There has never been a good time to be an honest writer in Communist China, but the present is an exceptionally bad time. Spooked by the "Arab Spring" and jostling for position in next year's scheduled leadership changes, the Party bosses have been coming down hard on every kind of independent thinking. The cases of... Read More
Tom Friedman gushes over the Chinese dictatorship.
Thomas Friedman has been to China again, and seems to have experienced another Lincoln Steffens moment. More than one such, in fact. In his January 10 New York Times column Tom was swooning over the new high-speed rail link between Peking and Shanghai — five hours to cover 700 miles. "By comparison, Amtrak trains require... Read More
Poorly Made in China, by Paul Midler
Is China really a modern country? Can China be a modern country? Paul Midler's book leaves you wondering. After studying Chinese at college, Midler lived and worked in China through the 1990s before returning to the U.S.A. to take a business degree. In 2001 he went back to China, setting himself up as a consultant... Read More
A wasted century?
When, thirty years ago, Deng Xiaoping authorized a retreat from the Maoist command economy, he called his plan "Socialism with Chinese characteristics." After a spell of cautious experimentation, Deng's schema blossomed into the export-led, double-digit-growth Chinese economy we have become familiar with this past couple of decades. Now, with thedeepening world-wide recession, China watchers are... Read More
Those little pork pies.
The various petty deceptions that have come to light at the Beijing Olympics — the computer-generated "fireworks", the bogus "ethnic minority" dancers, the little girl who lip-synced because the kid with the voice wasn't cute enough, thesuspiciously preteen look of some of the "16-year-olds" on the gals' gymnastics squad … What's going on here? Or,... Read More
Olympic Dreams, by Xu Guoqi
A favorite piece of expat lore among foreigners in early 20th-century China concerned the Chinese government official who called on some Western friends one hot day just as they were starting a game of tennis. They invited him to watch, so he took a seat in the shade, had a servant bring him some green... Read More
Don't feel Chinese, don't feel American.
Two big news stories of the past few days, from places far apart, and as different as two places could possibly be, tell us useful things about the age we live in. In Lhasa, the capital city of Chinese-occupied Tibet, there were demonstrations on March 10. The Chinese authorities responded clumsily, Tibetans reacted with riots,... Read More
But not the way Sir Francis Galton wanted.
To modern sensibilities there can be few documents more shocking than Sir Francis Galton's "Africa for the Chinese" letter published in the London Times of June 5, 1873. Sir Francis, a polymath and explorer, and a member of the great Darwin-Wedgwood clan, held Africans in low esteem, believing that they could not "sustain the burden... Read More
China's present and future.
Watching the recent proceedings of China's National People's Congress — the country's legislature, if you believe China's constitution, which of course you should not — I got that sinking feeling I always get nowadays when I pay attention to Chinese affairs. Hearing the Communist Party hacks droning on about "safeguarding China's sovereignty and territorial integrity"... Read More
How did I hate Hero, the newest box-office-bustin' Chinese sword'n'skyhook movie? Let me count the ways. ————————— • I hated the endless swordfight scenes. To call them "swordfight scenes" is in fact a stretch, as they bear as much relation to actual swordfights as The Flintstones does to family life in the Upper Paleolithic. The... Read More
Chiang Kai Shek, by Jonathan Fenby
I think Chiang Kai Shek's career is well known, at least in outline. The last Chinese emperor abdicated in 1912. China fell into utter chaos until, in 1926, Chiang marched an army northward and achieved a semblance of national unification. From 1928 China was under Chiang's dictatorship, with Nanking as the capital. However, Japan seized... Read More
A demonstration in China.
Looking at the picture of those Chinese students demonstrating in Xi'an last weekend, a half-forgotten literary reference came to mind. I went to my books and found the reference. It's in Chapter Eight of Ba Jin's novel The Family, written around 1930. Ba Jin (old spelling: Pa Chin**) was the most prominent Chinese novelist of... Read More
Soong May-ling, R.i.P..
I imagine the death of Madame* Chiang Kai-shek** barely registered with any non-Chinese person much under the age of sixty. The lady was 105 years old, and had not been in the news in any interesting way since 1988, when she made an unsuccessful attempt to interfere in Taiwan politics. She had not had any... Read More
Recalling Bruce Lee.
For web column topics I have an "Ideas" file that I dip into when I can't be bothered with the actual news — a state of mind that I find comes upon me more and more often lately. A lot of these ideas have been suggested by kind readers. This is one such. None of... Read More
China up? China down? Who knows? Me.
You can get whiplash reading commentary about which way China is going. Here was Nicholas Kristof, in the December 3 New York Times with an article titled "Will China Blindside the West?" Kristof is a capable journalist who wrote a decent book about China in the early nineties, so let's see what he has to... Read More
A survey of the Middle Kingdom.
Let's start with the bad. China continues on its road to become the Wilhelmine Germany of the early 21st century. The Pentagon report released last week shows an intensifying of the nation's military buildup, with an increase in the nation's defense budget of 18 per cent this year, from a base believed to be three... Read More
Wang Ruowang, 1918-2001.
Wang Ruowang, 1918-2001 The Central Funeral Home on 41st Avenue in New York's Flushing district is, one of the ushers told me, the largest Chinese-owned establishment of its kind in the city. On Saturday we had its biggest room, but that was still too small for the crowd of mourners who came to pay tribute... Read More
It's a funny business, writing. Sometimes you give up days to crafting a piece, sweat blood over it, research all the background stuff the way journalists are supposed to, make sure the ideas all connect, weed out all the superfluous adjectives and adverbs, add just the right amount of "seasoning" — a pinch of literary... Read More
I practice humility.
I'm going to perform a little exercise in humility — one of the trickier virtues, in my experience, since it is one of the easiest to fake, and also one that is grossly unattractive when taken to excess. Well, I'm not going to fake it, and I'm not going to cringe and wring my hands,... Read More
I actually went there.
This summer I spent six weeks in China with my family, travelling all over the country, visiting with friends, relatives and ex-students. (My wife is mainland-Chinese with a large extended family, and I taught college in China in the early 1980s.) We mainly stayed in the homes of these people: in Beijing, in the Manchurian... Read More
The Derbs do China.
————————— Beijing, China: Week of July 1st to July 7th Having written a couple of pieces on this site in strong opposition to Beijing getting the 2008 Summer Olympics, I find myself in something of a moral quandary over here. I still don't want Beijing to get the Olympics, for the aforementioned reasons. On the... Read More
Bush decides not to decide.
After careful deliberation, the Bush administration has decided to take no position on Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. By itself, this is not a very remarkable decision. The U.S. government is not required to take any position on bids to host the Olympics, and many people would prefer they not do so.... Read More
Translation of a Chinese poem.
A Song of Valediction: Dreaming I Roamed on TianMu Mountain by Li Po (Li TaiBai), tr. John Derbyshire Seafarers tell of the Blessed Isles — Veiled, indistinct in the mists of the sea. Southern folk speak of TianMu Mountain, Now seen, now hidden in slow-shifting clouds. TianMu soars straight to the sky, to the... Read More
China-Taiwan: What might happen.
[Local announcer] Viewers, please continue to stand by. Do not change station. The President's address will be carried on all network channels, and on all cable news services. As soon as … Excuse me … Yes? … We do? … Thank you. All right, we are now going over to … [Washington announcer cuts in]... Read More
Modern Chinese nationalism.
The recent crisis in Hainan Island has brought Chinese nationalism to the front of our minds. Specialist China-watchers have understood for some time that the events of 1989 — not only the student and worker movements that were crushed in Tiananmen Square on June 4 of that year, but also the collapse of Soviet and... Read More