Letting China be China: Retelling a Tale of Two Storms

Probably a good place to start this is with The Wall Street Journal comparing Hong Kong’s recent typhoon to Beijing’s flood, under the headline Hong Kong vs. Beijing: A Tale of Two Storms:

At least 37 people died in fierce rains that lashed China’s capital city over the weekend, prompting flooding in various neighborhoods and structures to collapse in the downpour. Many residents were highly critical of how the city’s infrastructure failed to successfully weather the storm, with many asking why the city, with its all its investments in dazzling Olympic facilities, could still experience such deadly floods. By contrast in Hong Kong, while a handful of scattered flooding incidents were reported, Vicente appeared to pass through without doing any serious damage.

Let’s leave aside that these were two very different storms. Though wet, tropical cyclones are mostly wind events and most damage comes from storm surge. Hong Kong never went over an Amber rainstorm signal during the recent typhoon. That’s the lowest of the three rainstorm signals.

Let’s instead talk about comparisons and expectations.

Flooding in Yunnan, photo by Dennis Kruyt http://www.flickr.com/photos/phantagom/

Before I left to teach English in China, I sat on the porch with one of my best friends who had recruited me into the job and was trying to cover every base, so to speak, of what to expect in China. I tried getting a fifteen-minute Chinese lesson and walked away with “ni hao” and “xie xie.” I also asked her what her best piece of advice was: let China be China.

I quizzed her on what she meant by that. “Don’t judge China by American standards. Also, you’re not going to change anything. Just accept it for what it is,” she told me. And it was great advise. I’ve also come to understand it works both ways – don’t judge China by American standards, but also be careful not to expect China to be like other “third world”/developing countries. I had at least two teachers in my employ who flew into Shenzhen expecting rice fields and conical hats. I personally expected a police state and endless grey factories. Beyond the superficial, there are a lot of similar issues that look and behave differently in China than they do elsewhere.

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Filed under Capacity, China, Uncategorized

[Open] Letter to the Editor for the South China Morning Post

One of the principal lessons we should impart on this Establishment Day is the value of Hong Kong’s diversity. Thus, it is of great concern to me when I hear our president, Mr Hu Jintao, say that Hong Kong’s political leaders should oppose foreign forces interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs. The colonialists packed up and left fifteen years ago. The “foreign forces” in Hong Kong today are entrepreneurs, teachers, students, business leaders, writers, and employees that want to make Hong Kong a better place for everybody. Even what is “local” in Hong Kong has a dozen shades of Punti, Teochew, Toyshan, Hakka and multi-generation non-Chinese families. This diversity of differences mesh and merge to give this a city a vibrancy in economy, character, and culture that no other city in the People’s Republic has. I left the mainland for Hong Kong two years ago in part because I would always be “foreign” – always a “them.” In Hong Kong, I am a small part of the “us.” Being different here is normal. Mr. Hu needn’t pit citizens against each other to make those of Chinese descent identify more as mainland Chinese, a task they empirically fail at more each year. Both Mr Hu and other “foreign forces” can all be part of the “us” coming to a big table with small pieces to complete the puzzles Asia’s World City faces. In this regard, leaders from Zhongnanhai would be better advised to come to Hong Kong with fresh ideas during their next visit instead of the overt displays of force – in rhetoric and ceremony – that have defined this trip.


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Attractors, Goals, and Guns: Part II

The debate that this essay was inspired by came from the proposition that banning guns was a common-sense approach to fixing the problem of gun violence. The previous section argued for a more nuanced differentiation of gun violence, such that planned criminal violence was worse than more ‘random’ gun violence that derives from the latent danger every gun possesses. This section argues for a more systemic approach to the problem of planned criminal violence.

The first issue with banning is I can only think of a handful of examples where banning something actually works. Almost all of the cases are toxic chemicals, like CFCs and DDT, which had easy industrial replacements. But in social systems, I can’t think of a single ban that’s “worked”. Banning drugs? Abject failure that’s created a de facto civil war in Mexico that’s killed almost 50,000 people in just the past decade. All the while drug use is more common after the ban than before it. Banning alcohol? It cemented and hardened of organized crime in America decades after Prohibitions repeal.

This is probably best understood with the idea of basins of attraction in dynamic systems theory.  In social systems, these basins are what the feedbacks in a system push the system state to be. I’ve used the “greenwashing” of Wal Mart as a classroom example, meaning that no matter how “sustainable” Wal-Mart executives want to be, the essential business environment will always push the company to be anything but. The only way to get a sustainable Wal-Mart would be change the system in which it works – such that sustainable practices are rewarded and unsustainable practices are punished. Being that it’s a business, rewards and punishments would have to be directly tied to profits. At present, however, the most unsustainable practices are the most profitable/rewarded and thus the system will almost always fall back to it’s old ways even after a sustainability “push.”

The same analysis can be applied to drug and alcohol prohibition. So long as people still want drugs and alcohol, they’ll almost certainly be supplied. It’s been argued Prohibition did almost nothing to actually reduce the consumption of alcohol in America. Instead, it punished previously legitimate sellers and manufacturers. In turn, it rewarded illegal sellers and manufactures. Al Capone replaced Jack Daniels. I can’t see why it would be any different with guns. If a system has attractors towards violence, it will continue to move towards those unless the feedbacks inside the system are fundamentally altered. Guns won’t disappear any more than marijuana has. You would lose the few gun controls America does have – like background checks, concealed weapons permits, and registration – and replace it entirely with the black market.

An underground gun factory in the Philippines

My own instincts go in the opposite direction. Take corruption – despite the shear size of the problem, the fact that money in US politics is done under the light of day makes it better than what is found in more covertly corrupt places like China and the Philippines. The US government has set realistic and enforceable parameters on odious behavior and succeeds in clamping down on the most crude quid pro quo corruption. Because the money’s going to be there, one might as well shine a bright light on it. I can’t help but legalizing some forms of common corruption in developing countries wouldn’t be a terrible idea. Once legalized, it’s inside a system than can be manipulated and significantly reduced over time. It’s only a matter of political willpower that lets as much money into the US political system as currently exists. Behavior inside a black market is completely outside the scope of realistic regulation.

Another important side effect is that while banning guns might, even in the short term, reduce overall gun-related deaths, there’s reason to think it might increase planned criminal violence. I’d like to look through the statistics, but I assume the common home burglary is less common in US states with high percentage of gun ownership than a low percentage. The consequences of breaking into the “wrong” house are a lot higher when the owner can legally shoot you and is statistically more likely to be armed. If we look to the extreme again, at Iraq, I think it’s clear that if the Iraqi police started confiscating household guns it might reduce overall gun deaths, but it wouldn’t likely impact the more important variable of reducing the level of public violence in the country. The result of a gun ban in Iraq would be to shift the monopoly on violence to only insurgents, gangs, and the government. Families would have no means of protecting themselves and the overall threat would not disappear. There’s a moral consideration to made about leaving people unable to protect themselves inside of a dangerous place.

Path Dependency

Like so much of development and political thinking, there are often wrong post-hoc assumed correlations between variables. For instance, it’s ludicrous yet common sense to suggest that neither Europe nor China have guns because of strict gun control laws. The comparison being that those places have strict gun control laws and America doesn’t, and they don’t have guns and America does. The truth is that there was never much of a gun culture to ban – just one to prevent from starting. America and the Philippines, two prominent gun cultures that I’m familiar with, have been chock-full of guns for generations.

This breaks two ways, both starting with the principle that we get different results when we start with two different system states. One of the principal lessons from complexity theory is how important ‘initial’ states are even with the same rules inside the system. The Conway’s Game of Life was one of the first computational ‘proofs’ of this. The first issue is the artifact that the guns still exist after a law is passed, which I’ve already spoken of. But the second is political.

To speak of removing the second amendment is speak of fantasies. I won’t get too deep into the traditional American approach to ‘gun rights’ other than to say that it’s just that – a topic wrapped up with the veneer of fundamental political rights. For historical reason, many Americans feel that the right to own a gun is on par with their right to vote or write political essays. It’s essentially a right of distributive power, in that it potentially limits the government’s monopoly on violence. One should see this in context to the idea that many of the people who advocate gun rights see the ideal “United States of America” as essentially the Bill of Rights, with the rest of the Constitution being relatively disposable. In short, meaning, loyalty is not to the institution of government but to an ideal form of what the government should be. In this logic, a government that would want to legislate tough gun control law is one that is disregarding the Bill of Rights and is consequently illegitimate. This is all to say a lot of the far right wing of America seems to be permanently on guard against an authoritarian coup. They see the presence of a well-armed citizenship as the best guarantee of the rest of the Bill of Rights. Perhaps more importantly, they see this as how the system was set up at the beginning. Consider the Thomas Jefferson quote that, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

To condense the above paragraph into a single point, it’s that talking about getting rid of something as seemingly illogical as the Second Amendment in America would be about as difficult as getting rid of the royal family in the UK. It’s a deeply ingrained historical tradition, even if it’s only “fully” appreciated by a minority and deeply hated by an even smaller minority. There will not be an appeal of the Second Amendment in our lifetimes. I would be surprised if there were any major changes in the Constitution in my lifetime.


So we’re stuck with an unmoving political system that wouldn’t institute a gun ban to begin with and millions of guns that won’t disappear despite legal writs banishing them. I’ve also argued that guns are a proxy issue for what we really care about – planned violent behavior, like armed robberies. This stands in contrast to focusing on reducing overall gun deaths. What type of policies are we left with then?

Photograph by Robert Yager

If there’s a single answer, it is that there is no single answer to reducing the level of violence in a society. Multiple approaches need to be tried and allowed to be duplicated if successful and fail if not. Approaches that work in one context might be extremely harmful in another. But the overall goal should be to “raise” the basin of attraction, such that violence is increasingly uncharacteristic. It means changing feedbacks inside the system away from rewarding violence towards punishing it. This is extremely difficult to do in practice. I’d recommend a study of David Simon’s exploration of inner-city violence in The Wire to show how “local” cultures reward, through peer approval, of even children using violence to gain social prestige. This is something that can’t be taught or legislated away.

But I’ll conclude this already-to-long post with some solid recommendations. I think Truth and Reconciliation Committees are often overlooked as a potential “big jump” option from one state to another. It would involve doing some potentially hugely unpopular things – like amnesty for violent criminals. Gun buybacks – wherein the community pays above-market prices for guns just to get them off the street – have been successful in some areas. It’s easy to see how, like an antibiotic, it’s a medicine that would need to be taken in careful doses. It could, in some cases, award gun ownership too much. I’m sure if the prices were high enough and the program lasted enough, eventually people would be importing cheap trash weapons to make a profit off the system. Finally, one of the more successful programs I’ve heard of treats exposure to violence like exposure to a pathogen. Violence, in this case, is “transmitted.”

But perhaps this misses the simple point: there are no simple options. Violent criminality is a “wicked problem” and many attempts to mitigate it only make the problem worse. It requires adaptive co-management to deal with. Meaning those tasked with solving the problem must adapt to not only their successes and failures, but how society and criminal elements respond to their interventions. It must be co-managed because there are no top-down solutions, only the diffusion and implementation of ideas and methods.

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Attractors, Goals, and Guns: Part I

I had a late night debate with several friends over the merits of gun control and realized, in the process, that it’s an almost perfect test case for adaptive co-management in complex systems. It’s a policy issue where traditional legalistic approaches, like banning, fail and more creative measures are needed. Even more interesting, unlike many political debates, it’s a debate where most people would agree on a similar objective: reducing gun crime.

It’s useful to start this with my own position: I despite most gun ownership and possession, especially handguns. Unlike rifles, they’re purely people-killing machines. People don’t often rob people or do drive-by’s with deer rifles. Nor do people hunt deer with concealed weapons. But I also recognized that if I lived in a violent city, like Manila, I’d be inclined to purchase a weapon only because so many other people have guns and wish to do harm. I wish they could just be banned and *poof*, they’re gone. But nothing in social systems ever works that easily…

What’s the Goal?

This is a tougher question than it first appears. When we say we want to get rid of guns, why? Is it to reduce overall gun fatalities? Is it to reduce violent crime where guns are used? Or is it to remove the threat of planned violent crime like armed robberies? Each of these is very different and each has both different wider implications if we were to stay logically consistent and different policy recommendations.

In my own opinion, the first goal “to reduce gun fatalities” isn’t a very good one. My reasoning is fourfold, the first being intentionality. Consider for a moment the question of which is morally more repugnant: Hitler ordering the deaths of 6 million Jews or Mao’s 50 million famine deaths caused by incompetence, pride, and negligence? It’s a difficult question when put like that, but I would argue that, by default, we feel more angered by the intentional killings of the Holocaust than the mostly unintentional – if exponentially larger – killings of the Great Leap Forward. Mao, in his own head, thought he was instituting policies that would lift his country out of poverty and hunger forever. Hitler was intentionally killing unarmed men, women, and children as a matter of policy. This is a usually silent, implicit moral distinction we make.

An underground gun factory in the Philippines

If we apply the same logic to the gun control debate, it forces us to ask: which is worse, accidental gun deaths or planned violent crime? To even more clearly separate this, let’s use two categories: “white” and “black” market gun deaths. “White market” guns being those bought legally with proper registration. The assumption – which might be wrong – is that few people go to a store to buy a gun that they plan to use in a murder, mostly because of the background checks and registration involved. The kind of people who plan on being involved in gun violence are almost always people already living criminal lives and buy their weapons on the black market.

Similar to the Mao vs Hitler comparison, I think we can draw a moral distinction then between the people who plan to be involved in gun violence and those who more-or-less accidentally become involved in gun violence (either through an accidental discharge or a “crime of passion”). I think it’s precisely these people that normal people fear when they talk about unsafe cities or neighborhoods. It’s also this level of violence that spawns massive increases in legal gun sales, which in turns feeds the black market with surplus. If Manila or Baltimore’s gun violence was overwhelmingly lovers shooting cheating spouses, neither would be considered a “dangerous city” and average people would have little reason to want to own a gun.

My second issue with using “reducing gun fatalities” as the goal comes from what I recently called the Singerian Approach. Where does implicit logic take us if we run with it to the margins? We live in a dangerous world in our daily lives. I’ve read that slipping in the bathtub is the leading cause of accidental death in the US. Car wrecks and ladders beat guns by a long mile in accidental fatalities. Banning guns, were it even to work, would reduce only a fraction as many deaths as banning cars and forcing people to use public transportation.

Even more morally challenging is that almost all of us are leaving lethal invisible footprints in our wake just by living our daily lives. A coal-fueled power station can leave a footprint of 278 deaths per terrawatt hour, meaning that the power station on Lamma Island has one death connected to it for every 57 minutes of peak use. It’s too disconnected to even seem real. Assuming the power plant runs at full capacity and is using cheap Chinese coal, that’s 9,211 deaths per year, or one Dachau every three years. All for our laptops, air conditioners, and TVs to be fed a never-ending stream of cheap joules. It’s far more obvious that guns kill people even if it’s statistically less important. Focusing on gun deaths seems to limit us to the optics of sensational death more than more mundane realities of everyday mortality.

The message that I’m driving at is that while we may value lives tremendously in our rhetoric, we value them significantly less so in practice. We’re actually pretty comfortable with the 1.2 million road deaths each year. It just doesn’t rile us up as much as other issues. Morally, we’re not as bothered as much as we should be because there’s no Hitler-like figure ordering henchmen to collapse coal mines, implant lung cancer, inject asthma, and drive cars into pedestrians.  There’s a much more complex causal chain linking our own consumer demand with private-side supply issues. It’s not just evil mine bosses, it’s also billions of evil consumers who demand cheap coal. Like you and I.

My “Singerian Approach” is to say that if we want to get into the messy business of prioritizing the reduction of unplanned deaths, one needs to find a way of arguing that the unplanned “white market” gun deaths are morally more important than the unplanned deaths caused by the Lamma Power Station, driving accidents, and so many other issues that take so many more lives but don’t pull our emotional strings. Why put time and money into one issue and not the other? It’s not an impossible task to create this sort of internally consistent moral chart, but I think it’s quite difficult and something most people don’t even want to think about.

The fourth reason is that focusing on a single variable is intellectually shallow and, as I’ll spell out in more detail later, can lead to multiple unintended consequences. We find the same issues with assumptions like higher income meaning a reduction in the poverty or using standardized testing to measure the performance of schools, teachers and students. In my own study on rural non-formal education, the only variable that matters is yield. Not farmer livelihoods, environmental impact, or evaluating input costs versus profits. This single variable is used to measure something altogether more difficult and complex. Poverty isn’t just about assets and the problem of guns goes far beyond the number of people they kill.

My own take is that government policy should be focused primarily on reducing public risks, not private risks. In other words, the government should be more concerned about people being robbed at ATMs than preventing crazy ex-lovers from doing something too crazy. Having a gun in your household dramatically increases the chance of gun related violence in your household. It’s a risk, like driving your kid to school on a motorcycle, that we should allow people to make even if we wouldn’t do it ourselves and would chastise friends or family who do.

As such, I feel the Lamma Power Station deaths are worse than “white market” gun deaths because of how preventable and public the threat it is. Switching to almost any other fuel source would cut those numbers dramatically. The only thing missing is political will to spend the money. The government has enough money to built a bridge to Macau and Zhuhai, but not enough to dramatically reduce lung disease and air quality. This stands in contrast to the private, household-level threat “white market” gun violence poses. Because I don’t spend time with people who own guns, I stand almost no chance of being affected by “white market” gun violence. Yet I have no choice but to breathe toxic air and use “blood” coal.

For me, then, the public policy goal towards gun violence should be a reduction in the threat of planned gun violence. “Threat” is an important word here because the people that make up systems act on expectations. In Hong Kong, I’d feel pretty comfortable running from someone demanding that I hand over my wallet. In the America or the Philippines, where lethal street crime is a real threat, I’d likely ask if there’s anything else I could help them with. The background threat of violence can drive entire countries, cities, and neighborhoods into stagnation and decline while the assumption of non-violence let’s polities’ move forward in positive ways. I think one of the most important variables people forget when analyzing China’s amazing growth is how safe China is. My wife felt safe walking through what was essentially a slum in 3am, but she wouldn’t feel safe after dark walking through her rural Philippine hometown.

Part the reason for this is that research is beginning to show that that violence in communities is much more like a disease than we ever imagined. People exposed to violence are more likely to commit violence. It goes beyond “black market” gun violence. Upticks in violence will, overall, drive up demand for legal guns. Thus, I think one can substantially reduce gun ownership and use by removing the perceived threat of planned violent crime.

This is very clear when we look at the extreme ends of violence. Think of the proliferation of automatic weapons in a city like Baghdad. I’ve read multiple accounts that say almost every family there has an AK-47. Families own these guns because of how rampant kidnapping and assassinations are. Were that threat – both real and perceived – to significantly diminish, I’m fairly confident that Iraqi mothers would be demanding that their husbands get something so clearly dangerous to their families out of their houses.

To whit, the larger moral problem is planned criminal violence. Reducing planned criminal violence ‘works’ with a secondary goal of reducing overall gun fatalities. If normal, non-violent people feel safe they’ll be far less likely to want to own a gun. Setting the goal as reducing gun deaths in aggregate, without context to the type of violence, is to confuse the Hitler’s for the Mao’s. Both are ‘bad’, but one (arguably) has a stronger moral imperative to stop than the other.


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Mark Bray: UNESCO Chair ceremony and Shadow Education

My academic adviser, Mark Bray, was awarded a UNESCO Chair professorship in Comparative Education last night. His focus will be shadow education, a term for private supplementary tutoring. Here’s a (free) book he and Chad Lykins just published for the Asia Development Bank on the topic.

Below is the text from a SCMP story on his research and the ceremony. I’m only providing it here because it’s behind a paywall.

Preliminary results of a survey of Hong Kong pupils show most have tutors, but a former education chief at the United Nations says this is not a recipe for success.

Mark Bray, who is now a professor of comparative education at the University of Hong Kong, surveyed 1,720 pupils in 16 schools this past academic year, and found that 54 per cent of Form Three pupils have tutors, and an alarming 72 per cent of Form Six students have tutors.

Bray said the pervasiveness of private tutoring creates social inequalities. “If you’re rich, you have a one-on-one tutor, and if you’re not so rich, you can go to King’s Glory and it won’t cost a lot.”

King’s Glory Education Centre is one of the many “cram schools” that have become lucrative businesses and provide exam tips. He said this system was churning out “robots” that excel in exams, but have scant time for non-academic activities.

Bray, who was director of Unesco’s International Institute for Educational Planning in Paris between 2006 and 2010, compared his results to those of other countries.

He found that the Hong Kong results were closest to South Korea – considered the country with the most competitive academic culture – where 72 per cent of middle school pupils have tutors, and 60 per cent of high school pupils have tutors. He also interviewed hundreds of pupils and teachers, and the study results will be released later this year.

The problem of private tutoring – or “shadow education” – is global, but Bray said the four places with the most pupils receiving tutoring were South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, though the number in mainland China is rapidly growing.

The numbers are far lower in Europe – where 8 per cent of British secondary school pupils and 33 per cent of French upper secondary pupils have tutors, but the problem was severe enough that the European Union commissioned Bray to write a report on the implications of private tutoring on its member countries.

“I would like our schools to be strong so [the pupils] don’t need to go [to tutors], but the reality is, they are going,” said Bray.

He said Hong Kong public schools, compared with other countries’, were considered well funded so the government should have no excuse for not raising standards.

Bray is one of 74 Unesco chair professors in the world who are charged with achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Bray’s role is pushing for equal and high-quality education for all children worldwide. There are now three Unesco chair professors in Hong Kong.

“We are in a competitive society and it is getting more competitive, and that is shaping our education system,” said Bray.

He urged parents not to neglect the personal development of their children. “Parents need to have an overview of the child’s development and realise there are other things in life.”

Another issue, he says, is that it is difficult to assess the quality of education in tutoring centres, as they are not regulated by the government. “While teachers have to be trained, you don’t have to be trained to be a tutor,” he said.

He urged the government to look to Finland, where pupils are just as successful as their Asian peers but without the help of tutoring. He said this was because schools cater to a diverse group of learners, low achievers can get remedial help, and parents and pupils trust their teachers.



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South China Sea Legal Differences Redux

After my original post, I learned through comments and Twitter discussions that I got the Philippines position a little bit wrong and that the legality is even more nuanced. So the Philippines does claim the islands as sovereign territory, but claims them as a “rock.” A “rock” is different than an “island” in the UN Law of the Sea – a distinction I would have not thought of. Islands must have an “economic life of their own” if they have no permanent human population. Unlike an island, rocks get no extension of Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ). Though Taylor Fravel says that if the rock still peaks over the water during high tide, they can get a 12 mile radius territorial sea.

What makes all of this interesting is that, technically, a court could rule that the “rocks” are Chinese but most the water around it belong to the Philippines. What it really does, though, is significantly weaken China’s case for the South China Sea claims. Even if they were to “belong” to China, their economic rights via the EEZ wouldn’t be nearly as large as they’re claiming because most of the shoals, sandbars, and reefs they claim would just be “rocks.”

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Reflections on the Fourth Anniversary of the Sichuan Earthquake

Four years ago I was working on a Master of Education paper (critiquing OLPC, I think) when I saw a headline about an earthquake outside of Chengdu. A little later I went out to a Lanzhou lamian restaurant (often called ‘Muslim noodles” by expats) and read internet updates on my tiny Nokia candybar phone while trying to communicate with the restaurant staff the enormity of what was happening. Even in the first hour it was clear how huge this was and I think even then the death toll was estimated at more than 10,000. Now it stands at between eighty to ninety thousand dead, but we’ll never know because the Chinese government refuses to make the list public.

I had already volunteered to work with a Chengdu-based international NGO that summer on a minority education project deep in the mountains of Sichuan with the Yizu. I had met their director at the 2007 Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong conference. I received word shortly after the earthquake that they were going to concentrate all of their resources on the earthquake and that I was more than welcome to come out and help with that instead. And so it was to be that I would come in early June and volunteer with them for a month.

It was an interesting time in China’s development. The lead-up to the Olympics was kicking off and I think everybody was expecting greater openness and political freedom than ever before. This was China’s “coming out” party, so to speak. But it seems like everything got off track, and quickly. First was it was a Tibetan race riot against the Han in Lhasa followed by a violent crackdown. Then came Chinese anger at reactions to that crackdown, including an incident in France where an Olympic torch runner was knocked over. Thus was born anti-CNN.com and students wearing t-shirts to class that read, in English, “stop Western media lies!” It was probably the only time in my four years in the mainland that I truly felt uncomfortable being there because of my nationality. At a lunch with other foreign teachers my boss at the time told us, “I think I can say for the first time that I don’t like foreigners.”

Then the earthquake came and seemed to get things back on track, if only for a moment. China opened her doors and relief and sympathy poured in from around the globe. But things quickly changed, again. “Tofu” buildings became the story as we learned that terribly built schools collapsed on top of students. There were pictures in the NY Times showing a collapsed school when everything around it, including a newer school for wealthier (often cadre) students, stood unharmed. NGOs were restricted. Activists and the parents of dead students were harassed and arrested. I forget who it was, but while I was in Chengdu one dissident asking questions about the dead children was arrested and placed in front of a TV and forced to watch the rescue relief broadcasts until he “regained his patriotism” while I was there. I think I was also there when Ai Weiwei got beat up by the Chengdu police for trying to collect the names of the dead children (whose birthdays now dominate his Twitter feed).

When I got out there I was noticing some weird quirks about the program I was volunteering with. It seemed altogether kind of pointless and we were working in relatively unaffected areas. By unaffected, I mean the village only had one or two dead when villages a few miles away had deaths in the hundreds or thousands. I would see rich opportunities for impact but was often told “those are government problems.” Then something crazy happened: the government of Dujiangyan shut the NGOs program down for a few days. The problem? They wanted to launch an investigation on them because I was with them. And what was the problem with me? I was white.

I went back and wrote my Master’s thesis on my experiences there. I tried to build a theory explaining what I saw. The results are now published in the International Journal of Educational Development as Disaster, civil society and education in China: A case study of an independent non-government organization working in the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake (download here). The argument I make was that the earthquake can really be seen as the beginning of a much larger crackdown on civil society that continues today.

One of the things I learned, and go to length on in the paper, was how authoritarianism worked in the real world. I think as an American I originally came at China’s authoritarianism from a rule of law perspective – that limits to freedoms were clear “lines in the sand” and came through law. A sort of “thou shalt not speak ill of or compete with thy leaders.” What I learned in my research was how implicitly embedded power relations were. Independent NGOs weren’t illegal, for instance, they just weren’t allowed to legally register and almost everything they did was illegal (especially fundraising). That type of power was a lot more effective because it seeped into every decision the NGO I studied made. The “lines in the sand” are a lot more personal than legal. Anger the wrong powerful person and a world of legal pain would come down on you. A court could suddenly start asking  how, exactly, did $100,000 get in your personal bank account from an international wire transfer and why didn’t you pay taxes on it? Are you a spy or just a fraud?

And all of this saddens me. I wish that wasn’t the “take away” from my study. The earthquake was a great opportunity for the development of civil society in China that was never fully actualized. There were amazing networks that popped up, like 512ngo.org. There was great coordination. Civil society and NGOs were “crossing a river by feeling the stones” – and a lot of stones had just landed in front of them from which to learn how to get to the other side.  The other side being working in harmony with the Communist Party to get things done, bringing issues to attention and resolving them together. I truly believe that the Party and civil society don’t need to be as antagonistic of each others’ existence as the Party assumes. I think rules can be written into law that separate the very different functions of an education and a human rights NGO. Instead, where most governments demand a monopoly on violence the Party demands a monopoly on political association – and everything is political in a country where the Party infiltrates every ‘legitimate’ non-commercial organization. And so those issues sit, simmering in the background.


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