Review of China and the New Maoists in the LSE Review of Books

The LSE Review of Books has published a review of China and the New Maoists.

In the near future, although Mao’s memory will fade, he will continue to play an important role in China’s politics, society and intellectual thought. He will continue to evince different memories from people – some consider him an ideologue, others as the strongest nationalist leader that China has had and others as an activist and a guerrilla leader. He will continue to perturb the CCP and its leadership because they will not be able to bury his influence and will be wary that his supporters do not grab power again. He will continue to frustrate his followers because they will be unable to bring his ideology into the mainstream.

Review of China and the New Maoists in the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal has published a review of my book with Kerry Brown, China and the New Maoists.

In “China and the New Maoists,” Kerry Brown, a scholar at Chatham House in London, and Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, of the University of Sydney, don’t mince words. “As an economist, Mao was wholly ineffective,” they write, “sponsoring ludicrous programmes that chased after ideals like complete central state control of the economy and comprehensive plans that resulted in colossal inefficiency, the breakdown of the supplies of the most basic food and commodities, and entrenched poverty.” Even so, the authors observe, Mao has not lost his iconic status in China. The result is a kind of double-think in which past crimes are glossed over for the sake of national continuity. Since Mao’s death, they note, the Communist Party of China has officially claimed that Mao was right “70% of the time” and wrong “30% of the time.”

China’s Contested Internet by Guobin Yang (ed.)

The title of China’s Contested Internet evokes images of a battle between the Chinese government (or Chinese Communist Party) and the popularly-termed Chinese “netizens”, the 642 million users of the Internet in China. On the contrary, the contributors to China’s Contested Internet demonstrate throughout the book’s 10 chapters that most scholars’ narrow focus on government vs netizen seriously limits the scope and depth of scholarship of online interactions in China. In fact, there are multiple contestants in and contests over China’s Internet, and they all have important parts to play in the story of its evolution.

The term “netizen” itself is challenged; in her chapter ‘Hackerspaces and the Internet of things in China’, Silvia Lindtner argues that rather than being considered passive users of the Internet, netizens should be actually viewed as empowered individuals who contribute to knowledge production by developing new technologies. With the Chinese government largely perceived as a monolithic entity, it is sometimes easy to forget the agency that individuals have in changing, adapting, or even creating the systems in place.

China’s Contested Internet, Guobin Yang (ed) (NIAS Press, August 2015)
China’s Contested Internet, Guobin Yang (ed) (NIAS Press, August 2015)

Similarly, official microblogging accounts of government departments are usually viewed as being under the direct command of China’s central government. This is perhaps a byproduct of a general lack of awareness, on a more basic level, of divergent interest groups within the central and local governments. However, as Jesper Schlaeger and Min Jiang explain in their chapter ‘Official microblogging and social management by local governments in China’, far from simply being pawns of an all-powerful body, local governments are afforded a certain degree of freedom and flexibility in their approach to managing official microblogs and responding to citizen feedback, and may be described as “fragmented” in their approaches.

Of course, fragmented interest groups also exist among China’s “netizens”. In examining the case study of the so-called Southern Weekly incident of 2013, Sally Xiaojin Chen demonstrates that the online and offline action taken by those protesting the Guangdong propaganda department censorship of Southern Weekly’s New Year editorial reflected distinct motivations and expressions, all facilitated by the medium of the Internet. Therefore, in this case, the contest was not only between citizens and the government, but also citizens and media outlets, between different media outlets, former journalists and media outlets, and citizens with conflicting goals, as each party sought to shape the outcome of the ensuing protests.

In general, China’s Internet is either studied through the lens of total control, or as a component of “liberation technologies” enabling ordinary people to create freedom and democracy in an otherwise oppressed society. In her chapter ‘Voice, power and connectivity in China’s microblogosphere’, Marina Svensson highlights analyses of the 2011 Wukan protests, which resulted in the overthrow of the local government and election of a new village leader, as well as responses to the Wenzhou train crash in the same year, as popular examples of this trend. Svensson challenges this narrow view of liberation technologies, noting that while there are more Weibo users in China than Twitter users in the West, only a very small fraction of these users are what are described as “amplifiers” or “transmitters” with any voice or influence over online debates. Online and offline, those occupying influential and public positions, rather than ordinary citizens or marginalized groups, are those whom many netizens consider “opinion leaders”, and therefore of whom the government is most afraid.

On the other side of the coin, Jian Xu argues there is an online weiguan or “spectator” culture, rooted in historical and political traditions, that is reflected in participation in such online forums as Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and Weibo. His chapter ‘Online weiguan in web 2.0 China’ posits that the

 … virtual, leaderless and networked weiguan action has become one of the most important collective actions in present-day China to express disagreement, grievance and dissent, and form public opinion…

and that “active spectators” have the potential to influence both government and citizen campaigns.

China’s Contested Internet is based on the notion that, in editor Guobin Yang’s words,

[t]he Internet in China has taken on such distinctly Chinese characteristics that it may now be called the Chinese Internet in the same way… we call China’s literature ‘Chinese literature’ or China’s politics ‘Chinese politics’.

In other words, scholars should not simply conceptualise the Internet in China, but consider it a unique world known as as the Chinese Internet.

However, after reading the 10 chapters of this volume, which explore topics as diverse as hackerspaces, online novels, government consultation, community groups, and ethnic identity and racial contestation, readers will discover that, while the linguistic and political features of China’s Internet may be distinctive, it shares characteristics with the Internet elsewhere. It is multifaceted and complex, and its use varies depending on which section of society, institution or individual is examined and what issues are at stake.The contestants and contests are not necessarily unique to China. After all, the Internet is about connections, not isolation.

This book review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books on 15 March 2016.

Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism by Renee Chow

Many first-time visitors to first-tier Chinese cities are surprised at the high-rise apartments, hotels and office buildings that dominate the skyline. these cities can lead one  to forget that, despite its rapid growth, China is still very much a developing country. Cities such as Shanghai and Beijing have been transformed into urban metropolises that rival (by some estimates even surpass) New York and London.

Visitors returning to such cities for the first time in a decade, or even a single year, find them transformed almost beyond recognition, and not always for the better. In the economic miracle that is China, the drive for breakneck development has led to the widespread erosion of traditional architectural and residential cultures, and transplanted the rural with the urban, creating something of a crisis for the future of urban planning.

Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism, Renee Y. Chow (NUS Press, June 2015; University of Hawaii Press, June 2015).
Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism, Renee Y. Chow (NUS Press, June 2015; University of Hawaii Press, June 2015).

On the one hand, first-tier cities have to accommodate and provide for growing populations and fulfil demand for better amenities. Until now, the government’s response has been to raze ancient hutongs in Beijing and lilong alley communities in Shanghai in favor of supersized, homogeneous, massed-produced structures that appear to fit Chinese and international notions of modernity. On the other hand, the Chinese people and those in power express pride of their ancient cultures and traditions. Although they have not had much success, there have often been significant protests against such practices. Chinese urban planners therefore grapple with the difficult decision of whether to build a modern, developed environment or retain unique, established residential cultures centred on courtyards and collective living.

 In Changing Chinese Cities, Renee Chow, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Berkeley, offers a different perspective on these challenges. Chow argues that it is possible—indeed preferable—for Chinese cities to modernize without superseding their traditional aspects, and calls for a more nuanced approach to urban design. Chow remarks that a lack of attention to “common architecture” has prevented urban planners from adopting this nuanced approach. Exploring the cities and surrounds of Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, Chow’s collection of essays examine the relationships between ancient and modern, public and private, and inner and outer realms in China’s urban identity and progress.

Chow describes Beijing as a “city of objects”, typical of any first-tier city across the country: 

… Figures splinter everyday life in the city—the urban fabric is disconnected, illegible, disorienting, uniform, homogeneous, monotonous, self-serving, and lobotomized.

To this end, she advises a shift in urban development away from “figures and objects” towards “field urbanism”, or a more holistic view, and challenges the idea of ubiquitous high-rises being representative of progress.

This does not equate to advocacy for greater conservation of ancient courtyards and alleyways, however. Chow recognises the necessity of urban transformation to meet the needs of the cities’ dwellers.

Chow also considers the intimate connections between economic and social policies and urban planning in China. From private ownership before the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, to urban work units under Mao, to separation between land ownership and land rights under Deng Xiaoping, modern Chinese cities have undergone many fundamental changes that have undeniably affected their fabrics. Furthermore, the political (Beijing) or economic (Shanghai) roles of a city inevitably influence their urban landscapes.

Despite Chow’s use of specialist terminology, the appeal of Changing Chinese Cities is not limited to architects and urban designers alone. Historians, sociologists, and those simply looking for a different view of China’s rapid urbanisation and development, will find something in this book. The accompanying photographs and illustrations allow the reader to envision the past, present, and potential future of Chinese cities.

China ultimately figures in Changing Chinese Cities as a case study of the challenges faced by many countries, both developing and developed. Chow’s work is important in considering the cultural costs of urban development, and how these might be overcome.

This book review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books on 19 September 2015.

Let One Hundred Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything by Liz Carter

During his Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956-7, Mao Zedong encouraged intellectuals to mobilize and publicly criticize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in order to improve it.

Today, the Internet, with its myriad communication platforms, has become another vehicle for mobilization, as online communities emerge to fight for common causes. While the Party obviously does not encourage public criticism, most of the causes championed by netizens are indeed aimed against CCP policy and practice. Liz Carter’s Let 100 Voices Speak examines these hundred voices (or more accurately, 632 million voices) of the World Wide Web and their impact on Chinese society and politics.

In this book, Carter maps the diverse Internet cultures and countercultures that have emerged in recent years, especially via Sina Weibo, which is often described as China’s Twitter. Causes championed by netizens range from feminism, social mobility, and sexuality to pollution, patriotism, education, and anti-corruption. Carter successfully explores the spectrum of internet-based “parties” or dang, all of which have one thing in common: dissatisfaction with how the all-powerful Party is running China.

Let One Hundred Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, Liz Carter (IB Tauris, June 2015)
Let One Hundred Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, Liz Carter (IB Tauris, June 2015)

Carter demonstrates the power of social media in China through such case studies as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which revealed the tragic lack of adequate infrastructure planning; the 2011 Wenzhou train crash, which created a critical conversation about the pace of China’s economic development; “Brother Watch”, a Shaanxi official whose designer timepieces attracted public attention to his corruption, and Tang Hui, whose battle for justice for her kidnapped daughter who was forced into prostitution stimulated popular debate about China’s judicial system.

Let 100 Voices Speak also captures the debate within China and among scholars about the relationship between the people, Government, and Internet. Does censorship encourage creativity? Is Weibo a force for positive change, even democracy? Who is actually in control: the people or the Government? These questions have no simple answers, but Carter provides a starting point from which to consider the influence of social media on the non-virtual lives and experiences of China’s 1.3 billion people.

Carter argues that the “collective experience of censorship” has drawn Chinese netizens together in ways that would be impossible in real life, and describes the unique ways they circumvent censors, including developing their own subversive online language. The book includes a helpful glossary to explain some of this language. At the same time, Let 100 Voices Speak does not ignore the CCP’s vast resources and power, which have allowed it to successfully stem the flow of online subversion before it gets close to toppling the Party. Carter aptly describes this process as “adaptive authoritarianism”.

Nevertheless, Carter is optimistic that online platforms, especially Weibo, will ultimately lead to change at the highest levels of the Chinese Government. The book’s subtitle, “How the internet is transforming China and changing everything”, reflects this. This optimistic assessment might however be viewed in the experience of the so-called Arab Spring: during the protests and their aftermath, many scholars and commentators claimed the Internet played a decisive role in the downfall of repressive regimes. However, looking at the current situation in Egypt, Syria, and Libya, it is evident that idealism is often short-lived. China itself has a long legacy of stifling dissent and activism: the recently adopted national security law will give the Government even greater legal powers to continue doing so.

We shall have to wait and see whether the hundred voices of China’s Internet will be permitted to speak loudly enough to effect long-lasting, positive change, or suffer the same fate as Mao’s hundred flowers, which were brutally purged and forced to remain silent under the CCP’s censorship machine. In the meantime, Let 100 Voices Speak is an excellent introduction for those who are not well-acquainted with the world of Weibo. It is a highly readable addition to previous research on China’s social media, and accessible enough for the general reader with an interest in Chinese society.

This review was originally published by the Asian Review of Books on 7 July 2015.