Tehran, Tiananmen, Taiwan?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:51 am

There was a post up, briefly, At Edge of the American West Dana captured some of the emerging themes of the discussion [link added] on Iranian democracy, including the fact that Mousavi, from whom the election seems to have been stolen, isn’t really all that nice, liberal or different from Ahmedinajad, especially since the presidency isn’t really the seat of greatest power in Iran.1 There’s a growing call for tough talk and possibly action in support of the protesters, some of which is identifiable as neo-conservatives taking a consistent pro-interventionist line. The post then took that to the next step, noting that we have conflicts with the Iranian regime — nuclear development, Iraq influence, etc. — and that some neo-conservatives have supported military attacks on Iran as a way to force a favorable solution. Near the end of the post was the line that inspired me to respond:

The same groups rending their garments over the murder of Neda will be calling for the bombing of her relatives.2

I don’t think this is entirely true, unless “rending their garments” is supposed to indicate excessive strategic displays of grief. The fact is that the choices in the Iranian election were not all that diverse — the system limits candidates to those who have not, in any way, offended existing powers, at least not without sufficiently powerful allies to pull it off. Nonetheless many of us believe that process matters. Just as the Tiananmen protests were actually about a more open socialism, not democracy, these protests are about an honest Islamic Republic, not democracy. Still, though their rights won’t be all that much greater under Mousawi, it’s clear that their rights have been abridged radically through election fraud and violent suppression of peaceful protests.

Neda, and the others who died, were injured or arrested, deserve better than an Islamic Republic, but at the very least they deserves the preservation of an Islamic Republic.

The literature on democracy development is thin, at least in terms of convincing arguments, but the most likely precursor to actual democracy is faux democracy. It’s the habits of elections and candidates and constitutions and rights that develop under authoritarian populism that can blossom into something like real liberal (in the classical sense) democracy. This is where the example of Taiwan and South Korea is instructive, as well as the transition made by Japan in the mid-20th century. Protests rarely seem to result directly in regime change — though the Romanian and earlier Iranian examples did — but they do express the degree to which the people take their rights seriously.

  1. My apologies if I’m mis-representing the post, but I only read it once before it disappeared. I’m fairly sure I’m close, though. Some blogger more interested in metablogging can discuss the ethics of deleting a post, or of commenting on deleted posts. I didn’t see anything particularly controversial there, or obviously wrong. []
  2. I had copied this into the comment box before the post disappeared, so I’m sure this is correct []


Weird Orientalism

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:24 pm

The kids and I have been playing a game called Great Wall of China, which is a German board game1 (actually a card game) designed by Reiner Knizia, who judging from the prominence of his name on the box is a big wheel in the game biz. It’s a fun game you can play with 2 or more, and like a lot of games they have dressed it up with a bit of history, connecting it to the building of the Great Wall. The connection is a bit odd at first. You are supposed to be a Chinese nobleman helping build the Great Wall, which is a little odd, since Qin Shihuang prefered to work through the buraucracy. The really odd thing, however, is that if you are about to win and want to declare this the last round you have to inform the other players that this is the last round by shouting out “Guangzhou!” I can think of  a few reasons for this.

1. The game box says it was made in China. Maybe it was made in Guangzhou.

2. Most historical atlases say that the Guangzhou region first became part of the empire in the Qin, so since the game is about the North part of the Qin empire you should bring in the South part at the end.

3. Asian words and history are just cute ways of making things seem exotic, and so you don’t need to worry too much about what things actually mean.

P.S. It is a cool game. Maybe not as good as Wasabi!, or Munchkin, or Settlers of Catan, but well worth getting.

  1. Wikipedia rules []


International gender studies conference

Filed under: — gina @ 10:29 pm

For those of you who happen to be in Shanghai, Fudan University will be hosting China’s first international gender studies conference in a couple of weeks. As far as I know, auditing is welcome. It will be held at Fuxuan hotel in Shanghai from June 27-29.


Destruction in the name of progress

Filed under: — gina @ 4:46 am

Kashgar, China, a city often on the map for historians (especially historians of the silk road) has recently come to the attention of many around the world because of China’s newest policy: tear down the old town to save it (a good explanation of what is going can be found in the NYT article). Essentially, the government argues that because the foundation underneath Kashgar is quite unstable (many of the houses are up on platforms, and it is hollow underneath), they need to tear it all down and rebuild it for safety reasons, in case there is an earthquake. They plan to rebuild the old town in a traditional Islamic style, thus maintaining its original ambiance.

A few interesting things about this current decision. The earthquake argument is understandable to some, and confusing to others. It seems to me that the reason for giving this justification for tearing down the old town would sit well with many Chinese and the international community because of the recent disaster in Sichuan. The Uighers of old town, however, while probably not surprised, find this justification confusing or humorous (according to the Uighers around the old town I talked to). They have lived there for over 1000 years, and the old town has survived many earthquakes and has never fallen down. According to one woman I spoke with, she explained that they saw it as a tragedy to their history that they could do nothing about, and they all strongly feel that they were not given accurate justification for why their homes were taken away from them. They also, at least those I talked to, saw this as a direct attack on their culture, a way for the Chinese to further demonstrate their power over the region in light of growing tension and animosity.

But destroying things in the name of progress is certainly not new for China. It was a common practice of the 1960s and 1970s, of course, but the Beijing Olympics and the coming Shanghai Expo saw similar situations: peoples’ houses torn down with little compensation. Many of Beijing’s old hutongs are still inscribed with the kiss of death, the character “chai.” But this destruction in the name of progress differs from these other situations in its direct relation to cultural autonomy and ethnic tensions. Furthermore, if the Id Kah mosque is any indication of how the new Kashgar Old Town will look, it is likely that it will turn into a Lijiang-type tourist old town with little resemblance to anything except another stop for Chinese shoppers and photographers.

As far as this relates to ethnic tension, The Uighers I spoke with about this situation feel relatively hopeless. But it will be interesting to find out how this will affect a city that already feels more Central Asian than Central Asia itself. Perhaps it will spur on new problems, or it will exacerbate the failure an already dying cause.

And as far as the concept of destruction in the face of progress, it is unlikely that this will end any time soon, as cities constantly upgrade. While this resembles most developing countries, I believe, as China takes this concept to a new scale, it is quite representative of current cultural phenomenons regarding a national understanding of progress. China has been trying to define progress for nearly a century, through education, through politics, through revamping of culture, and throughout the 20th century, many have argued that destruction and replacement is the best way to solve nearly any problem. While it may be a stretch to connect this with the destruction of Kashgar old town, it represents this overall way of thinking, that “new” is always better. Of course this is not limited to China. But any kind of nostalgia for old things is lost on most Chinese people; even in Hong Kong, where it seems everything is new and modern, the people rallied together to save the clock tower in Tsim Sha Tsui, a recognition of the importance of old buildings.

Perhaps this overwhelming desire for the new represents a maintainance of theories of development that were common in the early 1900s, that the most developed countries were the best, and development meant “new.” (even look at publication names: New Life, New Youth, New Women, etc.) Now, instead of worrying about new ideology, this effort of modernity through the new is all put into infrastructure and material things. It will be interesting to see how long this continues, though it is unlikely that the constant construction will end anytime soon (I currently count 5 cities working on new subway lines, and I have no doubt that there are plenty more). However, for the sake of history, I hope that the Chinese cultural understanding of “new” and “modern” will begin to shift.


Beer in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:22 pm

Robert Bickers has a nice post up at China Beat on the early history of Qingdao beer. Its a good post and sheds a lot of light on the early history of what is now probobably one of the best known Chinese brands. Before WWI Qingdao was a classic example of the nature of Anglo-German capitalism in China. What I find most interesting about Qingdao however is its post 1949 history. There were lots of capitalist corporations in China before 1949, but not many of them made it through the Maoist period. Yang Zhiguo has studied the history of Qingdao brewery after 1949.1 During the Maoist years Qingdao was China’s capitalist face, sort of the first Special Economic Zone, since China needed foreign exchange and one of the few ways to get it was by selling Qingdao beer in  Southeast Asia and above all in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was of course a free market city and Qingdao had to take on already established foreign brands. This led to importing foreign machinery, a focus on quality that was unheard of in Maoist production, and killing domestially popular lines like Qingdao Porter (no really) in favor of the standard export version. As China began to open up after 1976 Qingdao was one of the first Chinese branded products to be exported in part because everyone likes beer but also because it was one of the only Chinese products with any hope of competing on world markets. My students are always amazed to hear that in the early 1980s some Americans (like me) would point it out to their friends if they found a product on a store shelf that said “Made in P.R.China”.2  Qingdao was the face of Chinese capitalism in the West for a number of years. Even now it is the face of Chinese beer, given that the other options would be something like the dreadful Reeb.

  1. “This Beer Tastes Really Good”: Nationalism, Consumer Culture and Development of the Beer Industry in Qingdao, 1903-1993 The Chinese Historical Review 14.1 Spring 2007 []
  2. This is less rare now []

The twentieth anniversary

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:39 am

I have, as it turns out, very little to say that I didn’t say five years ago, but I’ll reproduce it under the fold. Reading this year’s crop of remembrances, and Philip Cunningham’s first-person history, I don’t think my views have changed all that much, except that I see the movement more in the context of the decades before — periodic reformist movements which invariably met with repression whether or not the reforms were eventually pursued — and it’s much less shocking to me now than it was then. Still tragic. And the history since has been, by comparison, oddly quiet.


Basic principles of Chinese History

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:54 pm

From China Geeks via CDT the basic principles needed to write Chinese history. As one commenter pointed out, they would almost work as the principles to write any national history, but they are still pretty good.


Student Protests in Han China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:47 am

June is the month to blog about student protests in China. There have been a lot of them, and like other types of protesters Chinese students often consciously or unconsciously use scripts. American protesters want to occupy an administration building, French students want to go on strike (or whatever) and they do these things because the students are embedded in a political culture where these are the proper ways for students to protest. This is not to say that new forms of protest are not developed, but  that students, like everyone else, tend to choose a their actions from a set of roles that they are familiar with. Jeffery Wasserstrom’s book on student protest is probably the best source on the patterns of student protest in 20th century China. How far back do Chinese traditions of student protest go? To a certain extent they can’t go back too far, since China did not get its first modern university until 1898. On the other hand there have been students and schools in China for a very long time. The most interesting of the early protests come from the Latter Han dynasty. In the decade of the 160’s, during the reigns of Emperors Huan and Ling, students at the Imperial University (太學) were noted for their political activism. Like most university students, these were in an anomalous position in society. Imperial University students were members of the elite, but not elite enough to get government jobs just based on their family. Like later students they were also frustrated by their prospects. By the Later Han the curriculum at the University was considered hopelessly out of date and attending was no longer a reliable route to office. Students were deeply concerned with the problems of the state, which is not surprising, and they were particularly concerned with the problem of corruption and favoritism in official appointments, which is also not surprising, given that they were the ones most likely to be passed over if jobs were not given on merit. During this period the student’s enemies were not the Communist Party, but the eunuchs and their faction, who were rivals of the great aristocratic families. The emperors tried, without much success in the Later Han, to balance and stay above these factions.

In the first years of Emperor Huan, the fashion of student debate and criticism had taken the form of seven-character slogans, arranged in rhyming couplets, which were chanted in unison, shouted in the streets, and frequently written on walls…Short, pithy opinion combined with a good beat and rhyme made slogans such as these popular and influential. In a comparatively short time, under the name of “pure judgments” (qingyi 清義) they developed into a style of criticism that could be applied to any official or scholar and, as the name would indicate, such assessments were regarded as impartial and accurate summaries of character. Their most [20] effective practitioners, notably the student leader Guo Tai 郭泰, a man of humble birth but considerable intelligence and literary skill, gained immense prestige and a large following.1

So basically they were student-rappers. And, like later Chinese student protesters they looked to reformist officials with rhymes like this

A model for the empire,
Li Yuanli;
Fearless of powerful enemies,
Chen Zhongju

Hmm. I guess it worked better in the Han pronunciation. Of course the students lost, and many of them and many of those they supported in the regular bureaucracy were purged in 169. As became normal in Chinese politics the losers were accused of forming a faction (部黨). This was a serious accusation, since there was no tradition of loyal dissent in China. Just as there was little hope that Zhao Ziyang and the student protesters at Tiananmen would be able to work out a compromise that would preserve both the party and the students’ principles there was not much possibility that that bureaucracy and the eunuchs were going to work out an accommodation. Both were competing to be the exemplars of virtue for the empire, and there could be only one of them.

Also like Tiananmen, the aftermath of the purge was not what you might expect. Although people were in fact fired and executed and exiled, in practice the witch hunt did not and could not go very far. In part this was because the dispute was between two factions of the elite, and the eunuchs could not massacre the entire bureaucracy. In part this was because many government officials were unwilling to hunt people down, and many not connected with the Faction were eager to give them shelter. Sima Guang tells a number of stories of men like Zhang Jian, who managed to escape capture with the help of many people he had never even met. Many members of the local elite were eager to associate themselves with a certified Man of Virtue like Zhang, and many of these helpers suffered severely because of it. Eventually Zhang found his way back into government, becoming Captain of the Guards.

Zhang Jian was crticized for his escape and its costs by Xia Fu, who said “He brought this misfortune upon himself, and then he pointlessly caused the involvement of other good and honest people. In order the one man might escape death, ten thousand households suffered misfortune. How could one live with that?” Xia Fu hid himself on a mountain and became an ironworker, dying before he could return to office.2

Zhang Jian and Xia Fu demonstrated two of the ways that protesters could deal with defeat, and here too the Han figures were part of a developing tradition. Withdrawing from politics (into business in the 1990’s onto a mountaintop in the 170’s) was a standard option. Sima Guang approved

Your servant Sima Guang remarks:

If the empire is following the proper Way, true gentlemen assemble at the court of the ruler to correct the misbehavior by the men of mean spirit, and there on-one who dares not submit. When the empire has lost the Way, gentlemen retire into seclusion and do not speak out, hoping that they may avoid misfortune from the men of mean spirit, and yet still it happens that some of the fail to escape.

The men of Faction lived in a age of confusion and disorder, when all things were out of place and the four seas were in turmoil. They sought to solve problems by the words in their mouths, giving  judgments of good and bad so as to wipe out evil and restore purity. They sought to seize the snakes and vipers by the head, and trample on the tails of the tiger and the wolf. But it was they themselves who were injured and wrongfully punished, and the ill fortune reached their friends. Men of quality were destroyed, and the nation moved on to disaster. The pity of it! Only Guo Tai hand the insight and understanding to preserve his own life, while Shentu Pan (two men who retired from politics) realised what would happen and took appropriate action, not waiting till the final day. This is exceptional wisdom!

Obviously China has changed a lot in 2000 years, but it was odd for me to read some of this stuff and see some of the same roles and scripts being used that far back.

Pretty much all of the information in this post comes from Rafe de Crespigny’s work and translations, which are now available online

  1. from Political Protest in Imperial China: the Great Proscription of Later Han 167-184 Second edition [Internet] 2007. This is a revised version of an article first published in Papers on Far Eastern History, The Australian National University, Canberra, no. 11 [March 1975], pp. 1-36 []
  2. see Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling: being the Chronicle of Later Han for the years 157 to 189 AD as recorded in Chapters 54 to 59 of the Zizhi tongjian of Sima Guang, translated and annotated by Rafe de Crespigny. Asian Studies Monographs, New Series No. 12, Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra 1989 []

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