Essays

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.

Essays

Who Wrote China’s Most Notorious Erotic Novel?

Tristan Shaw unpicks the controversial authorship of Jin Ping Mei

For over 400 years, the Ming-era novel Jin Ping Mei – known in English as The Golden Lotus – has been celebrated by some readers as a literary masterpiece, while others condemn it as a salacious influence. Chronicling the life of a decadent merchant named Ximen Qing in the Song dynasty, the book’s notoriety comes from its graphic descriptions of sex, covering everything from adultery to sado-masochism. As Ximen rises up the social hierarchy, his lust for power and sex becomes increasingly depraved. Over the course of the story, he takes six wives and numerous concubines and servants, before eventually dying during the passionate raptures of sex from an overdose of aphrodisiacs.

Essays

The “Ultra-unreal” in Chinese Literature

Three novels that exemplify a genre, dissected – Robert Foyle Hunwick

Truth is stranger than fiction, Mark Twain observed, because it’s not obliged to probability: a novel has to make sense. Twain’s axiom, though, depends on a fragile bargain. When life takes on the appearance of fiction – what need is there for novelists?

Consider a couple of possible plotlines. In Henan province, once the epicenter of Mao Zedong’s calamitous Great Leap Forward, a wealthy fanatic erects a giant gold statue of the late leader in a barren field; the half-million-dollar colossus is demolished just before reaching completion. Over in landlocked Jiangxi, a businessman running a green energy company is gifted an endangered eight-ton whale by a fellow boss in Zhejiang; the rotting carcass is set aside for a staff bonus, but after its foul smell draws media attention, local authorities declare its meat is destined for dog food.

Essays

The Passive Voice of Control

Linguistics of control in Hong Kong and Xinjiang – Liz Carter

In Hong Kong, millions have taken to the streets to protest the erosion of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy. In Xinjiang, over a million ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities have been separated from their families and confined in detention facilities that fit the criteria of concentration camps. But as much as these two situations are often the subject of international news coverage, something is missing.

Take the first two sentences of this article. What is missing? The active voice. Something is the agent behind the “erosion” of Hong Kong’s freedoms. Something is the force imprisoning people in Xinjiang camps. These things don’t happen by accident. But the phrasing is natural enough, grammatically correct, and not unlike what you might find in news reports or even a US government statement.

Linguistic invisibility serves many masters. Often, observers innocently leave out the active subject because it is offstage, out of sight. In some cases, journalists choose wording of this nature to avoid explicit statements of causality, letting readers draw their own conclusions (and dodging libel suits). Yet the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) use it deliberately, and often successfully, to craft a certain view of reality.

Essays

A Handbill of Tiananmen

Documents of atrocity, resurfacing after thirty years – by Roger Huang

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

A few months ago at a book fair, I met a book dealer who specializes in antique Chinese and Asian books. The conversation flowed to a point where I talked to them about my personal connection with the Tiananmen massacre. In my childhood, I had a family friend in the US, Dr. Jiang Yanyong, who as chief surgeon on duty at the 301 Military Hospital on June 4th 1989 witnessed countless bodies pocked with live ammunition, killed and wounded in a crackdown the Chinese government would try to hide from history.

The book dealer told me that somebody had smuggled out of Beijing a cache of handbills and original documents written by students of Peking University who had participated in the Tiananmen protests – and that they were on the market now. A private owner, who didn't want their name associated with the documents, was trying to sell one of the largest caches of first-hand documentation about the Tiananmen massacre.