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China Change, November 6, 2018  Teng Biao interviewed Prof. Stein Ringen on August 2, 2018 and October 5 via Skype. Stein Ringen is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Oxford and Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London. Teng Biao is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, New York University and a Chinese human rights lawyer. – The Editors    Teng Biao (TB): I think your book, The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, is one of the best books on Chinese politics in recent years. Is this your first book on China? What inspired you to study China? Stein Ringen (SR): First, I’m interested in governments and states and how they work. This is the biggest […]


Sun Liping, January 21, 2018   This essay was published when I first launched a public WeChat column. Now, I’ve made some revisions, and am publishing it again as follows. I’m doing this because people have a hard time comprehending a few recent events because they were incredibly unreasonable. It’s hard to understand why people, who are clearly smart and have gone through great travails, are screwing things up so badly. This essay attempts to explain this phenomenon from the perspective of the thinking of the system. –– Sun Liping, December 14, 2017.   About 20 years ago, I once said: Sometimes the system is more stupid than individuals in the system. That is to say, people within the system may all appear to be […]


Yaxue Cao, June 20, 2016     On Friday night I posted an essay that recorded a day’s events in China. Such days have become rather typical. A reference I made to a news item from six years ago caught the attention of some readers: “The Ministry of Public Security: Mental Hospitals May Not Treat Non-mentally Ill Patients Without Permission from Police.” On the Voice of America show, the host asked: Instead of issuing such directives to check abuses, why didn’t the Chinese government just ban police-run “mental hospitals?” I said: “The Chinese government wants the police to have such tools.” On the show, I wasn’t quick-thinking enough to point out the obvious: the Chinese government gives police extralegal power to put people in mental […]


By Chang Ping, published: October 1, 2015 “Why would the results of a poll conducted by a neutral, respected polling organization tally so closely with the propaganda of a totalitarian government?”   Can it be that 92.8% of Chinese poll respondents are truly satisfied with the Chinese central government, and that among these, 37.6% are “extremely satisfied”? For over a decade, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, in collaboration with Horizon Research (零点调查公司) in Beijing, has been conducting polls on Chinese citizens’ attitudes toward their government. In the most recent poll, respondents’ satisfaction with the central government was at an all-time high. The New York Times described it as a “reliable” public opinion poll. […]


On Saturday Yaxue shared the story of “Subverter” Chen Pingfu. Essentially, he was deeply in debt after paying for a surgery, and turned to performing in public to try and pay off the money he owed his family members. For this he was threatened and eventually beaten by “public servants,” but he continued on. When he complained about this treatment online, he was further harassed by police, and was forced out of the only job he’d been able to find in years. Chen was a man desperately clinging to the last shred of dignity he had and local officials were determined to take that away from him. Apparently in China, when the gov’t takes away your job and threaten you by saying, “I’ll send you […]


I recently finished Dan Ariely’s book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, and realized that I’ve been thinking about corruption in the wrong way. While I’m not about to argue that there are “acceptable levels” of it, in the way Global Times tried, I do think we are overlooking a few key points. For one, as Ariely argues, cases of embezzlement and fraud are not made up largely of Madoff’s (or Liu Zhijun’s), but of small daily acts by very ordinary people. He shows through his research that for the most part everyone is willing to cheat a little, and that massive cheats are actually far more rare than they should be (if one assumes that a person would cheat as much as is possible without repercussions), […]


On return from more than a week on the road, I caught up with my China news and found it all to be a bit…predictable. In response I’ve created the following template that seems to exist somewhere to save all of you time. A gov’t official (or family member of an official) was caught abusing their power by murdering/embezzling/forcing farmers off their land/covering up a scandal for a company in X province. The story first appeared on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, late last week and built to a crescendo over the weekend. SomeGuyWithACamera posted pictures of an angry crowd ranging between dozens and thousands, which were deleted within 24 hours by censors. Calls to the local gov’t went unanswered. A man from the […]


When it comes to describing China’s challenges, foreigners (myself included) tend to attack the gov’t side of the issue. While the current system does seem to reinforce a number of practices that limit people power and encourage corruption, it ignores the cultural factors that are in play. I believe the reason for this is that us “old outsiders” worry about being decried as racist. To some extent these two factors reinforce one another. For instance, the leaders in China have never actually been required to heed the will of the people, and so there is a limited culture of challenging their rule; 0r that the rich have always been privileged in Chinese society over the commoners. Fortunately, people like Xu Zhiyong and Murong Xuecun are attacking both […]


Last week I carefully broached the subject of Tian’anmen Square with one of my co-workers. Together we looked through a series of pictures from that day from The Atlantic (excellent), which sparked a very interesting, and yet minimally productive conversation. It was her first time seeing evidence of civilian casualties, and I explained that no one was certain how many students and workers had died in the Square, but most foreign sources say hundreds. With the ongoing violence in Syria (which she is following), this wasn’t an easy idea to accept. So I told her that I had never really heard about June 4th from a Chinese view, and asked her to tell me what it had been like. She said here in Nanjing and in Beijing […]


Over the past few days, I’ve mentioned the village on the cliff several times, but haven’t yet discussed one of the biggest questions I had on my mind during my time there, Why didn’t the gov’t build this village a road? Why is it being left to charities to do the gov’t’s work? I should say that we aren’t just talking about a single road, the majority of the projects we visited were infrastructure projects. One involved repairing an irrigation system, another was to fix a broken water pump, and the third was to build a water pump. Throughout China this charity is also involved in rebuilding schools, roads, bridges and village clinics. This ties back into an important argument made by economists who say […]


Continued from yesterday My pleasant chat with the happy rural Christians was almost the complete opposite from my chat with one of the ministers of that province’s Christian Council (the governing branch of the officially recognized church). Perhaps that was because she could speak English, and wasn’t constrained by the officials that had come along with us; perhaps it was because she’d been pushed too far. In the city where she worked, the gov’t had big plans for the downtown areas, and the plans required the bulldozing of a historic church and a Bible training center. While the groups were being more than fairly compensated for the land, this minister was adamant that gov’t should not interfere with the church and that these place were […]


A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit a very small village. The villagers there told me this story of how they converted to Christianity and I thought it was an interesting account that gave a glimpse of their relationship with God and a few of the practical challenges of being a rural Christian. The following is a fairly close retelling of what I overheard from their congregation- Villager #1 – Before we became Christians, our village was known for quarreling with our neighbors. Outsiders said that you could hear us fighting even before you entered. Neighbors would fight from sun up to sun down. We were really terrible then (congregation nods in agreement). Another villager later told us that she had been […]


I arrived in Beijing late on the high speed train from Nanjing a few days ago. In Nanjing we were whisked to the South train station on a relatively new subway, walked into the massive new transportation hub (it brought back memories of the Three Gorges Dam), and arrived roughly a thousand miles away in just 3 and half hours*. It was everything that China appears to be in Thomas Friedman’s accounts, and even as skeptical as I can be at times about China’s progress, it was hard to contain my sense of awe. For a moment I forgot about the pollution that had limited my view the entire journey and the massive cost of the projects and enjoyed China’s glorious achievements (but just for […]


Last week Chen Guangcheng entered a US embassy for the protection that the Chinese gov’t had failed to provide the innocent man. According to Chen’s friends, it was a step that Chen did not want to take. Today we will be looking at three lessons Chen’s case teaches us about China’s legal system. Chen Guangcheng would never call himself a dissident; he might hesitate to even describe himself as an activist. The incredible thing that we should keep in mind as representatives from the US and China decide Chen’s fate, is that he is a man who simply thought that the laws on paper should be enforced. Chen’s initial fame came from his efforts to protect the rights of the disabled and he fell afoul […]


Last night the Central Gov’t confirmed that rumors of Bo Xilai’s involvement in the death of a British national were true. The Party claims this as a victory that shows China as a country “ruled by law (and here),” even though information about this case began to surface months ago with Wang Lijun fleeing to the U.S. Embassy in Chengdu. Bo’s sacking along with the revelation that he may have been an accomplice in a murder is also unusual in that high-level officials are usually dismissed without much clarification. In the last big case, with Railway minister Liu Zhijun supposedly embezzling 800 million RMB, it was only stated in the Chinese press that he was suspected for graft without a specific amount (even though he was blamed […]


China’s foreign policy of non-involvement seems to stem from the Confucian teaching to “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” For the Party, this means avoiding situations like what is currently happening in Syria, which if the UN had its way would see the ouster of a gov’t for slaughtering its own people (similar stances were taken by China in respect to Sudan and Libya too). China’s foreign policy recognizes the possible problems of setting a precedence of using military force against chronic human rights abusers. The key to this policy is keeping public opinion in line with the gov’t response and to accomplish that, China needs nationalism. This also explains the Party’s framing of China as a still imperiled nation. They push […]


This post is continued from yesterday. The book Poor Economics is the source for these general ideas, I’m simply discussing how they would apply to China’s context. Culture shifts, not culture shift Cultures often create systems of reciprocity that create some kind of “fairness” within the family. However, as the authors point out, just because one part of a culture changes doesn’t mean the corresponding pieces change as well, and the system becomes unfair in a way that continues poverty. One instance of this would be in family arrangements. Traditionally the grandparents help their children raise the next generation, and children also traditionally support their parents when they reach old age. While these two may seem to be connected, in modern China grandparents have been expected to […]


While China has raised hundreds of millions of people out of desperate poverty in the last 60 years, there are still 128 million people living on less that $1 per day (World Bank defines poverty as less than $1.25/day). This is actually 100 million more people than 2010, because the gov’t radically revised the definition of poverty which was hiding the true scale of the problem. While it might be tempting to “blame” poverty on the poor, or urge leaders to serve the people, or throw our hands up in despair, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s recent book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, offers more practical advice. Instead of simply judging anti-poverty campaigns on whether or not they […]


The practice of using the organs of executed prisoners for transplantation has been going on since at least 1984 in China, and it has been treated as a state secret for most of that time. At that time the gov’t formulated a directive that formally legalized the practice, and prescribed specific instructions for keeping the practice from being exposed. No white clothes, no vans with hospital insignias, and guards had to be present during the operations. The first acknowledgement from Chinese officials came in 1991. For 28 years, the practice continued without much discussion in the Chinese press, and frequent denials from Chinese citizens. In 2005 however, the curtain was slightly pulled back once again thanks to China Daily, which featured a very brief acknowledgement of the practice. […]


One of the first things that a person notices when they arrive in Nanjing, is that unlike other Chinese cities, many of the main streets are lined with mature trees. Some of these trees were planted over 60 years ago, and in some ways are the symbol of Nanjing. The trees are so loved, that around this time last year, when the local gov’t planned the removal of 600 trees for subway stations, people protested and managed to get the officials to redraw their plans to limit the effect on the trees (Nanjing has 15 additional lines planned for the next 18 years). The protest was unique in that it was not related to health concerns as other environmental campaigns have been, but that people […]


Recently I had the chance to discuss the fascinating article, “The Sick Man of Asia” with the doctors at my hospital. The author, Huang Yanzhong, argues that despite China’s seemingly impressive gains in health over the past 60 years, they are lagging behind its economic growth. Furthermore, the author seems to argue that the average Chinese person (as far as health is concerned) saw greater benefits from Mao’s time in power than during Deng, Jiang, and Hu. The author argues that Mao’s regime was able to make large gains because they focused on bringing medicine to rural populations. Huang also shows that the chaos of the Cultural Revolution caused the bureaucratic powers of the Ministry of Health to retreat, while millions of doctors were sent […]


I recently finished a book called “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” that focuses on intrinsic motivation, how it can be bolstered or buffeted by workplace policies, and how it effects our overall happiness (I enjoyed the book, even if it was a little short). Like most things these days, there were several parts that reminded me of China (we’ll be looking at a second aspect in a later post). If-Then rewards cause a search for loopholes China’s government since reform and opening up has functioned more as a corporation than as a country. Within each level of government there is fierce competition for promotions that come with clear perks and benefits (and some that aren’t made quite so public). As Daniel Pink […]


With the holidays I know that many of you have taken a break from the internet to spend time with your families, but the Chinese gov’t realizes this too, slipping 3 State subversion trials of dissidents into the final week of the year in the hopes that foreign media will miss the story (and one very mysterious broken probation). Due to the number of links this week, I’ve only added a few comments. China jails dissident 10 years for subversive essays Why isn’t the West reacting to China’s crackdown Draft law prohibits citizens who may endanger national interests from leaving country – This story has not been widely reported on outside of People’s Daily, but would essentially allow China to keep any dissidents from speaking out […]


This is a developing story, and while I usually don’t comment on “sensitive” events as they happen, the stakes seem to be much higher this time. In a small village in Guangdong, the villagers have staged a revolt. All government officials and police have fled the village after months of demonstrations sparked by land grabs and public funds that seem to have gone missing. Now the village, and its thousands of inhabitants, are encircled by armed police who are demanding they give up their cause and return to normal life. The villagers however are insisting that the local gov’t apologize for the violence they have used against the people (including the death of an organizer while he was in police custody), as well as be […]


The “three public expenditures” refers to public spending on government vehicles, banquets, and overseas travel. This part of spending is the most hotly debated, and one that netizens have already won symbolic victories in (meaningful ones will come more slowly). Government agencies are now supposed to make this part of their budget public, but many have simply refused to release the information or claim that it is a “state secret.” While I have no idea how much public money is spent on travel, I am familiar with the kinds of trips government employees take, and I think this gives an interesting glimpse of the decision making process that goes into this. Note: my office is responsible for all travel by hospital employees, and these trips are covered […]


A few months ago I wrote a post titled “There’s no bureaucracy like Chinese bureaucracy” that highlighted a few of the crazier experiences I’ve had with China’s love of hierarchy. Today though I wanted to look at one of the bigger problems with bureaucracy, not that it simply wastes time, but that having millions (literally) of officials with a little bit of status and a small amount of power can be an incredibly dangerous thing. A recent study came to a rather unsurprising result, when people have power and a low status in the overall hierarchy, they tend to abuse it. For those of us living in China we see this daily in the way the chengguan beat street merchants, the way local gov’t officials […]


Recently a lot has been made of China’s efforts to modernize its military, and it’s easy to get the West’s attention when you simply remind them of the sheer size of China’s army. Even though China maintains the largest standing army in the world, it hasn’t been involved in international conflicts, outside of a limited peace keeping role, since the 1980’s. So what do they keep all of these soldiers around for? According to President Hu Jintao, who is head of the Party, the government, and the military, the PLA exists to: Consolidate the ruling status of the Communist Party Help ensure China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and domestic security in order to continue national development Safeguard China’s expanding national interests Help maintain world peace Though, […]


Over the past few days I’ve pointed out some of the major issues revolving around the hukou system. So I thought it was important to establish why it is that the hukou system won’t be changing anytime soon, despite the ongoing discussions of how to change it. Surprisingly the hukou system is not something that was dreamed up by the communist party as a way to control the masses (which is how it sounds to most Americans I’ve talked with), it is actually a modified version of household registration that has been a part of China for thousands of years. The original system was also used to restrict the movement of people, and to remove “troublemakers”. The modern system in the 1950’s was used as […]


For the past few days we’ve been looking at migrant workers, and issues surrounding the hukou system, including left behind children, and forgotten grandparents and wives. In China’s medical system there are a number of drugs that treat chronic conditions (like TB and AIDs), that are given out to sick patients at little or no cost. While this in itself should be applauded, this program is unfortunately tied to one’s hukou and therefore restricts the person’s movement. If the person leaves their village, it will be incredibly difficult for them to receive their much needed medications. I believe that this policy was created with the intention of controlling the spread of diseases (which is a good intention), but that this has had some very troubling results. In the past this system […]


One of the most concerning stories this week was a proposed legal change that would make secret detentions legal. This would be a huge step backwards for human rights in China, and would provide a shield for the gov’t when they are criticized by citizen groups and foreign leaders. Perhaps the best known case of secret detention came earlier this year with the arrest of Ai Weiwei. He was held for nearly 90 days in a secret location for “economic crimes”. It was never made clear why he was not held in a normal prison. Ai Weiwei reflected on the nature of Beijing’s oppressive gov’t this week in a piece for Newsweek that is well worth reading. This reflection by Ai Weiwei came at a […]


I’m at a conference focused on Charity and Education in China, so this week we’ll be focusing on these two issues. One of the biggest misconceptions in the west about China is that “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” is anything like “Socialism”. From the 1970’s China has maintained only the State owned enterprises, which are incredibly profitable, but has done away with most of the social programs. For nearly thirty years many of these holes grew larger, and are now reaching a point that is beyond rescue even for the party. The Central Government has mandated a “Harmonious Society”, but has left the details to local governments. So in the last ~5 years these gov’t bodies have encouraged the growth of a civil society, finally admitting […]


This week we’ve been looking at how the party relies on improving its citizens quality of life for its mandate to rule. We started by looking at how GDP is no longer enough to maintain that stability, and what changes will be coming in the next few decades. Today I want to focus on some ways the Party could eventually transform its system of rule. As you read remember that the Party will maintain absolute power until a majority of the population feels that their lives are no longer improving. The most important idea to understand, is that there is no action considered beyond the pale for maintaining their position of power. As Fei Xiaotong points out in his book, “From the Soil”, they would […]


Continued from yesterday  When life satisfaction disconnects from GDP growth, it has to be met in other ways to ensure the Party’s rule, and I believe we are approaching that moment. Today we will be looking at some of those options. Note: while I do not have access to a crystal ball, I’m putting time frames on these issues to emphasize that these are not things that will be changed instantly, and to clarify the order in which they may happen. Lowering Costs (The Present) The Party knows that even though many Chinese people are far richer than their parents, many of them still cannot afford many of the basic appliances that can improve living standards. This is why the gov’t offers generous subsidies to […]


People’s daily and other state news sources have been pointing to the influence of Weibo as a sign of China’s shift toward democracy (here and here), but is social media really creating a more just China? Note: Weibo is a Chinese networking site, something like a combination of Twitter, Facebook and a blog. It is also carefully monitored by gov’t censors (a.k.a. internet police) for stories on sensitive topics, and imposes keyword bans. One way that Weibo is contributing to the development of democracy in China, is that it has helped introduce the idea that the gov’t should actually listen to its people. Weibo has accomplished this largely because it has given common people a way of airing grievances in a public forum. In the past […]


…continued from yesterday “My problem is that the gov’t covers up this information, if the Chinese people knew what was happening they would be outraged,” I said, naively assuming that I understood Chinese people’s complex relationship to the world beyond their borders. With that the younger co-worker began searching for news of Darfur on the Chinese web. Between Western thought and Chinese policy there remains a giant chasm. The U.S. and Europe have reached a consensus that supporting oppressive regimes leads to terribly corrupt countries that are unable to pull themselves out of poverty (Zimbabwe for example).  While China argues that these dictators provide the necessary stability that allows for businesses to open and grow the economy, China itself is the proof of this argument, even though the […]


“In Guangxi we eat everything with 4 legs but tables and chairs, everything in the ocean but submarines, and anything in the sky but airplanes,” a giddy student told me when I asked about local dishes. It turned out that this was much closer to the truth than I had imagined at the time. In my four years here in China, I have been introduced to a variety of foods: roast dog, snake soup, chicken ovaries, duck stomach, goose intestines, a variety of fowl flippers, and pig arteries, brain, and even urethra (my previous post on dog meat). I’ve seen so many animals served up that I doubt that there is even a Chinese word for kosher. Behind many of these strange dishes are concepts […]


For my non-American readers please excuse this burst of patriotism, as it is Independence day Today I wanted to share a few of the aspects of American life I enjoy more after living in China for four years. Freedom to Report In China there is a special vocabulary that has evolved out of the need to define events that have never happened before. Words like: “Gutter oil” (Used oil that has had the garbage strained from it, that is reused in restaurants), “Cancer village” (unusually high rates of cancer caused by pollutants) and Naked officials (gov’t officials who have sent their assets and family overseas so they can escape when their misdeeds surface). These are words we don’t have in the US, and I think […]


Over the past three days the posts I’ve been writing have emphasized the fact that many of the bad things we hear about government interference in religion in China are overstated. That does not mean though that life for Chinese Christians is completely free of gov’t interference. When I first arrived in Longzhou the local church had been shut down for 3 months. The reason for this was that the pastor had left for training in Nanning, and the lack of a leader had led to some small problems in the already small congregation. The local department of religious affairs stepped in and closed the doors. To me it seemed like something that could have been solved in a few days of negotiations, as the church […]


The historical viewpoint that we looked at yesterday seems likely to be the one taken by many ethnic Mongolians, as well as Western journalists. While many of the issues raised will need to be addressed, I think it’s important to consider the bigger picture that these protests are a part of. Han vs. Minority Group This first viewpoint has been the most popular one cited so far, but after talking with my Chinese friend at length about this topic, I think it’s only part of the picture. I think this one has gained a lot of traction because in the past 4 years there have been protests in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. All of them sparked by a Han-Minority crime that exploded into larger […]


It seems in the last few years in the US the fear of “Big Gov’t” has been enough to draw large crowds to the Tea Party. Apparently these people have never been to China. The idea of small gov’t in China would be almost heretical here in the Middle Kingdom, where there are 5 levels of gov’t compared to the US’s 3. Bureaucracy though isn’t limited to China’s bloated gov’t, it bogs down every business and transaction. For example during the Swine Flu scare a few years ago, teachers and students were not allowed off campus without permission. For one teacher, who had daily lessons on a different campus, this meant an hour of filing paper work every day for TWO MONTHS! She had to […]


Today a provincial gov’t announced a new relocation project that would move 2.8 million people from their homes, nearly twice as many as were moved for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. This project though is not to clear the way for a massive new infrastructure project, but is instead aimed at poverty alleviation and avoiding disasters. The project is looking to move people from rural Shaanxi to some of the larger towns and cities, and will no doubt be a topic of debate over the next few years. The argument the gov’t makes is that this project could help to limit some of China’s rural problems. By moving rural people to larger towns it would improve access to medical care and education, with […]


With growing unrest in the Middle East, China’s gov’t has been a bit more on edge than usual. News of what is happening in Libya and elsewhere is pretty hard to come by. The official gov’t position on Libya is that the violence should end, but is purposefully vague as to what that means. The argument I feel like I have been bludgeoned with this last week is “stability” (it’s my own fault for reading the People’s Daily every morning). On the front page of the People’s Daily website today we have headlines like “World Craves for Peace, Stability”, “Crack Nut with Tenderness – China seeks soft approach to social stability”, “The Leadership and Stellar Growth”, along with several other gag inducing buzz words. The […]


Yesterday I lead you through a crash course in Economics, and showed you that China’s GDP doesn’t mean that it’s a developed country, I would suggest reading that first. I think for many American’s (and probably many Europeans) China’s rise is met with mixed feelings. On my recent trip to the States something felt different this time when I told people I lived in China. It seems that China has moved from being seen as the place where people carry little red books, make our cheap socks, and fawn over baby pandas, to being the country that is on track to unseat us as number one. For my Chinese readers, just so it’s clear, this scares the heck out of practically every American born before […]


The events in the Middle East have a lot of people wondering just how far these anti-government riots will spread. A few people have even been speculating as to whether or not they could pop up in China (Here, Here, Here, Here). I know I did for a couple of minutes after seeing a video that called for the “rabbits” to rebel (I’m not going to link it to my blog because I still enjoy holding a Chinese visa, but a quick youtube search will help you find it). I also found it surprising that there was no mention of the Egypt riots on People’s Daily until Jan. 30th, maybe the gov’t has been speculating a bit too. The parallel people are drawing is that […]


This morning I was in a bad mood. I had just received word that China had announced that it would be blocking voip services like Skype. I’m not sure if you are familiar with Skype, but for expats like me it serves as the lifeline. If I want to call my parents, or see my niece and nephew, or talk to pretty much anyone, I use Skype. As you may know from every news source you’ve ever read, I live in a country where freedom of speech and privacy are not protected in any way. So when I told my friend Tim this morning that the govt. was trying to spy on my information, he just said “well duh.” Then it struck me, how is […]


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