Essays, Reviews

Are the Confucius Institutes a Trojan Horse?

A documentary and an academic roundtable renew the debate – Frank Beyer

The amount of recent news in New Zealand and Australia about China’s influence in the region has been overwhelming. One of the threads, downunder and elsewhere, has been the Confucius Institutes – specifically, whether they are a Trojan Horse for Chinese state influence abroad. A dramatic and accessible entry into this debate is Doris Liu’s film In The Name of Confucius (2017), an exposé on the controversial presence of these Chinese language and culture centres that partner with universities all over the world – based on campus but funded by the Chinese state through the “Office of Chinese Language Council International” known as Hanban, affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.


Bare Branches

How Singles Day in China forgot its origins, and left singles in the lurch – Alec Ash

Every November 11th, while Brits wear poppies to remember the dead of WWI, the China news cycle [rotates] back around to [Singles Day] or ‘Double Eleven’: the online shopping bonanza, Black Friday on acid, pioneered by e-commerce company Alibaba. Last year, over [$30 billion] worth of goods were sold in 24 hours, and the early hours of this year’s discounts (sales start at midnight) are already 32% higher. But Singles Day hasn't always been about sales. The only figure worth crunching when it started was the loneliest number, number one.

In 1993, the story goes, four Nanjing University students were slouching on their dorm bunkbeds, slurping instant noodles, drinking beer, chain-smoking and complaining that the ladies weren’t falling over each other to get at them. They were ‘bare branches’, they grumbled, using a word for single men, guanggun, that still carried stigma. “From today,” one of them said, pleased by the recurring bare branch of the number one in that day’s date, “November 11th will be called Singles Day.”


The PRC Just Reached the Average Age of China’s Past Dynasties

History lessons for Xi Jinping – Isaac Beech

The People’s Republic of China just turned seventy years old. The fatherland is now the same age as Samuel L. Jackon, Ozzy Osborne and Prince Charles; the Chinese Communist Party is already older than Marx was when he died (64); and the government in Beijing has exceeded the life expectancy in Bhutan. Perhaps most tellingly, China’s latest political incarnation has also reached the average age that its previous forty-nine dynasties lasted.

In an excerpted piece the China Channel ran a year and a half ago, Harvard scholar Yuhua Wang studied lessons from China’s dynastial history, coming up with that seventy-year mean average, albeit accounting for “a wide-ranging variation from the Heng Chu dynasty (403–404), which lasted for less than a year, to the Tang (618–907), which ruled China for 289 years.” (It’s worth noting also that although there have been 49 Chinese dynasties or kingdoms in total, many overlapped with rival territories; there are roughly 16 periods of Chinese history, and half as many dynasties which ruled the entirety of what is now claimed as “China.”)


The Father of Modern China Was Inspired by Lincoln, Not Marx

How Sun Yatsen’s early ideology traces back to the American President – Matthew Ehret

China today is a paradox: on the one side, it is a nation based upon centralized government, yet it also has a vast private sector, entrepreneurial culture and market economy. Its leaders call this “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” but there is a larger history at play, going back to the founder of the nation, Sun Yatsen. As a statesman with connections to America – in the autumn of 1911 he was on a tour of the US to speak and raise funds when the news of the Wuchang uprising that eventually brought down the Qing dynasty broke – Sun’s own political philosophy was heavily influenced by America’s early principles of governance.

Dr Sun Yatsen was not a follower of Karl Marx – whose theories of government have shaped China’s modern state – but neither was he a proponent of the liberal theories of Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill. Rather than pick an extreme on the political left or right, Sun Yatsen instead found himself firmly grounded in the moral philosophy of both Confucius and an American inspiration: Abraham Lincoln.


Illiberal China

Josh Freedman reviews two new studies of Chinese political models

The past forty years of economic reform have vaulted China into the upper echelons of global wealth and power, but it has come at a high social cost. China is wealthier than ever, but inequality is rampant, individuals feel unmoored, and there is no sense of public trust.

Where can China go from here? In 2012, the prominent Chinese sociologist and public intellectual Sun Liping summarized the state of China’s intellectual discourse by outlining (in Chinese) four possible directions for China’s future. China’s leaders could return to the recent past, reviving the egalitarian populism of Maoist socialism. On the other extreme, the country could double down on privatizing the economy, “deepening reforms” along the lines preferred by the business class. Alternatively, given the entrenched barriers to any major transition, the Party-state could simply try to preserve the status quo. Or, finally, it could opt for a more comprehensive reassessment of the basic premises of reform, and forge a new path based on some combination of institutions that combine constitutional politics and economic fairness.