Absurdity, Allegory and China

The Kingdom from another angle.

Absurdity, Allegory and China header image 1

Decoy Ducks and Xi Jinping

November 2nd, 2012 · No Comments

The operatic buzz among China watchers the last few days has been the latest rumor put forward to explain why Xi Jinping, the odds-on favorite to be elected as the next decadal CCP boss and head of China’s government next week, stealthily dropped from the radar on September 1st. Xi’s disappearance included the abrupt cancelation of all meetings a few days later, including one with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Xi’s evaporation gave rise to a host of whispers, which included assassination attempts, heart attacks, and a re-aggravated back injury. The credibility of all leakers anywhere in the world is always an issue. But in China there’s a longer and knottier history of dribbling out disinformation to advance or protect particular agendas. It’s part of the cultural DNA.

The ‘story’ making the rounds is one by Mark Kitto, in an article in Prospect entitled What really happened to Xi Jinping. Kitto identifies his source as “someone with access to the top level of the Chinese governing apparatus” who claims that Xi Jinping’s vanishing was the result of an injury after Xi was clobbered by a chair while trying to intercede in a particularly fractious meeting of the second-generation Communist royalty of which Xi is now the ranking member:

In the first days of September, Xi chaired a meeting of the “red second generation,” the sons and daughters of the party’s old guard. The second generation are in late middle age and exert disproportionate influence through their families’ political and commercial networks. It is considered prudent for the incoming leader to submit to them his plans for a tenure that will last, if all goes well, for the next ten years.

The second generation is split along factional and family lines. They hold grudges that go back decades. The recent Bo Xilai scandal is a good example of those hidden rivalries coming out into the open. When the second generation meet there is conflict, sometimes physical. Fifty years ago the battles between their parents might have ended with the loser being sent to a forced labour camp, or worse.

The meeting turned violent. They went at it hammer and sickle. Xi Jinping tried to calm them down. He put himself physically in the crossfire and unwittingly into the path of a chair as it was thrown across the room. It hit him in the back, injuring him. Hence the absence, and the silence, and the rumours.

There are, of course, many questioning this most recent explanation, as well they should. Rumors stay rumors until real evidence morphs them into something else. Sometimes that something else can even be labeled the truth. But let’s not forget the Jiang Zemin is Dead riff that played in the summer of 2011. Jiang is, in fact, still alive and singing. Or is that old guy who looks like him actually a double?

The notion that a meeting of China’s spoiled, wealthy elite could degenerate into violence is wholly believable. Anyone who has spent any real time in China – as opposed to being inside a highly controlled tourist funnel – has seen things go weirdly explosive in a flash, whether at a goushi guan(r) (‘greasy spoon’ to be polite), a five-start hotel, and any and all places in between. I am not suggesting that the Chinese have exclusive rights to public physical displays of anger – the parking lots of sporting venues in the US, and the streets of Europe after football matches are but two examples of venues where we’ve seen very public displays of brutality – though in fourteen years in Tianjin, Beijing, Qinghai and handfuls of other places throughout the country, I’ve seen my fair share of aggressive altercations, and I was not a late night barfly.

That a saloon brawl with flying chairs and injuries could and would happen at a secret meeting of the coddled Party aristocracy is one that I have no trouble accepting as a possibility. But as truth? Don’t ask me about truth. All the rumors I’ve read to explain Xi’s dematerialization are credible within a certain range. But are any of them the real story? Probably not. Somewhere in the basement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) is a team building the next decoy duck. It’s that Zhuge Liang thing that they’ve had going for awhile. And MOFA’s got a lot of axes to grind with more reporters and news orgs than there are days of the year.

Mark Kitto, a long-term and high profile figure in China’s foreign community, has been outspoken about his reasons for leaving China in the near future, which have not been flattering to the Communist Middle Kingdom. Have a look at this Reuters video on Kitto. Setting up another foreigner journalist with a rumor is just part of the disinformation game. Is Kitto right? Don’t ask me. Is it believable? Undoubtedly. In the future will it be proven wrong in an attempt to humiliate Kitto? It could, though I’m pretty sure if that were to happen Kitto would shrug it off, as he should.

For the record: I left China in June, 2012 after 14 years.

→ No CommentsTags: Beijing

Beijing’s Sacred Jitters

November 1st, 2012 · No Comments

As the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China looms and Beijing is saddled with uncommonly odd restrictions, all eyes will soon turn towards the Great Hall of the People on the west side of Tian’anmen Square, one of the goofiest sacred spaces in the world. I am reminded of a piece entitled Beijing’s Building Revolution by Louisa Lim published on March 9, 2004 when Ms Lim (currently NPR correspondent in Beijing) was with the BBC. This is a good one to visit (or revisit) as we wait for the smoke to rise from …. Sorry, wrong authoritarian allusion. At any rate, below is an excerpt:

The Chinese Communist Party has always used architecture to present its public image.

Its familiar, forbidding face is Tiananmen Square with its huge open expanse flanked on both sides by massive monolithic porticoed buildings.

Zhang Kaiji designed one of those buildings, the National Museum of Revolutionary History. As one of the chief architects for the Chinese Communist party, he drew up the plans and supervised the buildings construction in just 10 months from start to finish in time for the 10th anniversary of Communist rule in 1959.

But at the age of 92 [2004], Zhang Kaiji now wishes he’d done things differently.

“There are a lot of things I regret,” he told the BBC.

“Tiananmen Square is too big. We wanted to show how great our country was. At that time there was a feeling that bigger was better, but I think that is wrong. It was just to show off. It wasn’t really to serve the people,” he said.

→ No CommentsTags: Beijing · Tian'anmen

Just Leave Mo Yan Alone

October 13th, 2012 · 3 Comments

The Chinese writer, Mo Yan, won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday, and already he’s struggling to get out from under the bus. Mo is in the unenviable position of being a Chinese writer in a world where Western expectations of who he is and how he ought to be are as straight-jacketed as the Chinese literati’s dysfunctional Nobel Envy responses. See Ai Weiwei’s comments here, as well as Wei Jingsheng’s here.

The Guardian went so far as to publish a piece with the headline Mo Yan, Nobel literature winner, calls for release of Chinese dissident. The lede highlights the glaring contradiction between what Mo Yan was reported to have said, and how it was sensationalized into a Mo Yan call for action:

The Chinese Nobel literature prize-winner, Mo Yan, has unexpectedly called for the release of jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel peace prize two years ago to the fury of Chinese authorities.

Speaking hours after the judges announced his award, the novelist said: “I hope he [Liu] can achieve his freedom as soon as possible.” Liu should be able to research his “politics and social system”, Mo added.

There is a good deal of difference between hoping and calling for Liu Xiaobo’s release. If this point needs to be explained to a reporter or an editor, then someone needs a lesson in the difference between subjunctive and imperative.

That Mo Yan even mentioned Liu Xiaobo in the blast furnace of Chinese politics, especially in this psychotic transitional period of imminent leadership handoff, is encouraging. He has the stage, the goofball Party boys finally have a winner they believe they can promote, and then he has to go and bring up that! A personal hope, not a call for action. Mo Yan didn’t get where he is by being a lapdog as Ai and Wei would like the world to believe. Or as the translator @bokane succinctly tweeted yesterday: “People who call Mo Yan a stooge don’t know what they’re talking about.”

I have followed Tania Branigan of The Guardian for years, and I believe her to be one of the top journalists in China. I want very much for this inaccuracy to be an editorial botch, though I don’t expect we’ll ever know that. I’ve had issues with The Guardian in the past, and getting them to correct missteps is not an easy process, one I’ve had only moderate success doing. I assume that this particular stretch of language will remain unchanged, since the melodramatic “call for release” is all over Twitter now, and the Guardian’s page stats for this piece are ticking on up. But, of course, it’s at Mo Yan’s expense. Let’s hope it doesn’t lead to another empty chair at another Nobel award ceremony.

→ 3 CommentsTags: Liu Xiaobo · Mo Yan

Losing the Wheels

May 2nd, 2012 · 1 Comment

The swirling stories of the red Ferrari that have been linked to Bo Guagua, Bo Xilai’s still-moneyed son in the U.S., have begun to be questioned. Guagua issued An Exclusive Statement from Bo Guagua to the Harvard Crimson on April 24, 2012 refuting the claim that he showed up at the U.S. Embassy in a tuxedo to take the daughter of Jon Huntsman, Jr, then U.S Ambassador to China, out for a night on the town:

I have never driven a Ferrari. I have also not been to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing since 1998 (when I obtained a previous U.S. Visa), nor have I ever been to the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in China. Even my student Visas were issued by the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, which is closer to my home of five years.

On April 30, 2012 The New York Times ran an article, Details Contradicted in the Episode of Chinese Privilege, offering another version of the story that contradicts the long-held Ferrari pick-up tale, a tale given more tooth when it was repeated by Mr. Huntsman, the once-and-not-so-future candidate for the U.S. Republican presidential nomination. It feels like an engineered cross-cultural collective recovered memory, but it bears a look if you care to bear to look at such things. Bo Guagua gave his first interview, via phone, for this piece addressing the supposed Night of the Ferrari, which has become a thing in the deteriorating image of his detained father, a once-but-no-longer shoe-in for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee, the ruling nine of the empire.

“I did not drive at all that evening, and certainly did not sit in a red sports car,” Bo Guagua said by telephone on Friday, in his first interview since his father was deposed and both parents were put under investigation. “I’m not sure where this story comes from.”

Even Mr. Bo’s appearance was wrong in the account: he did not wear a tuxedo, people at the dinner said.

So, there you go, a snapshot of the latest episode in the accumulating trans-oceanic minutiae of unrealized power. But this still leaves unanswered the question of who was at the wheel – as even reported in the Global Times – in the spectacular crash of a Ferrari in the Haidian District of Beijing in the wee small hours of March 18, 2012, a high-speed accident that claimed the life of the driver and seriously injured two women. Pass me the remote!

→ 1 CommentTags: Bo Xilai

Another Week in the Hu & Wen Cave

April 29th, 2012 · 1 Comment

It’s been another busy Spring 2012 Chinese news week as the final days of Hu and Wen have finally become the gift that keeps on giving. The latest story is the escape of the world’s most famous blind man, Chen Guangcheng, from extrajudicial home detention while under the watchful eyes of a Chinese ‘security’ detail that patrolled the fields and backroads of Chen’s neighborhood/village of Dongshigu keeping away through brute force, intimidation and physical beatings anyone who tried to visit him and his family, including Chen’s neighbors who tried to help him. Chen had served four years in prison for advocating against forced abortions and the forced sterilization of women, who’d had all three of his lawyers barred from his trial, and was assigned at the last minute a public defender who was nothing more than a prosecution plant. He was convicted of “damaging property and organising a mob to disturb traffic.”

Since his release from prison in 2010 Chen has been under a form of house arrest that has succeeded in reaching a level of official meanness that can only be expressed as vile. Chen’s house arrest has included not only the subjugation of a blind man who served four (4) years in prison for jaywalking, but also the systematic beating of innocent women – his wife, mother and any number of others who have humanely tried to help the family – by lowbrowed muscled men who may or may not be police, but who are doubtlessly in the official employ of the police and local officials in Linyi, Shandong province. And let’s not forget child abuse. The officious men of Linyi had refused to allow Chen’s daughter to attend school, though once the pressure became too great she was ushered back and forth to classes by brutes. That she also was forced to live under the conditions that were imposed upon the family can easily be classified as child abuse. These are only the brash highlights. The everyday details were much harsher, including various degrees of torture, food restrictions, electrical outages, sheet-metal covered and steel-barred windows, and spotlights that kept their small home lit up like Saturday night on the midway. Yes, this is the China that many have predicted will rule the world. Perhaps this is what it takes, a page torn from the savage’s playbook. Remember this when you get all warm and fuzzy about the Confucius Institute, another Party-sanctioned program that’s spreading through the world. This shameful affair points out yet again – and the second striking time in the last few weeks (the Bo Xilai affair) – the wholesale moral bankruptcy that permeates the entire Party system. This is the final work of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, whose ten-year reign is caving in on them and defining their ignominious end. And I haven’t even mentioned what they’ve managed to do to the ethnic minorities!

So, let’s see how the Obama folks will respond to China’s demands for Chen to be released from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, a story that is still, officially, speculation, since there has yet to be official acknowledgement that he is there. This is obviously not a Wang Lijun no-brainer where asylum was, perhaps, denied to a man who was part of a criminal conspiracy that included, among a host of other serious crimes, more than a few murders. In the case of Chen Guangcheng I’m sure there is a great desire to resolve this issue without it reaching the asylum level. But the only thing short of asylum would be verifiable guarantees that Chen and his family will be free of further inhuman harassment. If he is released back to China without meaningful guarantees Obama may as well kiss a second term goodbye. The wave of detentions in China over the last two days that has swept up many who are perceived as having helped Chen escape also must be addressed. Will China be able to go that far, the interference by a foreign rival in their domestic affairs? Will Team Obama have the stones to do what it must do? And all of this is happening on the eve of a China visit from Sec. of State Clinton who in an earlier visit to China played down the role of human rights in the U.S./China relationship,  and Treasury Sec. Geithner, who I’m pretty sure doesn’t give a donut hole about the blind activist unless he can figure out a way to get his Wall St. buds to make a killing marketing a “Chen Sunglasses” campaign! Keep your eyes on the digital billboards that flash-up Times Square.

But I am waiting for Rectified.Name, who pitched the Bo Xilai affair, to do the same with the Chen affair to the Coen Bros, who have yet to do a Chinese film. They could weave this into a tale that would end in the twisted depths of hallowed bunkers beneath Zhongnanhai, where murder will take place, though, if they were going to keep it culturally correct, the retributive dead victims would probably all be women. Or maybe Zhang Yimou for failing to bring home the bacon with Nanjing Lite.

And China keeps wondering why they can’t win an Oscar. It’s not because they don’t have the material for a good script. It’s just that they won’t allow it to be written.

Further Readings

On Chen’s detention and the infusion of security cash into the local economy see ChinaGeeks’ In Chen Guangcheng Case, Follow the Money

For Chen Guangcheng as a “genuinely Mencius-like figure,” see The Useless Tree’s Stand With Chen Guangcheng

For a more detailed background on the Chen case see Tania Branigan’s piece in The Guardian: Chen Guangcheng: how China tried to lock down a blind man

For a further look at the political implications from both the U.S. and Chinese perspectives see Jane Perlez in the NYT: A New Pawn in China’s Two Tugs of War 

→ 1 CommentTags: Beijing · Obama · politics

Koolhaas, Bigness and Beijing

April 24th, 2012 · 1 Comment

The Master of Bigness by Martin Filler in the May 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books is well worth a look for two good reasons. One is the publication itself, the NYRB, which is always worth a look. Two, it’s a very good piece on Rem Koolhaas and his architectural team at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), who have invariably changed the face of Beijing, whether we like it or not, with the construction of the controversial CCTV Headquarters Building, the prime draw of the complex of OMA-designed buildings that dominate the east side of the Third Ring Road in the Central Business District (CBD). Scheduled to open sometime in 2012, it’s domination of the CBD will not be lost to the proposed construction of a few more handfuls of typical skyscrapers.

To understand Koolhaas’s conception of Bigness it is best to read his own words, a piece written in 1994 and aptly titled “Bigness,” published in Koolhaas’s and Bruce Mau’s doorstop book  S,M,L,XL. A copy of the essay can be found here. To distill it into a few words – even though the piece is not long – is not something that I’d attempt doing, though a snippet will give you some notion of where Koolhaas is going here:

The absence of a theory of Bigness–what is the maximum architecture can do?–is architecture’s most debilitating weakness. Without a theory of Bigness, architects are in the position of Frankenstein’s creators: instigators of a partly successful experiment whose results are running amok and are therefore discredited.

Because there is no theory of Bigness, we don’t know what to do with it, we don’t know where to put it, we don’t know when to use it, we don’t know how to plan it. Big mistakes are our only connection to Bigness.

But in spite of its dumb name, Bigness is a theoretical domain at this fin de siecle: in a landscape of disarray, disassembly, dissociation, disclamation, the attraction of Bigness is its potential to reconstruct the Whole, resurrect the Real, reinvent the collective, reclaim maximum possibility. Only through Bigness can architecture dissociate itself from the exhausted artistic/ideological movements of modernism and formalism to regain its instrumentality as vehicle of modernization.

Bigness recognizes that architecture as we know it is in difficulty, but it does not overcompensate through regurgitations of even more architecture. It proposes a new economy in which no longer “all is architecture,” but in which a strategic position is regained through retreat and concentration, yielding the rest of a contested territory to enemy forces.

It is worth noting again that this piece was written in 1994. What has become OMA’s boldest signature piece is the CCTV Headquarters Building,  the prime shaker in the trio of buildings that define the complex. The other two buildings are the TVCC, aka Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which spectacularly burned on February 9, 2009, and the Service Building, the low profile “central energy center” of the complex. Filler describes it thusly:

What is likely to remain Koolhaas’s most controversial commission is now nearing completion in Beijing: the 4.2-million-square-foot China Central Television Headquarters, begun in 2004 and now at least three years behind its original estimated occupancy date, with an estimated cost of more than $800 million. (A disastrous 2009 fire, which destroyed the OMA-designed hotel next to the giant structure, was largely responsible for the delay.)

The glass-and-metal-skinned Beijing behemoth is basically a pair of slightly inward-leaning L-shaped towers on two opposing corners of a vast square, and joined at the top by a breathtaking right-angled cantilevered overhang that imbues the composition with gravity-defying bravado. The horizontal and vertical elements interconnect in a continuous series of eight segments, a snakelike circulation system quite unlike that of any other office-and-broadcasting facility.

With a plethora of bizarre new architecture engulfing them, baffled Beijingers have devised a new architectural lexicon recalling the wry coinages long perfected by witty Berliners, who, for example, have dubbed the glass dome of Norman Foster’s Reichstag renovation of 1992–1999 die Käseglocke (the cheese cover). Thus the two-legged CCTV colossus has become colloquially known as da kucha(big pants crotch). In trying to preempt a sarcastic nickname of this sort, officials wanted to get locals to refer to the CCTV building as zhi chuan—knowledge window—a pretentious choice that backfired because of its close homophonic echo of zhi chuang—hemorrhoid.

But whatever moniker people adopt, one can predict that they will be beguiled by the highly unusual and equally controlled tourist route that is being built through the CCTV nerve center. Visitors will be able to navigate the premises in one nonstop loop while never disturbing day-to-day activities, a sure-fire public relations coup that will confer a bogus semblance of transparency on what of course is anything but an open operation.

What is not mentioned in this piece is the client, China Central Television (CCTV), the “enemy forces” to which Koolhaas, OMA and architecture must yield. While what goes on inside the building remains a mystery — interior changes that have been made to the original design remain shrouded in the ‘brand’ silence — one obvious external change that sticks out like the outsized head of a colossal roofing nail left unashamedly proud is the circular helo deck–the welded ill-fitting skullcap that dulls the impact of the symbolic threat of the work. The decision to plop it atop the structure is indicative of the client’s ignorance of what it really is they’ve purchased and have had built, as well as missing the point in how I imagine they would like to be perceived: they blunted their pummeling weapon! Their pseudo-imperial we’re-all-engineers-and-know-what’s-right arrogance is characteristic of official overbearing China, a ruling low class that elevates utility and cheapness above all other considerations. “We know what the Chinese people need, and what they need is a silly circular cap atop the unforgivingly rectilinear icon that hovers over their heads like some medieval weapon. It’s to mirror the shape of the sun. It’s feng shui. It’s a Kongzi cap. It’s what the Chairman, in all his waxen decrepitude, would have wanted if he’d lived this long. He still guides us.” They’ll say some such shit like this. And say it with a straight face. Lying, after all, is an art they’ve mastered.

The helm-boys just can’t NOT fuck up good space, and they’ve proven, without a doubt, that they’re champs at making bad cartoons. They’ve incompetently botched it all up. Beijing — nearly the entire city, and especially the concrete field of the Maoist monument to gigantism, Tian’anmen Square, with its fringe of pre-Legos block buildings (“We built the Great Hall of the People and those history/cultural things in ten months, and the Maosoleum in only six!” Really! … That long?!) — has been and continues to be an ongoing pillage. From September 30, 1949 — the day Mao “laid the foundation stone” for the Monument to the People’s Heroes — forward the Party has done their muscled best to uglify Beijing, capped by their macabre Olympian effort to turn the capital into a caricature of a real city once they scored the 2008 Games. Is this sort of incompetence an effect from a philistine pre-disposition for destruction? I don’t believe so. It’s just simple crass ignorance, unharnessed greed and a lack of any significant urban vision that drives them. It’s as if nearly every implemented decision has been made by a committee of urban illiterates who believe self-interest and foreign bank accounts will save them.

But it’s not as if there haven’t been people here fighting for a more consistent, respectful development of this great city, because there have been and the battle has been hard. Most of them, if not all, have essentially been, at best, blown off by those who’ve had no idea how much they didn’t/don’t know, by those who have lived and ruled by the diktat that the crudeness of political agendas draped in abstract ideals bereft of meaning always trumps good sense and aesthetic sensibility. Think of this whenever you’re stuck in traffic on the Second Ring Road, atop the old city walls that were torn down. The official greed and corruption that has driven Beijing’s most recent development has done it’s best to eviscerate a city and its history. Luckily for Beijing, the native Beijingers, a rowdy, expressive bunch, still give their city the flavor it so well deserves, even as so many of them have been and continue to be displaced to the fringes of the city, closer to Tianjin and Hebei province than they are to where they once lived. Those with the cash have taken the center, which is the recipe for disaster in China.

Though we have watched the anguished gutting of Beijing as urbanization continues to rock the population, we won’t know how much the original design of  the CCTV Building has been victimized by the ham-handed (and hame-headed) whims of key players within the Ministry of Truth. It looks as if we will find out, at least a bit, once the highly controlled public visitors loop is finally opened sometime later this year. We’ll probably be able to view about 1% of the total volume of the building, which is still a higher percentage than we glimpse of the machinations of the CPC. I guess we should be happy with just a peek.



→ 1 CommentTags: architecture · Beijing · CCTV · CCTV fire · Koolhaas · photo

Juicing the Beasts

April 23rd, 2012 · No Comments

The China Daily ran a story this morning (h/t @kinablog) entitled “The meat athletes eat can get them branded as cheats“.

An official from the General Administration of Sport of China (GASC) denied reports that athletes were banned in January from eating untested pork, beef and lamb in an attempt to avoid doping scandals in the run-up to the London Olympics.

Still, extreme caution is in order.

“The administration has never banned athletes from eating meat. It just reminded them to be on alert,” said Chen Zhiyu, head of the general office of GASC’s science and education department.

Chinese media reported earlier this month that Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang hasn’t eaten pork for years due to fears he could accidentally consume clenbuterol – known in China as “lean meat powder” – the banned performance-enhancing substance that led to Olympic judo champion Tong Wen’s two-year suspension in 2010.

“I specifically checked with the 110m hurdles team’s leader, Yang Jimin,” Chen said. “He felt pretty angry (when he heard the report). He emphasized Liu has never stopped eating pork.”

This is hardly a recent issue. I blogged about this problem in the lead-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics when the sourcing of local food became an issue for a U.S. Olympic Committee caterer who came upon a 14″ half-breast of chicken in a local market – “enough to feed a family of eight” – that was riddled with steroids. “We had it tested and it was so full of steroids that we never could have given it to athletes. They all would have tested positive.” See here.

According to a 2008 article in the Daily Telegraph, “[T]he International Olympics Committee [IOC] previously stated competitors are banned from bringing their own food to the athletes’ village to protect the rights of sponsors like McDonalds and to police the use of illegal substances.” This is just another example of how collusive the IOC, and especially Jacques Rogge, was with the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG). This shoddy relationship between two corrupt organizations was a non-secret among those who paid the least bit of attention back in the oughts, after China bought was granted the Olympics.

According to this morning’s China Daily piece, “The World Anti-Doping Agency issued a warning last November to athletes traveling to China and Mexico, urging them to exercise extreme caution when eating meat.” That said, the Chinese athletes at the national training center in Beijing are forbidden to eat in restaurants outside the center, a restriction that I imagine pre-dates the World Anti-Doping Agency’s advisory by several years.

Whether or not Liu Xiang, the great hurdler, eats pork is his business, though in China pork is the deal. When you say meat (ròu) it means pork. The character for both family and home is a pig beneath a roof. Here, pork is deep, which explains why Chen Zhiyu so adamantly disputes Liu’s reported pork snub.

In fairness, this is not exclusively a Chinese problem. Laced food is finding its way into the worldwide consumption chain, though in China it is easy to imagine that there is more juicing of livestock going on than anywhere else. It’s a numbers thing, not necessarily a cultural one. There are a lot more people in China doing what they think must be done in order to get by. Trying to make money is not easy, unless, of course, you’re at the top of the CPC heap, where there’s more money than a mule can shit. Just don’t try eating the mule. If you do, there may be no gold medals in your future, and you’re going to have to buy bigger hats. It’s that Barry Bonds thing all over again.

→ No CommentsTags: barry bonds · Beijing · Olympics

The Long March to Ferrari

April 18th, 2012 · 5 Comments

On May 12, 1993 the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story by staff reporters Jacob M. Schlesinger in Tokyo and James McGregor (@jamesLmcgregor) in Beijing entitled, “Unlikely Friends: Sino-Japanese Trade Soars as Old Enemies Cautiously Embrace.” The story concerned the budding business relations between Japan and China, specifically the blossoming opportunities in Dalian, in China’s northeast. Dalian had just received a new mayor, the “clean-cut 44-year-old,” Bo Xilai.

In what seems to have been a prescient though disingenuous bit of political-speak, Bo, commenting on the growing connections between former enemies, said “History is history and now is now. The war belongs to the previous generation. We should not seek revenge or express hatred because of left-over feuds.” But in East Asia this turn of empty speech ignored the fact that in this part of the world memories are indelible, more like cross-generational tattoos. No one forgets anything. Nineteen years later Japan and China are still battling over whose history, whose maps, and whose rights of possession are more correct. The dueling versions of history are no longer solely owned by the “previous generation.” The current generation of leaders long ago stepped into the worn shoes of their parents and found that they fit quite well, at least for now. In some cases the older generation is still officially hanging on, keeping old wounds forever oozing and ensuring that at least some of the next generation will get it correct. For a good current example read Tokyo Mayor’s History of Needling Beijing that appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report yesterday, April 17, 2012. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara pronounces on

  1. the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial dispute, where Ishihara compares the Chinese actions in this ongoing confrontation to the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. (For more on the allegations of China as a Mafia State see here)
  2. the veracity of the Chinese version of the Nanjing Massacre (one that is hardly in dispute outside of Japan),
  3. and the need to fragment the Chinese empire into smaller, more manageable states.

These are all historical issues that are not going to suddenly disappear once an old war horse finally stumbles from the stage. And in 1993 the young Bo Xilai was quite aware of the irremediable nature of the long list of Sino-Japanese contentions. But this was business, and dreams of wealth always have a way of blinkering cultural differences to maximize profits.

Even at the outset of his higher level career Bo Xilai, former Red Guard and magnetic son of the revolutionary general, Bo Yibo – one of the “eight elders” of the CCP who set China’s course in the post-Mao era – was comfortable tossing out a savvy business dictum and anchoring it in a falsely sentimental view of history. Although he was just setting out on a public political career that would keep his name in the mix for the next 19 years, he knew what needed to be said, as well as when and how to say it. He had gleaned the necessary skills to survive in the zero-sum arena of Party politics, where resurrections after political death are anomalies and not the norm. History has a way of dealing from anywhere in the deck, a fact that Bo had always been aware of. Despite the strange deal, he’d become more than capable at cobbling together a good hand. That he forgot those lessons as the Chongqing lights glowed brighter allowed him to place a bet that he was finally unable to cover.

Short of a miraculous turn of events, his future doesn’t appear to be auspicious. Where he is or what will become of this larger-than-Party player is anyone’s guess, though it is not unrealistic to think that his name will remain in the historic mix, albeit battered, as a cautionary whisper. In the cryptic Machiavellian palace halls of the Party, his name will be mumbled as a warning of an approaching abrupt edge, the signaling of the imminency of a cliff coming up, as more Machiavellian than is officially acceptable: watch your back; watch your front; watch your public desires.

What has become clear in this classically labrythine Chinese meander is that there is very little clarity. The convoluted mess includes, as we’ve been led to believe: corruption, executions, asylum seeking, murder, money laundering and a woman – Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai – who’s been portrayed as a Chinese version of both Jackie Kennedy and Lady Macbeth, a mash-up I am personally having difficulty with.

And then there’s Bo Guagua, the MacKennedy’s son, a kid with a given name of melon melon. If someone could clear this up for me, I’m all ears. In other languages Guagua is a minibus, a small Filipino city, an indigenous language of northern South Amercia and the surname of an Ecuadoran footballer. But in Chinese I haven’t been able to lay my hands on anything other than melon melon. I’ve even checked The Three Kingdoms.  All I can figure is that there’s some longevity implication, as in longevity gourds. In China, longevity (shòu) is the deal, though it’s not to be confused with the notion that quantity trumps quality. My take on the Chinese view of longevity is that if you live long enough you’ll survive all the bad things that have happened to you throughout your life, finally attaining some level of untouchability that might actually slip across the border into senility. So, Guagua may actually be the rectified name, another bit of odd prescience from the scheming mind of Bo Xilai.

Despite what his name may or may not mean, it’s obvious that Xiao Bo’s parents found him too good for Chinese education, a not uncommon conclusion that many monied Chinese reach without much thought of a domestic alternative.  His checkered academic trail includes a march through England, starting with Papplewick, moving on to the Harrow School, and ending his Brit jaunt at Balliol College, Oxford College, where he was rusticated, which in Oxford terms means something like “being sent (sat) down.” But that didn’t curb his passion for further education, and he moved on to the equally privileged halls of the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in the U.S. Along the way he has acquired a reputation as a playboy, party guy (fun, not political, though he did campaign for a student government position at Balliol, a move seen by the natives as being rather tawdry), lover of fast, expensive cars, though not much of a student. To read more about his elite education and image – his lack of academic rigor has been a concern for his family, while his ostentatious lifestyle has been an ongoing hurdle that Party leaders have been unable to clear – check here and here. Now that his parents are effectively shut-ins, or, rather, guests of the State, Bo Guagua is somewhere in the U.S., spirited off by some federal law enforcement agency private security company in an SUV while apparently being surveilled by agents of the Chinese government in Cambridge, MA. His girlfriend du jour followed later in his Porsche that was loaded to the gills with his stuff. Obviously it could not have been much if it fit into a Porsche. Then again, a pack full of cash goes a lot further than a sofa.

What is most interesting in this very public, though highly orchestrated, unfolding of a family’s downfall, is that it gives us a peek into the secret lives of the real Party boys, many of whom, I assume, are losing sleep over the public airing of some very dirty laundry, even as they spin this tale into one that is full of what I assume to be their selected unnamed sources. Though their children may have taken the same academic path as Bo Guagua, they have had more sense in keeping the lid on the showboating. The first generation of revolutionaries were products of a very damaged Chinese system, punctuated by overwhelming poverty, illiteracy and hard, short lives of backbreaking toil. Although some were able to receive overseas educations – Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping being the most famous  – they did it the hard way, not luxuriously as the current children of the CCP leadership are able to do. The desire for parents to want their children to have lives materially better than the ones they had, especially among those who have had very little, has been one of the forces that drives human social development. But wealth and status are relative. Having a three-wheeled cart in some cases is a significant progression when compared to what parents or grandparents had. But having gobs of cash and flashing it around in a ‘communistically’ indecent fashion is imprudent in a country where the periodically restive have-nots still live very much on the edge. Bo Xilai’s sins were many, but for the command cadres at the top of the pile, the sin of bling is a mortal violation, especially when an official salary might afford you a week in a three-star hotel on the beach at Yalong Bay in Sanya. Image is everything, and keeping the profile low while raking in bucketloads of cash is a must. The Bos didn’t toe that line, a line drawn indelibly in the history of the Party.

The players in the Bo Family Affair – both the very public and the secretively private players – cover the breadth of the history of the CCP. Bo was, and is still, a very clever man, though his cleverness more likely than not, will be permanently muted by his indiscrete overreaching and his lack of understanding of the true primacy of history and who gets to move it forward.  There are still callouses and old wounds that date back to the Long March that are informing the course of China’s current events. Some things are not so easily forgotten, especially the “left-over feuds.” You can still have the Ferrari, but it’s best to keep the windows tinted so the laobaixing can’t see who’s at the wheel. Or so the story still goes in the palaces of the Party where dark suits, red ties, hair dye and extraordinary silence are requisites for the longevity of a prison-free retirement.

For an update on the Ferrari Tales, see Losing the Wheels.

→ 5 CommentsTags: Bo Xilai


January 28th, 2012 · No Comments

A few months back (October 14, 2011) Rem Koolhaas, brand architect behind OMA, the architectural firm that has been involved with the design and building of the iconic CCTV Headquarters Building on the East Third Ring Road, was the subject of an article in Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek: Pritzker Star Koolhaas Frets Over EU, Tops Giant Beijing Tower.

How does he deal with a country where democracy is a work in progress? “I’m happy you use the term ‘work in progress,’ because I think that is the essence of China,” he says. “It’s not a perfect situation, but what is important is that CCTV [China Central Television] is not directly an element of the state.

In 2005 as the project began emerging from the ground, in a special issue of Architecture+Urbanism dedicated to the CCTV project, Ole Scheeren who was then the head architect of the project – in 2009 he left the firm and set out on his own – stated in the introduction to the issue:

As the national television station, CCTV has a direct relationship to the State — is information filter and propaganda machine — and receives subsidies to fulfil this role.

Scheeren goes on to say that the “economic dependency [of CCTV] is deceptive,” that the amount of tax revenues CCTV returns to the State through advertising revenues outlegs the State subsidies by “four or five times,” and that the amount of return could pay for the headquarters building in just a year. Whether that is true or not is anyone’s guess, since the only ones who might possibly know the true cost of the project are the bean counters in the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, though I imagine the duties are sliced and diced so thoroughly that no one other than a single guy – or a single Top Secret redline – knows the actual cost to date. Suffice it to say that any early estimates have long since been mightily heaved beneath the bus as costs have, literally, skyrocketed through the roof (remember the TVCC fire?). But I wander.

The more interesting comparison is what is the difference between Koolhaas’s “CCTV is not directly an element of the state,” and Scheeren’s “CCTV has a direct relationship with the State.” There is obviously a hair-splitting semantic distinction here, though the bigger question still remains, “If not ‘direct’ then how would one describe CCTV’s relationship to the State?”

The CCTV English: About Us page clearly states that “China Central Television (CCTV) is the national TV station of the People´s Republic of China and it is one of China’s most important news broadcast companies. Today, CCTV has become one of China’s most influential media outlets.”

Again, this doesn’t really clear it up, though “national” in relation to CCTV clearly has a different meaning than the “national” in, say, NBC. The National Broadcasting Company does not introduce itself as the “national TV station of the United States of America.” That sounds like something we’d expect to see from the Murdoch/Fox folks, though even they have just enough sense to restrain themselves; “fair and balanced” is about as far as they can stretch it without coming completely apart at the seams.

Wikipedia puts it thusly:

China Central Television falls under the supervision of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television which is in turn subordinate to the State Council of the People’s Republic of China [which is largely synonymous with the Central People’s Government]. A Vice Minister of the state council serves as chairman of CCTV.

The network’s principal directors and other officers are appointed by the State, and so are the top officials at local conventional television stations in mainland China; nearly all of them are restricted to broadcasting within their own province or municipality.

The suctioning tentacles of “State” feel wetly icky and pretty direct to me. So, why this distancing by Koolhaas? Why this denial of directness? More Koolhaas leg-pulling? Perhaps. Or is this just wishful thinking, a musing attempt to deflect the criticism that OMA has received for building one of the great buildings of the age for a reactive totalitarian government that is getting more reactive and repressive every day? Hard to know. And I’m betting Koolhaas won’t ever say.

→ No CommentsTags: CCTV · CCTV fire · Koolhaas · Scheeren

Christmas in the CBD

December 25th, 2011 · No Comments

I had to make a quick trip to Guomao this morning, so, of course, I brought along my camera. I wanted to follow up on a story from a couple of days ago. Late Friday morning, December 23, 2011, during the demolition of a building near the CCTV Headquarters Building, a part of said building collapsed into traffic, damaging four cars, but miraculously not killing anyone. Wang Yu, a Chaoyang District police officer said, “We received a phone call saying a building had collapsed in the Chaoyang district. We immediately dispatched more than 20 policemen to keep order there.” This was reported in the China Daily. That ‘order’ was the first concern might seem odd, but this is China, where saving lives is secondary to the maintenance of order. Luckily, no one (that we know of) was trapped beneath the rubble, especially along this busy stretch of road beside the East Third Ring Rd. in the CBD. Though pedestrian traffic is never a real crush here as it is a block south at Guomao, it is usually constant. The photo below was taken on a Sunday morning, Christmas Day, when pedestrian traffic was light. The China Daily story is here.

One of my favorite barometers measuring backstage Beijing is the large billboard wall on the northeast side of the Goumao flyover between Guanghua Lu and and the center of the Guomao interchange. This particularly conspicuous message board has been one of the many sites that has prominently displayed Chaoyang District’s tiresomely adolescent PR broadside of Civilized Chaoyang. I first wrote about it 20 months ago here. The campaign has been underway since at least April 2010. That this billboard is now blank heralds an imminent change. Will it be as goofy as the last one, or will it end up being even goofier. Either way, we can pretty much count on it being witlessly puerile propaganda, which is about as close as China can get to implementing soft power. I’ll keep you posted on how this space changes, though I’m betting it will still refer to the 2008 Olympic foreign architecture. Some things, like Beijing’s nasal fishing fetish, just can’t be shaken.

And here is one more before I get into further mischief. Below is still, though barely, the building at the southeast corner of Guanghua Lu and the Third Ring Road. It has been an advertising cash cow for the owners, Tsinghua U or some other educational agency where the accumulation of money is the only measure of intelligence. Located across the street from the CCTV Headquarters Bldg. – the highest profile architectural project in Beijing – this ugly brick lump has been the site of giant advertisements, my favorite being “Air France Business Class, comfort” (with full moon rising) from the end of 2010. As I write on this Christmas afternoon, the once 16 (or so) story building is a crumbled nub. Here are a few of the final bricks in that once-expensive wall as gravity calls them home.

Happy Holidays!

(Click on the pics to see them bigger!)

→ No CommentsTags: Beijing · billboards · CCTV · photo