Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Halloween as an Attack on Communist Doctrine...

I'm preparing to give another lecture at my college later this month. Given the timing, I thought that the title 'The Importance of Superstition' might be appropriate. That idea got shot down right away--apparently the propaganda department of the college would have a hissy fit about this opposition to the Communist doctrine of 'Materialism'. Wow. Paint me surprised. Did they mean 'materialism' in the sense of the gold-plated BMWs most likely currently cruising the streets of Shanghai, perhaps? Anyway, it's 2011, and the Cultural Revolution was more than 40 years ago! Oh well. Guess I'll go with the less obvious, 'Halloween: Why We Tell Scary Stories'.

Here's a scary story for this year's Halloween: "And then Mao awoke, breaking free from his cryogenic entombment in the mausoleum on Tiananmen Square. He proceeded to terrorize the Chinese people, once again; slaying millions, yet again, as his zombie apocalypse spread like wildfire across this densely populated nation."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Critique of the critical

Of the many cultural gaps between China and the developed democracies, criticism may be the most difficult to bridge. I sometimes feel, however, that it should be among the first that we try to bridge. A conversation in which only positive strains are allowed is only half a conversation. The project of finding ways to unite humanity in solving its own worst problems is difficult enough; it simply cannot be done without criticism of human weakness and past or present mistakes.

I grew up in an atmosphere of constructive criticism. An early memory from my childhood: my mother preparing a college seminar on critical thinking for Honors students. I wondered what this "critical thinking" could be, knowing that criticism is a negative thing, but guessing--from the very interesting games my mom prepared--that critical thinking was not an exercise in negativity at all, but the path to solving problems.

When I finally reached college, I found that all of my creative projects required constructive criticism as a necessary step, allowing me to push my writing and visual art further through the (often negative) observations of others. I can say with absolute certainty that my current artistic capability improved 10-fold by accepting others' criticisms and by training myself to criticize my own work. This is the basis of evolutionary adaptation, applicable to any human endeavor just as it is to the diverse creatures that thrive in the world.

As for China, let me start with a positive: there are at least two areas of discussion in which I find diverse Chinese taking on criticism without reflexive feelings of hostility or humiliation--even when foreigners jump into the conversation!

1) The Chinese natural environment, every Chinese person I've ever discussed the matter with agrees, is in a dire state. The smell, sight, and taste of urban smog cannot be ignored. The trash strewn by the side of highways and footpaths alike cannot be ignored. The scrim of algae (reacting to pollutants in the water) that covers once-beautiful scenic lakes cannot be ignored. Most importantly, exhortation to save China's environment has come from the government itself, signalling that criticism of this problem has been sanctioned at the highest levels and can be safely discussed. Thus, unlike the many problems glossed-over by the government, this is a criticism coming from Chinese as well, rather than an isolated imposition by foreign media.

2) The education system. As I've written before, all strata of Chinese society seem to agree that the education system requires reform. Students, parents, teachers, professors, and government administrators have all discussed this with me. This is an area where all have internalized criticism of the system as it stands, yet substantive reform has not yet taken place. Given the torpid bureaucracy and the doubtlessly numerous actors who benefit from the status quo, it may be decades yet.

I'm heartened that I can actually have full debate and discussion of these aspects of Chinese society and the China experience--without my Chinese friends taking offense and decrying me as a foul, critical, laowai! Some days it seems to me that there are few other subjects where critical thinking is as encouraged.

Perhaps it's just that outsiders,foreigners, are not welcome to criticize any aspect of China. Foreign media relishes open criticism--giving praise only where it is undeniably due--with a fervor that contrasts with the tame, state-owned Chinese domestic media. I'm sure, seeing this through the eyes of the average Chinese, the contrast must be shocking. What, newspapers that don't limit themselves to 30% negative news and 70% positive news? How crude! How gauche!

That shock I can understand, given the news environment. Likewise, I can understand how many Chinese might view global criticism, outside criticism, in view of China' humiliation by various Western and Japanese industrial nations in the past few centuries. Fenqing--young Chinese chauvinists--react particularly violently. The government hardly dissuades them from taking offense, of course, and even does its part* to fan the flames (most noticeably in its recent publication, "Global Times").

*The government can hardly distance itself from what Chinese news organizations do, given the level of government ownership and control over all media within the country.

All that said, there are a few realizations that would do a lot to improve the Chinese reception of outsiders' criticism--I think.

A) The "Western" tradition is that criticism is more acceptable when shared among all groups. Americans in particular have a historic distrust of government, going back to our relationship with the British central government, and thus have a habit of criticizing government--of any ideology or nation-state. All governments, including our own, merit being lampooned, so we are highly unlikely to make an exception for China--quite the opposite, any attempt to protest such criticism will only invite more concerted criticism. Some Chinese government bodies or news organs like to declare that western media have "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" with critical reports of China or its government. Such declarations are destined to backfire.

B) With great power comes greater outside criticism. Example: Countries such as Eritrea or Equitorial Guinea have much more dictatorial, corrupt governments than China's, but come in for far less criticism in international fora. Why? Because most people are not likely to be concerned about such geographic, economic non-entities. Conversely, developed democracies such as the US, France, or Japan come in for quite a lot of criticism despite having high standards of living, many personal freedoms, responsive governance, and most other attributes widely considered desirable. So perhaps we could see criticism of a country, China for example, as a sign that people around the world actually care about it.

"China, you are important to us; now, why did you go to the KFC to eat junk food and hang out with your boyfriend instead of studying for your college entrance exam?"

C) A well-known dictum says, "problems cannot be solved until they have been accepted and faced". An alcoholic or other addict will never beat their addiction until they have admitted that they have an addiction. Likewise, when an outsider looks in on the situation in China--a situation where numerous problems may be discussed privately, but are commonly not allowed to appear in public fora--they see a lop-sided societal conversation where many important points (mostly criticisms) go unsaid. This is a vacuum that then draws the confident, criticism-comfortable outsider to express whatever he/she feels has not been said. This, then, may result in the impression that foreigners are far more critical of China than Chinese are, or that foreigners are negative by their nature.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Pleasantville = Harmonious Village

Conservatives, whether of the Chinese Communist or American Republican variations, can be strikingly alike. When I assigned my class to watch the film, Pleasantville, (as homework, what a kind teacher I am) I was not struck by the film's portrayal of a mythical, white, 1950's utopia which American conservatives work so hard to return the country to. This much is as obvious as a toucan's nose.

I was, rather, struck by how closely this utopia seems to resemble the "harmonious society" which Hu Jintao has proclaimed as the Chinese Communist Party's goal to work towards: a world that works like clockwork, where the privileges of the powerful are unquestioned (patriarchs in either case), where sex is not acknowledged or even existent, where disaster (represented as fire or rain in the film; as milk adulteration or hit-and-run incidents in China) cannot impede upon man's utopia. Hu Jintao's "harmonious society" does not, as in the film, represent a humanly attainable ideal. This sort of harmony represents an ideal that if achieved would destroy the very humanity it sought to preserve.

Perhaps it is hyperbole to conflate an aspiration for harmony with a static, undead society. Certainly there is nothing wrong with hoping for harmony. Perhaps harmony is a virtue to work towards, but never entirely achieve. The journey, not the destination, is the valuable attainment. Right?

I wonder. Like in the film, China's harmony is less a harmony where all parties (both powerful and vulnerable) make concessions to the whole, and more a harmony where the powerful set the tune--however dissonant others may find that may be--and snuff out any divergent melodies. This is not a Confucian harmony, where great power begets great responsibility (yes, Confucius came up with that one before Uncle Ben). According to historians, no emperor of China has ever conceded fully to Confucian harmony. Likewise, The One Party--like the One Ring--concedes to no one. Thus, a harmony of complexities becomes impossible. Thus, Hu Jintao's harmonious future seems more and more like Pleasantville's: an empty paradise from empty platitudes.

One last thought the movie gave me: Color, like sex or rain, is a irresistible natural phenomenon. Color will come.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Universal Values

A topic that has come up again and again in Sinophile discussions is the question of whether China is an exceptional case (note: Americans also like to see themselves as exceptional, exempt from international norms), or whether the Chinese people also ascribe to "universal values". There are important questions to ask: Are "universal values" as established in such documents as the UN Declaration of Human Rights truly universal--or merely Western? Do these universal values gel with the values that Chinese civilization aspires to? If human vices are--seemingly--universal, shouldn't human aspirations be as well?

For those who would like a wall of text that I did not produce, now turn to the China Media Project (run out of Hong Kong University), which has provided a truly beautiful comparison of two views, both from authentic mainland Chinese, on this subject:

The first, clearly, is the view which the Chinese government wants promoted: that the China Model is exceptional due to China's exceptional circumstances as a continuous civilization-state; this view is that Chinese exceptionalism (also known as "_______ with Chinese Characteristics") can explain away all of the China's policy differences and frictions with the developed democratic countries of the world.

The government makes its arguments well. They should do: they've got numerous academics in numerous government think tanks whose full-time job is to come up with fig leaves for controversial government policies and practices. Their strongest point is that economic rights are human rights, too. China has indeed made a U-turn on economic rights, so I can understand why they wish to focus on the importance of Deng Xiaoping's policy reversal which has raised millions of Chinese citizens from utter poverty. I wonder, however, if the government understands that their greatest contribution to this has been their inaction (the Chinese philosophy of "wuwei", action of inaction), allowing private enterprise to bloom, rather than their actions--continuing support for numerous government monopolies in the form of easy loans from state banks, preferential policy, and preferential policing--which so often have the effect of squelching private innovation and enterprise.  

The greatest error the authoritarian apologists have made in this project is in trying to suggest that this is simply a tug of war between "The West" and the rest (or maybe just that exceptional case, China). Are there not Chinese who ascribe to different points of view from those sanctioned/funded by their government? My own five year stint in China suggest that there are many:

Many who do not accept zealous state paternalism (much less authoritarianism) as an essential "Chinese characteristic"; many who do not accept a shackled and uniformly state-sponsored press as an essential "Chinese characteristic"; many who do not agree that a one-party government without checks and balances on its powers or accountability for its responsibilities is an essential "Chinese characteristic". It may be very hard to argue about what Chinese exceptionalism even means when the Chinese people as a whole have not been able to engage in a national conversation about which Chinese characteristics are essential to preserve as well as which Chinese characteristics are actually Chinese characteristics rather than common characteristics of most pre-industrial, pre-literate, pre-modern states.

Let me end with this: it is not a bad thing to discuss our assumptions about what constitutes "universal values". We must value the input of voices from developing countries which may be skeptical. Can the conversation have truly begun, however, when the greater diversity of views from countries like China has been suppressed? The powerful, of course, prefer to hide behind the excuse of exceptional national characteristics and circumstances whenever they have done ill--and that applies equally to how America and China have each used their "exceptionalism".

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

China's Winning Schools (a response)

In response to this article:

Every Chinese I've ever discussed the topic with has lamented the horrible state of their schools: based on rote learning and constant testing, the "most successful" students here are often ones who know how to take a test well and memorize material, but can't solve even the most basic practical or creative problems. Some Chinese joke that their best universities (Tsinghua University and Peking University, both in Beijing) are only fit to putting out teachers, because the students who get such high scores on the Gaokao (the Chinese universal university entrance exam, and more-or-less the only qualifier for getting into a Chinese university) only know how to get high scores... and nothing else.

I often ask teachers and students about this, because it seems to me that everyone in China--students, parents, teachers, administrators, and officials--laments the state of their schools, but despite this, no widespread reforms seem to be in the making. They reply that a country as large as China, with many vested interests in the current system (most prominently the students and parents of students who are preparing for the Gaokao even from kindergarten--they'll say as much!--and the teachers and administrators who don't want to invest time or money in changing teaching methods), has a lot of difficulty making changes to that system.

For one thing, currently college admissions decisions are made based on a exam result number spit out by a computer. That number not only tells students which colleges they are eligible to attend (usually a list of about 4 or 5 schools, to my knowledge), but also which programs in which colleges they may attend. Often students have a dilemma between studying the money-making subjects at less-regarded colleges, or studying impractical and monetarily-useless programs (history or philosophy) at a good college. As far as incentive, they will usually take the better brand college, because college programs in China are generally thought of as useless in teaching practical knowledge (the author of the article is indeed right to call China's college system a national disgrace, but more on that later).

As for results from the Shanghai PISA testing, that can be explained in several ways: (1) from the excessive hard studying that Chinese students put in (a typical student starts his day at 6 or 7 AM, doesn't leave school until 6 pm, and studies until 1 AM); (2) Shanghai is a place that attracts the best, brightest, most resource-rich (to invest in the education of their children), and ambitious Chinese; (3) Shanghai, as well as a few other places such as Beijing and Shenzhen, serves as an experimental zone for further reforms. Like Americans, the Chinese have learned to make societal experiments on a smaller level before attempting to apply them to society at large. The reasoning being that societal change can be vastly destabilizing, the Communist Party is absolutely opposed to any change that could threaten its own survival. (Another couple reasons the school system hasn't changed on a wider scale in China being that their children (and childrens' futures) are one of the few things all Chinese will stand up and fight to the death for, and the other being that the children of Party members usually benefit from early access to promising experimental reforms.)

One important thing to note: do not be fooled by Chinese statistics with regard to education. There is truth in saying that China has done a good job improving education for even rural areas... because most of those areas did not even have formal education even quite recently. However, the education most receive in the countryside is still quite terrible by national or global standards, lacking resources or many qualified teachers (few Chinese are likely to do something akin to Teach for America as a character-building act of charity; although I have known a few students who talked of doing something of that sort, I'm sure their parents will probably talk them out of it). China, as an example, claims to have a 98% literacy rate, and yet official definitions of literacy in China only extend to the person understanding 1700 characters, rather than a requirement to be able to read or write coherently (the latter is the UN definition). That is to say that while China has undoubtedly accomplished a lot in terms of education, numbers and statistics provided by testing are often not an accurate way of gauging their success or any "threat" they may pose to other countries in the race to have the best education, and thus the best economic futures.

Now as for colleges/universities in China, they are generally quite pitiable. Several causes can be identified: (1) Students, after studying hard for the Gaokao all their life to that point,  have finally made it past the great winnower and so they relax; (2) schools have been given the remit from the government in the past few years to expand massively to accommodate the vastly increased numbers of Chinese who can afford a college education; (3) schools have been partially weaned of government support, making them increasingly reliant on profiting from student tuition fees in order to both expand and to skim off private profits for administrators and teachers.

We can see a few major problems developing when we look closely at the model. The schools relying on tuition for their butter (or at least their extra butter) means that they are loathe to expel students (students = $). The result is a rash of diploma mills, grade inflation, and unmotivated students who correctly do not take their college seriously, and (perhaps) rightly want to take a breather after the long grind they've been put through. Students also know that--in China even more so than in other countries--the name of the school you graduate from matters infinitely more than the grades you achieve there in the finding of a job; most of the teaching being theoretical rather than practical, hiring companies disregard the content of that education to great extent. What we have, then, is a massive increase in quantity of degrees churned out yearly and a vast decrease in the value of those degrees--not just in quality, but also in terms of supply and demand. I imagine, in fact, that it could take a century or more for many Chinese institutions of higher learning to recover from this vast loss in the quality/quantity ratio. They do have futures as a respected institutions, but... quite a ways in the future.

One point alluded to here (and mentioned more in-depth in other articles) is that many Asians of the Confucian system succeed in education despite, rather than because, of the specifics of their country's education systems. Chinese value education, thus when students get vacations, they do not get time off, but rather get private tutoring and training that may indeed be more practical, creative, and valuable than the bulk of the studying they do for their public school testing. Chinese parents are more than willing to invest in the education of their children. As it quickly becomes clear (and has done in the past few years) that a college education is no longer a guaranteed path to a well-paid job, it is the private training centers that will indubitably pick up the slack, not the public school systems.

So yes, I would take the message of the article to heart: America should learn from the Chinese societal admiration for education (rather than repudiation of it); America absolutely should not copy by rote the Chinese trap of studying and testing by rote. Moreover, America should do what the Chinese have not yet successfully done: it should put more emphasis on reforming the education system holistically--with parents, teachers, unions, administrators, and government each doing their part.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

First Contemplations of the New Year

As I see it, chaos is without structure. It may consist of changing
forms, but those forms have no meaning because they have no context,
one to any other. They have no relationship, one to the other.
Thoughts, then, work to create relationships as well as boundaries.
Relationships cannot exist without boundaries: a link between two
things helps create a definition of those things (at least in what
they have in common). The more such links, the more defined a thing
is, and definitions--by definition--are exclusive. They exclude.

So, thoughts are the method by which we relate observed or conjectured
things. Thoughts define. These may (and probably always are)
approximate definitions. Models for understanding the universe that
work most--but not all--of the time. In this way thoughts restrict
meaningless chaos; thoughts channel its mutations. This leads to
something much more interesting than either changeless order or
indefinite chaos: complexity. One theory of the universe (God),
becomes many (multiple religions), and then even more complex (all the
many laws of physics, growing ever more complex, from Newtonian to
Einstein's theories to quantum). In a universe moving from a
highly-ordered state to a completely chaotic one (the third law of
thermodynamics), complexity is the best we can hope for.

The genesis of this particular pondering came from a friend's byline
which stated that 'not knowing' is intelligence, because the unknown
is boundless whereas thoughts are strictures. If that means that
remaining malleable to the surprising, shocking, paradigm-shifting
experiences life offers is wisdom, then I would agree. If it suggests
that thoughts themselves are at fault, I disagree. Thinking is not the
same as knowing. With thinking, there is always room for
reinterpretation and additional perspectives, even radical
redefinition. We see this happen in language, arts, and science.
Slang, new ideologies, and social adaptations would not exist
otherwise. Knowing, on the other hand, is assumption: taking for
granted. Rather than using the definitions provided by thought and
accepting their potential mutability, being used by those definitions.
The path to fundamentalism--whether of the secular or religious sorts.

As a matter of course, however, we all fall prey to the necessity of
knowing things we cannot absolutely know--erring on the side of order,
rather than complexity. We have finite resources of mind within which
to build our civilizations. We will all make assumptions, so that we
can devote energy to mundane tasks of survival, rather than
questioning--every second of every day--whether the ground beneath our
feet will dematerialize, whether we will spontaneously combust, or
whether we will vibrate into another dimensionality.