Tag Archives: First-hand

The Fancy Footwork of Xiao He (20 Seconds)

Xiao He - d22 - 2007.09.27

Xiao He (小河) is a prominent experimental and folk musician here in Beijing. He’s been part of several groups variously described as bands, troupes, etc. Last night, I saw him live for the first time at D-22 in a show with a saxophonist named Li Tieqiao (李铁桥), who made sounds with his horn very few have ever heard before. I’ll post a video of Li later, but for now, enjoy Xiao He’s animated foot.

Predicting the Future With Jonathan Spence

I caught Jonathan Spence, the Yale historian responsible for a large stack of richly researched writing on China, at a lecture he gave last night to a Yale alumni group in Washington, D.C. (I was a plus-one.) The lecture was supposed to discuss what Chinese history can teach us about China’s future. Spence seemed less than totally comfortable talking about the future, especially in a room that he said contained many people with “higher security clearances” than his, but he seemed to embrace the task of drawing parallels if not making predictions. Here are a few of his most interesting points that I managed to jot down:

  • With so much worry among environmentalists about China’s ability to manage its environment, Spence reminded us that over centuries of Chinese history, the central authorities often “intervened,” as he put it, in situations when regional authorities could not handle flooding disasters and famine situations. Of course, the success of these interventions has been mixed, but his point seemed to be that environmental policy in China is not exactly new. I’m unsure how applicable these historical experiences may be to industrial waste and carbon emissions, but it’s a point well taken, especially in view of the United States’ utter inability to deal with a major domestic flood in a way that satisfied its public.
  • Noting the Cultural Revolution and subsequent regimes’ caution toward history, Spence said in his opinion “history is on its way back” in recent years. He seemed delighted to see the growth of great universities in China and the growing activity of Chinese archaeologists and historians.
  • He talked about legitimacy as one factor to examine when thinking about Chinese history. That is, what factors make the government’s rule legitimate. He noted that, while revolutionary credentials had been essential to legitimacy in the Mao era and perhaps even up until Hu Jintao’s generation, it’s not so clear that revolutionary thought is as highly valued any more. Indeed, as Spence noted repeatedly, most of the top leaders in Hu’s generation are engineers of some sort—as he put it, people who build things.
  • Perhaps his most earnest prediction (he offered a “nickel bet”) was that the generation that succeeds Hu’s will be more qualified in business and management, and may be more likely to have experience in the United States. These generations, of course, refer to the convention that has emerged since the end of Mao’s rule whereby generations of leadership take power from their elders every 10 years. Hu’s generation is almost uniformly 10-ish years younger than Jiang Zemin’s. And Jiang’s was younger than Deng Xiaoping. That means the next generation, which would take power in 2012, will generally be born in the 1950s.

A personal highlight of the talk for me was his description of moving to the United States from his native Britain in the ’50s on an exchange program between Cambridge and Yale. He said the academic perspectives at Cambridge at the time seemed to look at the world through the lens of which places “Britain had absent-mindedly” happened to colonize. Moving to Yale, he said, gave him a fresh and wider perspective—one that he’s been thankful for ever since.

That leaves me wondering what great embedded assumptions might dominate U.S. universities. With some luck, I’ll learn enough Chinese to some day read the products of this great burgeoning body of modern Chinese scholarship.

U.S.–China Interparliamentary Exchange: Valuable, and Possibly Easier Under Democrats

The main organizer of the U.S.-China Interparliamentary Exchange said Sept. 6 he won’t be completely disappointed if his party loses control of the U.S. Congress in November. Even though House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) created and funded the exchange, “it would be even easier with the Democrats in charge, though I pray against that,” said Matthew Szymanski, chief of staff for the House Committee on Small Business and the U.S.–China exchange.

Szymanski, who was the main speaker at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s China Program, has been a key organizer for the exchange since it was created in 1999. He enthusiastically described the benefits of interparliamentary exchanges, noting that they educate legislators and help them better understand China. “You can’t teach American members of Congress about China from Washington,” he declared. “It’s not going to happen.”

In response to a question from Robert Sutter of Georgetown University, Szymanski said that because “Republicans are not internationally-minded … What happens if the House flips? There’s even greater potential.”

It’s a bit unclear to me why this is the case. According to Szymanski, funding is not a problem at all. He gave rough numbers, saying about $500,000 has built up from Hastert’s appropriations, and most incoming delegations only cost about $50,000 each. Outgoing exchange, he says, is already funded by other parts of the U.S. government.

Dealing with China out in the open, however, can be politically awkward for some members, he said. Szymanski, who works for Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.), said Chinese delegations usually want to visit Manzullo’s home district, but they have to explain that it would be politically difficult to do so. The Northern Illinois district is home to an industrial economy that is currently in competition with the low prices in China, and voters there might see working with China as a betrayal.

Indeed, Szymanski is not all positive on China. “I’ve got lots of worries about what the rise of China means for the United States,” he said, echoing what I would call the conventional wisdom frame of China policy in Washington. He sounded like an ’80s Japan alarmist, though, when he said: “I’m telling you that the people we see rising up in Asia are going to kick our—” he stopped, and pointed to his rear. So he’s forcing his kids to learn Mandarin.

Some other points:

  • Interestingly, Szymanski said that U.S. members of Congress don’t seem to mind that they are dealing with leaders who aren’t elected. Instead the key is “tremendous face to face contact and education,” he said.
  • He recalled the first Chinese delegation of staff (not legislators) to the U.S. last May, saying that the Chinese seemed genuinely interested in finding out how the U.S. Congress works: “I don’t think they were manipulating us. … They asked extremely complex questions about how a legislature like ours works.”
  • He was sometimes dismissive of U.S. and European watchdog groups and the U.S. State Department, saying, “There is nothing that can happen that’s enough to satisfy Western watchdogs.” He emphasized, however, that progress is being made on human rights issues in China, even if slowly.
  • On trips to China, Szymanski said he has had unfettered access to wherever he asked to go. On trips to Tibet, he was allowed to stop at random and talk to the people there. He seemed to like Tibet.
  • He framed U.S. foreign policy as sometimes myopic, saying that because of “our obsession with the Middle East … we’re neglecting much of the rest of the world.” I hear ya.