The most iconic picture of George W. Bush reading is, sadly, the President holding a children's book upside down. But according to some sources, the President is actually quite a reader; Laura Bush, a former school librarian, is a documented book lover.
Included on one of the President's reading lists was Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Unknown Story, a book that many China watchers, even some who are typically tough on the CCP, have dismissed for its salacious and poorly-documented portrait of the Great Helmsman. In the interest of giving the President a more rounded view of China--and in recognition of the limited time he has before departing for Beijing, as well as media whispers that he may speak out against China's human rights record in the coming weeks--we've put together a brief list of the best recent China writing on the Web.
These pieces are not up-to-the- minute news coverage (though there's plenty of good stuff in that category as well), but rather are commentaries and reflections notable for their sophisticated understandings of China's culture and politics and their willingness to challenge conventional wisdom about China. We don't actually expect the president to follow our reading recommendations, especially because some are taken from periodicals with names like The Guardian that aren't exactly music to Dick Cheney's ears--and the place this piece is running isn't exactly Foxnews.com. Still, hope springs eternal. And perhaps, even if he doesn't take advantage of our advice or ask Laura or a staffer to check the pieces out and summarize the highpoints, a few of you--or, say, a globe-trotting, intellectually curious presidential candidate who hasn't yet added a Chinese stamp to his passport to go along with the recent Middle Eastern and European one, but probably hopes to do so soon if he gets a chance to be the next occupant of the Oval Office--will be inspired to peruse one or more of the thought-provoking items on our must-read list.
1. "Things We'd Rather You Not Say on the Web, or Anywhere Else," by David Bandurski. After George Carlin's death last month, we got to thinking about the words you can't say on the Chinese web--and there are a lot of them, as a result of the Chinese government's efforts to control online discourse. In consideration of that, we asked David Bandurski from the China Media Project to write a piece for our blog, The China Beat, creating a list of "seven words" for the Chinese web. Bandurski took the piece in a slightly different (but altogether more original and fittingly more humorous) direction, writing a tongue-in-cheek indictment of the Chinese leadership's position on word control. And, just as a side note, though we know the President likes to tease foreign leaders, we'd recommend that he not adopt Bandurski's ironic tone when joking around with Hu Jintao.
2. "At War With the Utopia of Modernity," by Pankaj Mishra. There is an American angle in Mishra's careful dissection of Tibetan anger, which led to March attacks on Han Chinese and Hui Muslims in Lhasa--he cautions that, if Chinese policies of development in Tibet hold (as they have every indication of doing), Tibetans are likely to face a fate like that of Native Americans "languishing in reservations." But in responding to the March riots in Tibet and other heavily-Tibetan areas of Southwest China, Mishra, author of Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond, argues that Western commentators are simplifying Tibetan dissatisfaction when they focus on religion. Instead, Mishra points to the Han-driven development in Tibet that is rapidly impoverishing the locals. Though not aimed at American policy-makers or the American public, Mishra's analysis deftly shows how the Cold War lens and religious freedom-focused approach to human rights through which Washington often views international crises can lead us astray.
3. "Why CNN is Patriotic?" by Yang Hengjun. In the wake of the Tibet riots, many Chinese argued that the Western media was misrepresenting Chinese actions, overlooking the fact that the riots were begun by Tibetans who attacked regular Han Chinese in Lhasa. More than any other news agency, anger focused on CNN, whose Beijing office received relentless complaints and criticism from regular folks as well as the official Chinese media (criticism that only intensified after Jack Cafferty referred to Chinese as "goons and thugs"). In the US, viewers attuned to China's limitations on free speech largely dismissed the anger toward CNN as citizens whipped up by government propaganda. Yang Hengjun first began publishing his writing on the web and, in addition to netting a book deal for his spy novels, he is also a piercing social commentator. Yang blogs mainly in Chinese, but a handful of his posts have been translated into English by dedicated readers. In this post, he explains to his Chinese readership how CNN, a supposedly independent news organization, can sometimes appear to be swayed by American patriotic sentiment, as well as the way to force CNN to change its coverage of China (this is largely in response to calls for a lawsuit against CNN after Cafferty's comments; Yang argues that concerned Chinese should instead boycott CNN's advertisers).
4. "China and the Earthquake," by Li Datong. The May earthquake was covered exhaustively in Western media, but some international observers were surprised by how exhaustively, and openly, the earthquake was also covered in the state-run Chinese media. In this piece, Li Datong argues that not only did domestic coverage display the skills of Chinese reporters but it also revealed the Chinese public's increasing desire for honest reporting. Patently false media reports are regularly mocked by netizens--such as the online response to the coverage of the apparent murder of a young girl and the subsequent riots in Wengan, Guizhou, in which status updates for internet users across China said they were "doing push-ups" (one of the girl's suspected attackers said he was "doing push-ups" when she committed suicide by jumping off a bridge; netizens adopted the phrase to mock what they believed to be a ridiculous cover-up for suspects supposedly connected to local party officials). As a result, Li points out, the Chinese government has increasingly recognized that it has to respond to the public's demands for openness. In addition, Li notes that the response to the earthquake showcased China's growing civil sphere, a phenomenon that several of our contributors at China Beat traced in earlier periods as well, such as the early efforts of the Chinese Red Cross or late Qing elites.
5. "Rudd Rewrites the Rules of Engagement," by Geremie Barmé. Aussie Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has a long history of engagement with China, studying there as a student and then serving in the Australian embassy in Beijing. His comfort with China has allowed him to guide Australia's relationship with China in a new direction, a relationship ever more important to Australia as it shifts from thinking of itself as a "Western" nation to an "Asian" one. Though economic ties between the two countries are clearly important, cultural ones are ever more so, as Australia's ethnically Chinese population grows. In this piece, historian Barmé analyzes the important speech Rudd gave--in Mandarin, no less--at China's premier university, Beijing University, shortly after the Tibetan riots and the flap over the Olympic torch relay had engendered consternation with China from Paris to San Francisco. In a Chinese media environment that was, at that moment, increasingly intolerant of Western criticism of China, Rudd alluded to key fighters for freedom in the Chinese past and carefully chose his words to argue that he came to China as a zhengyou or a true friend, a word that in Chinese carries the connotation, as Barmé writes, of "the true friend who dares to disagree." A simple linguistic turn, but Rudd's sensitivity to China's culture and literature was widely praised in the Chinese media. Barmé here explains why--and why it points to a new way of encouraging great openness in China.The approach Rudd outlined certainly offers a welcome break from the tendency Bush has shown to swing between demonizing some foreign leaders while treating others as the sorts of friends whose faults should be overlooked, due to how important their countries are to the U.S. in geopolitical terms or because, when face-to-face, he has claimed to get a glimpse of a "soul" that is as pure as, well, he once imagined Putin's to be.
No crash course of online reading can hope to transform either the current--or even the next--occupant of the Oval Office into a Kevin Rudd with American characteristics, capable of speaking sensibly to Chinese leaders in their own tongue. Still, we have a more modest hope for the readings provided above, especially if supplemented by following breaking news as covered by the best correspondents in the field, such as the Wall Street Journal's Ian Johnson, NPR's Louisa Lim, and the Chicago Tribune's Evan Osnos, as well as the savviest bloggers, such as Hong Kong-based Rebecca MacKinnon. Some day, we hope, an American leader passing through Beijing will be able to rise to the level of eloquence and significance in English that Rudd recently rose to in Chinese.