Blog EntriesContemporary Society

ZGBriefs The Weeks Top Picks, December 05 Issue


From Chen Guangcheng and the American culture wars to a village that is still living Mao's dream, our top stories this week are quite diverse.

In a piece titled Friends like These, Reuters reporter Jonathan Allen gives us a behind-the-scenes look at dissident Chen Guangcheng's first year in the US and the tug of war between various groups seeking to enlist him in their causes. Besides Chen, the two main characters in the story are Dr. Jeremy Cohen, the NYU law professor who was instrumental in him being at NYU, and activist Bob Fu, who's connections on Capital Hill helped to secure Chen's release.

In May 2012, Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese dissident, was getting ready to journey to New York after his improbable escape from house arrest. About a week before his arrival, an Evangelical Christian pastor from Texas and a New York University law professor took a walk in Central Park. They wanted to discuss the difficulties Chen might face as one of the most high-profile and sought-after immigrants to come to the United States in some time.

These men were to become two of Chen's closest advisers in America, which would create a difficulty of its own. Over the course of an increasingly distrustful year, Chen couldn't possibly follow their often sharply conflicting advice simultaneously, leaving him torn. But for now, as the pair strolled through the park on a Sunday afternoon, it seemed as if they were in alliance and set to counsel Chen in unison.

The article then goes on to recount how things began to unravel once Chen arrived in the US:

It was never going to be straightforward for a so-called barefoot lawyer from rural China to find his feet on Manhattan asphalt. Chen thought he'd just be studying law. He ended up also getting a crash course in America's culture wars. It was a predicament that would define his first year in the United States, where he found himself depending on the guidance of people who made no secret of the fact they did not entirely trust one another and were unable to cooperate.

The story is an important cautionary tale for those seeking to help or serve individuals and causes within China.

For some reason, I never tire of stories about China's 'city-slickers' looking for ways to connect to their agrarian roots. Usually they are stories about how they are getting away by hitting the roads in their RV's or leasing homes in villages outside the cities. This article in The New York Times, Urbanites Flee China's Smog for Blue Skies goes a bit further, however, and writes about a growing number of urbanites who are leaving the cities permanently to escape the rat race (and pollution) of the cities:

More than two years ago, Ms. Lin, 34, and her husband gave up comfortable careers in the booming southern city of Guangzhou she at a Norwegian risk management company, he at an advertising firm that he had founded to join the growing number of urbanites who have decamped to rural China. One resident here calls them "environmental refugees" or "environmental immigrants."

At a time when hundreds of millions of Chinese, many poor farmers, are leaving their country homesteads to find work and tap into the energy of China's dynamic cities, a small number of urban dwellers have decided to make a reverse migration. Their change in lifestyle speaks volumes about anxieties over pollution, traffic, living costs, property values and the general stress found in China's biggest coastal metropolises.

Who are these people and where are they going?

The urban refugees come from all walks of life businesspeople and artists, teachers and chefs though there is no reliable estimate of their numbers. They have staked out greener lives in small enclaves, from central Anhui Province to remote Tibet. Many are Chinese bobos, or bourgeois bohemians, and they say that besides escaping pollution and filth, they want to be unshackled from the material drives of the cities what Ms. Lin derided as a focus on "what you're wearing, where you're eating, comparing yourself with others."

The town of Dali in Yunnan Province, nestled between a wall of 13,000-foot mountains and one of China's largest freshwater lakes, is a popular destination. Increasingly, the indigenous ethnic Bai people of the area are leasing their village homes to ethnic Han, the dominant group in China, who turn up with suitcases and backpacks. They come with one-way tickets from places like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, all of which have roaring economies but also populations of 15 million people or more.

So maybe China's peasants and urban dwellers will just trade places.

Here's something you don't read about every day a commune in China. Apparently there is one left, in Henan Province (where else)? The BBC tells the story of this village in Nanjiecun: A village that still lives and works as Mao laid down:

Mao Zedong was a founding father of the People's Republic of China. He died in 1976, but his presence is still firmly felt in the small village of Nanjiecun, where one of the country's last Maoist communes shows no sign of giving up the ghost.

Dawn is often murky in central China - grey skies, thin smog everywhere.

But rain or shine, in Nanjiecun village, at 06:15 every morning, the air is suddenly full of songs of praise for China's mighty former leader, Mao Zedong. The anthems blare forth up and down the empty streets, from loudspeakers on every lamp post.

Nanjiecun is a place where time seems to have stood still, or even gone backwards. It is one of China's very few remaining Maoist communes, a showcase for a vanished regime.

Seems like it would be an interesting place to visit.

Finally, it's time for another round of "Chinese students are better than American students" stories. But this TIME article, China is Cheating the World Student Rankings System reminds us that the statistics and rankings don't necessarily say what we think they are saying. China's results are really the results of school surveys in Shanghai, arguably China's most well educated city. In other words, China's cheating:

Shanghainese and Hong Kong students are much better educated than those elsewhere in China. Slate quoted the Brookings Institution's Tom Loveless as saying that "About 84 percent of Shanghai high school graduates go to college, compared to 24 percent nationally." In addition, Loveless points out that affluent Shanghainese parents will spend large sums on extra tuition for the children paying fees that far exceed what an average worker makes in a year.

By not providing full national data, China is in effect cheating.

As Loveless noted earlier this year, Shanghai's test scores "will be depicted, in much of the public discussion that follows, as the results for China." He added: "that is wrong."

All of a sudden, rote-learning doesn't look like China's secret weapon.

Paging Tom Friedman .

Image credit: The Atlantic

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio