China in focus


China in Focus #19: Peaches, Plums and the Challenge of Cross-Cultural Communication

, China project manager and senior analyst

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Chinese President Xi Jinping likes to use Chinese idioms in his public remarks. While speaking to a select group of U.S. luminaries in Seattle on the first day of a state visit to the United States, President Xi dropped the following Chinese gem on his non-Chinese speaking audience: 桃李不言, 下自成蹊. Read more >

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China in Focus #18: Ground Truth

, China project manager and senior analyst

Thirty years ago this month my first year in China came to an end. What I remember most is that I returned to the United States assured I knew less about China than when I first arrived. It was a year of unlearning. The ground truth of my experience in the country did not support the narratives about China I studied in school.

Every time I return to China the unlearning continues. Read more >

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China in Focus #16: Continuity and Change under China’s Chairman Xi

, China project manager and senior analyst

China has a new leader. By all accounts, and according to most Chinese friends, colleagues and acquaintances I have asked— and I have asked many— Xi Jinping is the most impressive political figure to appear in China since Deng Xiaoping. This assessment seems to be based on the perception that after a single year in office, Chairman Xi has consolidated his control over the Party, the Army and the State bureaucracy.

Opinions differ on what Chairman Xi will do, both at home and abroad, with his exceptional political authority. But the appearance of a single individual who is willing to take personal responsibility for the national condition, instead of deferring to the collective leadership of his colleagues in the Standing Committee of the Politburo—China’s most powerful political institution— is a noticeable and important change in the status of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

One thing Chairman Xi’s ascendance has not changed is how the CCP tries to carry out its policies.

Two Types of Chinese Communist Propaganda

While the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy are a mystery to everyone who is not a part of it, the CCP still relies heavily on what it calls “propaganda” to govern the rest of the country. The English definition of the word implies deceit, and when reporting on domestic accomplishments or international conditions, less-than-honest manipulation of the words and images the Party presents to the Chinese public is not uncommon.

However, in a still-communist China—self-consciously more “red” under Chairman Xi than under his recent predecessors—there is a second type of Chinese propaganda that must be true to be effective. The CCP uses this form of political communication to articulate goals and expectations for the approximately 80 million Party cadres, including the senior-level officers of the Chinese military, who are responsible for making sure, to the best of their ability, that everybody around them understands what China’s political leaders want done. Communicating that intent is essential to the CCP’s ability to govern.

Every Chinese bookstore contains a well-stocked section of the pamphlets through which this second type of propaganda is routinely distributed. A lot of it is still presented in the same yellow covered, red-lettered publications that carried the selected sayings of Deng Xiaoping when I first arrived in China in 1984. The great thing about the continued use of this form of political communication is that it allows foreign observers to get a very clear picture of what Chairman Xi is telling his own cadres about where China is headed.

The Status Quo Holds

The guiding concept of Chairman Xi’s propaganda line is “Realizing the Chinese Dream.” This is a new turn of phrase that sounds like a cheap knockoff of “the American Dream.” But it isn’t. The full articulation, which serves as the title of the propaganda pamphlet meant to communicate the core of Xi’s policy agenda, reveals that the content of Xi’s “Chinese dream” is not new at all. On Realizing the Chinese Dream of the Great Renaissance of Chinese National Culture (pictured below) is a dressed up version of the long-term objectives articulated by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s.  The overriding goal, to which all others are subordinated, is to achieve a “society with modest and broadly distributed prosperity” and in doing so create the economic conditions for a renaissance of Chinese culture. The former idea was a concept from the Confucian classics resurrected by Chinese intellectual Kang Youwei in the 1880s. China’s first President, Sun Yatsen, popularized the idea of a Chinese national renaissance during his successful effort to overthrow China’s last imperial dynasty and establish the Republic of China in 1911.

Other familiar Chinese revolutionary phrases, such as “the people are the creators of history” and “the masses are the real heroes” can be found in Chairman Xi’s pamphlet. But he also sets some rather explicit goals, such as doubling 2010 national GDP and per capita income levels by 2020.  A longer term objective is to “build a prosperous, strong democratic civilization” and a “harmonious modernized socialist nation” by mid-century. The phrasing is slightly updated, but these are the exact same objectives set by Deng Xiaoping when he started the process of “reform and opening up” in the late 1970s.

Most importantly for U.S. observers is that Chairman Xi tells his CCP cadres that in order to make the Chinese dream come true, “China must have a peaceful international environment.” This was another pillar of Deng Xiaoping’s thinking. This does not mean China will, in Xi’s words, “give up our sovereign rights” or “sacrifice core national interests.” Deng made this clear to Margaret Thatcher in 1984, when he compelled the “Iron Lady” to surrender Great Britain’s perfectly legal claim to perpetual sovereignty over the island of Hong Kong, which was based on the Treaty of Nanjing. Chairman Xi is asserting sovereign claims in the South China Sea and in China’s island dispute with Japan, but these claims are not new, nor is Xi’s effort to make sure they are well-understood by those who dispute them. But the idea that China’s new leader is attempting to change a domestic or an international status quo that has served Chinese communist objectives since Deng Xiaoping ruled the country three decades ago is not borne out by the political directives he distributes to Party cadres.

The Chinese Communist Party pamphlet described above on a PRC map of China printed in 1976.

The Chinese Communist Party pamphlet described above on a PRC map of China printed in 1976.

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China in Focus #15: A View from the Chinese Street

, China project manager and senior analyst

For the past twelve years I’ve had the good fortune to live in an unassuming neighborhood in northwest Beijing.  My landlady is reclaiming my one-bedroom, 45 square-meter apartment for her family. Moving from an old home inevitably stirs up assessments of the time passed.

One of the benefits of living modestly in one of the world’s more expensive and rapidly changing capital cities—in addition to saving a lot of money—is the opportunity to better understand an important slice of China that generally escapes the eyes of Americans who perceive the country from greater physical and socio-economic distances. U.S. analysts often talk about about the view from the street in the foreign countries they monitor. Very few can say their view of the Chinese street is the view from the street where they live.

U.S. analysts talk about “the street” as a way of summarizing broad trends in public opinion that are likely to impact a country’s future. As I first discovered in the 1980s, about the time my neighborhood of five-story brick buildings was constructed, those summaries often miss the mark. The China I read about in the U.S. is not the China I experienced first hand. Understanding and resolving that difference, which remains as great as ever, is a constant and challenging personal and professional preoccupation.

My View of “the Street”

My view of the Chinese street affords a steady stream of new information and perspectives that often call into question my assumptions about China. To be regularly reminded of how much I don’t know, even after thirty years of effort, is humbling. But it does entitle me to make one observation with a measure of confidence. When my U.S. colleagues in the press, academia and government approach their own efforts to explain what is happening in China with a measure of humility, the gap between American portrayal and Chinese reality shrinks, and U.S.—China relations are better for it.

I’ve spent much of the last twelve years debunking tall U.S. tales about China, such as the claim that China had developed “parasite satellites” to launch a “space Pearl Harbor” against the United States, or the claim that China has thousands of nuclear weapons stored in an “underground great wall.” In almost every case the problems arise from seeing China from too great a distance. U.S. analysts who pour through the open source works of Chinese military propagandists often mistake them for actual Chinese military strategies that, of course, would never be openly published. If those analysts had the chance to have an occasional coffee with ex-military neighbors or the occasional lunch with Chinese colleagues at the nearby defense university, they would understand more about Chinese military culture and the credibility of different sources.

U.S. China watchers who question China’s economic statistics and doubt official claims about the rising standard of living for ordinary Chinese would be able to see the little improvements at the margins of everyday life that suggest those statistics are probably close to the mark. A few years ago, for example, I watched the district government retrofit the local elementary and middle schools up the street under a national directive issued in the wake of the collapse of school buildings during an earthquake in Sichuan in 2008. It eventually extended similar protection to my building too, installing double-pane safely glass windows at no cost to my landlady while wrapping the building in a fabric that will help hold it together if the earth should shake here in Beijing, which is more seismically active than many realize. Over the years I’ve witnessed the addition of new sidewalks, a basketball court, a roller-skate rink, new benches and landscaping, a new front gate and countless other little things that leave residents with the impression that, despite all of its well known flaws, the Chinese government continues to spread at least some of its newfound wealth around, and to perform its essential functions reasonably well.

Leadership that Matters on the Street

I moved into this neighborhood just before Hu Jintao assumed office and am departing not long after he left. The slogans of his era were “scientific development” and “social harmony.” U.S. analysts routinely criticized the recently retired Chinese president for being boring, and for not seeming to accomplish much, but from the point of view of my neighbors boring was pretty good. Systematically improving the little things matters more to the old hundred names around here than grand nationalist rhetoric about standing up to Japan or China’s status in the world. They know that any loud mouth can talk because it comes cheap. But having the skill and maintaining the attention needed to successfully manage the minutia of a massive socialist economy that sustains 1.4 billion citizens with modest but rising expectations is hard work. My neighbors get that, and respect the effort, even while complaining things would be even better if their leaders weren’t socking away slush funds in the British Virgin Islands.

As this particular chapter of my time in China closes, I bid my neighbors farewell with the hope that China’s new leaders do not allow the drama of what seems to be a new and divisive era in Asian geopolitics to distract them from the boring but essential business of good government at home.

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Document #9

, China project manager and senior analyst

Cassette tape inserts from the early 1990s. On the left, Cui Jian’s “Rock & Roll on the New Long March.” On the right, “Red Sun: Mao Zedong Leadership Songs.” Cui’s rock rendition of the Communist Internationale was sung by student protesters during the 1989 demonstrations and banned afterwards. Red Sun is one of many pop renditions of CCP revolutionary classics that appeared during a wave of Cultural Revolution era nostalgia that swept over China in the early 1990s.

On 19 August the New York Times reported the current Chinese leadership is cracking down on “Western ideas.” If I had a dollar for every time I read a similar statement in a U.S. newspaper over the past 30 years I could buy myself a new smartphone. Read more >

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