Saturday, May 19, 2012

Strange Times in China

The news is always strange in China, but in the last month or so it's been weirder than normal.  I wonder how much my Stateside friends have heard about these recent events:

1)  A rising political star was unexpectedly sacked after the police chief of the city he governed made a mysterious run to the U.S. embassy in a nearby city.  A few weeks later it came out that out his wife is being investigated for the murder of a British businessman.  Also unbelievable is the fact that he apparently wire-tapped political rivals, including the president of China.

This is by far the strangest story that has come out during my three years in China, and every new development adds to the strangeness.  (Example: This guy's son apparently is notorious for throwing lavish parties at his university -- Harvard.  The son recently wrote an article in Harvard's school newspaper trying to defend himself from some of the criticism he's gotten for flaunting his family's wealth.)

To imagine how odd this all is, suppose the mayor of New York did something so far off normal that his police chief ran running to another country's embassy for assistance.  Imagine if a major politician's wife allegedly murdered someone in a business deal gone bad.  Imagine a member of a powerful American political family tried to get ahead in American politics by spying on President Obama's phone conversations. 

Someone needs to make a movie about this nonsense.  Here is a short summary by the Economist.

2)  I won't say anything about the second story except that it's extremely sensitive, equally unexpected, and occurred not far from me.  You can read about it here. ***Update here***

3)  This week China has been involved in an escalating sovereignty dispute with the Philippines over some islands in the South China Sea.  This incident has many Chinese calling for war with the Philippines, or at the very least criticizing the Philippines strenuously and at every opportunity.

Recently a student's first question for me at a free talk was what I thought about the Philippines trying to take China's territory.

I don't have a lot of patience for the strident nationalism that rears its head when China has some beef with another country.  This week, the jingoism has been further flamed by a viral video showing a British guy sexually assaulting a Chinese girl in Beijing and then getting beaten up by bystanders.

So that's the current state of affairs in China.  Strange revelations are being made about the inner workings of some of the politics, sensitive things are happening that are being well-reported in the outside media but which most people around here don't know about, and the present sentiment toward Asian rivals and idiot foreigners is none too warm.

If you are particularly interested in China news, you might enjoy the most recent Sinica podcasts, which deal with these and other current events:

Podcast: Interesting Times
Podcast: Stirring up the South China Sea


  1. These have been reported pretty heavily here, with the Philippines dispute to a lesser extent... the Bo Xilai scandal is amazing and would make a great movie.

    It seems like hardly a week goes by between some type of appalling news coming out of China, the latest being evidence of a full-term forced abortion gone wrong, and hospital workers savagely killing the baby after it was born alive.... Of course most Chinese are equally outraged by stories like this, and hopefully as information begins to flow more freely, human rights issues will be minimized.

    1. Glad to see Bo is getting some airtime in the U.S. He's been a big figure in the news for years, mostly because of his Red Songs campaign and supposed anti-gang clean-up in Chongqing. No one saw anything like this coming.

      In my experience, there are two Chinas: the China of my daily life (where the people are amazing and life is pretty awesome, if occasionally inefficient or frustrating), and the China of the news, which is almost uniformally depressing. The fact that I have a positive impression of China is partly because I'm an outsider in this society and therefore outside the power plays, corruption, injustice, inequality, ignorance, and restrictions that many Chinese people have to live under.

      Even though the depressing China news is a natural product of the society this country has built for itself (or maybe I should say a product of human nature), it still calls for compassion for all the masses of people who don't really want it to be that way but can't just buy a ticket out.

      I don't see information flow or h. r. issues improving much these years. It's tighter now than when I first moved here. It goes in cycles.