Friday, 8 November 2013

Xinjiang Dreams: Worrying About Ethnicity


The ethnically targeted violence of July 2009 in Ürümchi overshadowed the lead-up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Uyghurs and Han were both victims and perpetrators and official figures claimed 197 people were killed (See herehere, and here). The violence suggested that ethnic relations remain an important issue in people’s daily lives in Xinjiang and for the capacity of the party-state to provide “stability”. July 2009 brought to the fore concerns that China’s ethnic minority polices need rethinking in part because they are constructed without significant input from ethnic minorities themselves. The events of July 2009 lead the then Guangdong Party Committee Secretary and now 3rd ranked Vice Premier, Wang Yang, to suggest that China needs to re-adjust its ethnic minority policies or there will be further “difficulties”. These comments sparked a debate in Beijing’s elite universities such as Peking University, Tsinghua, and the Chinese Academy of Social sciences (for instance, here and here). Chinese scholars of ethnicity put forward their competing perspectives on the future of ethnic minority policies and the relationship between ethnicity and nation in China. James Leibold has shown that radical policy change in the short-term is highly unlikely but calls for reform have now become the mainstream among officials and public intellectuals.
The events at Tiananmen on October 28th 2013 will again stimulate discussion of China’s ethnic minority policies in the lead up to the 3rd Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee. In many senses the 2012 debate centered on whether to emphasise the plurality or the unity in Fei Xiaotong’s famous conceptualisation of the “plurality and unity” of the Chinese nation. The debate was ostensibly between proponents of the “first generation” of ethnic minority policies who wish to maintain China as a multi-ethnic state of 56 different minzu groups and the “second generation” who seek to transform China into a mono-ethnic race-state (guozu). We simply do not know what happened on October 28th at Tiananmen, but these events have been officially explained in the same way as July 2009. With no verifiable evidence provided, Chinese media outlets are instructed to frame the issue through “the Three Evils” of “separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism”. Dong Manyuan of the China Institute of International Studies is one of the few Chinese scholars to have spoken out thus far and he immediately blamed “the Three Evils”. His comment that policy is “correct” suggests that more introspection and open debate are necessary if we are seriously attempting to understand the future of ethnicity in contemporary China.
The “first generation” of the inter-generational debate have argued that a shared national identity will naturally emerge with economic development. Scholars such as Wang Xi’en and Hao Shiyuan of the “first generation” explicitly rely on the scientific inevitability of Marxist dialectics to chart the future of ethnicity in China. Wang (2012) and Hao (2012) both argue that Chinese Marxism and economic development will naturally produce a unified nation over time. For these thinkers, ethnic (meaning Minzu) differentiation and the regional autonomy system for ethnic minorities are central to China’s tradition as a socialist nation. However, these policies are framed as temporary measures to deal with remaining historical leftovers of discrimination from feudalism. These thinkers argue that development will naturally resolve the “ethnic question” (minzu wenti). According to their reading of Marxist dialectics, ethnicity will wither away so that all ethnic cultures will naturally evolve into national Chinese culture before merging into a global class consciousness. This stream of thought resolves the tension between ethnicity and nationhood through the Party-state’s Leninist discourse on cultural evolution: culture can be normatively measured because stages of cultural development are superstructural to economic development.
Political economist Hu Angang and social anthropologist Ma Rong of the “second generation” suggest that a shared national identity can be produced through conscious human design. This self-dubbed “second generation” argue that the party-state must actively promote “fusion” (jiaorong). The “second generation” support “fusion” into a mono-cultural race-state (guozu) through monolingual education policies and the abandonment of formal minzu differentiation, including the regional autonomy system. Ma Rong (here and here) argues that it is culture and not ethnicity which define social distinction in China. Ma claims that the distinction between “civilisation” and “barbarians” in ancient China is the basis on which the nation ought to be ordered and that the “ethnic” category (minzu) was merely a temporary policy measure copied from the Soviet Union. For Ma Rong, the barbarian/civilisation distinction is not between different civilisations but between “highly developed and less developed ‘civilizations’ with similar roots but at different stages of advancement”.  This draws from theories of cultural evolution like the “1st generation” but it normatively frames Han Chinese culture as the apex of civilisation. Modernisation and Han culture are thought of as the same thing, thus, “barbarians” can become developed by learning Chinese culture (jiaohua).
Political economist Hu Angang, argues that since the 2010 Xinjiang Work Forum, ethnic minority policies have moved from managing a multi-ethnic society and the use of minzu categories to one of fusion (jiaorong) and actively producing a race-state (guozu). Hu Angang tells us that to bring the “dream” of building a rich and strong China (fumin qiangguo) to fruition requires the development of “ethnic regions”. Hu’s central concern is how to make China strong at the international level. He suggests that all “great powers” (da guo), namely the USA, have used a “melting pot” model and all collapsed empires (Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) used a “salad bowl” model. Hence, China must now focus ethnic minority policies, education, and language policies on producing shared identification into a race-state to achieve the China dream. Hu follows the party’s announcements from the 2010 Xinjiang work forum to propose “great leap development” (kuayueshi fazhan). “Great leap development” will supposedly enable Xinjiang to leapfrog over the stages of development set out in Marxist theory. Human agency will allow Xinjiang to leap across stages of development in the way proposed by Mao Zedong during the great leap forward period. The official slogan “contact, communication, fusion” (jiaowangjiaoliujiaorong) tends to suggest this will be a long-term historical process along the lines of the arguments of “1st generation”. However, Hu Angang uses this to suggest that this is not only part of the “direction of history” progressing towards the “great renewal” of the Chinese nation but that the direction of history towards guozu can be accelerated by state policy. Hu Angang’s dream is for China to surpass the US to become a “new type of superpower” but his dream first requires minorities to abandon self-identification through ethnicity.
Xinjiang’s position in China is articulated through internal boundaries which mark the region as economically and culturally inferior to the East of China. Both generations agree that ‘fusion’ is needed to make China wealthier and more powerful. The “first generation” thinks this should left to the anonymous inevitability of Marxist dialectics where the “second generation” believe they can socially engineer a shared Chinese identity. The difference between the two approaches is a difference not over whether materialist accounts explain identity or if fusion is a desired end state. The debate is over how to achieve that end state, either through the ‘natural’ means of socialist development (‘cultural evolution’) or through human design and planned state policy. The two “generations” do offer different policy recommendations (eg bilingual vs monolingual education). Yet, the reason the debate stimulates so much commentary is that they offer different visions of the Chinese nation: multi-ethnic VS mono-ethnic. Hao Shiyuan of the “1st generation” has even gone so far as to challenge Hu Angang by suggesting that it was not ethnic minority identities that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union but the nationalist chauvinism of the majority (da minzu zhuyi). This amounts to accusing Hu Angang of being a Han chauvinist and indicates a real schism amongst Chinese scholars over the present and future of China. The debate reveals tensions in contemporary China between competing ideas of nationhood: China as an inclusive multi-ethnic state where different ethnic groups live in harmony and China as a Han nation with a singular model of national belonging.
The day after the Tiananmen incident, one Uyghur student on twitter asked “why is everything we do terrorism?”. He reminded his Han nationalist debating partners that a Han Chinese man set off a bomb in Beijing Capital International Airport with no calls of “terrorism”. Discontent among Han is framed as a less severe threat and is rightly seen within its social and individual context. However, Uyghur discontent can be de-legitimised and presented as a national security threat by activating the discourse of “the Three Evils”. The authors of China’s ethnic minority policies in the inter-generational debate frame a common Chinese national identity as a prerequisite to China’s international strength. Ethnic minority identities are frequently framed by the CCP and Chinese intellectuals as a source of backwardness and insecurity for the Chinese nation. This is the “patriotic worrying” Gloria Davies referred to in Worrying About China: the critical reflexivity of intellectuals is constrained by the need to contextualise academic discussion of the subject not in terms of how to deconstruct and understand a problem but how authors can help to construct China as a perfect civilisation. This sets enormous limitations on how to discuss practical problems and solutions when they have to be framed in terms that are unreflexive and focus on perfecting something which may need rethinking. One obvious way to broaden the debate on ethnic minority policies in Xinjiang and to enable it to respond more effectively to the implications of policy on the ground would be to include hitherto unheard Uyghur perspectives on the subject. However, there is so much worrying about ethnicity in China that Uyghur scholars who attempt to contribute to these debates can be be treated as a national security threat.


This article was originally published for the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

China's Insecurity Problem: What's Islam Got to Do With It?


Following the 1995 Oklahoma bombing Edward Said was invited for interview by the US media. As an expert on the Middle East, the media assumed he would have insight into how this “terrorist” incident bore the hallmark of “Muslim extremists”. The perpetrator later turned out to be Timothy McVeigh, a former Gulf War veteran who sought to avenge the actions of the US federal government at Waco and Ruby Ridge. The assumption was this was an attack so barbarous it could only be attributed to “Muslims” and not to the complex range of social and individual factors which lead people to kill themselves to draw attention to their unheard or less heard political claims.

The incident at Tiananmen Square on the 28th October 2013 saw a Jeep driven into a pedestrian area before 3 passengers set the car alight killing themselves and 2 innocent tourists as well as injuring 38 pedestrians. The incident appears to be a relatively crude attack with no complex co-ordination or sophisticated weaponry (they carried knives, machetes, and petrol). The World Uyghur Congress and Uyghur scholar under house arrest Ilham Tohti have called for calm until we have real information to work with and so that this incident is not used to increase repression in Xinjiang. The central government has thus far released very little information except to say this was a “carefully planned, organised, and premeditated attack” which included carrying flags with “extreme religious content.  What this actually means is unclear at best. The fact that the passengers were a man, his wife, and mother suggests there is a lot more to this story and international terrorism does not appear to fit the facts. International media has a remarkably hard job on its hands making sense of it all because the security apparatus was so quick to conceal the entire incident with large police screens. This means it may be impossible to verify any narrative the party-state decides to tell. Experts on Xinjiang have long considered these official accounts to be problematic at best and deliberately misleading at worst. International journalists, such as AFP, have had their photographs seized, domestic media have been given instructions to follow the official line in framing the issue as “terrorism”,  and posts on the subject have disappearing from Weibo, China’s largest social media network, as quickly as they are posted.


A police notice issued to hotels instructed them to watch out for "suspicious people" and Xinjiang registration plates. It named two suspects with Uyghur names from the Piqan (shanshan) and Guma (pishan) counties. The statement was printed online with some media outlets simply adding in the presumption that they are Muslims. Zachary Keck of the Diplomat went further with the irresponsible article ‘Al-Qaeda in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region?’ which offered no consideration of perspectives from Xinjiang. The USA Daily ran with the headline “Muslim family led Tiananmen suicide attack. No one knows the religion of the perpetrators or if it bears any relevance to their actions. Nevertheless, it appears racial profiling has already begun in Xinjiang with warnings to residents of Shanshan county to be on guard for anyone “suspicious with a big beard or burka. Identifying the men simply as Muslims obscures a huge ream of complex social factors and controversial policies in Xinjiang which have ethnicised social tensions and sparked small-scale incidents of violence in the region. In recent years, such policies have included discrimination in employment, the eradication of Uyghur language as a medium of instruction, the persecution of writers as“separatists”, the confiscation of Uyghurs’ passports, the demolition of old Kashgar, as well as growing restrictions on fasting for Ramadan and wearing Islamic clothing.

If it is true that a group of Uyghurs were responsible for the car attack then we will need to consider how the party-state’s approach to security works in the region. The LA Times suggests this attack at the heart of Chinese power “has raised doubts about the effectiveness of its security apparatus”. Experts on Xinjiang have raised doubts about this for a long time. However, the weakness lies not with the number of troops posted in Xinjiang or Tiananmen or with the number of armoured vehicles patrolling Uyghur neighbourhoods. The weakness lies with thinking that long-term security comes down the barrel of a gun. The party chief for Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, unveiled a plan last year to have armed police every 100 metres in urban Xinjiang. This does not suggest that the party-state is in control but that it is very insecure and has to use violence to maintain the position of Uyghurs as an ethnic minority in China. These methods which are supposed to improve security (ie restrictions on religion, monolingual language policies, and arresting authors of fiction) make Uyghurs feel their identities and their individual well-being are threatened. If we want to take security seriously, then a more pertinent question is how to make Uyghurs feel more secure and to give them channels to express their insecurity so that they do not feel the need to turn to violence. The policies above and the incidents they sparked suggest that the more the Chinese government focuses on “security”, meaning surveillance of Uyghurs, the more insecure Uyghurs feel, and the higher likelihood of further violence. The best way to address this security issue would be to listen to those who feel most insecure in Xinjiang and deal with their concerns. These voices can offer perspectives on the issue beyond relying on lazy essentialisations of Islam to frame an as yet entirely unexplained act of violence. 

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Identity and Empathy in the Logics of "Terror"




When Islamophobia explodes across England because an individual who happens to be a Muslim commits an act of violence, it suggests our Kingdom is not as United as our politicians like to think. In the wake of the murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, we would do well to take a step back and turn a critical lens on our media before we feel the need to lock ourselves in our homes for fear of the terrorists in our midst.

“In the life of a nation, we’re called up to define who we are and what we believe”1.

George Bush uttered these famous words in defence of the US decision to send military forces to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf crisis. Bush, like most politicians, was linking identity to national security by saying identity is something we must define, enclose within national boundaries, and send troops abroad to kill and die in the name of its assumed unity. In these types of state-centric narratives of identity, we do not and must not identify with the suffering of those outside our national borders. There is the nation and there is outside the nation. “The boundaries of a state’s identity are secured by the representation of danger”2.  It is through danger which we define who we are because danger is intrinsically Other and outside ourselves. It is a representation of what we do not want to be and what we do not want to happen to us.

“Danger is not an objective condition. It is not a thing which exists independently of those to whom it may become a threat”3. Acts of violence are represented in different ways which tell us a lot about how we define ourselves. When the English Defence League assaulted police in Woolwich last night, this was represented by the mainstream media as a “protest” and the damaging of mosques were “attacks”. These are dangers but of a lesser and local order. There is no link to national security in the way the incidents are reported and discussed. On the other hand, a British soldier being murdered by a Muslim has been immediately labelled “terrorism”, a supposed threat to the very existence of our nation.

So who is under threat? For David Cameron, this was “an attack on Britain – and on the British way of life and that “people in every community will utterly condemn this attack”. Why is this incident an attack on the “British” way of life? Why are racially motivated murders not elevated to this level of threat? Why are the lives lost to violence in working class council estates all across the UK not seen as a “threat” to our nation? These are stories of threats to people’s lives which occasionally make the news but are never seen as matters of national security. These lives are not deemed as valuable as those of British soldiers because they are not seen to embody the nation and so they are represented as local problems of an altogether less threatening nature. This is simply not the type of nation many British people want to live in and it only reinforces existing divisions over class and race to simply pretend they do not exist.

The way the Woolwich violence is represented frames our identity in a way which obscures competing perspectives on the violence and on who we are. It demands we see this attack as a threat to ourselves in a way which racial assaults and violence against young working class men are not. It demands we empathise with the victim and that we must not empathise in any way with the perpetrator. Otherwise, we are excluded from this conceptualisation of “community” which is “sickened” and intellectually paralysed with feelings of condemnation. So we are told we must feel a certain way about this because we are British. When David Cameron says “this attack sickened us all” he may be right but it sickens people in very different ways and for very different reasons. Can we not be sickened by the attack, the nationalist response, and the militaristic UK foreign policy all at the same time? Yesterday, one BBC interviewer even asked “what is that is so annoying about having British troops on their soil?”. To frame British troops invading other countries as an annoyance yet one murder in Britain as a threat to our nation exemplifies an utter dearth of empathy in Britain’s historical and current role in initiating and fomenting violent conflict, simply because it has hurt one of our own.

Condemning comes very easily but trying to understand why this happens takes effort, even empathising with people who you may find disagreeable. Some media coverage has worked to deny British people the right to make up their own minds. The video of one of the attacker’s speech was edited to deny our right to empathise by cutting out the parts where he attempts to empathise. Here is a slightly extended version where he says:

“Remove your governments, they don’t care about you. Do you think David Cameron is going to get caught in the street when we start bussing our guns? Are your politicians going to die? No, it’s going to be the average guy like you”.

You may hate the messenger but it is working class persons who are sent to wage the wars which this man himself highlighted as his reasoning behind the attack. Perhaps not going to wars in the name of national identity might make the people we choose to kill in its name feel more secure. If they felt more secure, they may be less likely to want to wage what they see as very similar wars to what happens when British troops leave our shores in the name of “freedom”.


1. Bush, George (1990) “In Defense of Saudi Arabia” in Sifry, M and Cerf, C (eds) The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions.
2. Campbell, David (1998) Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity.
3. Campbell, David (1998).

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

China's Divided Leadership, China's Divided Society



The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Hu Jintao has emphasised building a “harmonious society” at home and a “harmonious world” at the international level. Given that official figures tell us that China experiences approximately 500 protests per day, it is safe to conclude that the party’s emphasis on harmony represents the awareness that contemporary China is anything but harmonious. Today’s China may enjoy double-digit growth figures on paper but it is also rampant with corruption, struggling to address a growing wealth gap, and has a state-media increasingly viewed as a form of “brainwashing”. One of the party-state’s greatest concerns following the end of the Soviet Union was an “ideological vacuum”. However, its greatest challenge is not a vacuum but its own irrelevance in the face of competing alternatives in an increasingly diverse China. The party’s inability to offer a genuine economic model to meet people’s needs is placing strains on its legitimacy. Furthermore, its inability to speak to ordinary Chinese people and share in the meanings they give to daily life is driving its own demise.

The present leadership handover has been less than harmonious as we have seen with the arrest and expulsion from the party of one of China’s potential future leaders, Bo Xilai. Bo Xilai is seen as a representative of China’s “new left” and one of the architects of the “Chongqing model”. Bo’s “cake theory” of economics was now that China has a big enough cake, the pressing concern is how to divide the cake. Bo Xilai’s concern for inequality ought to be easily incorporated into the discourse of a nominally Communist party. However, factionalism within the party is so rife that discussion of inequality has become a political sensitive issue. The website of the Utopia bookshop was shut down this year because it supported Bo and his redistributive policies. As one media executive put it, “we don’t mention Chongqing. I don’t eat Chongqing hotpot. I won’t even date Chongqing girls”. When Mao Zedong said that “the Chinese people have stood up”, it was not his intention that protesters who respectfully knelt down in front of his portrait should be arrested as happened earlier this year!

The politics of contemporary China appears all the more bewildering when we see the opening of the Party Congress with a very orthodox celebration of the party’s communist heritage and use of communist symbols. The party has long wished to present itself as the only Chinese voice the world should listen to and this performance was no different. However, thanks to a global telecommunications revolution we know Chinese people are already posting sarcastic and dismissive remarks online where “harmony” is talked about as something that is done to the people and not by them. The ban on knife sales in Beijing lest the proletariat turn on the dictatorship reflects the party’s awareness that public performances of harmony have yet to produce harmony.

The expulsion of Bo Xilai led many to speculate that Wang Yang’s “Guangdong model” of “free-markets” would be the new path for China. Wang Yang’s response to “cake theory” was that China “must bake a bigger cake before dividing it”. His claim that small and medium size enterprises are inefficient and should be allowed to be eliminated by the market is closer to what one would expect from Mitt Romney than a Communist Party leader. This debate on the future of China is not simply about party factionalism but the very heart of daily life in today’s China where the divide between the 128 million people who live on roughly a dollar a day and the number of dollar billionaires is growing. Most of the 500 protests a day in China are focused on economic issues such as evictions, property redevelopment, and labour rights. Educated people in China have always corrected my Chinese to tell me that “class” (jieji; 阶级) does not exist in today’s China, only “status” (jieceng; 阶层). However, those on the bottom rung don’t blink when I mention China is a classist and unfair society. In the words of one taxi driver “China is a capitalist communist country. We don’t even know who rules us anymore because they are hidden away in luxury apartments and plazas buying diamonds and playing on computers. We are slaves.”

Wang Yang’s alleged removal from the Politburo Standing Committee has raised questions regarding the influence of Jiang Zemin and Conservative elders. What appears to be happening is that factional politics inside the party meant that ousting some of the leading proponents of the left and the right was necessary for a workable political compromise for the leadership selection. How long can this uneasy compromise last? Xi Jinping, who will take over from Hu Jintao as the party General Secretary, is a careerist who is happy to jump from left to right to gain power, so this choice may work for now. However, the ongoing pretence of “building socialism” coupled with no transparent debate amongst officials, the party-state appears to be atrophying into its own ideological vacuum while the rest of China diversifies and conducts heated political debates outside official channels.

Hu Jintao’s statement that “we will never copy a Western political system” will speak to nationalists but it continues to define China in terms of what it is not and uses a mythical, homogenised Western Other to do so. Factionalism and multiple ideologies are good things for China but unless the party can find a way to make itself relevant to the daily lives of citizens, these ideologies will blossom and be turned against them. The party is increasingly backing itself into irrelevance by performing Communism yet pursuing a state-led capitalist model of development. Chen Bilan had to live in exile from 1945 after warning the party that if they did not democratise rapidly the dictatorship of the proletariat would degenerate into a self-interested, bourgeois bureaucracy. It turns out that she was right as today’s China has in the words of Yang Jisheng become a “power-market economy” where rent-seeking and corruption are not threats to the system as such because they are the system itself.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Is Scotland a Threat to Global Security?


The issue of Scotland’s potential post-independence approach to international relations is playing less of a role in public debates on independence than ought to be the case. However, the editorial board of the Washington Post (WP) caused somewhat of a stooshy today across Scotland by claiming that the referendum on Scottish independence is part of a “worrying trend”. Their main concern lies in how Scottish would affect “global security”, specifically that:

“An independent Scotland would significantly weaken the foremost military and diplomatic ally of the United States, while creating another European mini-state unable to contribute meaningfully to global security”.

If Scotland became independent then perhaps the UK, a leading ally of the US, would indeed be militarily weakened. This would mean no bridge between the US and the EU and less support for US military projects of “regime change” and “nation-building”. This would be a good thing for security and may force the US government to engage more diplomatically with states which offer alternative approaches to bombing the Middle East into ‘democracy’. The concern of the WP here is of course not the security of the globe. The WP is concerned about the ability of the US to maintain a position of power where it can pursue “security” projects abroad through military might and the support of key allies instead of through multilateral negotiation. This is about securing the hegemony of the alliances between actors in the US state and its leading corporations, which in recent years have invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, privatised their industries, outlawed trade unions, and then seemingly expected democracy to spontaneously emerge.

The Washington Post acknowledged that “more local government can be more efficient, more democratic” yet also that “a weaker Europe means a less stable world and less leverage for the democracies”. Their political priorities are fairly clear here: we ought to choose to be less democratic in turn for more “collective strength”. However, if it made Scotland more democratic and the world less unipolar, then independence could only promote global security.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Cowboy Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, Part 2: A View from the Street

Despite the growth of inequality in contemporary China and the precarious means of subsistence for the lowest rung, few voices have shouted above the parapet to protect or increase the lot of the poorest. If we take Beijing, a seemingly booming metropolis, visible indications of inequality and economic problems can be found almost everywhere. In a brief walk through the prospering nanluo guxiang alleyways (南锣鼓巷) of the drum tower area, one can take in street after streets of trendy coffee shops and ‘international bars’, pay 40 kuai for a drink (equivalent to the daily wage of a waitress serving it), or be caught in the jam-packed streets of fashionable young Chinese shoppers dazzled by various arty, luxury consumer fashion items. In less upmarket areas 9 kuai can buy you a relatively healthy meal of noodles. Instead one can consult international entertainment guides printed in English to see adverts for concerts such as ‘progressive’ metal band Opeth for 680 kuai, about three times the price of a comparable UK concert (an upcoming Avril Lavigne concert costs 1700 kuai, about 170 UK pounds). You can then turn a corner and within seconds the streets are empty, the residents are aging, and the homes are without heating, running water, and toilets. The generation gap and the income disparities are visibly staggering. This is not simply about inequality per se but about access to the means of subsistence- a basic income, health, and education. Accessing largely privatised social services is not cheap and housing prices have exploded. For example, it costs about 400 pounds a month to rent a small studio flat with no cooking facilities in the Xiaoxitian area (a relatively affordable district adjacent to Beijing Normal University). This is much the same as a one person flat with separate rooms, a full kitchen and bathroom in Manchester, UK. Average income in the UK is $38,540 compared to China’s $4,260. No surprise then that small shop-owners still have beds in their stalls all over Beijing and rely on small heaters or electric blankets though the winter. Capitalism seems to inevitably produce winners and losers and this is perhaps most dramatic in its global phase where wealth and goods are not confined by national borders. The winners and losers here are worlds apart and there is little responsibility being shown by the winners.

Pun Ngai, author of Dagongmei, brings to light a serious contradiction in the claims of China’s opening up in the reform era. We ordinarily expect capitalism and wealth creation to thrive on social and spatial mobility; business and people have to be willing to move to where money can be made and profit found. However, while the Chinese system has privatised social services and to some extent opened its markets to global capital, it has not abandoned the household registration system (hukou). This divides citizens into urban and rural residents and ties residents to their place of birth if they wish access discounts to the most basic healthcare and early schooling still available under the system. This means the rich are increasingly mobile both in global terms (they can afford to travel abroad or go to see Opeth in Beijing) and in national terms because they can move to other cities and pay for private healthcare and schooling. This maintenance of immobility combined with skyrocketing housing prices has led to the phenomenon of what Pun Ngai termed “dormitory capitalism”; not only does the hukou system make the millions of migrants who move to the city de facto illegal aliens in their own country but due to the cost of housing many have to live in dormitories in basements owned by their employers rather than be made homeless. This provides a lifestyle completely at odds with representations of a rising, powerful China and in utter contrast to the nouveau-rich playing on their laptops and sipping high status coffee. Coupled with the fact that trade unions are de facto outlawed in China, this also enables the owners of such businesses a level of control over their employees such that the most marginalised (poor, rural women) are “instantly disposable” and in many cases cannot refuse to sell their bodies. Approximately 12% of China’s GDP can be accounted for by the sex trade.

I’ll offer a brief personal story of how the process of renting a house works in Beijing. This is written from the relatively privileged perspective of my partner and me. However, much can be gleaned from it to tell us where wealth goes and the attitudes towards it in Beijing today. We were advised by both Chinese and foreign friends that to find a house in Beijing, going through an agency would cost more but it would save us a lot of trouble and avoid the risk of being ripped off later. We explored the xiaoxitian area and discovered that there are perhaps half a dozen of such firms on every street! These firms manage large amounts of property for landlords who often own entire apartment blocks. The streets are not only decked in adverts everywhere but you can see their staff standing on most street corners waiting for clients or waiting for people to look at their adverts which also adorn many street corners. This is big business. Overhearing conversations on the street and in restaurants, housing seems to be the hot topic of the day- everybody needs it but most seem to be struggling to pay for it. We looked at a number of flats and studio apartments to little avail as our rough budget of 4,000 kuai (about 400 pounds) would only cover decaying flats with broken toilets or a tiny studio. Eventually we received a phone-call from an unknown number offering us help to find a flat. We assumed he was from one of the companies we had consulted but we eventually discovered he was actually a middle man to the middle men at the estate agents. He provided clients to the firms who make money finding clients for the under-rich landlords. We eventually met with him and spent the best part of a day or two chatting with him as we looked for accommodation. He offered us a reasonable deal, he said, because we were British. This was an offer he wouldn’t extend to Greeks and Italians in the Eurozone who renege on their debts! As most young men in Beijing, his life revolved around making as much money as he could to pay for housing, keep his family afloat, and save for the future. He claimed his wage for acting as a middle man to the middle men was about 10,000 kuai per month – light years ahead of the national average and equivalent to our individual incomes in the UK. When we discussed tax, he mocked the UK tax system for taking money away from people (China’s income tax is a rate of about 20% for those making more than a very healthy 5,000 kuai a month). He audibly scoffed at our suggested notion that this money could be used to help society. Socialism remains comedic and kitsch amongst China’s youth. In fact, he described life and business in China, in the same way as many here, as “people-eat-people” (ren chi ren; 人吃人). Competition is so fierce here that people believe it demands that one pursues wealth and self-interest without responsibility to others outside one’s family, let alone any socialist commitment to aiding the poorest rungs of society.

After looking at a half a dozen flats with him, we eventually had to lower our standards. We accepted a reasonably sized but decaying and concreted floored flat with a bathroom I could barely stand in. It seemed quite pleasant compared to others we could afford. When we arrived to sign the contract, a problem emerged. Every foreign national in China has to register themselves and their address with the local police station. However, the landlord insisted we register with a fake address at a different station because it would be “more convenient”. This was a way for them to avoid taxes on the rental income as well as the fee associated with this registration. They either had relationships (guanxi; 关系) with police or a landlord in another part of town. Knowing that if anything went wrong we would be the ones in trouble and would probably be sent home, we opted to find somewhere else despite having spent the better part of a week looking at houses. The only way we could both afford to live in Beijing would be in a small and relatively old studio flat. We found such a studio flat in the xiaoxitian area thanks to our anti-Euro middleman to the middlemen in a relatively nice apartment block. We were quite satisfied.

At this stage we still thought our man was just an ordinary middle man but on settling to sign the contract, we realised that this wasn’t the case. An employee of an estate firmed arrived with the contract, refused to say a word, drew up the details, pointed and said ‘sign’. We insisted we read what we were signing up to. He was clearly annoyed but would tolerate this. Our man told him “don’t worry, foreigners are all like this, they just take contracts seriously”. Relationships may be more important than law in China but as travelling foreigners without any networks we opted to stick to the law. On perusal of the contract it turned out they were adding 9 days onto the 6 month lease we agreed. The company man repeatedly urged us to sign as it was “much the same” and would only grin when I said if it is much the same, then change it! After much to-ing and fro-ing I told the company man that I didn’t want to give 1,000 kuai for nothing to a rich landlord. This he found amusing. He agreed to reduce the additional time to 7 days, even though he had claimed it was impossible due to the contract he had with the company who had a contract with the landlord! We both realised this was how these cowboys make lots of money. He, along with hundreds of other agents, was travelling round town all day. If they made a free thousand kuai off every customer they were raking it in without even considering the profit from their legitimate business. After much consternation and urging us to sign, the agreement was made that the original middle man would take the additional cost out of his ‘finder’s fee’. He had of course told us that this would be reduced earlier but now there was no chance- we had to pay him a full month’s rent in cash with no tax paid just for the sake of a few phone calls. No wonder he makes a good wage. The pair of us were then hurled onto the back of a small motorbike and driven to the company office bouncing off a taxi on the way. The company man, who had seemed so aloof and high status from our first meeting, refusing to even engage with our middle man, was suddenly in a different social position. He was being shouted at by his boss and providing us with a place to sit and a drink in this bustling office where multiple deals were being negotiated all round us. The boss grilled him on how much he had got for the flat. He seemed pleased with the 3,500 kuai per month we agreed to pay. All of a sudden, the rate seemed like it had been negotiable and we guessed that the company weren’t just making money as a set fee from the landlord but were probably creaming extra cash off by charging us a higher rate than what they were telling him. I would doubt the taxes are being paid.

The inconvenience of all this was tiresome but quite amusing and a good learning experience. The real story is that so much money is slushing around, tax-free and destined for landlords’ pockets, that multiple middle men can still make a healthy, largely tax-free living by knowing the market but doing very little. This opportunity would not be available to the additional illiterate 30 million adults who merely happened to be born in a poorer hukou (household registration area). Adam Smith and Karl Marx both agreed that under capitalism, the arduousness of labour is inversely proportional to the profit made from it. When we think back to those having to live in their shop-stalls to survive or living in dormitories and basements selling their bodies, this is clearly the case in contemporary China. National television (CCTV) devotes hours to heart-warming stories of peasants, who have to work endlessly without complaint to pay healthcare bills or send their kids to school, as examples to be admired. Perhaps regulating the cowboy capitalists and using taxes to pay for schools and hospitals, instead of mega-pr events like the Olympics or indeed a nuclear arsenal, would mean the poorest wouldn’t have to be admired for the hardship they endure.

Cowboy Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, Part 1: The Big Picture

The end of the cold war and in particular, the effects of the global financial crisis, has led to a convergence of interests between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the US, the world’s declining hyper-power. It suits both the neo-conservatives in Washington and authoritarian leaders in Beijing to represent the new China as an economic powerhouse. US foreign policy hawks portray China as a threat to the prevailing hegemony justifying military spending and protectionism while the CCP domestically celebrates itself as the only way to prosperity (see the slogan: 只有共产党才能建设好新中国; “Only with the communist party, can we build a new, great China”). Since the onset of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in 1978, China has indeed enjoyed spectacular double-digit economic growth figures. The glitz and glamour image of the ‘new’ China exemplified by Shanghai’s pudong skyline is mesmerising for foreign investors and travellers alike. As important as these images and representations are in recreating an attraction towards the new China or what Joseph Nye called China’s ‘soft power’, there is indeed a lot more happening behind these images and on the streets of China’s ever-expanding cities let alone the hugely impoverished countryside.

The World Bank’s 2011 data tell us average global income (GNI per capita) is just over 9,000 US dollars. According to the same stats, income in China ranks at 121 of 215 in the world at $4,260. This does not diminish the impressive growth China has enjoyed over the last 40 years but it does put it in context; average income in Kazakhstan is $7,440. With economic growth, China has become one of the most unequal countries in the world- ranking at 36, ahead of the US at 44th and the UK at 92nd. This should make us take a step back and ask who are the 99%? The neoliberal, capitalist United States is actually more egalitarian than the supposedly socialist China and indeed enjoys an average income of more than 10 times that of the purported threat to its global hegemony. The World Bank celebrates its own achievements and the seemingly inevitable logic of the ‘free-market’ by claiming 200 million have been pulled out of poverty across the globe since the 1980s. Chinese people constitute the majority of these yet all is not what it seems. These figures are extrapolated from a handful of booming eastern and southern coastal cities, which are not representative of China as a whole and which present an even greater problem considering the level of inequality across the nation.

The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative produced a spectacularly detailed set of statistics on multi-dimensional poverty (eg income, education, health, etc) which breaks down different types and levels of poverty across different regions within nations. China is one of the only countries in the world which did not submit regional figures, so we can’t even adequately capture regional inequality in China in ways which we can for supposedly “failed states” in Sub-Saharan Africa such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Democratic Republic of Congo. We know that regional inequality is a huge problem and that since the 1990s it has grown. For example, the GDP per capita of Yunnan province is about 10-15% of that of Shanghai, the image of Chinese modernity. We also know that when the World Bank revised its definition of poverty upwards to an underwhelming $1.25 a day, the number of people living in “extreme poverty” in China jumped from 130 million people to 207 million, about a sixth of the total population. This means one sixth of the population of China are neither sharing in the statistically pleasing double digit growth nor the mesmerising hi-tech appearance of the new China. Despite double-digit national growth throughout the 1990s, Shanghai as one of the fastest growing regions saw no relative income growth and the poorest lost income in absolute terms (see Huang, Yasheng (2008) Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

The global financial crisis of 2008 laid bare the lack of regulation of capitalism had opened the most vulnerable in society to the vagaries of financial markets despite their lack of participation in them. In the UK, David Cameron calls for a “responsible capitalism and in the US, Barrack Obama was initially lauded by many for his goals of extending access to healthcare to all. ‘Responsibility’ to others and the pursuit of self-interest above all else under capitalism may be oxymoronic. However, the political need to attempt to reconcile them in public discourse at least indicates a broader accountability to a wider range of social interests. In China, Deng Xiaoping’s mantra, “to get rich is glorious”, sums up the attitudes of Chinese youth today who see communism as a kitsch yet backward social irrelevance and money as a cure to all ills. Of course, the great leap forward in which 30 million people died of famine, the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and the gloominess of communist uniformity remain as reminders of the failures of anything but the pursuit of wealth in the self-imagination of contemporary Chinese youth. The cyclical crises of capitalism throughout twentieth century Europe and the US offer very different storehouses of imagination to that of China. Today, the Chinese government, official media, and popular discourse frequently refer to the global financial crisis as the “western financial crisis”. It is often explained it in cultural terms as a failure of “westerners” to save money and pay off their own mortgages in contrast to the Asian traditions of savings and austerity.

What is less said in popular media, both in China and abroad, is that the housing market in China today bears many of the hallmarks of the economic conditions which led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US, which ultimately triggered the global financial crisis. The IMF has warned of the economic crash that could result from soft loans with little hope of return, unregulated lending, concentrated housing ownership, and rising property prices. Like the US at the turn of the 21st century, this resembles capitalism at its most irresponsible and most unstable. The difference is China has even less of a social safety net than the US, let alone Europe; going to school and visiting a hospital almost universally require payment up front. Those in the most financially vulnerable positions can expect to pay for any crisis as they have in the US and Europe through tax-funded bailouts for failing financial institutions and increasingly squeezed funding for social services upon which the poorest rely. Those raised on the dogma of the pursuit of wealth are unlikely to be willing to give much of it up when push comes to shove. Given the poorest in China are considerably worse off than the poorest in the US or Europe and already lack access to basic social services, any major economic downturn would not just threaten their means of home-ownership but would jeopardize the means of subsistence for millions of people.

Yasheng Huang’s Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics effectively shows us that both the growth of income for the poorest and private access to credit enjoyed during the 1980s has been reversed since the 1990s. The system has now re-directed tax incentives, subsidies, and favourable terms of credit away from small private enterprise and towards large-scale foreign direct investment and businesses closely aligned or partly owned by government. This is reflected in news headlines of large-scale corruption and corporate land-grabs converting farms and poorer housing areas into property developments with little compensation and no hope of being affordable. The result has been stagnation in incomes in rural areas, a decrease in spending on social services, and growth in illiteracy (30 million more people between 2000 and 2005) since the 1990s. China appears to be maintaining the authoritarian political apparatus of ‘communism’ whilst promoting the business interests of large-scale state-owned enterprises. This is becoming the worst of both worlds as freedom for the nouveau rich in urban centres can be bought and the voices of the lowest rung go unheard. Given the lack of regulation of big business and the lack of social responsibility shown in the system, it seems fair to call this cowboy capitalism. The US and Europe pay lip-service to human rights but they say little about the poorest rungs of Chinese society. In the end, the poor are the losers in the geopolitical game, which produces images of an inevitably rising China.