Friday, March 23, 2012

Post About China Post

Dear Postmaster,

My replacement driver's license, my replacement debit card, and a US$50 gift certificate are lost in the mail. I have been waiting for two months. Bank of America has sent me two replacement cards and neither one has reached me. My friend who sent me my license which I left at her house in New Hampshire, did not get a tracking number. Continental Airlines (aka United)--the scheisters who delayed me for a day in Japan and misplaced my bags for a day--may never have issued the gift certificate. 

What should I do? Does one of your employees with the last name 李 (Li) have a desire to take a joyride in the Granite State? 

What good is a debit card when you would have to torture me to get my PIN?

My father sent me a check once and it did not get here either. It did not reissue.

Finally, I am sure, there are about a million love letters that never arrived. 

Does all of this get gobbled up in some vortex of the South China Sea?


Alexander Lee

P.S. I am also waiting for a copy of The Way Things Work by David Macaulay so that I can teach a Chinese boy about lots of cool stuff. It was sent out weeks and weeks ago, but may not arrive till about April 15 so it's not late.

P.P.S. It could be the USPS. They are famous for their incompetence.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Learn from Comrade Li Zicheng, Maybe

Resurrection and Insurrection

The little-known Shun Dynasty, which lasted for about a year between the Ming and penultimate Qing Dynasty, was headed by a peasant shepherd named Li Zicheng, who declared himself emperor. The capital was Xi'an, where I went for summer vacation last year. I could wax poetic about the city wall in that amazing city, which is also near to where a much earlier emperor buried his terra-cotta army, but I am writing to talk about how Li Zicheng, not Lei Feng, seems like the ideal icon to resurrect during this time. 

First, a word about Lei Feng from the Wall Street Journal:
A sock-darning do-gooder Communist soldier who died 50 years ago isn’t ideal fodder for an Internet meme, but Lei Feng (雷锋) has been all over Chinese websites this week, as officials diligently work to promote his memory — once actively instilled in schoolchildren across the country — as a model of party loyalty and moral fortitude. This week, Xinhua journalists went to interview elementary-school students who are learning more about the “spirit of Lei Feng” in honor of the anniversary of his death, as well as family members who still recall an era when Lei Feng’s name had more power.”When I was a young worker, we’d all be called in the factory to learn from Comrade Lei Feng,” one woman in her 50s told Xinhua. Now, she says, her grandson says, “I want to learn from America’s Bill Gates.”

Feng is the subject of numerous propaganda posters and you can learn a great deal about the mythology that has sprung up around him on a website that sells those posters.

A well-written blog post by Jeremy Goldkorn offers a critique of the recent campaign to resurrect Comrade Lei Feng, though. Maybe, instead of agreeing or disagreeing with any particular perspective, I wish to offer an alternative. (Any English teacher here can tell you that "maybe" is how many students begin their declarative sentences.)

The Chinese government already issued a silver coin in 1990 with Li Zicheng on it. The portrait above has the feel of a propaganda poster. Nobody knows for sure if and how he died, but he may have ended his life as a monk at Shashan Temple in Hunan. There is a Beijing Opera about him called "Banner of the Daring Prince." He represents the ancient, traditional culture of China, but has that modern-day revolutionary spirit and may have even been a Cinncinatus.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

China Politburo Civics: How it Works, Kind of

Mssrs. Who, When, Woo, She and, of course, the Lees 

The Politburo is nominally appointed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China but the practice since the 1980s has been that the Politburo is self-perpetuating. The Politburo consists of 24 people and nine of them sit on the Standing Committee. These nine people are very powerful and control most of what happens in China.

Mr. Hu (pronounced Who)
Mr. Hu Jintao is the General Secretary and Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission. Since the abolition of the post Chairman of the Communist Party of China in 1982, the General Secretary has been the highest ranking official of the party and heads the Secretariat, Politburo of the Party and its Standing Committee.

Since its founding, the most important position in the PRC has been that of the General Secretary (known as Chairman before 1982). The Communist party and its leader hold ultimate power and authority over state and government.

Recently, the General Secretary has held the authority of Paramount leader in China. Also, China is a single-party state that General Secretary holds the highest political position ranking in the PRC, which is the most powerful position in the Chinese government.

Mr. Wen (pronounced When)
Mr. Wen Jiabao is the Premier and the Party Secretary of the State Council of the People's Republic of China. The Premier is the highest administrative position in the Government of the People's Republic of China. The Premier is responsible for organizing and administering the Chinese civil bureaucracy. This includes overseeing the various ministries, departments, commissions and statutory agencies and announcing their candidacies to the National People's Congress for Vice-Premiers, State Councillors and ministry offices. Apparently, the Premier does not have authority over the People's Liberation Army, but the Premier is the Head of the National Defense Mobilization Committee of China which is a department of armed forces redeployment. In recent years, there has been a division of responsibilities between the Premier and the General Secretary of CPC wherein the Premier is responsible for the technical details of implementing government policy while the General Secretary gathers the political support necessary for government policy.

Mr. Wu (pronounced Woo)
Mr. Wen is the third ranked official, though. Mr. Wu Bangguo, who we seldom hear about, is the second highest official. He serves as Party Secretary and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. He serves as China's top legislator and was preceded by Li Peng.

Mr. Peng's daughter, Li Xiaolin, is a current legislator and the center of some recent controversy for a controversial proposal she made that was juxtaposed by a blogger with her wearing a US$1,990 pink pantsuit from Emilio Pucci. Her proposal? Establish a "morality file" on each citizen so as to “discipline everyone and make sure everyone has a sense of shame.” Currently, she is the only female CEO of a Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed company, China Power International Development (SEHK: 2380). In 2009, CPID acquired 63% equity interests in Wu Ling Power making hydro 18.73% of its total installed capacity, the highest of any of the Chinese independent power producers. This protects the company from the costs of coal power in China, and makes its overall profile cleaner.

In November 2012, the 18th Politburo Standing Committe (PSC) will take office. If previous precedent is followed, seven of the current PSC members will retire having exceeded the age of 67. Only Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are expected to retain their seats.

Mr. Xi (pronounced She)
Xi Jinping, part of a group of "princelings" or the clique called the Crown Prince Party, is expected to take the position currently held by Mr. Hu Jintao. His recent, high-profile trips abroad to numerous nations, including the United States, all but assure that he will take the reigns later this year.

Xi married Ke Lingling in the early 1980s. After about 3 years, they were divorced, due to personality clashes. Xi married the famous Chinese folk singer Peng Liyuan (彭丽媛) in 1987.

Peng Liyuan, a household name in China, was much better known to the public than Xi until his political elevation. The couple frequently live apart due to their largely separate lives. They are sometimes considered China's emerging star political couple. They have a daughter named Xi Mingze (习明泽), who enrolled as a freshman at Harvard University in the Fall of 2010 under a pseudonym.

Mr. Li (pronounced Lee)
Li Keqiang is currently Deputy Party Secretary and first-ranked Vice-Premier of the State Council of the People's Republic of China and is predicted to assume Mr. Wen's positions come November.

The Xi-Li administration is likely to be dominated by two factions.  Hu Jintao's Communist Youth League faction and the Crown Prince Party (or "Princelings") are seen to be the two dominant factions within the leadership.

In an article by Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution, four additional individuals have more or less secured their membership in the next PSC: Vice Premier Wang Qishan, Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, Organization Department head Li Yuanchao, and Propaganda Department head Liu Yunshan.

Other prominent figures that are speculated to be top figures in the 5th generation include newly-appointed Chongqing Party Chief Zhang Dejiang, Shanghai Party Chief Yu Zhengsheng, Guangdong Party Chief Wang Yang, Tianjin Party Chief Zhang Gaoli, State Councilor Liu Yandong, Secretary General of the State Council Ma Kai, Chief of the General Office of Communist Party Ling Jihua, Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu, and Hebei Party Chief Zhang Qingli.

Many people believed that Mr. Bo Xilai would also join this elite group. Mr. Bo has experienced some political setbacks over the last several days that have garnered international attention. They may be the subject of a subsequent post.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Vanzetti is Dead!

I am feeling a little like a bad dad. It was with some trepidation that I decided last week to enter the group of people who enslave animals for their own enjoyment (i.e., become a pet owner). Now, it seems my ineptitude and lack of training as a fish father has cost the life of my littlest one. Vanzetti is dead.

Who was Vanzetti? Vanzetti was a fishmonger born in Villafalletto, Cuneo province, Piemonte region, Italy, and arrived in the United States at age twenty. His last words:

I would not wish to a dog or to a snake, to the most low and misfortunate creature of the earth–I would not wish to any of them what I have had to suffer for things that I am not guilty of. But my conviction is that I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I am an Italian and indeed I am an Italian...if you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already.
I am sorry, Vanzetti. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Smattering of Chinese Experiences

The Adorable Chinese Student 

Yesterday, I had coffee with an International Baccalaureate math teacher who works at the same school as I. She is in a sling because she hurt her harm. I asked her if her students ever teased her and she looked shocked. "No," she said. "They offer to carry my books and are very respectful." 

Hearing this, I pulled a note from my pocket that I had received at the end of class on Wednesday. I arrived for the Wednesday class a few minutes early to locate the classroom because it was my first time teaching this particular class. Once in the courtyard of the school, I asked a girl whether Class 28 was on the first floor of Building A or the third floor of Building B. Admitting that she was not really sure, she sent me in the wrong direction which had the only consequence of requiring me to walk a little farther--soemthing this almost 40 year-old body does not resent.

At the end of the class, the girl presented me with a really good piece of candy and a note that read as follows, "Sorry for giving you the wrong direction! I'm a student of Grade 3 [equivalent to a high school senior in America] and I must have remembered the class arrangement of grade 1 wrong. Wish that I didn't cause that much trouble. (I told the students to find you the moment I found I was wrong, did they find you in time?) My apology again~ Here's a "map". {MAP} Wish that may be of help. Have a nice day. [Smiley face] Sincerely, Amy."

Gold Fish, My New Friends!

I have five new pets. Niccolo and Dante are the bottom-feeders; Sacco & Vanzetti are the pair of bright red fish; Sophia is the beautiful, elegant black one with a fan-tail; and, finally, there is Ursula, who is quite gorgeous in her own right. You will be hearing a lot more about the adventures of this new Italian naval force in the coming days. They were purchased at a huge market that has countless tea shops in the basement and hundreds of exotic flowers for sale on the second floor. The first floor is an assortment of fish-tanks, fishbowls, fish gear, and fish that would blow the average mind.

You can see this fish bowl that I bought which is 26 cm high and 42 cm in diameter. It was made in a famous place and fired dozens of times as they added color after color. More details coming in a subsequent post.

Snow Removal: "The Chinese Really Like to Dig"

There was a man who lived in Changchun for a while who liked to say all sorts of dreadful things about the Chinese. One of his favorite expressions was, "The Chinese really like to dig." With this generalization, I might be forced to agree if only because of the large amount of digging that I have witnessed.

You may remember some time back that they were installing new pipes around my building and I watched in amazement as small, smiling men hurled shovels full of dirt from six foot deep trenches that stretched for hundreds of feet.

Well, the late winter snow--like New England, all of our snow seems to be falling right now--has given me another occasion to look on with amazement. Most of the snow removal in this city of four million people happens by hand. Specifically, it happens at the hands of the three million or so "countryside" people or peasants who are issued bright orange vests and a shovel. These happy crews involved in meaningful group work make their way methodically down the roads and alleys of this great city.

Ping-Pong and Badminton

Ping-pong and badminton are popular pastimes here. Yesterday, I went with two Chinese friends and a fellow American to play badminton for an hour and a half. It was great fun and I am none the worse for wear today. I snapped a shot of the ping-pong hall at Jilin University. There were young and old. One young kid with a coach was particularly fun to watch. When he was done, there was a whole ritual for the care and storage of his racket. Two old men rallied at a pace that made me tired to watch. They were practicing the same move over and over again. You could see the strain in their hunched shoulders when finally the ball would go bouncing off in some unintended direction.

Street Food and Market Food

Last week, I went to a huge market and was particularly interested in the food offered at one particular stall. I will not attempt to name the delicacies here for fear that would be indelicate and upset the reader, but all of it is internal and some of it might just be tendons.

 In contrast, some of the arrays of orchids for sale were stunningly beautiful.

There is lots of great street food. There are at least five or six of "nut stands" in my school's neighborhood. Chestnuts and pine-nuts, walnuts and almonds, as well as countless exotic nuts are for sale. Steam rises from the roasted chestnuts, which, in winter, are kept beneath a red velvet cloth so they retain their heat and moisture. In this case, the blanket looks like it was supplied by Luis Vuitton.

This waffle-like honeycomb shaped street food (below) has contributed to my expanding waistline. Last night, more than one person commented that I looked like I was getting bigger. I am afraid so. Time to avoid the wheat again?

Baked sweet potato (or, in direct Chinese translation, "ground melon") is a healthy snack. This man sits in the cold selling them by the bag full on Guilin Lu. Beside him, a woman hocks ribbons for girls' hair.

Making Comments on This Blog

Dear Friends,

While I appreciate the emails that I receive, often times your fellow readers would benefit from your shared excitement and your thoughts and opinions, as well. I know that it is difficult to figure out how to make a comment. If you click on the circled hyperlink at the bottom of a post that says--all too often--"0 comments" then a comment box will open up. If it says 75 comments, you can do the same thing!

I hope this is a helpful tip. Please share my blog with one friend this week. Thanks for your support.

Alexander Lee
Changchun, Jilin, PRC

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Drones in China?

Yemen? Most American kids cannot pronounce it, let alone point to it on a map.

What if I was plotting to overthrow Obama in coastal China? Would he be sending drones to get me? I am not plotting that, by the way, but I won't send for an absentee ballot if he does not reverse the Holder holding. The Attorney General of the United States, in the long tradition of John C. Yoo and forsaking the long tradition of RFK, stood before a group of law students and dared to say that there is a difference between judicial and due process? Is this even defensible, Professor Dycus?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

More Thoughts on Thinking

Shiho Fukada for The New York Times
Zhou Youguang's Take

In today's New York Times there is a remarkable profile of an incredible man. Zhou Youguang should be a household name in China. He is 106 years old. As a Chinese language learner, I have immense respect for this man, who invented Pinyin. According to the Times, "Mr. Zhou is the inventor of Pinyin, the Romanized spelling system that linked China’s ancient written language to the modern age and helped China all but stamp out illiteracy."

This is what he had to say about fostering creativity in the Communist system in a 2010 book of essays: “Inventions are flowers that grow out of the soil of freedom. Innovation and invention don’t grow out of the government’s orders.”

Responses to readers responses

Remember, my question was, "What do you think about how we think different [sic] than one another?"

Chris Nevins response was anthropological:
My short answer is yes and no, but the 'no' is second intentionally. Yes, there are social and cultural differences that account for meaningful differences among the ways all sorts of differing groups think, let alone nationalistic ways. But, no, we do not think differently in more existential ways. There is a universal culture that trumps other essential frameworks in ever so slight ways. 'Emic' versus 'etic,' and I guess I come down on the 'etic' side, though if you ask me tomorrow I might have a different answer.
Chris references something I don't know much about so I will simply provide the reader a bibliography--"emic" vs. "etic":
  • Creswell, J. W. (1998), Qualitative Enquiry and Research Design: Choosing among Five Traditions, London, UK: Sage.
  • Goodenough, Ward (1970), "Describing a Culture", Description and Comparison in Cultural Anthropology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press): pp. 104–119, ISBN 978-0-202-30861-6.
  • Harris, Marvin (1976), "History and Significance of the Emic/Etic Distinction", Annual Review of Anthropology 5: 329–350.
  • Harris, Marvin (1980), "Chapter Two: The Epistemology of Cultural Materialism", Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture (New York, NY, USA: Random House): pp. 29–45, ISBN 978-0-7591-0134-0.
  • Headland, Thomas; Pike, Kenneth; Harris, Marvin (eds) (1990), Emics and Etics: The Insider/Outsider Debate, Sage.
  • Jahoda, G. (1977), "In Pursuit of the Emic-Etic Distinction: Can We Ever Capture It?", Basic Problems in Cross-Cultural Psychology (Y.J. Poortinga, ed.): pp. 55–63.
  • Kitayama, Shinobu; Cohen, Dov (2007), Handbook of Cultural Psychology, New York, NY, USA: Guilford Press.
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1987), Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate, ISBN 978-0-691-02714-2.
  • Pike, Kenneth Lee (ed.) (1967), Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of Structure of Human Behavior (2nd ed.), The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton.
Donna Schnur Birholz wrote an anthropological response, as well:

I think the question which needs answering first is what you mean by "think." Are you speaking of values, beliefs, hierarchy of principles inherent (for the Chinese, and then conversely, for Americans)? Are you speaking of the actual steps in one's reasoning process, or of the rationale for those steps?

And then of course, there's the acknowledgement that there are significant differences in the way those within a group will order their values/beliefs/hierarchy of principles. Some of that reflects subculture membership, and sometimes even with a control for those subculture memberships, we will find that there are differing values/priorities.... Although we are more likely to find agreement about what the "general you" should be prioritizing/valuing (whether the individuals would be making the same choice or not).

The "think differently" argument often made about the Chinese, is that they prioritize the general good, rather than the individual good - family/ancestral respect, rather than separate, individual accomplishment, and that any individualization must be justified by the benefits for the greater good of the group [family, region, country] .... I'm not sure how much anthropological research has been done in the area, I suspect very little peer-reviewed work since the revolution, although work prior to then might be illuminating .... and of course, the question would also be how that has been changed by generations of communist rule. [/anthrogeek rambling]

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Counterfactuals: Thoughtful Thoughts on Thinking

“It’s impossible to think different [sic] in a country where you can’t speak freely. It’s impossible to think different [sic] when you have to worry what you put on the Internet will either be confiscated or you will be arrested. It’s impossible to think different [sic] where orthodoxy reigns. That’s why we remain the most innovative country in the world.”
-Vice President Joe Biden
The New York Review of Books has a fascinating interview with Chinese public intellectual Ran Yunfei this weekend. Mr. Ran says that the way to combat a society where everything they teach you is fake is, "to learn how to argue. Too few public intellectuals in China have learned to argue logically. They don’t know how and end up cursing each other all the time." Ironically, he makes a condescending, ad hominem observation about dissident artist Ai Weiwei in the next sentence. If you can overlook this irony, which is difficult, then you might accept his simple statement that logic is a powerful tool for combating mythology. I think Mr. Ran's own logic is faulty. He seems to be saying that if you use logic, you can effectively combat mythology. In fact, in the example that Mr. Ran uses of Ai Weiwei, it is truth and moral consistency, not logic, that are really the powerful weapons. "To defend freedom you can’t use methods that destroy freedom."

As an aside, it is worth noting that public intellectuals in the United States are really no better than in China, except that many of them are not intellectuals at all--Rush Limbaugh, Larry Summers, Newt Gingrich, Tom Friedman, etc. They savage their ideological opponents and participate in internecine skirmishes, too. They frequently throw logic to the wind and invent their own Lei Feng-Wang Jie-Liu Wenxue-Lai Ning tales, too. Think Christopher Columbus-George Washington-Horatio Alger, Jr. Howard Zinn did a good job at pointing out some of the pervasive mythologies of our own education system.

Before I precede, it is necessary to define what a counterfactual conditional is. In short, it is a conditional (or "if-then") statement indicating what would be the case if its antecedent were true (although it is not true). An example, provided in the Wikipedia article on counterfactual conditionals is, "If Oswald did not shoot Kennedy, then someone else did."

Joe Biden's counterfactual proposition is that, "If China did not suppress certain kinds of speech, then it would be the greatest innovator in the world. Since the United States is the most permissive with speech, we lead the world in innovation." Besides the total lack of logic here and the Vice-President's differently [sic] use of grammar, this statement (in the epigraph above) betrays a dangerous simplification of thought that rather exaggerates the impact of impairing freedom of the press/assembly/speech/religion on the freedom of thought.

As I am about to begin teaching a skills development class that seeks to prepare Chinese students for college and deft engagement in the world of ideas, I am intensely interested in the question of whether Chinese people actually think differently than Americans. Linguists have made such claims for decades and foreign experts here in Changchun frequently parrot some version of what Biden purports. I must say, I do not feel constrained. This is a topic that must be discussed publicly, not just in Sichuanese tea houses.

It is already being discussed by many talking heads. The insufferable, smug Tom Friedman, who is foreign affairs' columnist for the New York Times, recently interviewed Bill Gates on exactly this topic. After Mr. Friedman got done self-plugging his six year-old book, I was no longer really listening, but I did play through the whole interview.  Mr. Friedman has long believed that, “In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears-and that is our problem.” (Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat. 2006) The recent passing of Apple's chief innovator showed that in China, Steve Jobs was Justin Bieber and that Britney Spears like Bill Gates is just not that important. Or, as Heather Chandler put it, "Grow up Heather, bulimia's so '87."

Clyde Prestowitz offers a good analysis of this big interview--"big" mostly for the egos involved. He observes that Steve Jobs was the innovator and that Gates "knows about negotiation and standard setting and business strategy, but he's never been an innovator." In other words, Gates is more like Harvard's Larry Summers, a privileged opportunist who aptly sits on the board of a company called Square, than Albert Einstein, who was, unarguably, one of the most innovative modern minds despite being a product of one of the most repressive regimes in human history (aka Nazi Germany). What do you say about that, Joe Biden? Is Einstein the exception that makes the rule or does, as I might posit, repression of expression breed innovation? Do China's policies, in fact, have the unwanted effect of creating people like Ai Weiwei, Zhang Ping, Ran Yufei, and Gao Xingjian? That is an inquiry Li Changchun might want to fund.

It seems to me that Prestowitz's greatest service is pointing out that, "If America is suffering from declining competitiveness and rising trade deficits, innovation, according to the elite, is the philosopher's stone that will turn everything around." Poppycock though it may be, I do not want to be distracted by this more serious discussion about whether America's culture of innovation, if it exists, is likely to lead to further national success. As I mentioned, I am concerned mostly with the question of how most Chinese people think differently than most Americans, if they do think differently at all and if such generalizing is even a worthwhile exercise.

Before I go further, though, let me ask you, my reader: What do you think about how we think different [sic] than one another?