A good read – China in Ten Words

I buy too many books, and often there is no time to read them directly. I bought Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words (十個詞彙裡的中國) while visiting Hong Kong in April this year, but only started reading recently, bringing the book back to Hong Kong… Yu Hua (余华) is one of China’s best known writers, and has had great success with novels as Brothers (兄弟) and To live (活着), of which the later was filmed by Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) and became a great success around the World.

One of Yu Hua’s ten words is ”reading” (阅读). Nowadays, when an ebook is only a click away on your ”pad”, it is a necessary reminder to read his story of how people lined up outside the bookstores days ahead of a new release when censorship eased after Mao’s death in the late 1970s. Being here in Hong Kong is probably a good environment to read this particular book, in China but still not, just as the book is written in China but not published in the PRC.

Many of the stories relate to Yu Hua’s youth during the Cultural Revolution, but are also highly relevant to contemporary China. The ten words point to many of the current problems in China, such as ”disparities” (差距) and ”leader” (领导). The cult of Mao as ”the great helmsman” seems absurd and frightening today, but recent events around the ”disappearance” and ”reappearance” of supposed new leader Xi Jinping (习近平), and the mystery surrounding it, tells us that the word ”leader” is still of great importance.

One story tells how Yu Hua escapes the summer heat in his southern hometown by napping in the mortuary of the hospital where he lives, both his parents being doctors. On ”the clean, cool cement bed” he could find some peace. When Yu Hua visited Sweden a few years ago, I interpreted for him as he spoke on ”the imagination of a writer”. Not an easy task, and when he then told this same story the word ”mortuary” (太平间) was one (of several…) that escaped my mind. A senior colleague in the audience gave me the word, and the lecture went on as normal. Now that I read Yu Hua’s book and recognize this story, I realize that I will never forget the word ”mortuary” in Chinese.

Sensitive politics? Culture, weibo and 9 September

Today is a special day, 9 September. Here in Hong Kong elections are under way, and the  government yesterday backed down from the idea of introducing compulsory ”moral and national education” (德育及國民教育科). Massive demonstrations and today’s elections were probably the main factors behind this decision. Perhaps also concerns from Beijing about possible unrest in Hong Kong so close in time to the upcoming Communist party congress in October? It will be interesting to see election results.

Today is also the anniversary of Mao Zedong’s death. People’s Daily (人民日报) does not promote it at all, but interestingly a People’s Daily affiliated blog yesterday had a post about ”Mao Zedong’s six most beautiful dance partners” (毛泽东一生中最漂亮的六个舞伴) ! Ironic and strange, and not quite a ”harmonious” topic on the anniversary of Mao’s death.

It is also a little strange that Weibo, the Chinese micro blog, seems to be very picky with words today. Probably not because of Mao Zedong, but more likely because of Hong Kong and the elections. This morning I wrote a short Weibo on the somewhat tragic but fascinating story of artist Sun Guojuan (Son Kok Gyon 孙国娟), and how she was denied visa to exhibit in Sweden, most likely because she has North Korean citizenship.

Dangerous words?

When I published, it came out as of above, ”limited to private viewing” (仅自己可见)! I have had Weibo post censored before, but then they were published first and then erased. I immediately republished, but this time without the words ”citizenship” (国籍) and ”political” (政治) and it came out normal (as you can see in the Weibo feed on the right). Do they censor the words ”political” or ”politics”? The ways of Weibo and Chinese Internet censorship are truly mysterious.

Elections, brainwashing and hunger strike – Hong Kong thoughts

Arriving in Hong Kong to work a year at City University of Hong Kong (香港城市大學), it is definitely time to start blogging again. The first week has been full of practical things, but also many thoughts on Hong Kong society as I and my family face the various bureaucratic and other obstacles to overcome before a more ordinary life can start.

One major event these days is the election to the Legislative Council  (香港立法會) taking place on 9 September.

Hong Kong voters can cast two votes, for geographical and functional constituencies. Will that give them more influence?

Interestingly, my new colleagues and other local friends have yet to mention the elections in our conversations. Newspapers and other media, however, are full of interesting stories. Just a few days ago several people were sentenced for election fraud, in regard to district elections in 2011. Reports specially pointed out one woman as having a PRC background, and speculated that she was ”brainwashed” as a child in mainland China. She described herself as a ”Post-80 refusing to be brainwashed” (拒絕被洗腦的80後), but acknowledging her father’s ”patriotism and love of the party” (愛國愛黨).

”Be on guard against pickpockets” 提防扒手 (grabbing ”freedom” 自由) and ”beware of brainwashing” 小心洗腦 – poster for the Civic Party (公民黨)

”Brainwashing” has become an issue after the government proposal for revision of the compulsory ”moral, civic and national education” course (德育及國民教育科) for primary and middle schools. One proposed teaching material is called The China Model: Handbook for Teaching National Conditions [Sentiments] (《中國模式》國情專題教學手冊), which, among other things, describes the Communist Party of China (CPC) in very positive terms.

This led to huge demonstrations in July, and recently – ahead of term start – protests outside the government buildings. A couple of middle school students even started a hunger strike (絕食). The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (香港教育專業人員協會) has also been especially outspoken on this issue, which has led to very harsh, but revealing comments from Beijing, voiced through Ta Kung Pao (大公報) and relayed by China Daily. It will be interesting to follow developments on-the-spot!

”Elders” who speak out

In the wake of the Wang Lijun-Bo Xilai-Gu Kailai-(and whoever more is involved…) scandal, the so-called ”security chief” (安全头目) Zhou Yongkang (周永康) have been hit by rumours. The latest is that he already has been stripped of real power, and 9 May a group of ”party elders” (党内元老) published an open letter asking for his public dismissal. Now and then such groups of ”elders” speak out on certain issues, sometimes with positive response and real effect, sometimes only met with silence. Usually, there are a few more well-known names among the signatories, and ”elders” do not only point to age but political seniority.

In this case the undersigned all come from Zhaotong (昭通) in Yunnan, a very poor area, and none has had any senior position. Leading writer is Yu Yongqing (余永庆), b. 1933, and short life-stories of him and other signatories can be found online. Most of them were badly hit by the ”anti-rightist” campaign in 1957, and they have also been publishing other letters and stories in regard to the 55th anniversary of this campaign. But will their letter have any impact on Zhou Yongkang or CPC decisions? Not likely. It more seems like media spinning on rumours ahead of the upcoming 18th CPC congress this autumn.

There are, however, other ”elders” who speak and who should get more attention. Cheng Siwei (成思危), b. 1935 is not a Communist party member, but a former China Democratic National Construction Association (中国民主建国会) leader, and also former Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. At the 60th anniversary celebrations for China University of Political Science and Law (中国政法大学) 16 May, Cheng Siwei spoke on rule of law and division of power, among other things. He said he following (around 2:00 on the video clip):

We must first establish the concept of a legal system. You could say that in the minds of some officials the issue of which is greater, the party or the law, has not yet been fully resolved.


As the leading role of the Party is written into the constitution of the PRC, it cannot be easy for ”some officials” to come to a final conclusion on this issue… but it is certainly time to establish rule of law in China.

Hidden agendas – or confused Confucians?

During my recent visit to Beijing I went for a walk one morning, and ended up at Guozijian (国子监) and the Confucius Temple (孔庙). Guozijian was a kind of national academy for examinations (科举) during imperial times. A few Chinese tour groups passed through, and there was a distinct smell of incense, but I could not see it burning anywhere. I heard a tour guide discuss the difference between burning incense in a Buddhist temple and a Confucius temple, focusing on the different things one should ask for at each place… Popular ”Confucian” worship in the middle of Beijing?

Yu Dan (于丹) speaks at the Confucius ceremony in Beijing in 2010. Her popular book "Confucius from the Heart" (论语心得) has sold many million copies around the World.

In the side buildings were exhibitions about Confucian ceremonies and on Confucianism and its influence in the World. The exhibition on Confucian influence made me confused. The final display showed the distribution of Confucius Institutes (孔子学院), and the text in both English and Chinese explained:

[we] shall carry traditional Chinese culture and Confucianism forward to the world, establishing Confucianism as an outstanding branch among the various world cultures

So much for the criticism of Confucius Institutes as tools of Communism! This is their true aim… or maybe not? Other texts claimed, in both Chinese and English, that Gottfried Leibnitz (莱布尼兹) was a German missionary. I thought he was a philosopher inspired by Confucianism.

Painting of Kim Jong Il funeral, December 2011, displayed at Guozijian exhibition

It all seems very confused and haphazard for being the second most ”sacred” place for Confucianism in China after his birthplace Qufu (曲阜). However, I found more clues to contemporary ”Confucianism” as I was about to leave Guozijian. In the last side building there was a temporary art exhibition. To my great surprise it was an exhibition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung (金日成), ”eternal president” of North Korea! I would rather not see Kim as a benevolent Confucian father figure, but maybe someone thought it would be a proper place for him. A more plausible interpretation would be that not many people visit Guozijian, and it is therefore easy to ”hide” such an exhibition, unwanted but necessary for diplomatic reasons. ”Confucianism” can be very useful…

Time for a new song — “The East is shaking” (to the tune of “The East is Red”)

The time when ”singing red songs” (唱红歌) was considered to ”fill us with enthusiasm and unbounded confidence” (激情满怀、信心百倍) is over for this time. Many people thought that time passed already in the 1970s. As much as Bo Xilai dismissed as ”complete nonsense” (无稽之谈) the claims that ”red songs” were ”leftist” and a way back to ”the Cultural Revolution”, he was himself dismissed from the politburo (政治局). His wife Gu Kailai (谷开来) is under investigation for murder on British businessman Neil Haywood (尼尔·海伍德), along with Zhang Xiaojun (张晓军), an aide to the Bo family. These recent events could have been a novel plot by Qiu Xiaolong (裘小龙) – or maybe a chapter in Wang Lixiong’s China Tidal Wave (黄祸) – but it is for real. The question now is if these events will cause any political tsunami (海啸) for China.

The Wang Lijun case could have functioned as a kind of ”tsunami warning system” for the top party leaders, and maybe it did give them time to stop some rumours (谣言), and prevent a few people from escaping. Things seemed a little out of hand, however. These events show how vulnerable the party-state is, even its top leadership, despite all the control mechanisms.

Bo Xilai looking at eggs at a market in Xining, Qinghai

Official media now talks about justice and discipline, and gives an idealized image of how the legal system works: ”Our country is a socialist country ruled by law, and the respect for law and the status of the law cannot be trampled. No matter who it involves, if you offend the law, you must be dealt with in accordance with the law” (我国是社会主义法治国家,法律的尊严和权威不容践踏。不论涉及到谁,只要触犯法律,都将依法处理). This is especially interesting in the PRC, where the constitution defines the special role of the Communist Party to lead and guide the Chinese society, including the improvement of ”the socialist legal system”.

Things must be rather shaky now with preparations for the 18th party congress this autumn, and the next politburo meeting should perhaps start with a new song called ”The East is shaking” (东方摇)? ”东方摇、太阳升、中国出了一个薄熙来…” Trustworthy sources tell me that such singing fills you with ”enthusiasm and unbounded confidence”. ”Shaking” is also a homophone of ”rumour” (谣) in Chinese…

Note from an old “China hand” (Finds from the archive 4)

These extraordinary days when commentaries are prohibited on Chinese micro blogs and the air is full of rumours around the Chinese leadership, I happened to stumble on something in an old book. I was going through the Sam Sköld book collection, and as I opened the second volume of Stanislas Julien’s Syntaxe nouvelle de la langue Chinoise (1869-70) I noticed a thin paper with a typed note in English.

It was a note on postponing the meeting of ”The China Study Group” in Wuhan (武汉), dated 31 May 1934, and it was signed by the secretary of the group, Edmund Clubb. At the next meeting Mr. Clubb would be speaking on ”Authoritarian Government and the Present Situation in China”, a title that could fit any seminar or conference today.

The note from Edmund Clubb

It is not clear who the other members of the ”study group” were, only Sam Sköld and Edmund Clubb (1901-1989) are known. When Mr. Clubb wrote the note in 1934 he was the American consul in Hankou. He is especially interesting because he became a victim of McCarthyism (麦卡锡主义) and one of the ”China hands” (中国通) accused of ”loosing China” after the PRC was established. He was then US Consul General in Beijing, and was the one to close the consulate and haul down the US flag in April 1950. After returning to the USA he became head of the China desk at the US State Department, but was suspended after only a year as a ”security risk”. His testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities is available here.

It would have been very interesting to hear Mr. Clubb talk that day in June 1934 in Hankou, and it is likely he had insights in the events of those days that few other Westerners had. He wrote several books on China, and one of his reports from 1932 was published in its entirety in 1968 as Communism in China: as reported from Hankow in 1932. It was probably the first in-depth diplomatic report about Communism in China to reach the US State Department.

What’s with the beard? (2)

In February I wrote about a teacher in Xinjiang who lost his bonus because he did not shave his beard off. Now beard control seems to have spread also to other areas. Yesterday a Yunnan friend (Han Chinese) with a nice goatee (山羊胡) told me that when he recently went to renew his ID card (身份证) he was told by the police that ”only special religious communities can take photos with beards” (留胡子拍照的只有特殊宗教群体)?! This was only mentioned in speaking, no written regulations were shown. Actually, the specification for photos used in second generation Chinese ID cards says nothing of beards.

My friend has grown his beard for some years and did not want to shave it off, and decided to take a photo without shaving. When bringing it back to the police station the staff told him that ”if the higher level leaders will approve then we will let it be, and if not you must come back and take another” (如果上级领导认可就算了,如果不认可要回来重拍).

A bearded Zhou Enlai (周恩来) in the 1940s

Not everyone is as courageous as my friend, and Chinese web sites gives ample evidence that similar things happen around China. One may think that it is merely a matter of overzealous local police wanting young men to look proper with crew cut (平头) and without beard, but the comment to my friend says something else. Why mention ”special religious communities” at all? That comment is also in conflict with the incident with the Xinjiang teacher. He was a Uyghur Muslim, but could not keep his beard. Things are definitely getting worse when they want to control how people look and if they shave.

Praise, rule and terror

The last few weeks have been exciting for sinologists and China experts. Still, many in the West seem not to have noticed the drama around Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai, and the rumours about Zhou Yongkang (周永康) and a coup. Even fewer follow what happens outside Beijing and Chongqing, for example in Xinjiang. In late February there was an ”incident” in Kargalik (Yecheng 叶城) outside Kashgar (喀什), and at least 15 people were killed, maybe more. The government claims a terrorist attack, other sources refute this.

Yesterday it was announced that one Uyghur has been sentenced to death as a result of the ”incident”, and now things are ”stable” (稳定) again. Maintaining stability is a top priority for Xinjiang party secretary, Zhang Chunxian (张春贤). Zhang has been described as ”the new commander to rule Xinjiang” (治疆新帅), an expression that to me echoes the times of warlords-cum-governors Yang Zengxin (杨增新 1864-1928) and Sheng Shicai (盛世才 1897-1970) in the first half of the 1900s. When Zhang had ”ruled” Xinjiang for one year in 2011, a long and horribly panegyrical article appeared, where Zhang Chunxian’s abilities were praised. It even starts out with a scene where Zhang ”arrives in Shaoshan, and solemnly admires the bronze statue of Mao Zedong” (来到韶山,静静地瞻仰着毛泽东铜像”, just before leaving for Xinjiang. Shaoshan is Mao Zedong’s birthplace in Hunan. Have we gone back to the 1970s and the Mao cult? That article is still a top link on the major official Xinjiang news page, one year later.

Zhang Chunxian meets happy farmers in Mäkit (Maigaiti 麦盖提) outside Kashgar.

Despite the colonial attitude that echoes in the praise for Zhang Chunxian, he apparently wants to be a modern ”ruler”. In 2011 he opened a micro blog and wrote quite regularly for a short period of time. This shows a change in style, but policies remain focused on controlling ”the three evil forces” (三股恶势力) of separatism, extremism and terrorism. According to the government religious extremism lies behind most of the terrorist actions, and now they see a need to further strengthen the ”management of religious affairs”. What if they instead allowed more religious freedom? What if Zhang Chunxian had to step down like Bo Xilai and Uyghurs could ”rule” Xinjiang instead?

The party and the law

The Chinese Ministry of Justice (司法部) recently issued a notice on the decision to require an oath swearing ceremony for new members of the bar (律师职业) and also for those renewing membership (《关于印发〈关于建立律师宣誓制度的决定〉的通知》). Loyalty to the party-state was of course implied also before, but this time there are explicit references to the Communist party and the state, even before the word ”law” is mentioned. Presumptive lawyers must declare:

I wish to become a professional lawyer of the People’s Republic of China. I promise to faithfully implement the sacred mission to be a legal practitioner under socialism with Chinese characteristics. I will be loyal to the motherland and to the people, uphold the leadership of the Communist Party of China, uphold the socialist system and protect the constitution and the dignity of the law. I will practice for the people, be diligent and respect my work, honest and incorruptible and protect the legal rights of the persons involved. I will safeguard that the law is correctly carried out, safeguard social equality and justice, and strive for the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics!


Several well-known Chinese lawyers have commented on the absurdity of this new regulation, and both micro bloggers and reader comments on Chinese news sites like Caijing (财经) have been highly critical. The whole idea seems strange. China is not yet a country with rule of law (法治), and even the UN sees a need to voice its concern over lawyers being harassed and arrested. Things will not be better because of this ”pledge of allegiance” to the party and the socialist system, and there are already enough control mechanisms available. It looks like a trend of incorporating doubtful measures and control mechanisms into the legal system, just as with the recent amendments to the criminal procedure law. Actually, such measures only makes it more difficult to follow the new oath, to ”practice for the people” and to be ”incorruptible and protect the legal rights of the persons involved”.

Funderingar kring kinesiska justititedepartementets nya krav att jurister måste svära en ämbetsed där en av huvudpunkterna är lojalitet mot partiet och staten och en av huvuduppgifterna är att ”kämpa för socialismens med kinesiska förtecken sak”.