Tag Archives: China

Reinventing China: A Critique

zhuqing li

Written by Randeep Purewall

In Reinventing China, Zhuqing Li looks at how Chinese nationals, educated and professionally employed in the United States, return to make their mark on their homeland. The five cases profiled by Zhuqing Li include environmentalist Liao Xiaoyi, sexologist, Li Yinhe and telecommunications CEO, Chen Datong.

Reinventing China is an illuminating look into a generation which began seizing opportunities after China’s opening up in 1978. It’s also a fascinating window on how this generation is changing China from the ground up.

Liao creates green neighbourhoods in Beijing. Li fights to legalize same-sex marriage in China. Chen Datong takes on Apple, Samsung and Motorola by making smart phones in China accessible and affordable. And three female business partners, Wang Yi, Luo Ming and Ning Aidong, find a library bringing a new kind of children’s literature to China.

As engrossing as it reads, Reinventing China tries to make China fit into a narrative palatable to the West: the West is changing China through the Chinese. But are all Western-educated returnees to China forces for change? Is all such change positive? And why do so many Chinese choose not to return to their home country (like the author herself)?

The returnees in Reinventing China also come from some of the wealthier and more privileged social classes. They enjoy good connections. They include well known personalities like Li who is recognized internationally for her activism on GLBT issues and Liao who was named TIME “Hero of the Environment” in 2009. How representative are they for the rest of China’s returnees?

Zhuqing Li also positions her cases alongside a history of Chinese returnees including Sun Yat Sen. Sun was a political revolutionary set on changing the existing order. The individuals here are not interested in changing the order. And where they seek to effect social change, like Li on same-sex marriage legislation, they work with the Chinese Communist Party.

China will keep changing, no doubt. Zhuqing Li shows how China is changing at a micro-level even if it’s not being reinvented.


Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, China, Uncategorized

Hong Kong: 20 Years After


Written by Randeep Purewall

On April 26, 2017, the University of British Columbia’s Hong Kong Studies Initiative hosted “Hong Kong: 20 Years After,” a symposium on Hong Kong two decades after its handover to China. Convened over by Leo Shin of UBC, the symposium brought together Diana Lary and Josephine Chiu-Duke of UBC with Stephen Yiu-Wai Chu and Petula Sik-Ying Ho of Hong Kong University.

Hong Kong is not a democracy, but it is a pluralistic society with a liberal, rule-based culture. It served as a haven for artists, intellectuals and students in the Chinese speaking world in the 1960s says Chiu-Duke who, while living under the KMT in Taiwan, read newspapers like Ming Pao for their critical perspectives. Hong Kong’s residents also supported the Democracy Movement of 1989, and the city proved a creative force in film and popular culture.

That creative influence may be dying, however. As Chu points out, Hong Kong filmmakers are casting actors from the PRC in their lead roles and catering ever more to the audience of mainland China. The rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents are also threatened says Ho whether in police pepper spraying student protesters in the Umbrella Movement or Beijing’s interference in the governance of Hong Kong University.

How broad is Hong Kong’s democracy movement in any case? One audience member pointed out that the Umbrella Movement was largely a youth movement while democratic reform is rarely debated in the Hong Kong legislature. Chiu-Duke noted, however, that liberal values and the rule of law in societies like Hong Kong may precede the development of democracy as they did in the U.K.

The question of Cantonese was also discussed. Chu pointed to the PRC’s introduction of Mandarin Chinese into Hong Kong schools at the expense of Cantonese. He told me after the symposium about China’s argument that learning Mandarin results in a purer form of written Chinese than Cantonese. Lary, however, argued that Hong Kong citizens will likely speak Cantonese, English and Mandarin as multilingual citizens in a globalized world.

When I visited Hong Kong in 2015, I felt that the city was as socially and culturally vibrant as any other. It was a society buzzing with life and energy. Those who predict its end in 2047 overlook its importance to China both as a source of investment for China and as a world financial centre. Their predictions also assume that the PRC will itself not change politically, including the possibility of evolving toward a more benign authoritarian regime.

It was clear from the start of the symposium: Hong Kong matters. Canadian citizens abound in Hong Kong and the legacy of Hong Kong’s immigrants is apparent in Canadian politics, business and culture. More broadly, as a liberal, post-colonial city and as a quintessentially modern Asian society, Hong Kong will continue to inspire interest.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Hong Kong, Randeep Singh

Film Review: “Coming Home” (‘歸來’)

Coming Home

Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Gong Li (Feng Wanyu), Chen Daoming (Lu Yanshi) and Zhang Huiwen (Dandan)

Rating: 78%

A criminal on the run. A wife told to turn him in. It would have been a crime drama anywhere else. Only in Coming Home, the crime is being an enemy of the Chinese Communist Party. And the drama is set during the Cultural Revolution, the political inferno which engulfed China from 1966 to 1976.

The Cultural Revolution has spawned its own genre of cinema including the epic Farewell My Concubine and the devastating Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl. In contrast to those works, Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home is not an angry rebuke at what went wrong, but an elegy of how the Cultural Revolution affects a couple Lu and Feng and their daughter, Dandan, in a provincial town.

Coming Home however falls short of Zhang’s previous work and of films on the Cultural Revolution thanks to its soap-opera treatment replete with endless background music, jarring camera close-ups and even tears which seem carefully choreographed.

The tragedy of the Cultural Revolution is thankfully revealed through the brilliant performances of Li, Chen and Zhang. Lu is a convicted counterrevolutionary who has escaped from a labour camp. Feng and Dandan are summoned in by the police to tell what they know. Desiring the lead role in a revolutionary ballet, Dandan chillingly proclaims her obedience to the party’s commands to turn in Lu.

The tragedy of Coming Home does not sink in until after the film finishes. For all its melodrama, Coming Home is a poignant tale of humanity losing its way and trying to find it again, thanks to the masterful performances of its lead actors.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Films

The Joys of Roaming Afar- Part I

New York and China 794

Written by Randeep Singh

Guilin, Guangxi Province, China – April 14, 2015

There’s a saying in China: “the mountains and waters of Guilin are the finest under heaven.”

The space under heaven is vast and Guilin is a sight.

I boarded a raft at the Zhujiang pier around ten o’clock with a family of three from France. As our motor-raft buzzed down the Li River in a swarm of rafts, I exchanged smiles and words in French with the couple as their son hoisted the flag of their native Brittany to the raft’s bow all the while waving at travelers in other rafts passing us by …

I floated down the river without a care
deep in the shade of green hills,
drinking the wine of spring on the breeze …

The hills and water of Guilin are a landscape in a classical Chinese painting. Carved by time, fashioned by nature, the green limestone hills are like pieces of jade skirting the mirror of the Li River. The scenery has inspired painting and poetry in the Chinese tradition for centuries …

I drifted down the river,
gazing at the hills,
leaving time behind  …

Our raft docked around half past eleven. I alighted onto the bank, climbing the stone steps up to a landing where the greenery had given way to a dusty brown earth and a few mangy trees. Women were crouching over steaming pots, washing clothes in steel basins, yelling after their children, while others were chasing me and other tourists to sell trinkets, flowers and postcards.

I traveled to Yangshou with Stephen, a boy from my hostel. Arriving there around noon, we wandered through the streets and squares of the city, haggling over cashmere scarves and chinaware with vendors and dining on the salty, spicy local “beer fish” over cups of jasmine tea.

By three o’clock, women in parasols were flitting about in the heat and I caught a bus to another pier on the Li. Setting sail on a bamboo raft with a fellow from Jilin Province, we applauded the comorand fisherman who sent his comorand birds to dive, catch and return fish to him. We floated under the old “dragon” bridge, passing inns, restaurants and old men spectating from the riverbanks, while taking a plunge down a small waterfall.

I purchased a photograph of the latter for twenty Chinese yuan, fed and patted some water buffalo for good luck and boarded the bus back to Guilin as the sun began to set.

The Rice Terraces of Da Zhai, Guangxi Province, China – April 15, 2015

New York and China 993
One day, a maid from heaven saw a land on earth which rivaled the heavenly kingdom in its beauty. Leaving her mistress, the Queen of Heaven, the maid descended to that land on earth. While there, she fell in love a mortal, spending many happy days with him. The Queen of Heaven grew angry that her maid had neglected her duties and summoned her back to heaven. The maid was heartbroken to leave her love behind on earth. As she ascended to heaven, her tears fell upon the land around Da Zhai, immortalizing its beauty …

I set off around eight thirty in the morning with six other travelers from my hostel on a three hour van ride to the rice terraces of Da Zhai. The other travellers were a guy from Germany, another guy from the Netherlands, two sisters from Switzerland and a British and Australian couple who were visiting from Shanghai where they were taking part in a student exchange program.

When we arrived in Da Zhai, our driver drew a suggested route for us to follow on our maps. We were to first travel to a spot on the hill toward the north-east (number three on the map), move on to Tiantou Village towards the north (number one) and then to Zhuangjie Village in the west (number two). I set off with the Dutch and German boys, the couple somewhere in front of us and the Swiss sisters somewhere behind.

We ended up accidentally in Xinzhai Village but a local Zhuang women pointed us to the direction of “number three” which took us along a narrow lane to steps up the terraces. We climbed the terraces when the rest of the group decided to keep climbing to the peak. I parted with them, heading to the number three spot. I arrived around quarter to noon at a wooden rest home from which the rice terraces and villages were spread out like waves on a sea of green.

New York and China 979
Waiting at the wooden rest home, I was approached by a Zhuang woman with a baby boy strapped to her back. On her say so, I placed a little cotton cap on the chubby baby’s head much to his delight. I had told my party that I would wait for them, but as the minutes ticked away, I set off again remembering that we had to be back at the parking lot by four o’clock that afternoon. I got directions on how to get to Tiantou Village from another Zhuang woman, and left the wooden guesthouse with its crowing roosters and the baby in the cotton cap.

I spent much of the day admiring the view from the terraces. The rice terraces were green and dry. A few weeks later and they would have been shimmering full of water. That did not stop me from marveling at these wonders of man and nature. The rice terraces in Da Zhai cascade down the hillside like green waterfalls. They ripple across the landscape like folds in a theatre curtain. I can’t say how many minutes I stood just gazing at them.

I climbed the terraces and followed the trails, through bamboo groves, passing streams and waterfalls and Zhuang women selling embroidered goods, crafts and traditional style jewellery.

I came to the bottom of Zhuangjie Village by three o’clock, where I lunched on egg and tomatoes and rice at an inn. I was greeted by the Australian fellow and we headed back to the parking lot, discussing Asian architecture, his subject of study in Shanghai while the British girl lingered somewhere behind us.

I too would have liked to stay longer at Da Zhai; but thanks to the maid of heaven, it has become immortalized once again.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Travel

China’s Century

Written by Randeep Singh

The United States is the world’s largest economy, no more.

China has assumed that distinction. Last month, China’s GDP[1] measured $17.632 trillion, overtaking the United States’ at $17.416 trillion. China’s economy now makes up 16.48% of the world’s economy. And though China is still poor in per capita terms  and facing its own social problems, it has reclaimed a historic distinction which it enjoyed until the late-19th century.

With that distinction should come an end to an illusion: that China is a threat to the United States or the West. Like any country, China is its own confusion of history, modernity, politics and identity. Flaubert once stated “there is no truth, only perception.” There is nothing objectively threatening about China. The American perception of China as a threat is a projection of America’s own assumptions about China based on America’s own historical experiences as a great power.[2]

The rise of China is best understood against China’s history. In the late 19th century, Chinese reformist statesmen proposed that to survive in the modern world, China must unite, strengthen itself and become prosperous. Since that time, China has experienced revolution, invasion, civil war, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution; yet it has never veered far from the goal of self-strengthening.

Since 1978, China has emerged become the world’s largest trading nation, reduced poverty, built world-class infrastructure, and become the world’s largest creditor nation. The Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy rests on maintaining such growth and prestige. To risk doing anything to the contrary – such as alienating its largest trading partner and investors – would jeopardize its legitimacy.

Like any country, China is not to be feared – only to be understood. The rise of China is best understood in terms of China’s own historical experiences, not through our perceptions of it.

[1]  According to the International Monetary Fund’s, World Economic Outlook (2014), calculated at purchasing power parity.

[2] Many such threats have not materialized, including the American fear of China recalling $3 trillion in U.S. debt which failed to occur during America’s debt-default crisis in 2013.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Politics

“India’s Principal Challenge”…An Interview with Christopher Jaffrelot


Serge: India is a democracy unlike China, so why compare it to Beijing?

Christopher Jaffrelot: I never make such a comparison in terms of their political systems. For we have effectively on the one hand, a country which combines economic liberalism and political authoritarianism, and on the other hand, despite its imperfections, the biggest democracy in the world.  The comparison suffers from Occidentalism: since we perceive these countries as threats, we put them into the same category without sufficiently seeing their differences.

Guest: In the ongoing economic competition between China and India, do you think the fact that India is democratic is an asset, a hindrance or that political system has no impact?

Christopher Jaffrelot: It’s a hindrance in the short term and an asset in the long-term. That’s to say that India today struggles to develop its infrastructure (roads as well as its railway network) due to the long legal process involved in acquiring land (there’s a respect for private property that frustrates the state’s actions).

On the other hand, India will not be split like China. Again, political authoritarianism and economic liberalism can’t coexist in the long-term. One has today, a debate in India which puts democracy on the hot seat. The middle class is exasperated over the slowness of economic development, tempted by some form of authoritarianism. But, in the end, the Indian trajectory could prove to be more positive than China’s.

Marc : Isn’t there a chance that India could become the leading world power, to China’s detriment when one considers the numerous challenges facing the latter?

Christopher Jaffrelot : From the Indian point of view, the prospect of becoming a major power is located in a far off time. If one looks at indicators, certainly crude but nevertheless important, such as Gross National Product, India’s is two and half times less that of China’s.

Moreover, India cannot stem the growth in its population which could see it surpass China between 2030 to 2040. This means that the GNP per capita will have a long ways to go in catching up to that of China’s.

But if looks ahead to the twenty-first century, one can effectively imagine that sometime this century, India benefits from political stability to catch up with China.

André : Is India, being a democracy and an English-speaking country, not better equipped to adapt to globalization than the communist and non-English speaking China?

Christopher Jaffrelot: English is definitely an asset in an age of globalization. It is moreover possible, that sometime this century, India becomes the biggest English-speaking country in the world. But one shouldn’t underestimate the capacity of the Chinese to achieve an English-speaking education (Chinese constitute the largest foreign-student community on American university campuses), and also, India has not devoted enough resources to mass education. Only seven percent of any given class go on to higher education.

It’s largely in terms of soft power that India takes advantage of its linguistic ability: it “monopolizes” the literary prizes in the United States and in England and this has a lot to do with English’s cultural influence.

Benjamin : What is India’s major asset in the face of Chinese economic power?

Christopher Jaffrelot : The major Indian asset, it’s the small ten percent of its population which comprises the elite, which we can call the middle class as a misnomer. A very well educated elite, skilled in science and engineering, globalized, enterprising, entrepreneurial that has no equivalent in China.  The question is whether knowledge is sufficient to pull the country upwards.  One can worry about the entrenching of inequalities that the blossoming of this elite generates.

Eleuth : What’s the reality of the caste system today in India? To what extent does this system weaken India’s development?

Christopher Jaffrelot: Caste is an extremely complex issue. One can, to simplify, say that caste system rests on a very strict hierarchy, so in terms of status (and even of purity) that of profession. This system has been undermined with the mobilization of the lower castes in favour of greater equality, including through political parties which finally took power in many regions.

In fact, castes, today, are groups of interest in competition more than static elements in a vertical hierarchy.  This contributes to lending a social dimension to Indian democracy. Where class especially hampers social modernization, is in the sphere of education. The untouchables, notably, do not have full access there.

Wolf:  In your opinion, what will India do in the globalization of the 21st century: play its card as the biggest democracy of the world, and so of Asia? Draw closer to China in an Asian partnership? Come to terms with the United States against China in a new “cold war?” Rediscover the paths of power through a traditional alliance with Russia? Or something else?

Christopher Jaffrelot: Something even different, but in the sense that will be a little of each all at once. In the sense that India remained fundamentally a non-aligned country, a country very attached to its sovereignty, to its independence. On the one hand, India did not break with Russia which remains its biggest weapons supplier. On the other hand, India has drawn closer to the United States which has become India’s biggest investor.

But India does not want to enter into a rivalry with China, which is India’s largest trading partner and with which a conflict could be very costly at a time when the credo of these two powers is “let’s get rich!” In any case, India will not enter not into a network of alliances, it will work more through ad hoc coalitions. The most durable one could be the one already informally formed since 2003 with Brazil and South Africa.

Abhwer:  To what extent is India ready to cooperate with Afghanistan to weaken Pakistan?

Christopher Jaffrelot : It’s a question to which there’s no specific response but which is the current question in the region.  In two years, at the latest, NATO forces will have withdrawn from Afghanistan.  India fears that Pakistan will put back not one but two feet in Afghanistan while reviving its support for the Taliban.

The theory that India considers consists of supporting Karzai’s government. Beyond the simple economic and social domain, the two countries already signed a strategic partnership last summer.  One could add to it a strong military dimension but that would come back to wave the red flag in front of the Pakistanis which could cost India dearly in terms of attacks in Afghanistan or on its own territory.

New Delhi:  What could stop Indian power? An economic crisis?  Communal tensions? The risk of war?

Christopher Jaffrelot:  I do not think that India can be stopped by domestic factors. These will simply slow it down. Among them, the entrenching of inequalities is detrimental.

Even if only in a limited sense, the fact that India’s large neighbours are nuclear powers would divert foreign investors of this country.

Salam: Do you believe that India has a special role to play in the Iran crisis with Indians close to Iranians but also possessors of nuclear weapons (without signing the NTP) but partners of the West, notably Americans, with on top of everything, a post of permanent member to the security council of the United Nations?

Christopher Jaffrelot: The Iranian landscape shows us just how uncomfortable India’s positioning can be. On the one hand, Indians don’t want to break with the Iranians because they depend on their hydrocarbons and their port to reach Afghanistan. On the other hand, they can’t ignore the western pressures and the risks of instability that a nuclear Iran could bring to the region. But rather than mediate and serve as a bridge between the West and Iran, India takes refuge in abstention, mortgaging her chances in appearing as a responsible power and in attaining a post of permanent member of the Security Council.

Polo:  In all these considerations, which is above all the principal challenge which India must confront?

Christopher Jaffrelot: India’s principal challenge is human development If India falls under the illusions of its elites, it struggles to reduce mass poverty with international rankings ranking India behind several sub-Saharan African countries in terms of malnutrition, infant mortality, literacy etc.

From: “Le principal défi de l’Inde s’énonce en termes de développement humain,” an interview with Christophe Jaffrelot inLe Monde Diplomatique, March 20, 2012,  http://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2012/03/20/le-principal-defi-de-l-inde-s-enonce-en-terme-de-developpement-humain_1672805_3210.html

Translated into English by Randeep Purewall

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Politics