Lyme disease

Here is a picture of our awesome outing to the springs and oboo in Weinahe. Looks nice  doesn’t it?


Other than the fact that we finally have some good photos for our album of 90s college rock, do you by chance notice anything about these pictures? Anything that perhaps separates one of us from the others?  That’s right, one of us is wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Compare me to Marlboro Man Jan Kiely, who did take seriously the repeated and explicit advice to cover up.

And of course, as soon as we got back to the hotel, people started talking about ticks. I found three, including one that had already made its way to real estate that I can’t mention in a family blog. And yes, his head was already detached and lodged in my skin. Think about that for a moment. I sure have.

By the time I got to Harbin a few days later, I was already feeling achy, but figured that was just the stress of travel. By the time I got to Kyoto a few days after that, I was feeling achy, sweaty and dopey, plus the big one – rashy. So I went and got a blood test. Yep, it was blood alright, and moreover blood that swimming with critters that they said was maybe Lyme disease, or maybe something similar, but in any case something that they felt comfortable carpet bombing with antibiotics.

Unfortunately, the antibiotics (no doubt combined with with the stress of months of travel, and the Lyme disease itself) completely knocked me out — literally — I ended up passing out and waking up in a hospital– not once, but twice. That’s a record.

Lesson to be learned? Don’t get Lyme disease. That is also the lesson I learned with dengue, scarlet fever, salmonella and probably some others. I think the real lesson may be just stay the hell home, but “home” being Canberra (for the moment), I probably won’t be taking it much to heart.


Homeless in Hong Kong

Most people who know me have heard my stories about sleeping in parks in Taipei, or “urban camping” in some of Europe’s more (or less) welcoming cities. Sure it was no fun to be outside, but for the most part it was a matter of choice. I could have called home (that’s right kids, we’re talking about the world as we knew it B. I.*) to ask for money, or at least become a more determined houseguest. Not everyone has that luxury.

There is actually a pretty full spectrum of possibilities for how and why someone might themselves living in public. You might just need a couple of days between lodgings. I spent a couple of weeks living that way on the UCLA campus: regular work and classes during the day, and at night just find some spot to curl up and sleep. As long as your personal safety isn’t in danger, it’s actually pretty easy. Hell, you even save yourself the morning commute.

Other people find themselves outside seasonally. There are a lot of these people where I live in Hong Kong–they come from China to work and underestimate costs, or overestimate demand, or else just factor in a period of street life between jobs or before returning home.

IMG_0871The deadly cold snap in February brought out another sort. These were people who had homes, but were unable to stand living without heat. Central heat simply doesn’t exist in subtropical Hong Kong, and the temperatures were really hard to bear, especially at night, when it dropped below zero.

A lot of people took refuge in community centres like mine here in Taipo, which set up heated shelters. Others did (and many still do) camp out in restaurants like IMG_0894McDonalds, which are open 24 hours, and are remarkably welcoming. Even on normal business days, most HK McDonald’s are packed full of old people who order nothing, and set up for hours at a time. (I call it the McSenior Center, not to be confused with the McOffice, which is where I spend my weekends.)

During the cold snap these places also became especially busy McShelters, and to their credit, I never saw anyone ever try to move people on. Workers even went around handing out cups of hot water.

I deeply McRespect that.

*Before Internet

Historical perspective on China’s NGO draft law

This past summer, China introduced a new law aimed at curbing the activities of NGOs operating in the country. The law itself was heavily criticized in the international press, in part because the law closely resembled measures enacted in Russia under Putin. Similar measures have appeared in other jurisdictions, such as Cambodia.


Above: the Guo Meimei scandal meets the Chinese Red Cross

The new restriction of NGOs in China raises questions about the direction of social change under the Xi Jinping government, which harken back to earlier debates about the origins and fate of civil society in China. These issues all turn on historical interpretation, whether the emergence of the NGO sector in China represents something fundamentally nw.


In some ways it does. China of course has its own tradition of charities, many of which operated hand in hand with government relief and social welfare, but the current sector is more visible and more politically vocal than anything China has seen before. It is also far larger. Compared to the size of the economy, the NGO sector today completely dwarfs the missionary charities of the early twentieth century, and are an order of magnitude larger and better organized than imperial-era charities.

For more on this topic, see my recently published article: “Before the NGO: Chinese charities in historical perspective.


Book reviews: Debating the “China model”

The China Model and Global Political Economy: Comparison, Impact, and Interaction, by Ming Wan.[Routledge Contemporary China Series Vol. 111.] Abingdon: Routledge, 2014. xx + 194 pp.

China and Global Capitalism: Reflections on Marxism, History, and Contemporary Politics, by Lin Chun. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. viii + 266 pp.

mwMuch has been written about the unique path that China has taken to economic growth. Much of this work turns on a number of key points: whether the Chinese development model is sustainable either for China or for the global economy, and whether the Chinese model can or should be replicated elsewhere. These two books present two very different approaches to these same questions.

Ming Wan’s book presents China’s path to development in a comparative perspective, weighing it against a number of historical cases, at the same time examining the effects of China’s integration into the global economy. Wan takes a holistic approach to the substance of Chinese development, including in his analysis the pressures of domestic political legitimacy, as well as global economic trends. He cautions against equating the story of China’s development with the so-called “China model,” since no single China model properly exists, at least not one that the Chinese government officially promotes to the world as an ideological and institutional package. Rather, the idea of a China model retains currency precisely because it is undefined, and thus can mean different things to different people. Wan demonstrating the broad rhetorical power that the idea of a replicable China model now carries both inside China and on the world stage by incorporating voices from academia and government, as well asthose of social critics from all sides of the political landscape. Although such a multifaceted approach occasionally feels inconclusive, the book as a whole is clear on a number of points: the Chinese experience of development is a fundamentally pragmatic and constantly evolving set of policies. It draws inspiration from a variety of sources, but does not copy any particular model. It is highly specific to Chinese political and economic circumstances and thus cannot be exported or reproduced. Finally, because China’s development aims above all to protect and expand China’s interests, it does not intend to pose a systemic threat to the United States.

Wan begins by separating the reality and rhetoric in China’s development since the late 1970s. He distinguishes broadly regional trends such as high levels of savings and investment, and the emphasis on political stability, from those that are more unique to China, such as the high degree of local government initiative and competition. This reality is only loosely tied to the various portrayals of China’s development, be it as the “China model,” the “Beijing consensus” or the “China dream.” Although each of these formulations does capture certain essential lessons that admirers and critics hope to draw from China’s development, Wan dismisses their analytical value.

True to its title, the primary emphasis of the book is the place of China model in the world. Wan presents chapters on the two most influential models: the free market and open information pragmatism of the Washington consensus, and the highly centralized developmentalism of postwar Japan, followed by a third chapter on the rest: the Four Tigers, Soviet Union, and BRIC countries. These comparisons (summed up in helpful charts) all serve to highlight the distinctive features of the Chinese case, but also drive home the point that Chinese development policy since the close of the Mao era has consistently preferred realism over systemic ideology. Despite obvious divergences, China shares a fundamental pragmatism with the American model of consumer-driven growth, and has thus been able to emulate many of its useful institutions. In contrast, despite expectations that China would follow in the footsteps of Japanese developmentalism, Japan’s recent inability to successfully emerge from the economic problems of the 1990s has left it more of a cautionary tale than an inspiration. China has watched closely the recent experience of the Four Tigers, but its admiration is not uncritical.

The remaining chapters examine the place in the world of China’s rise. Although China’s development has presented a certain rhetorical alternative to US hegemony, it has not been taken up by other countries as a programatic model for development. Nor has it been promoted as such by the Chinese government. A case in point is China’s recent activities in Africa. China has won both praise for driving growth, and investing in African infrastructure projects, as well as accusations that it is engaged in a neo-imperialist quest for cheap commodities. Yet in the end the lesson of Africa is that China exerts far greater influence by joining the global economy than by seeking to divide or dominate it through the imposition of an alternative model of development.

By the same logic, Wan sees little potential for other sorts of conflict, particularly a global contest for hegemony with the United States. Although China is indeed stronger than it ever has been militarily, Wan sees China as an essentially economic power, one that would have nothing to gain from seeking out conflict with the United States or its allies. Both sides profit from maintaining the current status quo, including China’s rise, which has benefitted not only American companies, but global capitalism as a whole, particularly in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. The book’s final chapter aims to examine the effect that this crisis has had on China and the United States, but gets bogged down in defending the idea that financial shocks alone do not unseat hegemonic powers.

lcLin Chun presents a very different perspective on many of the same issues. In a book that at times reads more like a collection of individual essays, Lin delivers a scathing Marxist critique of Chinese development in a world defined by the dominance of global capitalism.

Lin begins seeking to upend two myths about China’s historical relationship to the global economy. She begins with an attack on the “Asiatic mode of production,” a Marxist claim that cultural stagnation and political despotism historically combined to derail Asia (Marx was speaking of India, but the idea is easily made to speak for China) from the universal trajectory of development. Although the AMP has largely been forgotten by Marxists, Lin takes it as symptomatic of the more general (and often unspoken) assumption that China was somehow unable to progress without Western interference. The second target is the relationship between capitalism and development. Lin asserts that China’s advanced commercial economy was developed, but unprepared to face the onslaught of Western capitalism, which she defines as predatory and therefore reliant on political and military backing. This reassessment both of Chinese historical development and of global capitalism is meant to shift the basic assumptions of a debate that asks why China “failed” to develop along the very particular track that led to industrial capitalism, particularly when that course was inseparable from a history of capital accumulation under European imperialism.

The heart of the book is its second section, which locates the Chinese communist revolution within these larger questions of global development. Lin reexamines Marx’s own ideas about the stages of economic development in order to refute the post hoc equation of capitalism and accelerated economic development that underlies China’s own decision to “abandon socialism in the name of reform” (Lin 46). She further argues that the revolution was not a deviation from development, but was in fact the core of China’s current success. The revolution laid the foundation for participatory democracy, broke clan and landlord power in the countryside, and secured national food security. Rather than producing progress, recent “reforms” have backtracked on all of these gains. Deep concessions to the WTO have eroded China’s financial sovereignty, while production without technology transfer has proletarianized China’s industrial workforce. The policy of prioritizing growth above all else has entered China in a global “race to the bottom.”

Selling this new positioning (Lin would call it a betrayal) of socialism has required a revision of China’s priorities and its assessment of the revolution. Having handed over unchecked power to a new stratum of elites, the Party has completely eradicated the ideals and language of class struggle, even as it indulges in transparent sloganeering and empty ideological campaigns. (Lin reserves particular disgust for the Marxist project: “what a misuse of public money; and it dishonors Marxism in whose name, greed and fraud are rampant.” Lin 70) The most disturbing trend is the replication inside China of the exploitative nature of global capitalism itself. The growing trend towards financialization and the “empowerment of capital” promises to close the door on any manner of reform through the Party or public discourse. Once these trends take firm root, the only hope for change will be agitation from below.

As an alternative to the current program of aimless and divisive growth, Lin revives the idea of basing production on the principle of popular wellbeing, or minsheng. Voiced by Sun Yat-sen, among others, the minsheng ideal balances the needs of production with the welfare of the producer. Nowhere is the need for minsheng more immediate than in agriculture, which balances the needs of food security with the livelihood of the largest segment of China’s population. Agriculture also has particular meaning for the Communist Party: the question of landownership is one area in which China’s revolutionary legacy is particularly strong, and one which today continues to produce some of the worst instances of conflict. Lin firmly rejects the call to “rationalize” agriculture through the imposition of large scale managed farms, since any gains in rural productivity would come at the cost of millions displaced and impoverished. Instead, the reform of agriculture points the way to a new set of values, one in which commitment to productive and ecological sustainability would offer solutions to real problems. In this Communist “moral economy,” quality of life will take precedence over aggregate output, while highly localized and socialized petty production also become the main source of sustenance for the rural population.

In the final section, Lin returns to themes developed in the first, looking now to the future instead of the past. Rather than asking why China did not develop, Lin suggests asking instead why Europe did develop into the insatiably resource intensive, and ultimately self-destructive form of capitalism that China has come to idealize. The hope for China, for socialism, and for the world is not to replicate the Western model, but to create a new path.

These are obviously two very different books. Ming Wan presents a very straightforward and balanced view that draws on IR literature and will speak particularly to that audience. Because he sees the China model at least as much as a rhetorical entity as a set of policies, he gives voice to any and all of its commentators, but ultimately concludes that no iteration of the China model can be explained by ideology alone. In contrast, Lin Chun is nothing if not provocative. She pulls no punches in her criticism of global capitalism, or what she sees as the venality and “intellectual poverty” of the current Chinese government. She is also more easily accused of allowing idealism to color her analysis: she is uncharacteristically mild in her criticism of the “mistakes” of the Maoist period, including the utopianism of collectivization. Her portrayal of the “participatory democracy” of the Cultural Revolution is unlikely to convince many readers.

My purpose is not to criticize Lin for having taken a strong stand, or to emphasize the superficial differences between these two books. Rather I see value in the surprising number of fundamental questions that they share in common. Whether they draw their inspiration from Marx or Mearsheimer, both books join a larger debate about the origins, costs and durability of China’s development model, and the relation of China’s development to long term global trends. Both authors champion an approach that integrates economic and political considerations, in both the domestic and international spheres. However, they do differ fundamentally on a number of key issues. Wan measures the success of China’s model in conventional terms of aggregate growth, a yardstick that Lin explicitly rejects. Wan has little to say about the erosion of social justice or lack of planning for ecological sustainability, issues that Lin sees as fundamental failings of recent policy.

Moving from interpretation to points of fact brings these differences into clearer focus. Again representing the more conventional approach, Wan dates China’s development from the Deng Xiaoping era of reform, and explicitly targets the arguments of the “new leftists” (of whom Lin is clearly representative) in his assertion that China’s economic growth “has little to do with socialist legacies or residual socialist elements.” (Wan 17) The difference extends to explanations of China’s historical weakness. Lin argues that China was the victim of global capitalism (of which historical imperialism is one particularly aggressive subset) which robbed the country of productive capital, a process that is similar to the threat posed by overfinancialization today. Wan argues precisely the opposite: that the West and later Japan rose because of innovations in the sale of public and private debt, and that China’s historical weakness derived from its inability to create a successful financial system. (Wan 54, 165)

These two authors are important because they speak for views that are at fundamental cross purposes: Wan sees China’s success primarily in terms of its ability to accommodate to the international system, precisely the opposite of Lin’s call for China’s leaders to stand up to global capitalism. There is little question that most Western readers will find Wan to be the more accessible and perhaps the more reasonable of the two, but the continued popularity of political figures such as Bo Xilai shows the vitality of leftist thought in China, and should also caution against the casual marginalization of voices such as Lin’s. In the end, the fact that each of these two authors speaks eloquently and convincingly for contending schools of thought is of course all the more reason to read them together.

Opiate of the masses with Chinese characteristics

Reposted from the SSRC religion blog “The Immanent Frame

Before making projections about the future of religion and secularity in China, we should first take a step back and reconsider some notions about how China’s approach to religion has historically differed and sometimes conflicted with Western ideas and practices.

The first is the image of the People’s Republic as an axiomatically anti-religious state. One could certainly be forgiven for thinking of socialism and religion as oil and water. Marx famously declared religion to be the “opium of the people.” Lenin saw the Orthodox Church as the last and most recalcitrant bastion of Tsarist sympathy and insisted that the landed monasteries had to be destroyed in a way that was violent, thorough, and public. After the Second World War, the Catholic Church and Catholic-affiliated movements emerged among the most strident critics of Communism. Decades later, Catholic support would be instrumental in helping a Polish labor movement bring about the collapse of Soviet power in Europe.

The People’s Republic would seem, then, to be yet another example of the polar opposition of religion and socialism. Since 1949, China has run strikingly vindictive campaigns against such revered figures as the Dalai Lama, has sent students to destroy religious artifacts, and has repressed the Catholic Church, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong, and Christian House Churches, as well as lesser-known groups such as Eastern Lightning.

Yet China’s stance towards religion has been more practical than ideological. Early campaigns, such as the 1951 suppression of the Catholic Church, were directed against specific groups that the state found dangerous, and the cadres who carried out religious policy were instructed to ensure that a movement against one group was not perceived as a purge of religion in general. Often this was achieved by recruiting other religious organizations to join in the recriminations. Even during the 1960s, when churches, monasteries and mosques were looted and vandalized in the campaign to “Destroy the Four Olds,” religion as a whole was not formally banned.

Like much of China’s cultural policy, attitudes towards religion have loosened considerably since the end of the Maoist era. The new line, put forward personally by Deng Xiaoping, and enshrined in the Central Committee document “Basic Ideas and Policies Concerning Our Country’s Religious Question in the Socialist Era,” insists that religion neither can nor should be destroyed by fiat, and that it can even be a socially progressive force.

Conflict with the West over religion, moreover, far predates the People’s Republic. Imperial China was never a confessional state and was, on the whole, tolerant of religious beliefs, the great exception having been the tradition of popular beliefs that could—and did—militarize against the state. The cosmopolitan Qing Empire embraced not only a wide swath of Chinese traditions but also Islam, the distinct form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet and Mongolia, and even a sprinkling of Orthodox Christianity, practiced predominantly by Russians living in the capital. Yet just one and a half centuries after the arrival of Jesuit luminaries such as Matteo Ricci, the Yongzheng Emperor found the Catholic influence sufficiently pernicious as to ban the propagation of Christianity altogether. The problem was not Chinese antipathy to Western belief as such, but rather a clash with a Catholic Church that sought to replicate in Asia the political preeminence that it enjoyed in Europe. Specifically, it was the papal decision to define practices of Confucian reverence as religious (and thus as idolatrous) that forced Chinese Christians to choose between their faith and the ritual duties that were legally required of every Qing subject.

But how relevant is this incident, known to historians as the “Rites Controversy,” for understanding the place of religion in China today? Both the Catholic Church and the Chinese state have come very far from what they had been in the early eighteenth century. Most notably with the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has categorically abandoned many of its pretensions both to political power and to cultural universalism. The Chinese imperial system has of course ceased to exist at all. The inauguration of the Republic of China in 1912 not only launched a new system of government, but also a far reaching transformation in the relationship between state and society.

I must however disagree with those historians who argue that political modernization in Asia brought about a conceptual cleavage between the religious and secular. Although the Republican government no longer conducted rituals or built temples, they were still very much the guarantors of a moral order to which confessional religions could contribute but remained ultimately superfluous. The Chinese Republic redefined the relationship between state and citizen in a way that left little room for organized religion; it is easy to forget that Christian and Buddhist revival during these years came only at the often grudging discretion of the government. A parallel may be drawn with 1930s Japan, where Catholic students at Tokyo’s Sophia University refused to bow at the imperial shrine, prompting a crisis that was almost identical to the Rites Controversy. The only difference was the response of the Church, which was quick to side with the public authorities who insisted that the bow was an act of civic reverence and thus entirely compatible with the practices of confessional religion. The Church had clearly reached an accommodation with the state, but it was very far from anything we would call secularization.

There is no question that China remains extremely brutal in its suppression of certain types of religion. At the same time, the human rights discourses that are critical of China often hold the state to a caricature of Western standards, such as the absolute separation of church and state, which are not strictly maintained even in the United States and are quite strikingly different in other Western democracies. Issues of repression aside, the Chinese model of purging public space of religious symbols and discourse, while an affront to American sensibilities, would look very familiar (and indeed sensible) in France, for instance.  The fact that much of the American model—such as the practice of according special tax status to religious groups, or of encouraging religious participation in the provision of public services like education and medicine—is not used in much of Europe suggests that China may be much less of an outlier than many within the advocacy community might think. Moreover, the great majority of religious freedom and human rights advocacy is focused on the two issues of underground Christianity and the place of the Dalai Lama in an autonomous Tibet. While these issues are important, we must also admit that they fall outside the experience of religion for most people in China and that they may well not be representative of where the state’s own concerns about religion lie.

What this means is that, while its many market, social, and political reforms are making China more familiar and understandable to Western observers, the country is highly unlikely to adopt American attitudes and policies towards religion. Since Deng Xiaoping announced the change of direction in the early 1980s, Chinese political thought on religion has advanced systematically into a coherent policy that is distinct both from classical Marxism and from the expectations of human rights advocates and religious communities overseas. On the one hand, it has learned from the Soviet experience that religion cannot be destroyed by central command. Influential scholars such as Gong Xuezeng and Ye Xiaowen took the lead in portraying religion as a socially progressive force, even employing linguistic gymnastics to explain that Marx’s original allusion to religion as an opiate actually referred to something more akin to a medical anesthetic used to help people through traumatic injuries. On the other hand, it maintains the materialist view that religion is a representation of social reality, if not necessarily an exploitative one. Religion can thus be a socially progressive force, even an ally to the Party in the pursuit of justice and public morality. However, if religion is allowed to act as the voice of an ethnic or confessional community, it is all the more vital to ensure that religious leaders are clearly subordinate to the leadership of the Party and to the nonnegotiable condition of national integrity. As such, Chinese state theory views religion as a social force to be monitored, controlled, and harnessed. It is unlikely ever to accept the Western understanding of religion as an individual choice, a concept that lies at the core of the West’s supposed secularization. Each generation of leaders since Deng Xiaoping has added to this evolving complex of ideas. We ignore or trivialize them at our peril.

At the same time, religious freedom is currently far less prominent an obstacle in US-China relations than it was a decade ago. This is in part because the repression of groups like Falun Gong has receded from public view, in part because trade and security have come to the fore, and in part because China is increasingly able to project its own social models and parameters onto international discourse. China has invested heavily in a new crop of institutions, including the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA, of which Ye Xiaowen served as director), as well as Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist theological training programs, and academic religious studies departments to explore new avenues for the practice of religion in public life.

With increasing clout on the world stage, and a greater interest in exporting cultural influence, China has been less inclined to respond to Western criticism and more willing to advance its own political and social development as an alternative model. With respect to human rights, it has met calls for political openness with the case that genuine human rights consist not in free speech but in economic security, arguing that the Chinese people are in fact far better off than people in putatively free societies such as India, Russia, or even the United States.  In the same way, China will increasingly defend itself against charges of religious repression by promoting its own model of religion in society. Just as Chinese economic models have inspired development in Asia and Africa, we may soon hear echoes of what Zhu Xiaoming, past Director of Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, and current Standing Director of the Chinese Society for the Study of Human Rights, has called the “socialist view of religion with Chinese characteristics.”