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Thoughts on the South China Seas – we should be more worried about fishermen than politicians

For over two years ocean rocks have dominated China’s foreign policy issues. So far the Party has managed to anger virtually all their neighbors and has left an opening for America’s pivot to Asia. In my opinion, regardless of whether or not China’s claims are valid, the gov’t seems to be losing the battle on the international stage.

One afternoon when I was chatting with a typically soft-spoken co-worker about my future plans in the Pacific, she pointed out the Philippines on the map and said, “I hope the ocean swallows this country up so that China doesn’t have to destroy it.” As I picked my jaw up off the floor, she elaborated, “Since I was a little girl, these little islands have been a part of China, and I can’t accept the idea of giving them up. It would make the map look all wrong.”

It was something of a wake up call for me as this insanely nationalistic war call was coming from an individual who has been adamantly against the Communist Party in other discussions. Though I shouldn’t have been too surprised that this person who wanted the best for her country, also wanted her country to be “whole”. To her, war in the region is unavoidable; few things ruffle feathers in China the way discussions of territory do. A Chinese politician giving up historical claims is as likely as a Republican candidate proposing a one child policy.

When we started talking about what might happen if China did need to “wipe the Philippines off the map,” it became clear that there was no victory for China in that scenario (nor would it be good for the Philippines, U.S. or anyone else).

Imagine with me if you will how such a thing would unfold-

First one country, likely after provocation by fishermen, would open fire on an opposing vessel sparking the conflict. If the media is as biased against China as some of the angry youth believe, than surely China would be blamed for the increased aggression regardless of the facts. After all, what benefit would there be for any of the neighboring countries if China were absolved of blame? It would only put them at greater risk in the future. In the U.S. it would excuse a military build-up, and in an election year, who knows how much of a reaction would be needed to keep people’s votes.

As a result of the conflict, the US and neighboring countries would lend military support (or at least some gesture), there would be a call for sanctions, and many individuals would likely boycott Chinese made goods (in addition to those Americans who already do). In the long run, this military conflict would likely cost China’s economy more than the prized oil is worth, and the short-term effects of the economic punishments could seriously undermine employment and by extension, stability (although some argue that a war would give nationalism a pretty healthy boost in an already sagging economy). In the U.S. billions of dollars in investments in China would likely be lost, and the price of goods would swing sharply upward.

War would be lose-lose for all involved.

While I’m in no way an expert on the South China Sea issue, I’ve yet to see a scenario that ends with China maintaining any kind of positive image overseas.

Based on this (oversimplified) thought experiment, to me it seems that China’s best choice is to continue with the plan of waiting to exploit these resources, and encouraging their neighbors to be patient in finding a solution they can all agree on, and prevent the situation from reaching the point that the U.S. feels it needs to get involved. It gives the country the opportunity to lead, offers a second chance at building trust within the region, and keeps the U.S. away from China’s backyard.

Unfortunately, oil isn’t the only resource being considered and appearances must be maintained when it comes to issues of sovereignty (if these “islands” don’t belong to the mainland, Taiwan might start getting ideas….) It seems that Chinese fishermen have depleted their own stocks, and are now searching further afield for fish, leading to standoffs that would otherwise be avoided in Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.

It is China’s environmental issues that are pushing officials (on both sides) to puff up their chests as much as it is the massive quantities of oil that they had been willing to wait for. This makes it much more difficult to reign in, as calling on fleets to stay ashore looks weak domestically, and pushes up already high food prices. I fear that if war does come to this region, it won’t be the result of decisions made in Beijing, as Chinese leaders are aware of the risks, but rash acts by patriots, fishermen, and the forces sent in to deal with them.

Dinosaurs and indoor pools – the lighter side of childhood in China

A few weeks ago I witnessed something that warmed the cockles of my typically icy heart.

In China, when one pictures a middle school student, they picture a small child diligently studying behind a great wall of books. Outside of the classroom they are spotted in their uniforms around 5pm being brought back from school for several more hours of homework. These few minutes on the bus in Nanjing were almost always filled with a few rounds of Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds on their smart phones. In rural China, the students were boarded, and so had no chance of furtive gaming between school and study.

In my two years at the hospital, I sat through dozens of chats between co-workers that focused on their children’s progress in school, but I never heard them discuss other aspects of their children’s lives with each other. Questions from them about life in America also focused on the scholarly instead of  the fun. This reinforces the stereotype that Asians are more studious than their American counterparts. For me this was confirmed a few weeks ago when I visited the Stanford campus and saw a handful of Chinese tour groups wandering the campus with their toddlers in tow (you can’t plan too far ahead).

For expats living in China, the conversation turns toward a concern over whether or not Chinese children ever actually get to enjoy their childhood. After all when a friend asked his students to recount their happiest memory, he was met with tales of passing tests, dog bites, and child abuse.

So when I saw two boys, about 12 years old, roaring and running about like dinosaurs, I couldn’t have been happier. It was wonderful to see them lost in their own world, completely ignoring the stares of working folks headed home.

It’s important to remember that even after years in China, there are large parts of people’s lives you have simply missed. So much happens within the home or behind the walls of their apartment compound and if you live in the wrong neighborhood you may miss it all.

It reminded me of a story one of my college students told me. He said that one night in the dormitory, when it was too hot to sleep, his roommates and him decided the only way to cool down was to go for a swim. The problem was they couldn’t leave their room. So they came up with a way of converting their tiny bathroom into a pool. All it took were a few towels stuffed into the squat toilet and under the door and their shower turned on full blast for about thirty minutes. Somehow all eight of them fit in there, and splashed away in their “pool.” The student, and his classmates hearing of it for the first time, giggled through the entire story, even though they had nearly destroyed their dorm room.

With what feels like an unending stream of depressing news about China’s human rights, food safety, and environment, it is easier to forget that more often than not it is a place of loving families and enduring friendships.

The end of my time in China, but not the end of Seeing Red in China

With the conclusion of the school year, I marked the end of my 5th consecutive year in China. Soon, I will be heading back to the United States and applying to graduate programs related to international development and theology. It has been a fantastic time. I feel very fortunate that I have had the opportunity to be here and to witness China firsthand.

I plan on continuing to write about China, and will try to digest a similar amount of People’s Daily, Global Times, and whatever else looks interesting. I know that I will not be able to keep up with frantic pace of five posts a week, so for the past few months I’ve been working with Yaxue and another friend (you will meet her soon) to get things in place so that Seeing Red in China will continue posting at a similar frequency. This is going to come with a shift towards the translation of essays and articles from activists around China that we feel could use a bigger spotlight in addition to our usual commentary on Chinese culture and current events.

Thank you for all of your support and comments over the past 18 months or so of blogging. I have found blogging to be an immensely useful way of sorting through my thoughts and ideas about modern China, and you readers have helped point me to sources and stories that I would have otherwise missed. You have challenged me in many ways, and that was exactly what I had hoped to get from this project. I’m also glad that the nearly 500 posts have proved interesting to someone besides my wife (who has been a large part of this blog’s success).

I hope Seeing Red in China will continue to be one of your many sources of information related to the middle kingdom.

-Tom

Sheng Shuren: A Journalist in New China

By Yaxue Cao, published: June 25, 2012

《盛树人》_中文版

 

I came upon the name Sheng Shuren (盛树人) recently when I was reading one of the documents left behind by Uncle Liu Erning. From the reference I learned Sheng Shuren was a man arrested along with Uncle Erning in Xushui, Hebei Province, in the summer of 1958. I very much wanted to know who he was and whether he was still alive; and if so, whether I could find him and ask about what had happened in Xushui. A Google search found him on the list of notable alumni of an elementary school in the east coastal city of Ningpo. I knew then it was him:

“Sheng Shuren, also Yinxing, of the Sheng Family in the Luotuo township, was born in 1920 and attended our school in his childhood. He went on to be a graduate of the Department of Journalism at Saint John’s University in Shanghai. Before the Liberation of Shanghai in 1949, he worked for the North China Daily News, The China Weekly Review and the British Consulate in Shanghai. After the Liberation, he joined the Xinhua News Agency in Beijing. Later, he was demoted due to political reasons and was not reinstated until 1979. Unfortunately, he had died shortly before that.”

The clue I had been hoping to find ended right there, but these words did not go away. They gave me another story that weighed heavily on me. A few weeks ago, I did not know there was, or had been, such a person in the world, and today I wanted to know his story.

More searches yielded little. At a loss, I read what I could. St John’s College was founded by the American Protestant Episcopal Church in Shanghai in 1879. In the beginning, it taught Chinese classics, Western subjects and Divinity in Mandarin Chinese and Shanghai dialect. When St. John’s College became St. John’s University in 1896, it was the first modern university in Shanghai, and the first all-English university in China, with four schools (Liberal arts, Sciences, Medicine, and Divinity) and an affiliated prep school. It enrolled graduate students in 1913 and women in 1936. By then it had added the School of Agriculture, had a total of sixteen departments, and enjoyed the reputation of being the “Harvard of the East.” Its Department of Journalism was established in 1921, the first in Asia, modeled on the Department of Journalism at Missouri University in both philosophy and method of teaching. Soon after the regime change in 1949, the university was forced to cut its ties with the church, and in 1952 it was broken up, along with all of the Christian universities in China, its faculty and students dispersed into other universities in Shanghai and its site becoming the newly-established East China University of Politics and Law under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice of the new People’s Republic of China. Among its many illustrious alumni, I found industrialists, filmmakers, doctors, judges, politicians, writers, diplomats, bishops, architects and more. In another place, I saw old black-and-white photos of St. John’s as well as a picture of its insignia. Its Chinese motto comes from the Analects, “He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger,” while the English simply says “Light & Truth.”

St. John’s University in Shanghai.

I could easily imagine an elegant young man, a new college graduate, in light-colored suits, as was the fashion of temperate Shanghai, in the early 1940s, overly cultured for his age, a kind of men we only had glimpses of from faded black and white photographs. In the China I grew up, they had gone extinct. Not only the clothes were different, the expression, the posture, the voice and the words, and the way people carried themselves, had all changed. The sky was invariably gray, when I close my eyes to recall my childhood, and everyone had an alert, suspicious and fearful look in their eyes. These memories, of course, were not factual in the sense of record: the sky was not gray everyday, nor was everybody like that, at least not all the time. But who can say the natural deposit of memory, and whatever processing it has gone through following its own intrinsic logic, has no claim on truth? Might it even be truer than the facts? “Remake” was one of the most frequently used words of that era, and “remaking” was ubiquitous: industry, agriculture and business; cities, buildings and people; thought, language and writing, everything and every moment; visible and invisible. When I started remembering things, this remaking had only been carried out for less than two decades but had already done such a thorough job that it was nothing short of a miracle.

Sheng Shuren in 1948: On a visit to family home in Ningbo. The author didn’t receive this and the other photos of him until this piece had been written.

On the phone with Erjia, Uncle Erning’s youngest brother, a few days later, I mentioned the name Sheng Shuren regretfully.

To my surprise, Erjia said, “Oh, Sheng Shuren! I knew him well!”

“What? How?”

“Aiya!” said Erjia. “He and I wrote each other for many years, and I visited Shanghai once and stayed with him!”

Even more surprised, I urged Erjia to tell me everything.

It turned out that Erning and Sheng Shuren stayed in touch after they were sent back from Xushui to their respective hometowns at the end of 1960, Erning to Anshan in the northeastern province of Liaoning and Sheng to Shanghai. Too tired from toiling long hours in the fields everyday, Uncle Erning sometimes would ask Erjia to write on his behalf. After a while, Uncle Erning grew withdrawn, and it was Erjia, a mailman, who kept the correspondence with Sheng going and the latter sent his greetings to Uncle Erning at the end of each of his letters. For years, the food supply was rationed in China, and in Liaoning Province, it was a combination totaling 12.5 kilos of wheat four, corn meal, rice and sorghum flour, per adult per month. Shanghai was one of the few places in China where you could buy food tickets relatively cheaply on the black market. For years, Sheng Shuren and Erjia kept a trade of food tickets: Erjia sent money to Shanghai, Sheng Shuren bought food tickets for Erjia, thus solving the chronic food shortage of the Liu brothers. In 1964 or 1965 when Sheng Shuren remarried (his wife had divorced him), he sent Erning an invitation, but Erning didn’t go.

In the summer of 1972, Sheng Shuren wrote that the water pipes in his house were old and broken, asking Erjia if he could help him buy pipes in Anshan, one of China’s steel capitals. Although the house his family had lived in for many years was public property, it didn’t belong to a particular work unit, so there was nobody to call on to do the repair, and he had no place to buy pipes to try to fix them himself. He provided the numbers of pipes, elbows, joints and faucets he needed and their specs. Having purchased the 20 plus pipes, each a little over a meter long, Erjia embarked on a trip to Shanghai to deliver the goods and also to visit the great city. He made two train transfers to the port city Dalian, there he was able to purchase a ticket for economy class for nine yuan without trouble. It was “without trouble” because you couldn’t go to Shanghai just because you wanted to, and, in Erjia’s words, “if they didn’t like you, they wouldn’t sell you a ticket!” At the time, Erjia was only in his late twenties, handsome, wearing the green postal uniform, and must have looked “pleasant” enough to the eyes of those people. (When I first saw an old picture of the seven Liu brothers, I took immediate notice of Erjia, despite the shabby, dull clothes of that era.) He slept on a bench on the dock for a night. All around him, groups of sent-down youth talked loudly and incessantly in Shanghai dialect, waiting for the ship too to go home for a visit. The next day Erjia boarded a steamer, sailing a day and a night off the east coast of China before arriving in Shanghai. Sheng Shuren picked him up from the dock and the two dined in a restaurant on two dishes and one soup.

The first evening Erjia arrived, members of Shanghai Workers’ United Front visited Sheng Shuren’s house to “check his resident registration.” Why haven’t you reported you have a visitor? They asked Sheng. Sheng answered: He has just arrived today and I have not had a chance to report. Then they questioned Erjia thoroughly: Where do you come from? What is your relationship to Sheng Shuren? What is the purpose of your visit? Erjia answered honestly: I am here to visit an old friend and also seek treatment for my rheumatism. Perhaps the Workers’ United Front felt that a mailman of the People’s Postal Bureau (that was the description on Erjia’s work ID) was one of their own, they let him off without further ado. Upon leaving, they ordered Sheng Shuren to submit a visitor report the following day. Erjia said, at the time, he thought Sheng Shuren was a normal person after returning to Shanghai and it didn’t occur to him that, just like his older brother, he was still an “object of the people’s democratic dictatorship” and the security people would descend on his house in response to the merest rustle they heard.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai, in 1970s

I asked Erjia to describe how Sheng Shuren looked. “Six feet tall,” he said. “Smiled a lot. Smooth pale skin. Large eyes. Kind.” When I asked him how he would describe Sheng’s desposition, Erjia stammered, groping for words. “He was, uh, very refined,” he said. Then, pausing to dig deeper into his thoughts, he added, “He was such a gentleman!” At the time, Sheng Shuren was in his early fifties with two grown children, his son working in a factory manufacturing radio receivers and his daughter a send-down youth along with millions of young people from the Chinese urban centers. Perhaps because he was living with his mother, Sheng Shuren’s wife, a worker at the neighborhood factory processing plastic components, lived separately from him with her own folks. Soon after Erjia arrived, a letter from Erning followed. Far in Liaoning, he couldn’t contain his excitement about the meeting of Erjia and Sheng Shuren as well as Erjia’s chance to see Shanghai. He eulogized that “Your revolutionary friendship….is richer than the most lavish banquet on earth. It gives warmth to this world and makes life worth loving.” To brother Shuren “who was also wrongly persecuted and swallows the bitterness of it,  and the two of us kept each other company in Xushui,” Uncle Erning said he believed “the truth will prevail eventually, turning this upside down world right.”

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

 

Tom chats about rural China on ChinaBlogcast.com

I had the chance last night to record a podcast with Mike from the new website ChinaBlogcast.com. We talked a bit about my last few posts on life in rural China, and I shared a few other thoughts and anecdotes. You can download it or listen online here.

Secondly, I’d just like to encourage you to check out Mike’s other episode and add China Blogcast to your podcast subscriptions (this is week 2, so it won’t take long to catch up). At the moment there is a real shortage of China related podcasts, and this is a very good addition to the others that already exist. Mike is planning on releasing a new ~30 minute episode every Thursday featuring chats with other China bloggers.

Chen Guangcheng has landed in the US

For seven years Chen Guangcheng has been silenced in China for his role in opposing illegal forced abortions in Shandong province, that ended today with his arrival in the US. Even after his escape from thugs in Linyi, the gov’t in Beijing kept him in a tightly guarded hospital room. Finally, he will have a chance to talk openly about his experiences and the situation facing hundreds of other activists in China.

I hope you will take a moment to reflect on the power of that image – a man once tortured and imprisoned, now is able to stand in front of the world.

I wanted to say that he was no longer afraid of the Chinese gov’t and their reprisals, but much of Chen’s extended family are still facing harassment from officials in Linyi. Even 10,000 miles away from Beijing, he is reminded that “opportunities and risk exist at the same time,” and is not yet truly free from the authorities.

Image is from NYT, read their full article here

Video of Chen’s speech in NY from New Tang Dynasty