Thursday, 25 May 2017

Can A Single Spark Still Start A Prairie Fire?

Maybe, unless everyone calms down.

Mao Zedong’s famous statement that “all China is littered with dry faggots which will soon be aflame, [that] a single spark can start a prairie fire" [星星之火,可以燎原] has been trotted out once again, this time by a local newspaper commentary meant to measure a speech by Yang Shuping, a psychology and theater student at graduation ceremonies held at the University of Maryland—a speech which lauded American freedoms, chastised Chinese society and kicked off a firestorm of its own on much of Chinese social media. Many hit out at Yang’s depiction of her native country to a point where Yang felt compelled to apologize, stating, “the speech is just to share my overseas experience and comes with no intention to negate or belittle my country.”

To many observers, the episode confirmed that China is comprised largely of overly sensitive nationalists out to defend their country and culture to anything that even partially offends.

International media coverage of China’s cyberspace has sprinted from the view a few years ago that blogging will change China by opening up civil society to now depicting social media here as juvenile, angry, and just good for a single quote. It was never either, and never shall be.

It’s true that China’s social media--when it comes to politics—can be a cesspool, with only the odd island to stand on and sponge off the filth. Few here post on sensitive political issues, but those who do so regularly are often insightful and interesting to read. And what’s sensitive tomorrow may not yet be so today, so there is some space for nuance if done cautiously and well.  

That’s frequently the case with statements in the State media here, particularly at the local level where officials often afford commentators some measure of political cover.

Yang’s speech was pretty mundane and uninspiring.[1] But the reaction on social media prompted a response from a local Nanjing newspaper, 东方卫报--a paper whose abbreviated version is distributed for free in the city’s subway stations.

The commentary is restrained and quite remarkable.

It chastises Yang's speech, saying that while “it is true that our society does have a lot of problems, [the student] should have made constructive remarks for the development of the Motherland, rather than air in public something that was full of discredited statements…[and done mostly for] personal catharsis.”

Instead, China’s social problems need valuable and meaningful constructive comments, the commentary insists, not slander produced by people venting their personal feelings.” The editorial notes that there have been Chinese studying overseas who were “deeply aware of our social problems, did not engage in abuse, but used their own ability to promote the Motherland to change.”

“Expressing personal emotions” is acceptable, the essay concedes, but Yang's views are “emotional and subjective, and therefore don’t contribute to social progress.”

But at the same time, the reaction to Yang’s address speech on social media hasn't been entirely helpful, according to the commentary. Indeed, “to criticize the speech blinded by blood emotions isn’t constructive either [盲目热血地批评], even if it’s done in a loud and clear voice from the heart, just produces negative energy as well”, the piece argues.

For both sides, the commentary states, “venting their personal feelings can be enjoyable for a moment, but for the community, it’s useless.” If one wants to “nurture people, what we have to do is to mention more useful, meaningful, valuable advice, rather than to despise and slander others.”

That’s for Yang, but it’s also clearly aimed at the yellers.

The commentary concludes by saying that a person’s every phrase isn’t worth paying undue attention to [一人一言一语微不足道], that, at its most dangerous, a statement can be “a single spark that can start a prairie fire” [星星之火却可以燎原].

So that's the message: That it’s not helpful for China if social progress gets lost amidst the shouting; that calm is called for. Clearly, someone is worried about how this all looks abroad and probably more so to the central leadership in Beijing, especially if some in the Chinese public start asking where the current political strongmen stand on all this.

It will be interesting to see if local officials take this measured commentary in a minor newspaper as an instruction to step in and stop the discussion, or if some find the current inferno more appealing and worth stoking. Sometimes a single fire cannot be made back into a spark. Ask Mao, and ask China.

[1] It’s not clear why Yang was selected, or if University administrators reviewed her speech before it was delivered—something that would be standard practice at many schools. Some have speculated that there were more nefarious motives at work, for which there’s no evidence.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Of Misunderstandings And Political Undertakings In The Communist Party

It’s never easy to get a handle on discussions inside China’s Communist party—debates that reveal the thinking of Chinese officials, as well as the parameters and direction of policy. There’s so much about the political system here that is opaque at best, closed to outsiders, and frequently tough to get a clear sense of.

But it’s not impossible.

In Chinese politics, words are actions. What’s presented in State-controlled media reflects attitudes and arguments among officials about policy options, about the trajectory of the Party and the country. Editorials are issued to instruct other departments and lower levels about what Beijing is thinking and why, and sometimes to air alternatives. There’s substantial diversity and dissent in commentaries and essays, as well as the current Party line. And it should provide important indications of arguments in the run-up to this year's 19th Party Congress.

Obviously, if one presumes that Chinese politicians struggle for power and are driven to pillage; that leaders only want loyalty and loot; and that’s what the 19th Party Congress will focus on—Xi securing power (finally, after many light years)--then it’s a waste of time to actually read what’s in the Party media.

But that's absurd, because seeing what officials and their advisors are writing about allows one to begin to capture and comprehend the state of the debate in China—what’s seen by cadres as pleasing, and what’s viewed as worrying. 

The editorial’s author is Shi Zhongquan [石仲泉], former Deputy Director of the Central Party Research Office, an arm of the Central Committee that’s responsible for collecting information and issuing policy recommendations for the political leadership. Shi is ostensibly retired, but no high-level cadre in China ever is: He’s written on the Long March and its legacy, and his essays are clearly authoritative, reflecting what at least some Party advisors think are major issues of the day. When Shi writes, others are sure to read.

Shi argues in the editorial that there are currently three major misunderstandings among some Party members concerning how the organization is run—“errors [误识] in thinking…that need to be clarified.” 

That's Party-speak for "there's a problem here that still hasn't gone away." 

The first misimpression is the belief among some in the Party rank-and-file that the current pressure on cadres is never going to end [压力没完论]--that its “endless character” is seen as detrimental to members and thus, the Party itself.

Continuing with strict oversight and supervision—enhanced Party discipline—is crucial, Shi contends, because history and recent years have shown that without rigorous regulation of officials, waste and corruption results. Shi insists that there’s no need for cadres to keep looking over their shoulders, so long as they retain a regular daily work routine and attend to their responsibilities as Party members. The "endless nature" of the crusade is necessary because the problems being faced are profound.

The inference in the editorial—the confirmation, really--is that there’s a climate of fear in official circles, but there really shouldn’t be. That is, if cadres did their jobs to start with. That many still aren't doing so is another reason why the campaign continues, Shi implies.

The second misunderstanding, Shi writes, is the presumption by some cadres that, as a Chinese maxim [成语] has it, “cutting chives is useless”; that graft will grow back no matter no matter how extensive the crusade against corruption; that it’s a hopeless harvest [割韭无用论].

Shi argues that those who think “that there is no fundamental solution to the phenomenon of corruption because of the conditions of the soil” [没有从根本上解决产生贪腐现象的土壤] ignore the progress already made, because by continuing to slash at weeds, graft has nowhere to take root and grow. There’s in fact been, Shi maintains in the editorial, significant progress [重大进展] in reshaping China's political landscape, frightening off those cadres who would otherwise be tempted by corruption. The anti-graft crusade isn’t just some seasonal culling, but something more permanent, he insists.

The third misperception of some Party members is the assumption that there’s no cadre can meet the requirements to abide by all the regulations [“there will be nobody left”--无人干事], and that therefore at some point soon as officials are found wanting, no one will be in charge because they've all been removed, and these rectification campaigns will then have to be reduced.

Shi baulks at that conclusion, stating that “these initiatives have already won popular sentiment and the hearts and minds of the party” [这些举措深得党心民心]. With such support, Shi says, efforts by some officials to wait out these campaigns will fail. And there will always be outstanding candidates for cadre positions, Shi adds, implying that those who continue to lag will lose out.

In one sense, we’ve been here before: This isn’t the first time that Chinese commentators have made the case that Beijing’s anti-corruption crusade and the rectification struggle isn’t about to be closed down just because some are complaining about it. And these pieces remain admonitions--warnings, but not purges (though accusations of "errors" comes closer to threats of the latter).

Still, Shi’s attempt to deflect what is apparently a litany of grievances shows that despite Beijing’s best efforts, some Party cadres remain unconvinced and concerned--years after the campaigns began. That Shi was tasked to respond to this reluctance signals some worry in leadership circles that actual organized resistance isn’t going away but could actually be growing. 

But whether that defiance results in a showdown over reform before or at the 19th Party Congress has yet to be written. Never mind the "power struggle" narrative. The real story here and to come is whether the reforms thus far will end up getting rolled back.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

In Local China, Not All Cleanup Campaigns Are About Corruption

The half-year campaign to clean up Crescent Lake [月牙湖] in Nanjing is very nearly complete.

Much of the time, that sort of news doesn't merit anything more than local media coverage or government pronouncements about achievements. The Establishment Narrative about China from outside China (or the Beltway) seeks sharper fare to feed on—environmental activists sounding off and being rounded up, public protests about pollution, exposés about toxic landscapes and poisoned children, or Beijing with its noxious air nonetheless somehow leading the world on climate change. That Narrative focuses on the grassroots and the grave discontent purportedly lurking in the social soil, not the government and its attempts to problem-solve.

Those are important stories, but they’re not the whole book. Policies pursued by local officials to improve The Nearby in China—which is what really matters to residents and underpins legitimacy [合法性]—deserve notice and, as in the present instance, praise.

For the past year or so now, Nanjing has been cleaning up its waterways. Some of the motivation for that initiative has been an aging infrastructure, and the demands of a growing population alongside efforts to incorporate adjoining land.

But it’s also more complicated. Nanjing not only needs more drinking water for residents; it wants to make sure that the water it has and gets is better managed—cleaner, as well as easier to control in the event of the sort of flooding that plagued the city and surrounding areas last year. City officials have noted in recent months the importance of mitigating the overflowing of rivers and streams in Nanjing’s eastern section, near Purple Mountain and adjacent natural and historical habitats. They know that the city has a water problem.

The easiest approach would have been to pull down a lot of trees; denude the landscape to construct conduits, sluice gates, and concrete watercourses; and work to capture and channel the flow in a large-scale, high-profile project.

Instead, Nanjing planners focused on the downstream—literally. 

Officials here recognized, after extensive consultation with local scientists and other experts, that if there was going to be a large-scale investment of funds and other resources, the city needed to go all-in, and do the essential micro-work: Demolish illegal structures bordering waterways (including the Qinhuai District office of the city’s Sanitation Bureau built near a local canal); tear down toilets and dry cleaners adjacent to canals to stop emissions; and not only clean up bodies of water in the municipal area, but make sure they stayed that way by increasing patrols to enforce regulations and setting up centrally-controlled systems to monitor Nanjing’s many water places.

That’s why there’s been a cleanup of Crescent Lake: It’s part of this general strategy to upgrade the city’s waterways as a whole, instead of just fixing part of the problem.

And the Crescent Lake project itself has been a massive effort.

According to the aforementioned account in Wednesday’s Nanjing Daily, 460,000 cubic meters of silt were removed, equivalent to 30,000 large truckloads. The lake was drained, dredged, and a 200 square meter island for migrating waterfowl constructed. 

There were upgrades and repairs to facilities astride the lake as well. New water pipelines and drainage systems were installed in communities on the east side of Crescent Lake, to divert sewage lines from emptying into the lake. Walkways were resurfaced to absorb water, instead of allowing it to spill into the lake.

Interestingly enough, two popular restaurants adjacent to Crescent Lake, as well as a small amusement park, will continue to operate. Local rumors have always tied at least the restaurants to specific government departments, and so political connections might have trumped pollution control measures in this instance.

How this project was conceived, managed, and presented is worth a study in itself. Nanjing authorities provided a central phone number to call in with complaints and suggestions about the Crescent Lake cleanup specifically, something apart from the ongoing initiative in the city to field the concerns of residents. Schedules and plans for the project were posted and openly shared on-site, and the mobile phone numbers of the managers and supervisors were displayed for citizens to call directly if they had questions. This was a well-conceived, well-organized experiment in policy that actually reached out to the public—something rare in China, though not so uncommon these days in Nanjing and other parts of Jiangsu.

There are all sorts of instances in China where local authorities have been lousy and irresponsible, corrupt and draconian, selfish and stupid. This wasn’t one of them. Sometimes good governance at the local level can be found by just looking around.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Welcome to The Blacklist

Nanjing local government has spent weeks of wondering and wavering on whether or not to take on the shared-bike companies and the proliferation of bicycles on city streets. Would it be better to force these firms to take action using directives, or simply let market conditions decide which companies flourished or failed?

Yesterday, officials here made an important decision.

Go after the riders instead.

According to an announcement in Wednesday’s Nanjing Daily, beginning on May 15, people using shared-bikes and found to be violating local traffic regulations must produce identification, accept the resulting fines, and will have their rule-breaking counted as part of Nanjing’s social credit system.

In short, the offenders will be blacklisted [黑名单]--to start making sure how people behave on share-bikes isn't something separate from how they're evaluated in local society.

The story in Nanjing Daily notes that a number of riders refuse to hand over their name and identification cards [身份证], daring traffic officers to fine them and refusing to comply with the new rules. This is frequently the behavior of riders here anyway, especially those who aren’t actual Nanjing residents as they see little reason to abide by rules made by a city which isn’t eager to grant them benefits anyway.  In these cases, without a personally- owned bicycle to seize or impound, some users believe that pedaling through a red light, riding in a non-bicycle lane, or causing an accident is not a reason to take responsibility but to try to escape it.

The story notes that, in one instance, traffic officers had to pull a violator into a local police station to get him to provide his identification and thus be included in the new system. In another case, an offender dropped the shared bike and ran into a nearby park, but was caught. Another incident saw a wrongdoer simply lock his shared bike and try to stroll away.

Traffic officers have said that the failure to accept fines will result in offenders listed on a separate shared-bike list, whereupon they’ll be barred from using these bikes in the future, or at least pay a far higher hourly usage rate.

It’s not clear whether all of the share-bike companies here are coordinating their operations with the Nanjing government, or if city authorities are compiling their own data for incorporation into their specific social credit records. Just getting the local bureaucracy aligned has been challenging. And what sometimes starts off as a policy ends up being just an experiment that gets crossed off when resistance appears.

Like so many matters here in Local China, there’s still a lot of grey. 

Monday, 15 May 2017

"One Belt, One Road" Could Be Path-breaking, But Will It Play In the Provinces?

Finally, Jiangsu residents get to hear about the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

That's an exaggeration, of course: Only cave-dwelling hermits could have avoided the media coverage about China’s new strategic enterprise in the past few days. But while China Central Television has flooded its channels with Beijing’s Silk Road initiative, the local news here focused on more proximate matters, such as a conference on civilized conduct in Nanjing, continuing challenges with pedestrian crossings being ignored by drivers, and another round of property market regulations.

That changed Monday morning, as Nanjing Daily finally followed suit by giving front-page treatment to President Xi Jinping’s carefully composed and articulate speech on the New Silk Road. Authorities in Jiangsu may feel little excitement, but they also have little choice. Beijing sets the agenda, even if not everyone gets the memo.

Of course there’s support for “One Belt, One Road” [OBOR, or “一路”] among entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, and citizens in China generally. But it’s been difficult to locate locally. That’s in large part because, for more than a few residents and officials here, OBOR is just more Beltway theater—a play for places far away, particularly in the economically-bereft Northeast and Western regions. Some residents see OBOR as a major project designed to bolster Beijing’s prestige as much as China’s. After all, Jiangsu and its adjoining provinces are doing rather well economically. How OBOR might benefit cadres and citizens in China’s affluent east isn’t at all apparent—and the local media isn’t articulating it either probably because officials here can’t quite figure out the payoff to the province themselves.

Indeed, there are some here who wonder if “One Belt, One Road” will divert resources from local projects, including infrastructure and innovation initiatives that officials here thought were supposed to be the priority--the agenda that Premier Li Keqiang has been spelling out for some months now and has been pursued with vigour. Are those efforts to reorganise and restructure and reform for the sake of local innovation now less important to Beijing? 

This local perplexity is important to take note of--one of those instances in China where silence outside Beijing doesn’t mean complicity with central directives but simmering disquiet. There isn’t organised resistance to “One Belt, One Road”, but there's at least clear reluctance to jump on the bandwagon—or caravan—when the focus for Beijing is helping regions other than Jiangsu. That disinclination could end up being debilitating. 

Likewise, there’s no express political opposition to Xi’s initiative that's apparent. But there’s a sense for some here that OBOR is not clearly connected to specific local concerns, which means that Xi and his allies probably still have some selling to do at home after they're through hosting those from abroad. That’s really why the State media here keeps harping on the benefits for everyone in China, to persuade the skeptical that this is a new road worth walking on together and, just as importantly, to support Xi. Xi and his allies work to dominate the national airwaves because they’ve been unable to dictate the local conversation, and this is another instance where they seem to think they need to.

OBOR as a strategic concept is bold and potentially brilliant. But there are grounds for wondering if it will truly succeed the way the ruling powers in Beijing are currently promising. How it plays in the provinces will go a long way in determining if they’ve really chosen the right road.