Article 25

China is Changing

In Uncategorized on 08/06/2013 at 3:26 pm


Laura Luehrmann has witnessed major changes in China in the past 22 years. Photo courtesy of Wright State University.

Environmentalism, religion – and more cars

By Anne Skove

Editor’s note: Laura M. Luehrmann is associate professor of political science and graduate director at Wright State University. An expert on China, she has been published in Asian Survey, Legislative Studies Quarterly, The China Journal and China Review International. Anne Skove, who conducted this Q&A, reports that Luehrmann also does a really funny Ed Grimley impersonation.

Q&A by Anne Skove

A25: When was your first trip to China? When was your last? What has been the biggest change between the two?

Luehrmann: My first experience in China was in 1991, when I enrolled in a summer program at the East China Institute of Politics and Law in Shanghai. At the time, I was planning to be an international lawyer, and one of my favorite profs at the University of Dayton helped me find this fantastic program organized by the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was an amazing time to be in China – deep into the period of “reform and opening to the outside world” (begun in 1978), and only two years after the Tiananmen Square massacre. For eight weeks I took classes and explored China’s largest city with lawyers, academics and other college students, and it was truly life-changing. In the car on the return trip from the airport, I ceremoniously renounced plans to go to law school and announced my intention to study China for the rest of my life, much to my parents’ chagrin.

My most recent trip to China, my fourth, was in the spring of 2011, when I was invited to visit one of Wright State University’s partner universities in Dalian, a coastal city in the northeast. During this experience, I also traveled to Taiwan for the first time, delivering a guest lecture at the National Taipei University College of Law.

Perhaps the most significant change is a palpable sense of China’s confidence – as a country, as an economy and as a society. During my experiences in China in the 1990s (I also conducted fieldwork for my dissertation for three months in 1996), most of my conversations with peers revolved around the discussion of what China needed to do to be able to be more like the United States. I noticed a gradual shift in this attitude by the late mid-1990s; but by 2011 it seemed that many people would go out of their way to point out how China was crafting a future in ways very different from the United States.

Another huge change –impacting so many aspects of life in China – was the means of transportation. When I was in Shanghai in 1991, we all used to joke that teenagers would have to negotiate with their parents to borrow the family bicycle for their dates. Roads were filled with bicycles (and they truly all looked the same – black “Flying Pigeons”) and with ugly yellow “breadbox” taxis. By 2011, change was dramatic. China at that point had become the largest market for new cars, and the roads were choked with automobile traffic. And let’s just say that most Chinese are not known for following traffic rules.

A25: Pollution is rampant in China. You’ve said that the most successful activists seem to be the environmentalists. Is that because air quality can’t be censored or silenced the way, say, a political dissident can?

Luehrmann: I am so glad you asked about this, because I believe this is one of the more important “untold stories” of contemporary China. Pollution is off the charts, and the People’s Republic of China has been the largest emitter of greenhouse gases since 2006, surpassing none other than the United States. In the post-Tiananmen period (after the crackdown on protestors in the spring of 1989), some of the earliest activists to test the waters of the new political climate were environmentalists – especially those speaking out against the construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze River. (The final 32 generators of this massive project, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, became operational in July 2012). I highlight activism about water because, for all of the attention that China’s poor air quality receives – and it is significant – many argue that the true environmental challenge China will have to come to grips with in the short term future is access to fresh, safe drinking water.

There is a very interesting environmental activist by the name of Ma Jun (the surname comes first, so his name is “Mr. Ma”) who is known as China’s “Rachel Carson” for his publication of the book, China’s Water Crisis, and his role in creating the online China Water Pollution Map to help ordinary citizens spread the word about levels of water quality across the country.

Air quality is poor in China for many reasons – rampant pollution, especially by large factories, impotent enforcement of environmental regulations, as well as a growing consumer economy and rush to achieve economic growth – but the largest contributor to poor air quality in China is the dependence on coal, which still in 2013 provides for approximately two-thirds of China’s energy needs. Here in Ohio we often talk about the use of so-called “clean coal” technologies. That really is not part of the conversation in the PRC.

Environmental protesters have found quite a bit of latitude within contemporary China, which is a puzzle given the crackdown on so many other sources of dissent. Why are they given this room? Yes, part of it is because the problems are so obvious, as you state. International awareness and standards have had an impact as well, especially in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, when China promised so-called “Blue Sky Days” of smog-free pollution. Now, here’s the thing about authoritarian governments: They can shut down factories and limit access to cities in order to promote their goal, and that is exactly what Beijing did in the run-up to the summer Olympic games. It worked, and the games came off with very few problems. But when the “Blue Sky Days” retreated as well, people started to question why.

There are many environmental organizations in China – some sanctioned by the government (governmentally organized non-governmental organizations, if you will) and others operating more on the fringes. Why are they tolerated, or at least not completely targeted by the government? Because finally governmental leaders recognize that environmental degradation hurts the financial bottom line. When factories do not have enough water to complete their contracts, economic growth is hindered.

A25: A Chinese company recently bought Smithfield Foods. I used to live pretty close to Smithfield. A few years back, they were slammed with the largest environmental penalties of any company ever in the United States for dumping crud into the Pagan River. Does our civil justice system make a difference in terms of corporate responsibility compared to other countries that lack this check on their businesses?

Luehrmann: The Smithfield Food deal (still awaiting approval by the U.S. government as this goes to press) is controversial indeed, and it could have serious ramifications well beyond the pork industry. If the deal is worked out, even though owned by a Chinese company, it will have to face U.S. standards, even though we, too, obviously lack consistent enforcement. But in this case, given their past record, scrutiny of Smithfield – Chinese-owned or not – will be great.

The question of corporate responsibility within China, though, is complex, and relatively new. Keep in mind that until the 1990s just about all businesses in China were state-owned enterprises, synonymous with the Chinese Communist Party. Business, government and party were all one and the same, and people were employed by one enterprise for life, with the company providing nearly all economic, social and welfare needs of the individual.

Environmentally, international multinational corporations in China are often held to a higher standard than Chinese-owned companies, public or private, in large part because they can take the pressure and can be used to help promote standards that Chinese companies only struggle for.

A25: Your students at Wright State are now younger than the Tiananmen Square tragedy. What is the most surprising thing your students learn about China?

Luehrmann: Funny you should ask. I was teaching my Chinese Foreign Policy class a couple of years ago, and, in my notes I had scribbled “lifetime ago.” I caught myself mid-sentence as I said to the class, “To many, Tiananmen Square seems as if it were a lifetime ago,” realizing that only one or two students in the class were born before 1989. Yes, that was embarrassing.

I think my students are always surprised to find out how diverse China is. I remember, after my fieldwork in China, when one of my students said, “Wow, how could you eat Chinese food for four months?” My response: “How can you eat American food for the last 20 years?” Chinese food is more than General Tso’s (significantly Americanized dish, by the way) and fortune cookies (a creation of Chinese Americans – you won’t find fortune cookies in China). China is richly diverse in terms of ethnicity (56 officially recognized different ethnic groups, many with their own dialect of spoken Chinese), economically (significant divisions between rural and urban areas, and regional distinctions that seem like crossing international borders) and of course, in terms of cuisine. Each region has distinct styles of sauces and ingredients that mark their food. Think Skyline Chili and how different that is from Texan chili.

I also believe, after the wall-to-wall coverage of the 2008 Olympic Games and China’s relatively successful weathering of the global financial crisis, that most of my students look at China and see only economic success. They are often surprised to hear about China’s poverty and the significant gaps between the rich and the poor. When I first starting teaching about China as a graduate student in the mid-1990s, I had to counter the other perspective: At that time, people only looked at China and saw poverty and Third World.

A25: Here, everyone is freaking out about the National Security Ahency, but that seems relatively minor compared with imprisoning bloggers and torturing artists. Are we overly worried about our own rights, or not worried enough?

Luehrmann: I do not believe we can ever be too protective of our precious freedoms, nor can we ever take them for granted. Your question points to one of the reasons why I believe comparative analysis is important, and also why – and I know many students dread general education courses, and parents question why tuition needs to be spent on courses so seemingly disconnected from student’s major field of study – it is so important for all of us to do as much as we can to understand the broader world and to make meaningful comparisons in order to understand the similarities and differences across countries. Yes, I think my university students appreciate their freedom to blog and create art freely without fear of repercussion a bit more after studying some of these trials in China (and elsewhere), or at least I hope they do.

But just because the situation is that much worse in China does not mean we should care about protecting our own freedoms any less. A couple of years ago, when I was at a political rally and there was an (admittedly irritating) protester who kept interrupting the program to raise his objections. When police escorted him out of the room, there was great applause and celebration. I remember being less thrilled than others as he was taken away. Isn’t dissent (arguably civilly expressed dissent) what we are all about?

A25: You noted that the Arab Spring made China a leeetttle nervous. Can you see something like that happening there, or are they just too expert at shushing dissent?

Luehrmann: Could there ever be a successful “China Spring”? Of course. You and I can both remember a time when people said there would always be two Germanies, or that the Soviet Union would always be a challenge to the United States. It’s bad social science to lack faith in the ability of ordinary people to change their situation. Activists in China know the rules. They have their nose to the ground, testing where the limits are at a particular time and place. We know about the brave and bold individuals, such as artist-activist Ai Weiwei, who capture international attention as they thumb their nose in the face of Chinese authorities, often paying quite a high price for such activism. (By the way, if you have the chance to see Ai Weiwei’s most recent exhibit – “According to What?” – be sure to catch it. It was most recently at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and opens in mid-August at the Art Gallery of Ontario.) His art, rich in political and social commentary, really encourages us to question the meaning of labels and roles in contemporary society. As the exhibit showcases, some individuals pay a great price for trying to make sure the truth comes out in China – in his case, for attempting to publicize an accurate list of the names of all schoolchildren who died in the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

The other famous dissident in China is Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who spent so many years in China working to publicize abuses of the population control policy and who also advocated so loudly for the rights of disabled persons in China. He rose to fame when he escaped from house arrest and fled to the U.S. Embassy, initially not seeking asylum, but eventually accepting an offer to study law in the United States. For every one of these internationally visible activists who takes on such risk to raise awareness of his or her cause, I would argue there are at least hundreds of lesser well known individuals who are doing their part to speak out against injustice within China – and often suffering great consequences for it. Journalists in China are especially brave, working against the system to expose malfeasance and other violations.

But if we look at the history of significant dissent around the world – dissent that actually overturns power structures –it often hails from unexpected individuals who simply decide that they are fed up with the system, and, seemingly individual acts can take on meaning well beyond a single time and place. That is precisely what launched the Arab Spring when the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of his unfair treatment in the market, launching the Tunisian revolution and the wider Arab Spring.

There’s been lots of talk about whether or not China is ripe for such an overthrow; and to be honest with you, it is hard to say. Just recently a watermelon vendor was challenged by a local police officer – nothing but a hired thug whom uniformed police members hire to enforce less popular rules – and the man died after the altercation. Chinese social networking sites – rigidly censored but still quite active in exposing abuse of power – went crazy spreading the news of this case, and an investigation has been launched. Many wondered if this man’s death could spark a Tunisian-style revolt, but it has not, at least yet, and likely for a number of reasons. Part of it is active censorship, aided, I have to point out, by many Western-based information communication technology companies, including Cisco, Google and Yahoo.

Yet, it is also important to point out that the regime enjoys surprising levels of support, which might, of course, collapse if the economy continues to tank. The Chinese Communist Party’s core source of legitimacy is the continued economic improvement of people’s lives, and it is just not possible for the economy to continue to sustain such high levels of economic growth in the coming decades. How the current administration of Xi Jinping (“Mr. Xi”) and Li Keqiang (“Mr. Li”) manage the inherent tensions within China, including the gap between rich Chinese and poor Chinese, the uneven development between urban and rural areas, and the ethnic divisions across the country, will determine the degree to which the regime continues to enjoy relatively high levels of support. Social scientists are rarely good at forecasting revolutions – large or small – in many ways, I would argue, because the human spirit defies simple explanation.

A25: We are both fans of 1980s Saturday Night Live characters Ed Grimley and the Church Lady. They were funny then and funny now. Is there any hope for comedy, satire or pure unbridled silliness in China? Would they even get the Superiority Dance? It relies so heavily on religious and cultural contexts that it seems it might not translate well.

Luehrmann: One thing I always warn my students about is the use of comedy in less familiar linguistic and cultural situations. Comedy is tough to translate and can often literally get lost in translation. A number of years ago I attended a great comedy show in Lijiang, a lovely minority-populated area in picturesque southern Yunnan province. I understood everything up until the punch-line, which was so frustrating.

Entertainment in China has come a long way from the dull historical epics and dubbed A.L.F. (yes, A.L.F. from the 1980s!) shows that I used to watch in China. For a number of years now, reality TV has been a big hit, including the hysterically illuminating show, Win in China, modeled after The Apprentice and singing shows like American Idol. Recently, a number of these shows have been censored by authorities, who have ordered producers of these wildly popular shows to tone down the glitz and extravagance of performers, much to the chagrin of producers, who are looking to carve out an important niche in the growing Chinese television market. (Nine major provincial satellite channels have singing competitions along the line of Voice of China and similar spin-offs.)

Authorities are attempting to control the number of entertainment shows, including talent competitions, dating shows and other forms of reality entertainment, in favor of news and documentaries. Part of this may be related to the current anti-corruption campaign and the perceived need of authorities to demonstrate restraint and modesty, especially after high-profile scandals involving mistresses, teenagers of leaders run amok and other signs of depravity unbecoming social servants.

About religion – you are right that the Superiority Dance may not translate well, but it does surprise many people to learn that China has many variants of religious expression; and, if current trends continue, China is on a path to be both the largest Christian and Muslim country later this century. It’s a dicey area of expression, though, as groups need to operate “above ground” with sanction, meaning that there are “official” Communist Party-supported churches and mosques, in addition to “underground” variants of religious traditions. Sometimes these “underground” churches worship right out in the open; and other times, as I have witnessed myself, they are forced into people’s houses or other less visible meeting places in order to avert the glare of authorities, who are suspicious of gatherings of large groups of individuals.

Back to comedy, though, some are surprised to learn that Jon Stewart clips have gone viral across the Chinese social networking universe (approximately half of the Chinese population is connected to the Internet), and many so-called “netizens” openly question how long they will have to wait before Chinese entertainers can so openly use satire to prod the population about contemporary social, economic and political matters. That being said, none of my Saturday Night Live imitations were very helpful in China, except when I was hanging out with other ex-pats. As one of our favorite characters would refrain, “Isn’t that special?”

Laura Luehrmann is on Twitter: @LauraLuehrmann.


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