Cool War: The Future of Global Competition
by Noah Feldman
Random House, 201 pp.
Author Intervew in our Books section

The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power
by Hugh White
Oxford University Press, 191 pp.
Author Intervew in our Books section

China Dreams: Twenty Visions of the Future
by William A. Callahan
Oxford University Press, 212 pp.
Author Intervew in our Books section

Westerners Aren’t the Only Ones Flummoxed by China’s Reform Plans

After the Third Plenum, a high-level meeting to discuss China’s future, ended on November 12, Beijing released a major document likely to affect many of its 1.3 billion citizens’ lives for years. Western media responded to the 5,000-plus character document, called the Plenum Communiqué, with a collective head scratch—CNBC and The Wall Street Journal both promptly declared it “vague.” But the confusion isn’t the result of language, or even cultural differences: Many Chinese citizens also cannot make heads or tails of this document.



What the Heck is China’s ‘Third Plenum’ and Why...


China’s economy is already two-thirds the size of the economy of the U.S., and it’s been growing five times as fast. But now, China’s economy is beginning to slow and is facing a raft of difficult problems.  If China’s leaders don’t address these problems, the...

If they’re failing, it’s not for lack of trying: On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, a search for “third plenum” yielded over 2.7 million recent mentions, and among those comments, over 154,000 used the word jiedu, which roughly means “to decode.” Frustration is palpable online. One Weibo user complained, “I glanced at the Third Plenum communiqué; it surpasses my ability to understand it.” Another wrote, “I made myself dizzy reading it three times.” And another: “It’s a pile of words on top of words, without saying anything.” And this: “I can’t understand why after a meeting lasting three days, the only thing they can produce is … a document that has to be decoded. It’s like a high school exam.”

Readers who think they’re smarter than the masses of confused Chinese citizens should boil up a pot of coffee, then try to decipher the below, a particularly turgid sentence from an unofficial translation posted on the blog China Copyright and Media:

The Plenum stressed that to comprehensively deepen reform, we must hold high the magnificent banner of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, take Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important ‘Three Represents’ thought and the scientific development view as guidance, persist in beliefs, concentrate a consensus, comprehensively plan matters, move forward in a coordinated manner, persist in the reform orientation of the Socialism market economy, make stimulating social fairness and justice, and enhancing the people’s welfare into starting points and stopover points, further liberate thoughts, liberate and develop social productive forces, liberate and strengthen social vitality, firmly do away with systemic and mechanistic abuses in all areas, and strive to open up an even broader prospect for the undertaking of Socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Some media outlets have tried to illuminate the document by turning to statistical analysis. Tengxun, a Chinese news portal, released an infographic ranking the words most often mentioned in the communiqué. (The winner was “reform,” followed by “system,” “development,” and “economy.”) The Beijing News, a liberal Chinese newspaper, compiled a detailed set of graphs, one showing how mentions of the word “reform” were higher than in any previous Third Plenum release.



Deciphering Xi Jinping’s Dream


On November 9, the Chinese Communist Party will host its Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Central Committee. This conference will be a key to deciphering the ruling philosophy of the new Chinese leadership, who will run the country for the coming nine years.According to...

That’s not insignificant; mentions of “reform” are likely to please many hoping for just that. And in the communiqué’s defense, it is meant only to provide a broad sketch of where China is headed and to set the tone for implementing steps that will take years. Its function is to signal to high-level actors what they will need to prioritize, not to explain each reform in exacting detail. The document may also be trying to shoot the moon, somehow satisfying all readers at the same time. One Weibo user speculated, “In the end it’s not important whether the document is consistent from beginning to end, because everyone can find what they need in it.”

The communiqué may contain the right words, but Chinese are struggling to pick up the logical thread connecting them. Any readers who breezed through the earlier quote (and hold a Chinese passport) may wish to sign up for the nation’s civil service exam, scheduled for November 24. We hear the Chinese government is hiring.

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Tea Leaf Nation is an e-magazine founded in 2011 whose editors aspire to make it a must-read source for China experts of all stripes—journalists, diplomats, academics, analysts—while remaining fun...
David Wertime is the co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, an English-language web site that analyzes Chinese media. Founded in December 2011, Tea Leaf Nation was acquired in September 2013 by the...
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Deciphering Xi Jinping’s Dream

On November 9, the Chinese Communist Party will host its Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Central Committee. This conference will be a key to deciphering the ruling philosophy of the new Chinese leadership, who will run the country for the coming nine years.

According to Party convention, in a cycle of seven Plenary Sessions during each Party Congress, the first and second Sessions concentrate on personnel issues and the third one on policy. What will transpire at this Third Plenum? What will it tell us about China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, whose mercurial “Chinese Dream” seems to encompass both a hard-line on political control and the promise of economic liberalization?

I spoke to Roderick MacFarquhar, Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science at Harvard University. His publications include the final two volumes of The Cambridge History of China (edited with the late John King Fairbank), The Origins of the Cultural Revolution trilogy, and jointly-coauthored Mao’s Last Revolution.

The new Chinese government under Xi Jinping is cracking down on civil society and tightening control of the Internet. But Xi is also punishing corrupt officials, including Bo Xilai and the colleagues and secretaries of Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. What do you think Xi wants by doing these?

Xi has indicated very clearly from the time that he became General Secretary of the Party that he was obsessed, as maybe other Chinese leaders are also, with the Gorbachev syndrome. Xi Jinping realizes, like Li Keqiang, that there is a need for deep economic reforms—really very important and very difficult economic reforms. But what I think they worry about is that they don’t know which reforms could be the ones which unleash a Gorbachev-type situation, where one thing follows another and before you know it the whole country and the whole party system has collapsed. So as he approaches these economic reforms, he wants to make sure that there’s nothing else that is going to impact upon the state. I think what he decided was that we don’t know exactly what it would be that would make China develop a Gorbachev syndrome, but what we can do is to prevent the kind of things that Gorbachev allowed. Gorbachev allowed all sorts of free speech under Perestroika: well, we won’t allow that. And as you know they’ve issued these instructions, these “Seven Nos” about what you can’t say, and I think he is going to be extremely tough because he feels, first of all, it’s one way to safeguard the regime, and secondly it’s particularly important when very deep and far reaching and perhaps unsettling economic changes are initiated.

Why is Xi attacking corrupt people? Because as Hu Jintao used to say—I think Jiang Zemin used to as well—corruption could be the end of the regime. And according to what the late Chief Editor of the People’s Daily used to tell me, corruption today is much worse than it was under Chiang Kai-shek when his regime collapsed. So, it’s a worry. The real question is will they attack any corrupt person, including any member of the leadership, and I think they won’t. They can’t. Because that will split them wide open. Xi Jinping’s own family have benefitted enormously from the fact that he was becoming a leader, so he’s effectively defending his own nest. Xi said he’d get “tigers and the flies.” So far he’s gotten the flies and the cats. If he publicly gets [former security czar] Zhou Yongkang for corruption, even though we’d know politics would be heavily involved, since Zhou Yongkang was an ally of Bo Xilai, then people will start to look up. But if he attacks Zhou Yongkang, then everyone starts to feel uneasy.

But, where are they trying to go? With tough control on the political side mixed with “market reforms” on the economic side, will China wind up looking like Singapore?

If they ended up with another Singapore, that would be excellent. Singapore is not a perfect democracy, but there’s a lot more free speech in Singapore than there is in China. And I think what Xi Jinping wants China to end up as is a society which is disciplined politically, with no Liu Xiaobos, no Charter 08 people, everyone very disciplined, and everyone concentrating on economic reforms. Why? Because they will be, I’m told by many economists, very transformative if they are successful. And it seems that Li Keqiang is very keen to go ahead with these reforms. So what Xi Jinping is doing is to make sure that the political arena is quiet so that everything can go smoothly with economic reform.

Some China watchers claim that there is a split between Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, that Xi is a Maoist while Li Keqiang favors the ideology of the market. But do you believe that, actually, they are cooperating and there is consensus between them?

You probably remember that there was a story that in the 1990s, under Jiang Zemin, there was a discussion and it was decided that after Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had ended their period in office, the ultimate successors should be princelings, because the princelings had much more invested, from their family point of view, in the regime than anyone else.

Anyone who is in a regime like China’s, anyone, whether princeling or not, would want to preserve it. And they would do anything not to let it disappear, because it has been so beneficial to them, and in their view, to the country. The princelings may feel more of a family obligation to their parents and their grandparents to keep the faith, but actually I think almost every official wants to keep the present system.

The current government’s hardline tactics have already made some officials, intellectuals, and journalists uneasy. What about ordinary people? Do they feel the pressure as well? Or they do they think it’s none of their business?

I’m reminded of what happened when they had the anti-spiritual pollution campaign in the 1980s. And as I understand it, it stopped because Deng Xiaoping was informed that, as a result of the anti-spiritual pollution campaign, the peasants had stopped investing in land. Why? Because the peasants are not fools: they had learned from the Maoist period that no man is an island. If you have leftism affecting one branch of society, eventually it’ll affect you. How many people knew who Liu Xiaobo was before he was imprisoned? Probably not very many. But I don’t think the Chinese people are foolish enough not to realize, especially in the Internet age, when people [are] being arrested and even eliminated, what’s going to happen to them at some other stage?

After Mao, Deng once said “China should maintain vigilance against the Right but primarily against the ‘Left.’” And in practice, the Leftist wing of the Party has been constricted since the beginning of reforms more than three decades ago. But why do top leaders like Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping, and Bo Xilai still keep borrowing from Mao’s playbook?

There are a number of reasons why people like Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping have to nod their heads, [and] bow in the direction of Chairman Mao. First and foremost is that the Chairman’s name—the Chairman himself and what he did for China—is really important glue which binds the state and society together. If you want to have a society which responds to you, Chairman Mao is a name to conjure up. The Party no longer has the respect of the people as they did in the 1950s and 1960s. Mao is the symbol of State. They can’t remove him from Tiananmen Square, and they can’t take his picture down. That would be like saying “what was the whole revolution about?”

Second, the people—mainly ordinary people—look back to the Mao days with some amount of superstition. There are peasant houses where there’s a picture of Chairman Mao and a picture of the Buddha beside him, and some believe that under Chairman Mao society was more equal, that everyone was poor. Actually, Chairman Mao wasn’t poor. Whereas today, the income distribution is so enormously different and there’s such a big gap between the rich and the poor that people look back to the Maoist days with longing. So the leaders have to bow to Chairman Mao again to show that they themselves respect that kind of society, even if they have not [been] presiding over a similar one.

Third, there is a growing body of intellectuals who have been advocating Maoist-type policies for many years, and because of what I just said about the people resenting the inequalities of the new society, those intellectuals have some leverage and an audience. We know, from what Bo Xilai’s experience tells us, that Bo Xilai was very popular not just in Chongqing but in neighboring provinces. Because people thought he was going back to Chairman Mao. I personally do not believe he was. Xi Jinping, on the other hand, does not want to introduce the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward or anything like that, but he has to bow in the direction of Chairman Mao because, remember, Xi’s father was an old comrade of Chairman Mao. Until he was purged by Chairman Mao, Xi’s father had a very high position within the Communist state, as a result of Chairman Mao’s victory. So Chairman Mao’s victory, which put the communists in power, is still vital to the legitimacy of the current guard. The Cultural Revolution, in my mind, undermined the legitimacy of the power. But even though he was guilty of unleashing the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao sort of somehow still legitimizes the present state.

But most of Mao’s policies and ideas have been totally removed from China since Deng kicked off China’s reform. For a lot of younger Chinese, Mao is quite a vague image. Under these circumstances, can Maoism and Mao himself still glue society and the state together?

They have nothing else. And where do people go on their pilgrimages to Beijing? Tens of thousands every month line up to go to the Mao mausoleum. In primary school and in secondary school, people learn about Chairman Mao, like British kids learn about William the Conqueror who came over in 1066. That’s hundreds of years ago, but they still know about it. Chairman Mao was only sixty to seventy years ago. He conquered—unified—China. That’s a big deal. He set up a new regime. He set up New China. So of course he’s still seen as a hero figure in Chinese education.

Will people still buy Mao’s ideas? China has been changed so dramatically since Mao conquered China.

I think most people most of the time in most countries do not think about politics. Especially if they’re poorer, they think about food, living expenses, and better education for their kids. In the last thirty years, the Party’s role in the average life of the average person is much smaller than it used to be under Mao. Even under Deng.

So yes, I think that most people aren’t listening to the Party about Chairman Mao. But Chairman Mao is there somewhere in the back of their minds because he’s being dinned into them in their education, there’s a statue there, there’s a picture there. Now, do they believe in his ideas? Well it depends what the ideas are. Some of his ideas were adopted by Deng Xiaoping: “Seek truth from facts” that was Mao’s idea, I mean actually it was an ancient Chinese idea which Mao adapted, but it’s credited to Mao. And “the foolish old man who moved the mountain” (if we have strength of will and determination we can do anything). That’s something which in a country like China that is showing great development and getting stronger everyday, you can believe in. So, I think there are some things—simple things—that they will believe in.

What about other legacies of Mao’s, like the mass movements Bo Xilai used in Chongqing and Xi Jinping is using now?

Mass movements are the enemy of the kind of economic reforms which Li Keqiang and his colleagues are about to introduce. Mass movements have their place in an early-developing society. If you want to persuade peasants to do something and you need to mobilize them to do basic physical tasks, like making dams and so on, there is a role. But what we have seen in the reform period is that if you offer financial incentive, people will travel from the North of China to the South of China in order to get a job in a factory earning minimum wages. They’ll sleep in dormitories away from family because it gives them a chance to get on. So I think that the likelihood of this regime introducing mass movement is small.

So, Maoism won’t die, or disappear from China, because other leaders will pick it up even without Bo?

Maoism will not disappear from China until there is a change of regime, which will result in the taking down of his portrait, and probably the dismantling of the tomb. They say that in Russia they are finally going to remove Lenin from the tomb. I don’t know what they’ll do with the tomb. They removed Stalin’s, but if they remove Lenin that’s really a major step. But that’s what will have to happen in China; you cannot have, in this day and age, a single person worshipped as that sort of demigod.

The Future of Xi Jinping’s Reign

Many people believe that market-oriented reforms can’t coexist with Big Brother. So how will this play out in China?

Of course there will be differences of views: there are differences of views in every political system, not necessarily over where to go to, but how to get there. So I think all the present leadership agree on the need for reform, but the question is how to do it. And it may be that some people will think that Li Keqiang’s reforms are too extreme, and others will be in favor of the reforms and say they’re not going far enough. So, yes, of course there will be disagreements and this will show the measure of two things. First, Xi Jinping’s ability to keep order and discipline in the Party’s Politburo, and second, the instinct for self-preservation on the parts of all the leaders. They should know that if they start splitting the Party that may lead to disaster. Some people said the way for political reform is to have factions within the Party openly acknowledged. Well, that is the first step towards a two-party system. But no one wants to go that route.

That happened to the Soviet Party under Gorbachev.

Gorbachev wrongly thought that he was going to strengthen Communism, and first he tried to do it by Perestroika, that is to say by reforming the system. But he found that after seventy years or so of Communist rule, the Soviet bureaucrats were very resistant to that kind of reform. So he unleashed glasnost, but the people started criticizing the bureaucrats and the press became very critical. So he divided the society against itself. And that’s what helped to bring it down. And then, of course, he thought that elections would solidify the Communist Party’s ability to rule with consent. But he himself never stood for election. Yeltsin took that gamble, and won, and we all know what happened then. So I think that if people are clear, as I think Xi Jinping is, that there are certain things you cannot do, because they will undermine the system, then they won’t do them. This isn’t to say that the system will persist. The system has very weak foundations, as it is now. But nevertheless, I don’t think the leadership will want to commit suicide.

Will Xi achieve his goal at the end of the day?

His goal is the Chinese Dream. His goal is clearly to make China more and more powerful on the world stage. The problem is that China has no experience in acting on the world stage. None at all. It’s been a great country for many centuries, for many millennia, but not on the world stage.  It’s been on a little stage in East Asia, and now the idea of being a responsible stakeholder, which is what it was suggested to China that it should become, is attractive to some, but not to all the leaders. So, I think that Xi’s dream is of a stronger and stronger China, and that people in Asia, then in further afield—in Africa perhaps, and then in the West—will bow. And that’s happening at the moment: people rush to China to do trade all the time. So I think that his dream is that China should get more and more powerful, and that the Communist party should rule forever. I have no doubt that China will get more and more powerful; I have doubts that the Communist Party will rule forever.

—Daniel Engel contributed to the transcription of this interview.

A Q&A with Roderick MacFarquhar

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Ouyang Bin is an Arthur Ross Fellow at the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society in New York and Associate Editor of ChinaFile, where his major interests concentrate on China’s political...
Roderick MacFarquhar is the Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science and formerly Director of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. His...
Ouyang Bin, Roderick MacFarquhar
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Old Dreams for a New China

Ever since China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, first uttered the phrase “China Dream” last year, people in China and abroad have been scrambling to decipher its meaning. Many nations have “dreams”; in Canada, the country’s most prominent popular historian used the word to refer to building a trans-continental railroad in the nineteenth century to link the vast, sparsely populated country. But it’s probably best known in connection with the American Dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It seems unlikely that Xi meant to exalt individual freedoms in this way, especially because he uttered “China Dream” at an exhibition celebrating the Communist Party. In fact, a nationwide barrage of propaganda posters that went up starting in July gives a clearer explanation of what he is up to. Using the China Dream slogan, these posters extol various national virtues like filial piety and thrift.

I’ve seen these posters in several Chinese cities, such as Chengdu, Datong, and, of course, Beijing. Just down the street from where I live is a sports stadium, and out front are ten covered bulletin boards where Party newspapers are pinned up for people to read. In days past, these boards were important ways to spread propaganda; now they’re mostly frequented by older people, who peer intently at the articles. Next to the posted newspapers are spaces for advertisements, but for the past few months they’ve been covered with the China Dream posters.

Propaganda posters have a long tradition in Communist China, beginning with posters in the 1950s that celebrated the new revolution and urged support for the Korean War. (A selection of these were reprinted in a recent book, Chinese Propaganda Posters.) Xi Jinping’s China Dream posters are linked to this earlier era of Communist sloganeering. The difference is that while the old posters touted Communist values, the new ones largely replace them with pre-Communist Chinese traditions—drawing on traditional folk art like paper cutouts, woodblock prints, and clay figurines to illustrate their message. This is a redefinition of the state’s vision from a Marxist utopia to a Confucian, family-centric nation, defined by a quiet life of respecting the elderly and saving for the future.

The art is courtesy of well known folk art institutions, such as the Yangliuqing woodblock printing workshops outside of Tianjin, Henan’s Wuyang peasant paintings, and the paintings of the late Shanghai artist Feng Zikai—a sign of the Party’s ability to mobilize pretty much any social organization it wants, and to appropriate symbols that it once condemned. Almost all the art used in the posters, with its depictions of traditional dress and poses, used to be derided by the Party as belonging to China’s backward, pre-Communist past; now, these aesthetic traditions are a bulwark used to legitimize the Party as a guardian and creator of the country’s hopes and aspirations.

One of the chief promoters of the campaign has been a pro-government blogger named Xie Shaoqing, who goes by the nom de plume of Yi Qing. His writings—mostly homilies and Party slogans—grace many of the posters, and in his blog he describes how the posters went up this summer in Tiananmen Square. Based on his blog, Yi Qing would be categorized in China as a neo-leftist: there are entries attacking the investigative newspaper Southern Weekend, a paean to Chairman Mao on his birthday, as well as a guilt-ridden admission that he wrote the introduction to a book penned by the imprisoned police chief of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, whose former boss was the disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai. (Wang’s flight to the U.S. embassy precipitated the leadership crisis last year that resulted in Bo’s conviction for corruption and abuse of power; Bo is now appealing a life sentence.)

Yi Qing apologized for having written the introduction but then went on to praise Bo’s policies aimed at reviving traditional Communist culture. Choosing Yi Qing as the principal writer for the campaign is perhaps another sign that President Xi, while deeply suspicious of Bo’s ambitions, didn’t object to his old-style Communist values. Here is a selection of the China Dream posters, with some of the slogans translated and explained:

“The fatherland’s future of our country is springtime”—spring being the best time in the traditional Chinese calendar.
Ian Johnson “The fatherland’s future of our country is springtime”—spring being the best time in the traditional Chinese calendar.

“My dream, China’s dream”: A young girl (a traditional clay figurine from the Tianjin workshop of Nirenzhang) sits pensively; below her a prose poem by Yi Qing describes a “dream-eyed” girl and ends with the lines “Ah China/My dream/A truly fragrant dream.” Interestingly, this particular poster, which I came across in Beijing, has been tagged by a graffiti artist—a rarity in China. It’s hard to know the vandal’s intention, but some of the spraying is accompanied by slashing, suggesting a political motive—perhaps it is meant to convey opposition to the growing leftist tendency in official propaganda.
Ian Johnson “My dream, China’s dream”: A young girl (a traditional clay figurine from the Tianjin workshop of Nirenzhang) sits pensively; below her a prose poem by Yi Qing describes a “dream-eyed” girl and ends with the lines “Ah China/My dream/A truly fragrant dream.” Interestingly, this particular poster, which I came across in Beijing, has been tagged by a graffiti artist—a rarity in China. It’s hard to know the vandal’s intention, but some of the spraying is accompanied by slashing, suggesting a political motive—perhaps it is meant to convey opposition to the growing leftist tendency in official propaganda.

“Young people are strong; China is strong”
Ian Johnson “Young people are strong; China is strong”

“The China Dream is ahead”: In speech balloons, the man says, “What do you see?” and the woman answers, “I see my dream!” This is one of the rare instances of humor in the series.
Ian Johnson “The China Dream is ahead”: In speech balloons, the man says, “What do you see?” and the woman answers, “I see my dream!” This is one of the rare instances of humor in the series.

“China has good mountains and rivers”: in other words, the country is beautiful.
Ian Johnson “China has good mountains and rivers”: in other words, the country is beautiful.

“Big love [for] China”: The clay figurines depict military personnel helping at a natural disaster. The slashing is a rare attack on propaganda.
Ian Johnson “Big love [for] China”: The clay figurines depict military personnel helping at a natural disaster. The slashing is a rare attack on propaganda.

“Honesty and consideration handed down generation by generation; poems and books (or alternately The Book of Poems and The Book of History) last forever”: A traditional saying adapted to the campaign. Curiously, the little boy’s head has been cut out.
Ian Johnson “Honesty and consideration handed down generation by generation; poems and books (or alternately The Book of Poems and The Book of History) last forever”: A traditional saying adapted to the campaign. Curiously, the little boy’s head has been cut out.

“Communists on the road to fulfilling the dream”: This is one of the explicitly pro-Communist slogans in the series. It’s accompanied by a poem by another writer, Shao Ling, that makes use of a series of Communist clichés: “Feet shackled, hands cuffed/sturdy grass withstands strong winds/the Communist Party members on the road/the mountains can shake, their will is unshakeable/hot blood and spring flowers will write today’s history.”
Ian Johnson “Communists on the road to fulfilling the dream”: This is one of the explicitly pro-Communist slogans in the series. It’s accompanied by a poem by another writer, Shao Ling, that makes use of a series of Communist clichés: “Feet shackled, hands cuffed/sturdy grass withstands strong winds/the Communist Party members on the road/the mountains can shake, their will is unshakeable/hot blood and spring flowers will write today’s history.”

“Chinese boy and girls, serve the country”: This mild patriotic message is further softened by a peasant painting of children at play.
Ian Johnson “Chinese boy and girls, serve the country”: This mild patriotic message is further softened by a peasant painting of children at play.

“A loud song for fulfilling the dream”: Xibaipo, the name appearing at the bottom of the poster, was the name of the headquarters of the Communist Party during the latter phases of the civil war. It has become a pilgrimage site for leaders like Xi, who recently visited it to extol the virtues of modesty and prudence.
Ian Johnson “A loud song for fulfilling the dream”: Xibaipo, the name appearing at the bottom of the poster, was the name of the headquarters of the Communist Party during the latter phases of the civil war. It has become a pilgrimage site for leaders like Xi, who recently visited it to extol the virtues of modesty and prudence.

“Good game China”: This is an odd poster, with the children playing a game of Chinese chess. The Chinese phrase hao qi, which I translated as “good game,” is used after someone has made a powerful move against someone else—something analogous to “checkmate.” The implication seems to be that China is winning, but against who is unclear—other countries? History? Fate? Or maybe one shouldn't read too much into propaganda campaigns masterminded by left-wing bloggers.
Ian Johnson “Good game China”: This is an odd poster, with the children playing a game of Chinese chess. The Chinese phrase hao qi, which I translated as “good game,” is used after someone has made a powerful move against someone else—something analogous to “checkmate.” The implication seems to be that China is winning, but against who is unclear—other countries? History? Fate? Or maybe one shouldn't read too much into propaganda campaigns masterminded by left-wing bloggers.

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Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based writer who specializes in civil society, culture, and religion. For thirteen years, Johnson worked at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a page-one feature writer...
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This article was first published in the New York Review of Books on October 15, 2013.

Don’t Dream Big—Four Vignettes on Social Mobility in Modern China

The New York Times recently ran an article that detailed the struggles of three young college women from low-income backgrounds, raising questions about whether education remains the “great equalizer” in America. How does the picture look in China, where education has been prized since the days of Confucius as a way to advance in society?

A recent thread on Tianya, a popular online discussion forum, engaged this issue directly and quickly went viral. The original post gathered almost 2,900 comments. One summarized version was retweeted more than 22,500 times on Sina Weibo. It was started by a user with the handle Dadi, a self-proclaimed human resources manager at a state-owned bank in a large city, who says he was tapped to oversee the bank’s internship program of about sixty college students.

Dadi’s story has not been verified. Although many comments are credulous, some question its veracity, particularly because Tianya is known for paying professional ghostwriters to stir up discussion with interesting or outrageous threads. But the story has hit a nerve for many Chinese Internet users because the characters face archetypal challenges in modern China.

In China’s hyper competitive job market for new graduates, a permanent position at a bank is highly coveted not only for its financial rewards, but, perhaps more importantly, for its long-term stability, social respectability, and promise of future connections it offers.

While the bank had fifteen openings for new graduates in that year, most positions would go to people with connections. Dadi described the internship program as a “sham” to score cheap labor and generate publicity. Only two or three out of the sixty interns would ultimately receive offers.

The interns all had good grades from the best university in the province, having aced the grueling gaokao college entrance exam. But Dadi wondered, did they really start the race from the same place? How would their family backgrounds affect their performance as interns, and their lives thereafter?

Dadi wrote that his curiosity was first piqued when one of his colleagues claimed that he could predict the interns’ behaviors on their first day based only on their files. Dadi marveled at his accuracy—the interns from poor rural areas arrived early, but were anxious and did not interact with the bank’s employees; those who greeted the internship directors and poured water for them all had Party officials for parents; those with family businesses traded jokes, and seemed carefree and jovial; then there were a few polite but standoffish ones—all of them, without exception, raised by urban professionals.

The colleague explained to Dadi that his observations were based on past experiences. Dadi spotted similar trends as feedback about the interns’ performances came in. The most well-liked interns were children of business owners—they were problem solvers, and sometimes treated existing employees to meals. The ones from rural areas had trouble communicating and mingling with the other employees, but were hardworking and rarely made excuses. The children of Party officials were well-spoken and knew how office politics worked, but some received mixed marks for being caught playing gimmicks. The group with the worst feedback: children of the urban professional class, who were seen as proud, stubborn, and sometimes disrespectful.

Thus began Dadi’s informal sociology experiment. He asked the interns about their families, observed them during the internship program, and kept in touch with many of them for more than a year afterwards. He wrote about four of his subjects in particular detail.

The Entrepreneur: Chubby

Chubby, the son of a furniture store owner from a smaller city, always had a smile on his face and never tired of joking with everyone around him.

Halfway into the internship, Chubby’s father took Dadi out to dinner and talked about his plans for his son. Without connections in the big city, said the father, he didn’t expect Chubby to get the offer for the bank job, but the internship was a chance for Chubby to get to know people at the banks and try to start a business serving those same banks. State-owned banks, the dad said, needed contractor services and would never refuse to pay.

Chubby took the advice to heart and eventually settled on an ATM installation service. Two months before Chubby graduated from university, his father gave him 200,000 RMB (about U.S.$35,000) to start the company.

Because Chubby was well liked and knew how the system worked, his company gave competitive bids and developed a healthy business.

The Daughter of the Party: Zhou

Zhou is a fashionable and polite girl whose mother is a mid-level Party official in an important local department. Before the internship ended, the regional director of the bank told Dadi to give Zhou good performance reviews. Dadi was sure, however, that the director had never even met the girl.

Dadi later found out that Zhou’s parents had spoken to a high-level official at the local bank regulatory agency, who made a call to the bank’s chief. After Zhou sealed the deal to work at the bank, her parents had dinner with the official and several directors there. Dadi noted that the people at the dinner were way above his pay grade.

After they became colleagues, Zhou invited Dadi over to the apartment she shared with her newlywed husband, a young man with a similar background. Dadi and his wife were awed by the young couple’s 210 square meter. (about 2,200 square feet) place, decorated in European style and sporting a RMB 270,000 (about U.S.$ 41,000) stereo system. Everything was fully paid for by Zhou’s parents and in-laws.

The apartment completely dwarfed Dadi’s own place, for which he and his wife had labored for over a decade. But any jealousy or resentment was smoothed over when Zhou took Dadi and his wife out to dinner. They were won over by her easy manners, radiant confidence, and sweet sociability.

The Peasant Pride: Zhiguo

Zhiguo, the president of his university’s student association and a popular basketball player, was the pride of his impoverished peasant family. He interned in the bank’s high-paying risk management department. Because risk managers had the power to approve projects, they also entertained many offers of free dinners and gifts. Zhiguo wanted an offer from the department so that he could stay in the city and help his parents and his younger brother.

Dadi liked Zhiguo, but found him anxious and desperate. Zhiguo only talked about himself and “wanted the job too badly.” Dadi declined Zhiguo’s meager gifts, and hinted to Zhiguo that the head of the department had a say in making the job offer. The department head later told Dadi, as a joke, that Zhiguo tried to give him some local delicacies as gifts but his wife threw them out for being too cheap and dirty.

Zhiguo did not get the offer, of course, and found a low-paying job as an insurance agent. About a year later, he asked Dadi to pull some connections at the bank to get him a favorable mortgage rate in order to buy a very small apartment at the city’s fringe that he shared with his wife, parents, and brother, who had moved into the city with him.

When Dadi visited the family, Zhiguo’s wife fell silent when asked about their wedding banquet, because they could not afford one. Zhiguo’s father gave his life saving of 70,000 RMB (about U.S.$10,000) to help with the down payment, and now expected Zhiguo, a young man in his early twenties with a shaky job, to financially support the entire family.

A Yuppie dream, Deferred: Yuanzi

Yuanzi was a smart young man from a family of blue-collar workers from a small city. He also did not get an offer from the bank, but easily found a sales job that paid well. He married his girlfriend, also from a humble background, right after graduating from university. His family gave him more than 100,000 RMB (about U.S.$16,000), all of their life savings, as down payment on an apartment.

Once Yuanzi had a job and an apartment with his wife in the big city, his parents and in-laws pressured the young couple to start a family. Yuanzi’s wife quit her job after she became pregnant, so they relied solely on Yuanzi’s income to pay their mortgage, the hospital bill, utility bills, and for the baby’s formula and diapers. Yuanzi’s salary soon fell short of the ever-growing list of expenses.

Yuanzi’s parents and in-laws rotated for live-in stints to take care of the baby while his wife took a low-paying job. Conflicts over laundry and dish-washing began to escalate into inter-generational shouting matches about the lack of money. On the phone with a fellow former intern, Yuanzi broke down in tears and said that marrying too early and having a baby was a mistake.

Social Mobility: the Chinese Dream?

The moral of his stories, wrote Dadi, was that young people should not engage in the Quixotic battle against fate to rise too far above their class in today’s China. One’s background means more than just the level of financial support from family; it also determines one’s outlook, and even personality.

Dadi’s advice? Know your capabilities and limitations, listen to your parents (if they are successful), don’t try to reach for the stars if you are starting from a low point, and don’t forget to marry wisely.

Many users agreed with Dadi’s pessimistic fatalism and related their own struggles in a society with no shortage of people like Chubby and Zhou, who are shrewd, likable, as well as connected. China’s era of rags-to-riches stories may have already given way to an era of class entrenchment.

Some users allowed a glimmer of hope. @信息处理器 wrote, “I know every wealthy family is built on the accumulation of resources of the fathers and grandfathers, but maybe I can make my children a little bit better off than I am. Who knows, maybe my grandchildren or their children would also become wealthy?” It is perhaps telling, however, that he ended the sentence with a question mark.

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Tea Leaf Nation is an e-magazine founded in 2011 whose editors aspire to make it a must-read source for China experts of all stripes—journalists, diplomats, academics, analysts—while remaining fun...
Rachel Lu is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation, an English-language online magazine that synthesizes and analyzes Chinese social media. Tea Leaf Nation is a partner site with The...
Tea Leaf Nation, Rachel Lu
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This story was originally published by Tea Leaf Nation.

A Rite of Passage to Nowhere

Tiny Times, a Chinese feature film set in contemporary Shanghai, made headline news on its opening day in late June by knocking the Hollywood blockbuster Man of Steel from its perch atop the domestic box-office and breaking the opening-day record for a Chinese-language 2D release.

The film follows four college girls as they navigate romance and their professional aspirations, but the bulk of the film is about the female longing for a life of luxury in the company of a good-looking man. Tiny Times is not a women’s film, though it does feature female characters, draped from head to toe in designer clothes and easily mesmerized by the presence of supposedly visually stunning males—not the usual, muscle-bound Hollywood types, but Asian boys of androgynous demeanor with compact frames, exquisite facial contours, and the look of perpetual youth.

At first glance, Tiny Times might be mistaken for a Sinicized Sex and the City, but soon it becomes clear that the four boy-crazed, mall-loitering characters in Shanghai have little in common with the fiercely independent career women in Candace Bushnell’s New York. Positioned in the market by Le Vision Pictures of Beijing as a coming of age story, the rite of passage for one dazed girl in the film is to grow into a competent personal assistant to her oh-so-handsome male boss whose aloof demeanor and penetrating gaze constantly destabilizes her. Another girl from a nouveau riche family showers her boyfriend with expensive clothes and accessories. The third girl—chubby, suffering from stereotypically low self-esteem and emotional eating—is made fun of throughout the movie as she obsesses over a young tennis player, the one man in the movie who actually possesses something resembling muscle. The fourth girl, a budding fashion designer from a humble background, is trapped in an abusive relationship with yet another good-looking boy.

Taking a page from the book of popular East Asian “idol dramas” that cater primarily to youth in their teens and twenties, the film features popular singers, actors, and actresses, cast regardless of any actual acting ability. Good idol dramas frequently feature teen romance, in which brooding characters with dark secrets and painful pasts elicit pathos and real emotion. Tiny Times, however, has done away with complex story arcs and character development. The film looks great but ultimately lacks substance.

The four characters’ professional aspirations amount to serving men with competence. The film is a Chinese version of “chick flick” minus the emotional engagement and relationship-based social realism that typically are associated with the Hollywood genre. The only enduring relationship in Tiny Times is the chicks’ relationship with material goods. The hyper-materialist life portrayed carries little plot but serves as a setting for consumption, and is more akin to MTV or reality TV than real drama. With its scandalously cartoonish characters, the film would have worked better as a satirical comedy, except that the director is too sincere in his celebration of material abundance to display any sense of irony.

We were caught completely off guard, stupefied by the film’s unabashed flaunting of wealth, glamor, and male power passed off as “what women want.” Its vulgar and utter lack of self-awareness is astonishing, but perhaps not too surprising. It appears to be the product of full-blown materialism in modern, urban Chinese society. The film speaks to the male fantasy of a world of female yearnings, which revolve around men and the goods men are best equipped to deliver, whether materially or bodily. It betrays a twisted male narcissism and a male desire for patriarchal power and control over female bodies and emotions misconstrued as female longing.

Whatever happened to Chairman Mao’s proclamation that “women hold up half the sky”? In Tiny Times Chinese society has regressed to an earlier era. Years of accelerating economic growth have brought unprecedented social and geographic mobility and increased pressure on Chinese men to succeed, to follow the trail of power and money, leaving their women behind. Economic growth has exacerbated the gender gap, often reviving cultural traditions that reduce women to a sub-human status. The contempt for women that I have witnessed in China in recent years is alarming. The male chauvinism in the film is symptomatic of a society where the choices for women are severely limited. The ones with bodies are enticed to become material girls under the thumb of men, the ones with brains who dare to use their thinking faculties are condemned to eternal loneliness, and the ones possessing neither are banished to a corner.

Much to our horror and dark amusement, Tiny Times’ director, Guo Jingming, won the award for “best new director” at the recently concluded Shanghai International Film Festival. A film school dropout turned popular fiction writer, Guo aspires to be an author of contemporary Shanghai. Though not a Shanghai native, he nevertheless invokes the renowned Shanghai novelists Eileen Chang and Wang Anyi as his predecessors. Guo’s imagination paints Shanghai as a world city whose very spirit is equated with wealth and the attendant decadence. Never mind that he paints a world devoid of compassion and humanity. Never mind that the fabulously wealthy Shanghai in his fictionalized world is hardly the reality for the majority of city-dwellers.

Guo claims to represent the post 1990s “me generation” and has apparently hit a home run with the youth audience. According to the latest statistics from the China Film Distribution and Exhibition Association, the average age of a moviegoer in China has dropped to 21.2 years in 2012 from from 25.7 years in 2009. Tiny Times owes its success partly to a marketing campaign that relied heavily on social media networks reaching tens of millions of students.

The Chinese film industry has come aboard celebrating a work of fiction with a dubious imagination, awful acting, and a story that is non-existent. One can only surmise that Chinese cinema has momentarily lost its way—in its desperate pursuit of domestic market share in competition with a growing number of imported Hollywood blockbusters, the Shanghai International Film Festival traded cinematic quality for box-office returns. If this pattern holds, Chinese cinema will soon hang by a thin thread. It cannot rely on weightless movies like Tiny Times to sustain its market momentum.

It comes as a consolation to us that the film averaged low ratings of 3.4 and 5.0 out of 10 on China’s two most-visited online movie portals, Mtime and Douban.

Director Guo said that Tiny Times allowed its viewers to dream about a future with “a great career, great friends, and a handsome boyfriend.” We’re not at all sure if this is what Chinese President Xi Jingping had in mind when he announced his opaque “Chinese Dream.” We sure hope that both Chinese cinema and Chinese women can envision their own alternatives.

“Tiny Times,” Chinese Cinema, and Chinese Women

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Dr. Ying Zhu, a professor in and Chair of the Department of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island-CUNY, is the author or editor of eight books, including Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China...
Frances Hisgen is a high school student at the Brearley School in New York. Her publications include “Feminism Is Not A Word We Use In Polite Society.”
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Ying Zhu, Frances Hisgen
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