Thursday, 27 April 2017

Chinese Politics Is All About Power And Sex. Or So We’re Told. The Muddle, Part II

The most recent post here examined the BBC podcast composed and narrated by China news editor Carrie Gracie on the rise and demise of China’s Bo Xilai—an event that Gracie insists “changed China”. The portrayal of the various players in the drama is disappointing at best.

Just as discouraging—and disturbing--is how the podcast presents politics in China.

At the very outset of the podcast, Gracie promises that the tale of Bo’s fall is about “money, sex, and power—oh, it’s going to get wild.” We’re treated to allegations of affairs by both Bo and his wife Gu Kailai, as well as insinuations that British expatriate Neil Heywood was Gu’s lover. According to Gracie, Chinese politics is “a game of power and sex”.

That’s an astonishing claim, especially because Gracie doesn’t show that anything of the sort of shenanigans she accuses Bo (and Gu) of also applies elsewhere in the government. Listeners aren’t told anything about other instances, probably because there’s nothing to say. A single case, sourced by the odd interview, shouldn’t merit a general conclusion.

There’s a deeper and more troubling issue.

Apparently, here in China, officials don’t argue about policy or make tough decisions replete with trade-offs, because they’re driven strictly by their desires. That’s Chinese politics, according to Gracie, with the insinuation that it applies from Nanning to Nanjing, from Liaoning to Lhasa, and everywhere in-between. The vast apparatus that is the bureaucracy here, Party meetings and publications, the training schools for cadres and government officials, legislative agendas and actual policymaking about state infrastructure and suppression of activists and lawyers—those are all so much theater, because it’s the backstage and the bedroom that count here in China. That isn’t analysis, but slander.

Gracie also contends:

“If Bo had made it [to the Politburo], he would have outshone [current President] Xi Jinping. And as this battle was playing out, Neil Haywood was murdered.”

The implication here is that Xi’s elevation to Chinese leader occurred because Bo got caught in a scandal. Xi didn’t beat Bo by convincing Party colleagues, so much as Bo screwed up—because he and his wife were screwing too much. Supposition and speculation are spun as startlingly new insights in how China ended up where it is today--that Xi wouldn’t be leading China if Neil Heywood hadn’t been drugged and killed in a hotel room in Chongqing--the story that Gracie insists “changed China”. 

The "changed China"theme is one that's almost omnipresent in discussions of China and Chinese politics. Causation is almost always assumed, and events are magnified not through a careful elimination of other outcomes but simply because the person writing claims insight which in China is absent. The BBC podcast doesn’t look at any alternative explanations of how and why Bo was removed. Nor does Gracie bother to mention that it was Xi’s predecessor, not Xi himself, who was China’s leader and engineered Bo’s recall and imprisonment. Better to keep matters simplistic, and sexual, with the odd slaying alongside a narrative which is far more fire and smoke than light.

The same problem with debates concerning China’s political and economic direction during this period.

What of the disputes between Chinese leaders about the role of the Communist party in a modernizing State and society? How about the various ideological arguments that raged over the meaning of socialism in relation to economic reform and social control?

Irrelevant factors, apparently—at least to Gracie. Work by China scholars and commentators well versed in such matters isn’t mentioned, and it’s certainly not argued against. Apparently, all that work has been a waste of time.

Likewise, the concerns expressed by Chinese officials, advisers, intellectuals and commentators in State media, government reports, and other settings during this very same period were of no consequence when it came to making politics and policy, at least as the podcast implies. That Bo might have looked to lead because he thought he had better ideas than Xi did isn’t mooted. Instead, it’s lust, as well as the lust for power that propels the decisions of politicians here.[1]

How Gracie would actually know any of that—that Bo wasn’t so much a political alternative to Xi but simply a “sex machine” (her words)--is in fact never made clear to the listener. And how Gracie would gain access to such information about peccadillos between politicians and their partners where her colleagues failed to do so years before is equally questionable. But none of that stops Gracie from presenting China’s political and powerful as automatons bent on bedding down and moving up.

The result is a podcast that never seeks to illuminate Chinese politics when it can be lurid instead. Maybe that’s entertaining for some people, but it’s anything but enlightening.

The irony is that the very same Chinese officialdom that Gracie seems to delight in castigating is the major beneficiary of her presentation: Many of them have been insisting that the foreign media is uninformed about China, very possibly prejudiced. With this podcast, they now have a stronger case.

[1] At the very end of the podcast, Gracie plugs another BBC series and says, “they’ve got one episode that’s particularly appropriate given the story we’ve just told: it’s called “A Brief History of Lust”.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Muddle That Is The BBC’s “Murder in the Lucky Holiday Hotel”

Reporting on Chinese politics is challenging, whether it’s by examining Chinese media or interviewing the odd if often unwilling official. But it’s crucial to look at how political events happen here and why--especially by seeing matters as Chinese officials see them, and thereby avoid the simplifications that usually plague understanding of politics in China.

A recent BBC podcast series, Murder in the Lucky Holiday Hotel, is being praised by many as a riveting inside examination of Chinese politics gone wrong—the story of Bo Xilai, “China’s most charismatic politician”, according to Carrie Gracie, the podcast’s narrator and the BBC’s China news editor in Beijing. The series looks at the killing of British expatriate Neil Heywood in Chongqing in 2011--“the murder which changed the course of Chinese politics,” according to Gracie.

But the podcast isn’t enthralling or insightful. Instead of being a sophisticated re-examination of a major event, the listener receives a grotesque rendering of Chinese politics, replete with stereotypes and suppositions. This is a podcast that isn’t meant to inform so much as arouse—China analysis at its worst. 

There’s so much that’s wrong with this retelling that it’s difficult to know where to start.

One problem is that Bo’s fall isn’t a new story by any means, having been exhaustively reported as it happened, and since. Indeed, the title of the podcast is very nearly a direct copy of the name of a 2013 book by two Hong Kong analysts, A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel. It’s not at all clear why the BBC is revisiting the story, especially since no sudden insights are provided that weren’t speculated about before, and the story itself is years old. Apart from some new information about the actions of Bo’s wife, Gu Kaili in England, and further conjecture that Neil Haywood gave information to British intelligence, what’s presented is what’s already been known for years by those who followed the case then.

The major reason for the retelling may well be that the BBC wants to make the mundane melodramatic. We’re continually informed by Gracie that this is “the story that changed China,” that “it changed history.” At the same time, the listener is advised that:

“There are so many things we don’t know about it, and that’s because there are no heroes in it, only victims and villains. And it’s a descent into the dark heart of Chinese politics which is dangerous, and that being the case, most of the people know the story—dead, in jail, or unwilling to talk.”

That theme—that this was a daring story to report—recurs throughout the podcast:

“The Communist party doesn’t want us to report this story and it’s done it’s best to scare us off.”

“Like almost everyone else, [British officials] don’t want me asking questions.”

“We were followed; our phone calls were bugged; our emails were hacked; and the Communist party propaganda department[1] got to everyone, including our one and only interviewee, before we did.”

In other words, the Chinese government is engaged in a conspiracy to stop someone reporting a story that was told and concluded half a decade ago. But what Gracie presents isn’t news because it ceased to be new long ago. And there’s nothing very daring about reporting it, because China has moved on, even if some at the BBC haven’t.

A second issue plaguing the podcast is its depiction of Chinese elites. Gracie doesn’t characterize Chinese officials; she caricatures them.

For example, Gracie claims that Gu Kaili, Bo’s wife, used family connections to gains admission into Peking University. There’s no evidence how Gu got in, because no one has access to that sort of information. It's speculation presented as solid fact. And the claim fits into Gracie’s narrative that Gu “wasn’t just a survivor, she was a striver.”

In the same vein, Gracie makes much of Gu’s personal life, citing people who say that Gu was “petite, elegant, expensively dressed and always willing to please” and that she also had a “long list of lovers”, referring to Gu as a “red apricot [红杏出墙]—Chinese slang for an adulteress. Gu’s political views aren’t discussed, and her highly successful law practice is referred to only very briefly. Gu becomes the femme fatale in this telling, someone who not only murdered Neil Heywood but, Gracie implies, also very possibly took him as her lover.

Salacious? Sure, for some. Adding insight to how China actually operates? Hardly, especially when the evidence for such claims is so thin and the re-telling smacks of sexism.

There’s also Wang Lijun, the Chongqing police chief who answered to Bo Xilai and whose attempted defection kicked off a chain of events that helped produce Bo’s downfall. Wang is described as “the gun-toting narcissist who fled to the Americans disguised as an old woman”. Never mind that Wang went to the British consulate first and was turned away—a fascinating and unexplained part of the saga that Gracie doesn't bother to mention. Nor does the podcast note Wang’s demotion by Bo days before he tried to flee. For Gracie, it’s apparently crucial for the podcast to present Wang simply as someone with a personality problem.

And then there’s Bo Xilai, a complex politician as there ever was in China. In the podcast he’s described as “tall”, “handsome”, “charismatic”, and spending much of his time engaged in sexual affairs and picking up supermodels—a “sex machine”, according to Gracie. She does admit that when Bo ran Chongqing (a city that Gracie says featured “mobsters, money, guns, gambling, prostitutes, and corruption”) “his charisma and personality somehow connect[ed] to the common man.” But apart from the discussion of his tenure in Chongqing, Bo is presented in the podcast mostly as a phallic symbol instead of a political official.

Interestingly (perhaps tellingly), Neil Heywood is pretty much the only person in the story who isn’t portrayed as exotic in some way. Instead, he’s presented as “tall, elegant…[someone who] reinvented himself as a business consultant”, the British fixer who made things happen for Bo and Gu—an astonishing statement given that Bo was a major political force for decades and Gu by many accounts a brilliant and powerful lawyer. Heywood may have offered Bo and Gu companionship or friendship or even amusement, but the notion that they needed him to make things happen for them is nonsense. Gracie says that Heywood got their son into Harrow, where evidently there aren't any admission procedures, just back doors for British expat business consultants. And that Heywood is cast as Gu’s victim--poisoned after he allegedly threatened to reveal information about her activities--allows the podcast to avoid any discussion of Heywood’s own personality and motivations. Apparently, it’s only the Chinese in this story who are different and act strangely.

There’s another shortcoming in the podcast:  How Chinese politics itself is portrayed. That’s the topic for the next post.

[1] This is a strange statement. Is Gracie confused? It’s the Ministry of State Security that oversees the comings and goings of foreign journalists on the ground, often in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the nominal body of oversight. The Department of Propaganda has nothing to do with the surveillance of journalists or potential interviewees here in China.
Also, every reporter in China encounters this attention from authorities. Gracie tries to hype these efforts at interference in her story, but it's standard fare for journalists operating in China, no matter what the subject.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

There Is A Tide In The City Affairs Of Shared Bikes

Nanjing received a considerable amount of rain this past weekend, which is normal for this time of year and nothing to get too worried about.

According to the Wednesday edition of Nanjing Daily though, the city is getting swamped.

Swamped, that is, by shared bikes.

Calling the bike-sharing phenomenon a “tidal wave” [潮汐式], the local Communist Party newspaper states that since the beginning of the calendar year, possibly 200,000 shared bicycles have hit the streets of Nanjing. “Sharing bicycles has become an important part of the city's green travel,” the article concedes. And while other cities in China have seen criticisms that bike-sharing blocks sidewalks, hinders pedestrian traffic, and conveys a sense of disorder, Nanjing officials seemed to have kept the problem largely under control.

But here the local government goes again--asking, as the article notes, “How many bicycles can Nanjing accommodate? Are shared bicycles already in oversupply?”

The problem isn’t the bikes but the patterns of their usage—indeed, the reference to “tides” is as much about morning and evening surges in shared-bike usage in Nanjing as it is to a flood of share-bikes generally.

It’s a confluence of two problems.

For some, there still aren’t enough bikes to share: More need to be made available where they’re more likely to be used.

For example, according to the article, “Mr. Sun of Guanghua Road [光华路] who wants to cycle to work finds that every morning at 8:30 it’s difficult to find a bike, and downstairs from his workplace after an afternoon that was full of them, after 6 o'clock, bikes disappeared downstairs without a trace.”

But for many others, the challenge is not getting shared-bikes, but being able to get by them. The plethora of bicycles at some spots impeding traffic of all types (pedestrian, car, and bicycle) has led some in Nanjing to characterize the shared-bike situation as creating “a city under siege” []—strong terms, to be sure.

The deluge has become disabling for some. Shared-bike companies have been made responsible for relocating bikes from heavily trafficked streets and sidewalks, but usually it’s been the parking attendants and city workers at subway stations and tourist sites that end up doing the repositioning and rearranging, sometimes late at night, the piece notes. Already April has seen record number of users especially during the Qingming [清明] holiday and on the weekends, the article notes, with too many bikes, much of the time with too many at the wrong locations.

No one seems quite sure how to best deal with these unintended consequences of what’s being characterized as a tidal event worth talking about—both the technical issue of how to calculate ridership and the surge of share-bikes generally. Indeed, Wednesday’s article is slated to be the first in a series about the challenges that bike-sharing continues to pose to Nanjing, in the hope that contributions to solving the problem can be solicited.

That’s a common problem in Chinese society: Everyone wants to complain, few wish to actually participate in finding a solution, especially one that involves self-sacrifice. Public policy in local China rarely ever involves the actual public. Officials here are quick to say that one good reason for the latter is because of the former.

Nonetheless, Nanjing has a problem--one that government officials maintain is not necessarily theirs alone to address. Unsurprisingly, the article reflects that line, insisting “the effective planning and standardized management of the sharing of bicycles is the primary problem that management and cycling companies need to solve.”

That is, it’s the share-bike firms that need to confront and fix this issue—or at least propose some way to deal with the tide.

Until then, Nanjing government and its residents may have to be satisfied with just treading water. 

Monday, 17 April 2017

Do Banners in Local China Flutter and Fall or Fly High?

The raising of an anti-gay banner at a university in Wuhan by members of a women’s basketball team there is already receiving news coverage, as well as condemnation by more than a few commentators on social media.

As it should, of course--and not only because students here in China are almost always presented as liberal and pluralist in orientation, when many harbor very conservative social attitudes.

But it’s doubtful that it was only students behind this event.

Students hardly ever protest in China these days, especially on campuses. They know that unauthorised demonstrations of any sort are forbidden, especially because there’s too much at stake where their study plans and careers are concerned. Moreover, knowledge and interest in social and political issues at universities are often minimal, or at least moribund and easily managed by the authorities.

Demonstrations at universities these days usually occur when there’s a local issue that angers students (food quality in the cafeteria, being misled about a university degree) or because they are directed to do so and protected after the fact. Rallies large and small are organized (or at least cleared) by university administrators in conjunction with party cadres to reflect official policy--pro-China, anti-foreign--and employed to get students to stand up and support the main political line lest they become victims of those wishing to harm China. Not every participant buys into these campaigns (though more than a few do); but protests at universities or by students happen only with permission at some level. (Exceptions are very rare, and need to be seen as such, not harbingers of a social movement.)

That’s what likely occurred in Wuhan.

The banner in question urged onlookers to “protect Chinese traditional principles, defend core socialist values, resist the corruption of decadent Western thought, keep homosexuality far from the university campus.” 

That’s not a message exclusively devoted to anti-gay rhetoric, but vintage Party-speak, especially at the local level.

It’s very possible that the reports stating that the coach and various players on the women’s squad at Huazhong University of Science and Technology became nervous about what they saw as rampant lesbianism in their ranks and decided to take action are accurate. But the banner-raising, the subsequent social media posts (some of which are now unavailable), and the references to outside influences being corrosive echo statements that can be found in some Party editorials. Wuhan itself has a long history of leftism (in the Chinese context), and universities there aren’t known for liberalism the way that some in say Jiangsu are. And Huazhong University of Science and Technology is one of the few colleges in China that retains a large statue of the Great Helmsman on its grounds. Leftism lurks and looms at schools like this one.

Some students may well have had a preexisting problem with gay classmates and athletes. Given the uneven quality of teaching here in China and the dearth of engagement by instructors, that wouldn't be surprising. But hardliners in the local Party branch probably looked to leverage whatever anxiety there was for a larger political purpose.

It will be worth paying careful attention to the aftermath of this event more than the event itself, dismaying as it is. The banner-raising could be just local fear being given voice, or it might signal the start of an intensified campaign to attack unwelcome social influences at universities. Perhaps some people in Wuhan know which way the wind is about to blow. 

Illusions and Confusions of Corruption in China

There are new allegations about corruption in parts of China’s central leadership, involving the family of retired Politburo member He Guoqiang, who, among other responsibilities, ran China’s anti-graft operations from 2007-2012.

The question isn’t whether those accusations are true, but how much it really matters even if they turn out to be.

The claims about the He family’s ties to at least one major financial Chinese firm with international connections aren’t entirely new, as the article itself notes. Rumors about He have been around for years, mostly in Hong Kong media circles, which don't have the most reliable track-record when it comes to political reporting. Many of the more recent accusations—and the crux of this new recounting--come from Guo Wengui, a real estate mogul who alleges that He Jintao, the son of the ex-Politburo member, caused him financial harm by intervening in a business deal. Guo has also claimed to have knowledge of money-laundering by some inside or at least connected to leadership circles in China.

But of course he would.

These sorts of accusations of wrongdoing are only too common in China. Often the purported victim says that someone with political protection victimized them. The aggrieved then reaches out to foreign journalists to plead their case, sometimes with the hilarious result that the recipient of such revelations sees them as a sign of change in China—that is, that people here actually complain about injustice (which they do all the time and have done for centuries actually).

There’s no particular reason to think that the case being discussed is any different. Even The New York Times article admits that “Mr. Guo…did not offer any proof of wrongdoing by the He family.” There’s no exploration of motives, or what the He family would have stood to gain from the son’s machinations. Perhaps a lot; perhaps nothing at all. We don’t know, and we’re not told.

So it’s difficult to know what to do with such reports, especially as He Guoqiang has retired, though surely retains significant influence. If He ends up under investigation, would his takedown mean anything in present Chinese politics? Maybe that Beijing’s anti-corruption crusade has claimed another “tiger”? But how specifically that development would help President Xi Jinping (or harm him) isn’t at all apparent. Chinese officials already know that the anticorruption campaign is real and that it’s been targeting every level of officialdom. Local officials in particular spend almost as much time looking over their shoulders for inspection teams as they do trying to make policy. Taking down He and his clan wouldn’t prove much more than what’s already accepted practice. No big deal here then.

Would investigating He or his family supply further proof that some high-level elites and family members have benefitted enormously from their political position? 

Really, is any more evidence required to convince officials or citizens here? If anyone in authority or attendance thinks that Beijing’s crusade is just some ploy only targeting political enemies, they’re delusional—and maybe next on the hit list because they’re not reading the tea leaves correctly. Every official is vulnerable, and every official knows that.

Or maybe an inquiry into He and his son would signal the beginning of an assault on He’s former employee, President Hu Jintao?

That’s actually a slightly more interesting question, though not for the reasons one might think, especially as the Xi-Hu relationship is rather complicated.

Assuming that Hu Jintao is the real target here presumes that Xi hasn’t “consolidated his power” and needs to do so. But the phrase--the concept, if that's what it is--is as undefined as it is commonly employed: No one ever says what precisely Xi needs to do to accomplish that goal of consolidation. One day Xi’s cast as approaching Strongman status; the next he’s seen as encountering enormous resistance and needs to replace recalcitrant officials before they become a unified political threat. Indeed, one of the great absurdities of much of China Watching these days is why opaqueness in the political system here isn’t a check on audacity when it comes to broad conclusions. 

So here’s another possibility.

That Guo Wengui is just another tycoon who lost out on a deal where he was trying to punch above his political weight, and having fled to the United States to avoid retaliation for his missteps, is desperate enough to believe that talking to journalists and publishers and agreeing to the odd video interview will somehow get him back into the ring and reclaim his status. Talk about delusional.

Fortunately for Guo, there’s an audience for these sorts of allegations, even if he hasn't yet provided direct evidence for any of the ones he's peddling.  Unfortunately, at least for now, the lack of corroboration doesn't seem to matter very much, even though it really should.