Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Etiquette and the Problem of Rejecting in Chinese Culture

As I have explained in other posts, the function of etiquette and formality in Chinese culture is deeper and more substantial than one may assume in the West. Many foreigners in the Middle Kingdom have noted the importance of ceremony, ritual and etiquette in Chinese people's every day life. This should not be understood as a superficial phenomenon, but as a reflection of the very structure of Chinese society. In fact, formality is a result of the significance of hierarchy and social roles. 

That etiquette has always been a cornerstone of Chinese social interaction can already be seen in the works of Confucius. "Etiquette is nothing but reverence,” he argued. “If the father is revered, his sons will be happy; if the elder brother is revered, the younger brother will be happy; if a ruler is revered, all his subjects will be happy" (Boden 2008, p. 210).

As Jeanne Boden explains:

In ancient China the 'Ministry of Rites' was extremely important. All rites, rituals and ceremonies needed to be administered correctly to preserve harmony in the universe ... For this reason, etiquette has a much deeper significance in China than in the West. Etiquette and rituals are more than manners or politeness alone. These ancient rules are to some extent still applied in today's new China. Chinese etiquette rules are mainly connected to hierarchy and social position (ibid.).

The link between etiquette and hierarchy / social roles is fundamental. The formality of Chinese social life may not be noticed at once by foreigners. Chinese people seldom talk about their modes of social interaction in terms of formality or ritualism. They prefer to emphasize what they regard as the praiseworthy nature of their ethical norms. They tend to assume that the system of hierarchical social roles on which etiquette in China is based has a self-evidently moral quality; some people even consider it superior to the moral system of other nations. 

In ancient China, the formality of social interaction was far more obvious than it is nowadays. The following excerpt from the Book of Etiquette and Ritual shows how extreme rituals and etiquette could be in old China. The scene describes how a gentleman should behave when paying a visit to a man of higher rank:

When a gentleman visits an official, the latter declines altogether to receive his present. At his entrance the host bows once, acknowledging their difference in rank. When the guest withdraws, he escorts him and bows twice. When a gentleman calls on his former superior, the host formally declines the visitor’s gift: “As I have not been able to receive your consent to my declining, I dare not persist in it.” Then the guest enters, lays down his gift, and bows twice. The host replies with a single bow. When the guest leaves, the host sends the attendant to return the gift outside the gate. 
THE ATTENDANT: So-and-so sends me to hand back your gift. 
THE GUEST: Since I have already obtained an interview, I venture to decline to receive the gift. 
THE ATTENDANT: So-and-so has issued his commands to me, and I cannot myself take the initiative in this matter. I must press his request on you. 
THE GUEST: I am the humble servant of his excellency, and am not capable of observing the ceremonies of a visitor with his host; so I venture to persist in declining. 
THE ATTENDANT: Since So-and-do has ordered me, I dare not take it upon myself to make decisions in this matter, but persist in this request. 
THE GUEST: I have repeatedly declined, without receiving his honor’s permission to do so. How then dare I not obey? [He thus bows twice and receives the present back.] (Ebrey 2009, pp. 42-43).

Some people may question the importance of etiquette in the contemporary Chinese=speaking world, which many consider increasingly 'Westernised'. However, I believe we should look at this phenomenon from a different perspective. Social roles and hierarchies have been changing rapidly over the past one or two hundred years due to social, political, and economic transformations. Therefore, it is obvious that the society that Confucius and later generations of Chinese thinkers described and advocated doesn't exist any more in that particular form. 

Nevertheless, the relative importance of etiquette, ritualism and formality has remained. What has changed, are the social roles and hierarchies that they regulate. For example, the relationship between boss and employee, or that between employees, is an entirely new kind of human relationship that derives from the industrial restructuring of Chinese society. And yet, we find a high degree of formality and hierarchy in such relations. 

The relationship between boyfriend and girlfriend is also a modern phenomenon, since in old China engagements and marriages were mostly arranged by parents and the eligible age was much earlier than in contemporary society. Despite all this, we still find that social roles and hierarchy shape such unions. 

I would like to quote an excerpt from a recent Taiwanese romantic novel. Its target audience mostly consists of teenage girls. The protagonists are Boyan and Xiaowei. Boyan and Xiaowei are engaged, but at the beginning of the novel she breaks up with him because she isn't sure she loves him. But in the course of the book, he tries over and over again to win her back. After she has been 'saved' by Boyan, who prevented her new fiance from raping her, she begins to change her mind about him. In the following passage, Xiaowei brings him food she has prepared herself; as I will explain in another post, in traditional Chinese thinking the act of 'nourishing' someone has always been a central element of filial piety, and food is a way of showing care which reflects social and hierarchical roles. 

For instance, the Book of Rites, a Confucian classic, prescribes that children or daughters-in-law should never refuse the food offered by parents even if they dislike it. When parents give children food they show care and love, and children, who are hierarchically inferior to parents, are not entitled to refuse. Here we see how social roles are not based on feelings, dialogue, or mutual understanding, but on standardised patterns of behaviour, and on codified norms. 

In the following scene, Xiaowei, faithful to her social role, shows care by preparing food for Boyan. He dislikes the food, but he eats it, pretending to like it. On the other hand, Xiaowei refuses the drink offered to her by Boyan, but she expresses her worries that he might feel hurt by her refusal. Here we see the result of the relative disruption of old social roles, which have become somewhat more ambiguous. Having said that, Xiaowei's social role as a woman is still relatively fixed, and it is her being a woman which makes it more acceptable for her to refuse. On the contrary, a man is expected to show that he takes care of his woman, that he spoils her and perhaps, from a Western perspective, treats her as a child. His role as a saviour, caregiver, and family-oriented man is in many respects typical of the image of a man who can fulfill his social role properly.

The question asked by Boyan at the end also shows how the old practice of arranging marriages has not disappeared. In fact, after Xiaowei broke up with Boyan, her family, worried about her marital status, hurried to find for her another fiance, making it clear that it was her responsibility to get married soon. Overall, we observe in this passage that many of the elements of the past still exist, but that they are in a process of change and readjustment which does not necessarily lead to a 'Western'-style society. 

她打開便當盒, 拿出裡面的食物。 『算了。說了半天, 你應該俄了吧?』
『這是我親手煮的義大利麵, 還熱騰騰的, 你快嚐嚐看。』
李曉薇帶著一臉期待, 笑吟吟的看他。
她開朗的笑靨, 讓柏岩不知該如何拒絕。
看他拿起刀叉, 捲起麵條, 她立即屏住呼吸, 揚起眉梢。
將過於綿軟且微冷的麵條放進口裡後, 柏岩卻給了她一個讚許的眼神。
『 沒想到, 妳這個太小姐也會自己煮東西吃。』
『其他我不會。但在米蘭待了兩年, 簡單的義大利麵還是會煮的。』
『我 向來不喜歡喝這種果菜汁, 覺得有股怪怪的味道。』
李曉薇若有所思地笑了笑。『說出來更好嗎? 如果我說我不喜歡, 然後拒絕你給的飲料, 會不會顯得不夠禮貌? 我好像... 向來不太懂得該怎麼拒絕別人。』
『幹麼勉強喝討厭的東西? 不懂得拒絕的後果, 只會讓自己感到不舒服。』
柏岩不贊同地皺起眉, 繼續吃著他無法『拒絕』的義大利麵。『所以, 妳也不懂得拒絕妳父親給妳安排的婚事。』
She opened a lunchbox and took out some food. “All right. We've been talking for a while. You must be hungry.”
“Well, actually ...” I've just had my lunch.
“This is pasta. I cooked it myself. It's still hot. Try it!”Li Xiaowei smiled at him with an expression full of expectation. “I've also brought pumpkin soup.”
“Okay.” When he looked at her bright smile, he didn't know how he could possibly refuse.
As she saw him take up fork and knife and roll the noodles, she held her breath and rose the tip of her brow. “How does it taste?” she asked.
“Delicious,” he answered. He put the noodles – which were way too soft and already cold - into his mouth, and then he looked at her with an expression of praise.
“I didn't know you can cook.”
“I can't cook anything else,” she said. “But I lived in Milan for two years, and at least I learned some simple pasta recipes.”
With a complacent air, Li Xiaowei took a sip of the fruit and vegetable juice that Boyan had given to her. As she drank, her face twisted into a grimace.
“I never liked this kind of juice,” she said, “I always thought it tasted weird.”
He immediately gave her the orange juice he was holding in his hand. 
“If you didn't like it you could have just told me at once.”
As if lost in thought, Li Xiaowei smiled at him. “Is it better to say it directly? If I'd said I didn't like it, and then had refused the drink you'd given me, wouldn't it have been too impolite? Apparently … I've never quite understood how to reject other people.”  
“Why force yourself to drink something you don't like? If you don't know how to reject others you'll just make yourself feel uncomfortable.”
Boyan disapprovingly knit his brows as he spoke. And yet he went on eating the pasta he didn't dare refuse. 
“So,” he continued, “don't you know how to reject the marriage your father has arranged for you, either?” (Tang Xin: Zhe Ci Wo Aishang Ni. Taipei 2013, pp. 72-73).

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Travel Impressions – Differences Between Taiwan and Italy

Last week I returned to Italy after a whole year spent in Taiwan and Hong Kong. I believe I am not the only person who sees his own country in a different way after living for a long time abroad. 

From this point of view, my almost four years in Germany weren't as groundbreaking an experience as my two years in Asia. Germany and Italy are technically two separate countries with different culture and history. And yet, for hundreds of years they have been neighbours, they share a common set of values and historical developments. Greco-Roman civilisation, Christianity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Age of Discoveries, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Age of Nationalism, the two World Wars, and economic boom and many other historical processes are shared by most European countries. One can hardly explain the history of a single European country without talking about what happened in the others. 

East Asia, on the contrary, was for centuries isolated from the West, despite more or less sporadic contacts. Before the 19th century, East Asian history was virtually independent from the events in other parts of the globe. Therefore, the cultural difference between Italy and Taiwan is much wider than that between Italy and other Western countries. 

I have seldom missed Italy, but I did miss Europe. When I came back, I felt somewhat relieved, I felt at home. Here I need no visa, I am familiar with the way of life and people's attitude. It was as if a burden had fallen off my shoulders. 

In this post I would like to talk about my impressions after returning to Italy from East Asia.

1- Efficiency

One of the first things one notices in Italy is inefficiency. The little problems one encounters everywhere are striking, unpleasant. Italy is indeed extremely disorganised. After I arrived at Milan airport I went to the ticket counter to buy a train ticket to Milan Main Station. It was 7.43 am. The staff told me the next train would depart one hour later... This is disheartening. However, there is a shuttle bus service that takes one to the station in less than an hour and departs every 20 minutes.

In Hong Kong, the express train from the airport to the city centre comes very often and it takes only 25 minutes to get to Central MTR station. Taipei is much worse than Hong Kong and is currently comparable to Italy, but a new underground connection to the airport will soon improve the situation. I guess that among developed countries Italy has one of the worst public transport systems. 

2 - Weather

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Myth of the "Deceitful Chinaman": A Few thoughts About Politeness and Etiquette in Chinese Culture

As I mentioned in my previous post, many Western observers and expatriates living in China have noticed a difference between the way Chinese and Westerners communicate. Chinese are often criticised for their alleged lack of 'honesty' and 'transparency'. In the 19th and early 20th century, there was a tendency to regard Chinese people's communication strategies as the result of the 'deceitfulness' and 'insincerity' of the Chinese.

In recent times, this interpretation has shifted towards a milder one, according to which Chinese value face-saving, unoffensive and indirect communication in order to avoid confrontation.

I would like to challenge this view and argue that the apparent 'indirectness' and 'vagueness' Westerners notice in China is rather the consequence of hierarchy, social roles, 'collectivism', and power distribution. 

Honesty vs Deference: Western and Chinese Views on Politeness and Etiquette

Let us briefly examine two texts that can shed light on the different way in which Chinese and Westerners perceive honesty and communicate with each other. The first text is the Liji (simplified Chinese 礼记, traditional Chinese 禮記; English: Book of Rites), a Confucian classic that prescribes the proper behaviour of individuals in society. The part that interests us here is the one which defines propriety within the family.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

"Do Chinese Lie?" - The Myth of the "Deceitful Chinaman"

A Chinaman is cold, cunning and distrustful; always ready to take advantage of those he has to deal with; extremely covetous and deceitful ("China," Encyclopedia Britannica, 7th ed., vol. 6 [1842]; quoted in The Things They Say behind Your Back: Stereotypes and the Myths Behind Them, p. 115)
They [the Chinese] are well-behaved, law-abiding, intelligent, economical, and industrious, - they can learn anything and do anything ... they possess and practise an admirable system of ethics, and they are generous, charitable, and fond of good works, - they never forget a favour, they make rich return for any kindness ... they are practical, teachable, and wonderfully gifted with common sense (Sir Robert Hart [1975]: The I. G. in Peking: Letters of Robert Hart, Chinese Maritime Customs, 1868-1907 (2 Volumes), p. 27). 

These two extremely different generalisations about China symbolize the difficulty of Western observers to make sense of this country. Even today, there are Westerners who extol the virtues of Chinese society and ethics, while others blacken and stigmatize them.

As a foreigner, one is always confronted with traits of the host culture which appear shocking or hard to comprehend. As I have explained in my post about culture shock, the ways in which individuals react and adapt themselves to the life in a foreign country are manifold. Some people cannot cope with the challenge of adjusting themselves to a new environment and may develop a resentment towards the host culture. Others integrate themselves more or less smoothly. 

This is a problem that, as far as I have experienced, affects expatriates in general, regardless of where they come from. When I lived in Germany, I saw many Chinese, Koreans and people from other countries who did not feel comfortable in the new environment. For example, many Koreans, who are accustomed to a social order where etiquette, age, hierarchy etc. are important for the individual, find it hard to get used to a society that is based upon different values, where what they've learned to be just and right causes them to be scorned or derided, rather than praised. 

I remember when a Korean friend of mine once bowed to a professor as a sign of respect; in Germany, this is considered excessive, to say the least. He wanted to honour his professor as he had learned to do in his home country. He believed to be behaving properly, and yet he was met with ridicule by the other students, who giggled mockingly. Some expats who experience such situations may eventually mature a deep-seated hostility towards the host culture. They feel wronged and misunderstood by others and wish to go back to a social context where things are clear and predictable to them.

The myth of the 'deceitful Chinaman' developed in a somewhat similar way. In the past as in the present, Western people who live in China are confronted with behaviours that surprise them, offend them, even repulse them. Of course, not all expatriates have the same point of view. As the two aforementioned quotations show, the way in which people react to and interpret a new culture can be very different. 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Word of the Day: 供暖系统 (Heating System)

The word I chose today is 

供暖系统 / 供暖系統 (pinyin: gōngnuǎn xìtǒng): heating system

One of the most difficult things for expats living in Southern China, Hong Kong or Taiwan is to get used to the weather - hot, humid, unstable, it can be challenging for some people, as it has been for me. However, there is also something else we as expats must learn to cope with - the fact that homes have no heating system.

I guess that most of us are accustomed to having a heating system at home. When I lived in Germany the winters may have been long and cold, but every building had a heating system that created a warm, comfortable ambience. In Europe, you may freeze outside, but you will feel comfortable inside. As a German once put it, feeling cold in Germany is like a series of intervals between going out and getting into the car, getting out of the car and going inside a building etc.

Southern China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have a short, not very cold winter. Here in Taiwan, the average temperature ranges between 15 and 20, sometimes it drops to around 12. I certainly wouldn't describe this as a harsh winter. 

As far as Taipei is concerned, the challenge lies elsewhere: in the sudden and short-term temperature and humidity fluctuations. For example, two weeks ago the temperature dropped from around 30 degrees to 12-15 degrees. It felt quite cold, not only because of the humidity, but also because the change was abrupt, from summer to winter overnight The weather remained like this for a few days, and then it changed again, with temperatures rising to 22 degrees and more. Yesterday, it was still relatively cool. But today, it felt like summer, and I had to take off my jacket. I must admit that these constant and unpredictable variations drive me crazy.

Because warm and cold alternate, people apparently don't feel the need to install an expensive heating system, which in Europe makes the energy bill soar every winter. People prefer to endure a relatively limited number of cold days and freeze at home. This makes the atmosphere quite gloomy. In Europe, I enjoy the winter evenings, when I can watch TV, drink a tea or chocolate, talk with friends etc. In Taiwan, I just want to go to bed, because it's so cold. My home even has huge windows at the two ends of the flat that cannot be closed at all, and the other windows are not insulated. I always have the feeling that a piece of my flat is kind of 'outside'.

The word 'heating system' is an important and helpful one. However, you won't have many chances to use it unless you want to complain about the lack of it. 

Monday, 9 December 2013

Smog, National Defence, and the War Game

Smog may affect people’s health and daily lives … but on the battlefield, it can serve as a defensive advantage in military operations,” wrote a Chinese newspaper affiliated to the government-sponsored People's Daily (note).

This singular, inadvertently comic statement is yet another proof that the war scenario is constantly considered as a possibility by certain people in China. The fact that CCP loyalists try to play down China's current pollution problem in such a way tells a lot about the attitude of ultranationalist forces in the country. Polluting the environment and damaging the health of one's own citizens in order to protect these very citizens is one of the most puzzling strategies one can conceive. Perhaps this may be marketed as a sacrifice "for the common weal", a typical rhetorical instrument that nationalist ideologues love to employ whenever it is deemed necessary to influence public opinion. In this case, this is done with a certain humourous clumsiness. 

However, Western public opinion has also been obsessed with a possible future war with China and is therefore at least as reproachable as its Chinese counterpart. Western politicians and intellectuals have been spreading the idea of the emerging "China threat" and are thus influencing not only the way many people think, but also the very policies of Western governments. The number of books published in the last two decades about a possible war with China is astounding and worrying. 

In Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States (2006), authors Jed L. Babbin and Edward Timperlake argue that China is more dangerous than the Soviet Union. While during the Cold War the two super powers who had emerged from the Second World War were careful not to provoke each other and therefore created an equilibrium that maintained peace,

China, an emerging superpower, is not governed by that equilibrium. It is now engaged in a second cold war, the Pacific Cold War, with the United States. This war might last as long as the European Cold War - and it is much more likely to turn into a hot one. Our adversary, China, is either an emerging capitalist colossus with peaceful intentions or the most powerful and dangerous enemy we have faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. China exhibits two faces to the world (pp. 1-2).

Some books have an extremely radical, anti-Communist, and anti-Chinese tone which - not surprisingly - angers many people in the PRC. One example is the uncompromising and belligerent book The China Threat, by Bill Gertz:

The reality today is that China is a major threat to the United States, and a growing one. China's rulers ... remain communists, and the fifty years of communist rule are replete with brutal repression, mass murder, and border wars with China's neighbors. But communism seeks to change not only external political conditions but also the internal nature of human beings - hence its emphasis on mass indoctrination and its hatred for anything that might offer a contrary view of man. It is this feature of communism that accounts for its most dangerous characteristic: its failure to value human life (ibid. 2013, chapter one).

As one might expect, this hard-line stance cannot but repel most Chinese people. Mr Gertz is obviously imbued with an old-school anti-Communist sentiment. He doesn't seem to appreciate the extent of the changes that have taken place in China since the late 1970s. From his words one may conclude that it's not China that threatens the US, but it's him who wants the US to attack China as soon as possible.   

The mistrust and suspicion between the two big powers dates back to the end of the 1980s. It was a time of great changes in the world, and the general feeling was that the 'American model' had proved right and everything else had proved wrong. The American model became an ideological construction that blended American democracy and neoliberal capitalism. That was regarded as the only possible and morally right system. It was expected that the whole world would soon be Americanised, following the example of Western Europe and Japan after World War II.

China was the only big power that went its own way. While the Republic of China on Taiwan became a democracy and allowed peaceful students demonstrations, in Beijing the Tiananmen incident proved that the one-party-state was resolutely determined to stay. People had to adjust themselves to this fact of life. The events of Tiananmen Square gravely damaged China's image abroad, a fact that neither Chinese leaders nor nationalists are willing to accept (see John F. Cooper: Playing with Fire. The Looming War with China over Taiwan 2006, p. 68). 

On the other hand, China became economically so successful that it challenged US supremacy, which had been based on its economic might. While the United States' share of the world's GDP was a staggering 50% by the end of the Second World War, it has fallen to roughly 25% since the 1970s (Robert Kagan: The World America Made 2012, p. 108). The relative decline of American manufacturing is a symptom of this trend. Many products have ceased to be made in the United States, for example light bulbs, mobile phones, laptop computers etc. The share of imported components of US manufactures has increased from 17% in 1997 to 25% in 2009. While in 1965 industrial production amounted to around 26% of US GDP, in 2009 it constituted only about 11%  of GDP (Frederick S. Weaver: The United States and the Global Economy 2011, p. 82). 

The challenge to the supremacy of the American political and economic model is keenly felt in the United States, most especially among the most intransigent and hard-line segments of American society. On the other hand, after the demise of the Soviet Union the US didn't need China any longer as an ally, and suddenly the "enemy" nature of the PRC was rediscovered. 

In the United States, China changed faces from friend, to challenge, too foe. Some in Washington began to see China as the opposing pole in a new bipolar system ... China likewise changed its view of the United States. America became China's enemy and Beijing's leaders frequently said so. ... The Taiwan issue, which many said was at the heart of the U.S.-China conflict, became more important. Taiwan was the only non-negotiable issue between the two countries (Cooper 2006, p. 68). 

As I have explained in a previous post, this talk about a possible conflict between the US and China is extremely dangerous and irresponsible. Both countries have to be blamed for the deterioration of mutual relations. However, war should not even be taken into consideration; it has to be avoided at all costs. In the nuclear age, war is tantamount to the destruction of humanity. There can be no winners and losers. We are not in the 18th century any more.

However, the two powers and their allies are making a war possible by falling back to a system of balance of power like the one that existed prior to World War I. That system aimed at counterbalancing each other, but it did not clearly define blocs and ideologies. Every country could shift alliances opportunistically, according to its own current interests. The Cold War was a much 'safer' solution, because it was an unequivocal and rigid system. It is up to the United States' government to decide whether China is friend or foe, and act accordingly. If the US continues to be double-faced, it may bring about a catastrophe upon itself and the world.

A Word Each Day - And Why

Recently I have been quite isolated and haven't met many people, either friends or language partners. As I will explain in another post, I have found out that socialising in Taiwan can be a quite difficult thing. During the last couple of weeks, although my body was in Taiwan, my mind was somewhere else: in a neutral, virtual space; I watch American, German, British films and documentaries, I read all kinds of books, listen to music, go to coffee shops, all things I could do anywhere. Perhaps this is how some expats react after a long time in a foreign country, in many respects so different from their own. 

Paradoxically, though I am in Taiwan I wonder how I can keep on practicing my Chinese. After meeting dozens of language exchange partners over the last few years, I have given up this face-to-face approach. This method, which theoretically should allow one both to make friends and practice foreign languages, has proved not to be very useful. I couldn't find a single person in Taiwan I could meet regularly. People here are simply too busy with work, family and friends. Some people even see language exchange as a way to find a boyfriend (I will talk about that on another post).

Anyway, I've decided to try out something else: online language exchange. I can do it anywhere, I can connect with people from the whole Chinese-speaking world, and I can share thoughts and experiences with a lot of different people. Honestly, I used to be reluctant to have online LE, but perhaps I was wrong.

The first online LE partner I've found seems a great start. She lives and studies in Poland (and honestly, I'd never thought there were Chinese studying there), is very young and dynamic, and apparently she enjoys writing long e-mails. Her messages could be amazing textbooks. I don't know if she does that on purpose, if she chooses the words and the topics in such a way that they are useful to me, or if she rather has a natural and unconscious talent for LE. 

While reading her e-mails, I came up with the idea of sharing with other people some of the interesting or helpful words she and other people I've connected with use. That's why I will be writing a "word of the day" from time to time in the next months, perhaps they'll be beneficial to the one or the other person who studies or is curious about Chinese.  

Sunday, 8 December 2013

1914-2014: Is The World Repeating The Same Mistakes?

In July 1914 few people could have even conceived the extent of the tragedy that was unfolding. The First World War was the biggest carnage humankind had ever seen, a mass slaughter in which millions of soldiers were massacred by the military technology that the industrial revolution had created. What surprises nowadays is the carelessness, the ineptitude of the elites of those days, their inability to grasp the situation and to prevent the war. 

Following the trend of macho-nationalism, a sort of collective juvenile desire to prevail over others, that reigned in those days, the kings and prime ministers of Europe challenged each other for years, bringing the continent to the brink of war repeatedly before backing off and avoiding a conflict at the last minute. People did sense that a tragedy was imminent; yet they did not believe that civilised nations could destroy one another. By playing with the possibility of war for years, the elites of the time paved the way for a situation in which war became inevitable and the only question was: what skirmish, what diplomatic crisis, what incident will ignite a war? 

The expression "balance of power" describes this situation of absurd instability, or of "risk managing" that can get out of control at any time, which the European powers strove to create. In a memorandum of 1907, Sir Eyre Crowe of the British Foreign Office wrote: 

The only check on the abuse of political predominance has always consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival, or of a combination of several countries forming leagues of defence. The equilibrium established by such grouping forces is technically known as the balance of power (The Origins of the First World War 2013, Chapter 3).

Balance of Power - this is a system akin to the one that is developing now. A system of alliances, not aimed at avoiding war, but at assisting one another in case of war. The danger of such a system lies in its ambiguities and hidden motives. While during the Cold War the two rival blocs were clearly set apart ideologically, politically and economically, today the big powers claim to be allies and friends, and yet they always consider the possibility of a conflict. Balance of power may have been the lesser evil two or three centuries ago. But in the industrial age - let alone in the nuclear age - this strategy can only be disastrous. 

The Cold War scenario was entirely different from the pre-1914 situation. During the Cold War, two distinct blocs were rigidly and uncompromisingly opposed. It would have been inconceivable for countries like, for example, Italy, Japan, or Greece, to move from one bloc to the other according to their political interests. The two blocs were too different, isolated and independent from each other. The ideological chasm made the alliances stable, international, and somewhat more rational.

Before 1914, on the contrary, alliances were a matter of national interest. Every country could switch from one alliance to another, depending on their own current foreign policy. For instance, France, once Britain's archenemy, became an allied of the latter because of the threat posed by Germany. Russia, which had been a historic ally of Prussia and then Germany, sought a rapprochement with Britain and France for fear of Germany and Austro-Hungary. The case of Italy is even more evident: 

Neither ideals nor irresistible outside pressures compelled Italy to abandon neutrality and become a belligerent ... [T]he Government in Rome dallied, waiting to see how the fight would go, then carried the people into war for the spoils (Marshall 1964, p. 169).

Those who experienced the carnage of 1914-1918 were not wise enough to prevent a new one. But, at last, the survivors of the Second World War realised that something had to be done to avert the "scourge of war", as the UN Charter called it (see Lowe/ Roberts / Welsh / Zaum 2010, p. 3). That generation seems to have been wiser than our own. Instead of fearlessness, they preached prudence; instead of fighting for the sake of honour, they preserved dignity; instead of being led by ideology, they listened to the voice of pragmatism. The Cold War was a time of great danger, during which the possibility of a nuclear conflict loomed on the horizon and yet the general belief prevailed that war should never happen again and that even the deadliest enemies could and had to co-exist peacefully. 

We have lost that spirit. When the Berlin wall fell, the old worldview crumbled with it, and Western triumphalism surged in its stead. The feeling that "History" had given its final verdict, made Western leaders blind to the challenges of the new age. Most especially the Americans, like their British predecessors, overconfident in their feeling of superiority, did not see that the world was changing, and it was not changing in the way they wished.  

The present global situation resembles that of pre-1914 Europe. A hegemonic power is in decline but refuses to face up to this fact; it still wants to play the role of world leader, as though this was a an inalienable title inherited from previous generations, like aristocrats inherit nobility. A new industrial giant is emerging, claiming its rightful place as a global power and challenging the established order. A web of international alliances binds states together. And - most important of all - people do not know how war looks like, and they do not fear it. 

We have become accustomed to thinking of war "as a glorious exercise", as Winston Churchill put it in a 1934 radio broadcast (see Hitler and Churchill 2010, Section 1). We speak of humanitarian interventions, of righteous wars, of national defence. Not of the scourge of war, the evil to be avoided at all costs. Pacifism is common sense, to which most people pay lip service; but war is common practice, into which too many acquiesce. Sometimes, fear is better than boldness.

The diplomatic crisis that broke out when last month Beijing declared the establishment of a new air defense identification zone that covers disputed territories and overlaps other countries' airspace, is only the last symptom of a general malaise. We should avoid the mistakes of the past. We should recognise that the blame should not be placed on one side alone. Just like Britain and Germany one hundred years ago, the illicit claim of world leadership of the one collides with the excessive ambitions and yearning for greatness of the other. 

The contradiction inherent in this unequal relationship that circumstances are rendering equal will be the topic of my next post.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Factory Girls: From Village To City In A Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang

Factory Girls: From Village To City In A Changing China is one of the most interesting books I have ever read about China. Contrary to what the title might suggest, this is not simply a book about China's working class, the engine of the most astounding industrial revolution in history. It is also an insightful, profound depiction of Chinese society as a whole.

Chinese-American journalist Leslie T. Chang, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, shows the vitality, energy and dynamism of this nation of 1.3 billion people which is emerging from a century of unrest and chaos, of uncertainties, hopes, revolutions, and immense human suffering. Leslie T. Chang is herself the descendant of a Chinese family that fled first to Taiwan and then to the United States, following the Communist takeover of mainland China. 

The author interweaves two different threads into her book: on the one hand, there is the China of today, with its breathtaking economic development; on the other, there  is the China of the past, of Chang's own ancestors, who struggled to survive in a chaotic, impoverished China marred by wars and revolutions. 

The book begins in China's modern industrial regions, in the new metropolises that within a few decades have materialised out of nowhere, propelled from the gloominess of the Soviet-style command economy to the unrelenting, incessant bustle of the global industrial age. The writer spends months together with the people whose lives have been shaped and whose actions are shaping this fast-changing world: the migrant workers, the common people who have moved to the big cities in order to make a living, and who are at once caught up in the spiral of social competition. 

Ms Chang does not reproduce the cliches that present these workers as innocent victims of an evil capitalist system of exploitation. She rather shows the other side of the story: she portrays these women as young and ambitious individuals who voluntarily and willingly choose to leave the countryside in search of better life, and who want to climb up the social ladder to become something more than simple factory workers.   

Chang's journey starts in the city of Dongguan, in Guangdong Province, an impressive industrial hub that produces goods for the whole globe:

The best way to understand the city of Dongguan is to walk it. Bank headquarters of mirrored glass tower over street-side shops selling motorcycle parts and plastic pipes and dental services. Roads are ten lanes wide, high-speed highways in place of city streets. Migrants walk along the shoulders carrying suitcases or bedding, while buses and trucks bear down from behind. Everywhere is construction and motion, jackhammers and motorcycles, drills and dust; at street level the noise is deafening. The roads are wide and well paved but there are no pedestrian lights or crosswalks. This is a city built for machines, not people.
The city is divided into thirty-two towns, and each one specializes in manufacturing. Chang’an produces electronic components, Dalang is famous for sweaters, and Houjie makes shoes. Samsung and Pioneer operate plants in Liaobu; Nancheng is home to the world’s largest Nokia mobile-phone factory. All the Nescafé instant coffee that is drunk in China is processed at a plant in downtown Dongguan. Factories are the bus stops and the monuments and the landmarks, and everything exists to serve them.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Taiwan's Weather and Cold Houses

If you go to Taiwan, one of the things you absolutely need to get used to is the cold at home during the winter. In fact, in Taiwan, parts of mainland China and other Asian countries there is no heating system at home.

I really want to tell you this because I got a cold this week and I'm feeling awful. The weather in Taipei is a big challenge for foreigners. Only two weeks ago it was as hot as summer. I think as late as last weekend I ate and enjoyed an ice cream, and I was still wearing shorts. 

Fooled by the heat, I underestimated Taipei's winter, which came all of a sudden this week. The temperature dropped from around 28-30 degrees to between 12 and 22 degrees; of course, this would make most Europeans smile, but it is a humid, nasty kind of cold. Since houses have no heaters the cold follows you everywhere, you just can't get rid of it. I guess people think it's not worth installing a heating system at home since the winter is short and the temperature constantly goes up and down.

What's more, Taiwanese houses don't seem to be insulated. Many of them even have open spaces like huge windows which can't be closed at all. So, the cold can just get inside as it pleases. I find this rather uncomfortable and  it doesn't create a nice 'winter atmosphere'. Anyway, guys, take care and wear warm clothes both at home and outside. I'll go to take a rest.

Is David Cameron Kowtowing To China?

According to British Prime Minister David Cameron, 'free markets' are the "best imaginable force for improving human wealth and happiness". They are not only a self-regulating mechanism, but an ethical system in its own right. In fact, free markets promote morality by creating "a direct link between contribution and reward; between effort and outcome".

Mr Cameron's thoughts are typical of mainstream neoliberal ideology. He believes in the existence of autonomous markets (the term free market is itself ideological). He shares the neoliberal mistrust of government, regarding it as a force that inhibits rather than promotes economic progress. And he praises business people as a class of their own: "We should support business leaders who earn great rewards for building great businesses. That will inevitably mean some people will earn great rewards."

Paradoxically, Mr Cameron seems to attach great importance to Britain's relationship with China, a country that appears to contradict everything Cameron stands for. The PRC is neither a free market economy nor a democracy. Nevertheless, this week Cameron travelled to the Middle Kingdom with the biggest UK trade delegation to ever have headed to the Asian nation. Apparently, Cameron believes Britain can profit from China's growth and at the same time change China through co-operation.

According to The Guardian, Cameron said "he was best placed to champion China in the west". In an article for Caixin, a Chinese Magazine, Cameron "swept aside recent EU concerns over Chinese rules that mean Europeans must work with a Chinese joint venture partner and hand over sensitive technology. The European commission highlighted concerns over China in May when it said it was prepared to launch an anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigation into Huawei, the world's second-largest telecoms equipment manufacturer."

Interestingly enough, Cameron recognises that China is the fastest growing economy in the world and that it may soon become the largest economy, surpassing the US. Yet the question of how China has achieved this miracle, or how Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore have achieved their miracle, is never asked. The myth of the positive force coming from supposedly "free" markets is uncritically propagated. There has hardly ever been a mediocre economic model that has been celebrated as much as British governments have celebrated and propagated their own.

Over the last 40 years, the British economy has experienced a dramatic de-industrialisation process, during which the UK manufacturing sector has shrunk by two-thirds. Last year, Britain ran a record trade deficit of £59.2 billion, despite the fact that according to neoliberal orthodoxy the weakened pound should have helped exports. With the exception of 1997, the British economy has never run a trade surplus since 1984 (note). As the BBC reported, Britain's "deficit in goods trade grew since the late 1990s with further de-industrialisation of the economy. Manufacturing declined from contributing a quarter of GDP in 1980, to 20% during the 1990s and then fell sharply to 12% during the 2000s" (ibid.). Moreover,  income inequality has grown and social mobility has declined. Despite all this, the same economic policy based on the principle of the autonomous market continues to be pursued stubbornly. Every alternative is delegitimised. It seems paradoxical that David Cameron wants to tie the British economy closer to China, i.e. a state that pursues a completely different economic policy.

Henry VII and the Birth of British Industrial Might

The official story of capitalism, written by neoliberal mainstream thinkers, says that democracy and economic freedom were the engines of industrialisation. But if you take a closer look at the actual history of capitalism, you will find out that the interdependence of market forces and state regulation / intervention is way more complex, and more fascinating, than people often assume. I have already given two examples (Singapore and Taiwan) of countries that achieved growth and industrialisation through a mixed economy rather than through the autonomous market. In another post, I will briefly examine the Chinese development model. Here I would like to show an example of what kind of economic policy England pursued during its ascendancy as a big world power.

As economist Ha-joon Chang has explained in his bestseller Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, referring to the wool industry:

[T]he Tudor monarchs, especially Henry VII and Elizabeth I, used protectionism, subsidies, distribution of monopoly rights, government-sponsored industrial espionage and other means of government intervention to develop England’s woollen manufacturing industry, Europe’s high-tech industry at the time. Until Tudor times, Britain had been a relatively backward economy, relying on exports of raw wool to finance imports. The woollen manufacturing industry was centred in the Low Countries (today Belgium and the Netherlands) ... (Chang 2008, pp. 40-41).

Another renowned economist, Erik Reinert, analyses this case more in detail in his book How Rich Countries Got Rich . . . and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor:

King Henry VII of England, who came to power in 1485, had spent his childhood and youth with an aunt in Burgundy [in France]. There he observed great affluence in an area with woollen textile production. Both the wool and the material used to clean it (Fuller's Earth or aluminium silicate) were imported from England. When Henry later took over his destitute realm with several years' future wool production mortgaged to Italian bankers, he remembered his adolescence on the Continent. In Burgundy not only the textile producers, but also the bakers and the other craftsmen were well off. England was in the wrong business, the king recognized and decided on a policy to make England into a ' textile-producing nation, not an exporter of raw materials. Henry VII created quite an extensive economic policy toolbox. His first and most important tool was export duties, which ensured that foreign textile producers had to process more expensive raw materials than their English counterparts. Newly established wool manufacturers were also guaranteed tax exemption for a period, and were given monopolies in certain geographical areas for certain periods. There was also a policy to attract craftsmen and entrepreneurs from abroad, especially from Holland and Italy (Reinert 2008, Chapter 3).

As we can see, Henry VII did not rely on "free market" and the entrepreneurial spirit of the English people. At that time, there was simply no market for English woollen products because other areas of Europe already had developed a powerful wool industry. Therefore, Henry VII actively promoted the English wool industry. He sent envoys to identify locations for the production of wool and he tried to lure skilled workers from abroad. He tried to discourage the export of unfinished wool by means of bans and taxes. In 1489 he banned the export of unfinished cloth in order to boost domestic processing (Chang 2008, pp. 41-42). Within a period of 100 years, the wool industry of the Low Countries was ruined and England had turned from an exporter of raw material to an exporter of finished products (ibid.).

Aggressive policies of imperial expansion, the seizure of strategic commercial outposts and raw-material rich countries, as well as target-oriented policies aimed at regulating the economy and boosting industrial production and commerce, characterize the British economy from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century. It was only in the middle of the 19th century that Britain seriously deregulated and liberalised the economy. Yet the rise of free market policies coincided with the industrial decline of Britain, which lost to protectionist economies like those of the United States and Germany.

Japan, the Asian Tigers and later China have learnt from this aggressive model of development that creates prospects of profit for private entrepreneurs through state regulation and intervention.
China even goes further. Given the political dominance of the Communist Party, politics and business are more tightly interconnected than they could ever be in most other countries. In his book about the career of disgraced politician Bo Xilai, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bojournalist John Garnaut has shown such close relationship:

As well as pulling capital and expertise from neighbouring South Korea and Japan, Bo [Xilai] targeted local businessmen to cultivate. He worked closely with Wang Jianlin, the founder of a local real estate company called Dalian Wanda Group, which now owns forty-nine shopping centres across the country and cinema chains as far away as the US. As soon as Bo became mayor of Dalian, his friend Wang stepped in to sponsor the local soccer team, turning it into political gold by purchasing the players it needed to dominate the national league. Bo also helped a well-spoken young entrepreneur, Xu Ming, to become one of the country’s most powerful businessmen, initially by assisting him gain key construction contracts to renovate the Dalian streetscape at the age of twenty-one.xl In 2000, when Wang tired of the match-fixing in Chinese football, Bo made sure Xu was standing by to take over the local team. Bo’s backing has helped both businessmen, Wang and Xu, recently climb into the top ten US dollar billionaires. Wang has managed to successfully diversify his patrons and is now listed as the richest man in China, while Xu Ming has entrenched himself more deeply in the family’s inner court...
Bo packaged his economic program as ‘red GDP’– alluding to an ideal of socialist equality – as mountains were bulldozed and valleys filled in order to build millions of units of affordable housing. Bo produced bold targets to dramatically reduce the rich– poor gap in his city, while in the rest of the country it was blowing out to be the most extreme in Asia. 
He laid a latticework of new highways across the municipality and even connected it to Europe by rail. He personally did the deals that enticed global companies to set up and expand huge manufacturing operations – including Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Ford, BASF, Foxconn – to the point that he could boast that the city produced a third of the world’s laptop computers. During Bo’s four years, Chongqing’s GDP growth was near to the highest in the country, averaging about sixteen per cent. And to complement the roaring and purportedly egalitarian economy, he launched a ‘green’ program with such gusto and ambitious targets that it reminded some of Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

In view of economic as well as geopolitical considerations, one may wonder what the rationale behind David Cameron's visit to China really is. Instead of boosting industrial growth and supporting the middle class in Britain and Europe, the British government continues to stick to its ideological assumptions, and to make itself more and more dependent on a foreign country whose economic and foreign policy development in the future remains uncertain.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

228 Peace Park (Former Taipei Park)

The 228 Peace Park (二二八和平公園) may seem just a park like any other, but in fact it is one of Taipei's most interesting historic sites, full of hidden gems that reflect the political, urban, and ideological transformations of the city during the last two hundred years.

The park is located in the heart of Taipei, just a few minutes walk from Main Station and Bus Station. When I came to Taipei for the first time, I often walked around this area. I used to eat lunch in the food court of the Japanese department store Shinkong Mitsukoshi, which is inside one of the tallest buildings in the city. While strolling around, I noticed a nice neoclassical building surrounded by trees. Back then I didn't know that I was walking in the centre of both Qing-era and Japanese-era Taipei.

The neoclassical building is National Taiwan Museum, and the trees are part of the 228 Peace Park. Although the names do not suggest their origin, both the building and the park were built by the Japanese at the beginning of their colonial rule.

During The Qing Dynasty

In the Qing era, on around the same location of present-day National Taiwan Museum there was a temple: Tianhou Temple (天后宮), dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. The left side of the temple (as seen from the north) was occupied by farmland or wasteland. On the right side there were houses and a street, called "Stone Memorial Archway Street" (石坊街). This street led from the temple to an arch that still exists today (Zhang / Huang 2000, pp. 24-25). The history of this arch is quite interesting.

In the Qing era, people had to undertake a long and difficult journey to Tainan, in Southern Taiwan, in order to participate to the imperial examinations. In the 6th year of Emperor Guangxu (1880) Hong Tengyun (洪騰雲), a rich merchant from Bangka, a settlement close to Taipei walled city, funded the construction of an examination hall (考棚) which accommodated more than 2000 students. The examination hall was located in the northeastern part of Taipei, approximately where Taipei Main Station stands now; it was later demolished by the Japanese.

The governor of Taiwan, Liu Mingchuan (劉銘傳), asked the Qing court for the permission to honour Hong Tengyun with a memorial arch to celebrate the merchant's dedication to the common good (急公好義) (ibid., p. 80). 

The arch in honour of Hong Tengyun

The arch stands next to a temple; before it are placed a pair of stone lion figures. These figures used to stand in front of the Qing-era provincial administration office (台北府衙). In 1915, the Japanese tore down the office and moved the lions to Taipei Park (ibid.). 

Another arch that has survived is the arch in honour of a woman from the Huang family (to know more about the history of this memorial arch, read my post about memorial arches, state, and family virtues in imperial China). The arch in honour of the virtuous and exemplar wife and mother was erected by order of Emperor Tongzhi in 1882, close to East Gate (note). Later on the Japanese moved the arch to Taipei Park to make space for the residence of the governor-general (see Allen 2012, pp. 101-102).

The arch in honour of Huang

As Joseph Allen has remarked, the Japanese had a complex relationship with the culture of their colonial subjects. On the one hand, the Japanese empire was based on the idea that the Japanese were superior to the Han Chinese population of Taiwan. On the other hand, however, Chinese culture had been for centuries the model for Japan. Confucianism, Chinese characters, Chinese literature and poetry etc. were all integral parts of Japanese culture. Therefore, certain elements like the arches could be accepted and integrated into the Japanese colonial project. 

Japanese Era

The Japanese introduced Western-style buildings, facilities and public spaces into Taipei's urban planning. One of such innovations was the public park (Allen 2012, p. 91). During the Qing era, when half of the area of Taipei was farmland and the urban layout was basically premodern, there was no need for parks. Taipei was a rural town, not an industrial metropolis. 

The modern use of the Chinese word for park (公園) was a rendering of the Japanese koen (ibid.). Modern public parks were first created in Western cities to reproduce a "natural" space inside the bustling, fast, stressful urban landscape of the industrial age. They were places set apart from the densely populated and hectic urban districts, where people could experience nature, relax and find rest from metropolitan life (ibid.). The Japanese picked up this concept and in 1873 they designed their first public park, Ueno Park in Tokyo (ibid.). However, the Japanese version of the park had a somewhat different function: it was not a place to rest and preserve a natural and healthy environment, but a political, civic space.

As part of their urban restructuring of Taipei, the Japanese demolished most Qing-era buildings within Taipei walled city, most especially the religious and administrative buildings. Apparently, the Japanese felt the need to erase Taipei's Chinese imperial identity. They wanted to make clear that that was a new age, and the architecture of Taipei had to reflect the new Japanese-colonial reality.

The structure of the park has remained the same since the Japanese era, although a few new elements have been added, such as the amphitheatre (the white building on the right) and some Chinese-style pagodas. The path that cuts through the park is Qing-era "Stone Memorial Archway Street"

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Tianhou Temple and the surrounding buildings were demolished and a park was completed in 1908. It was called Taipei Park (台北公園). Since it was the second park to have been built in Taipei (the first being Yuanshan park in 1897), Taipei Park began to be called  by the locals "New Park" (新公園).

In 1915 the construction of the memorial hall for governor-general Kodama Gentaro and civil administrator Goto Shimpei, which is present-day National Taiwan Museum, completed Taipei Park and made it a central urban space of Japanese colonialism.