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China must heed anger over health care standards to curb hospital violence

Lijia Zhang says China must revamp its underfunded and corrupt health care system to assuage the public rage that is fuelling a rising number of violent attacks on medical staff

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 4:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 May, 2014, 2:30am

Lijia Zhang

ed to keep up with changes in China’s luxury consumption patterns

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A man who randomly attacked medical staff in Heilongjiang province is sentenced in a Harbin court. Photo: Xinhua

Medical workers used to be flatteringly called "angels in white" in mainland China. Now their profession has become one of the most dangerous, following a spate of bloody incidents at hospitals across the nation.

In mid-April, a male doctor on a maternity ward was severely beaten by a patient’s husband in Jiangsu province; in March, a young doctor in Guangdong was attacked and paraded in public by dozens of people after he failed to save a drunken man from a heart attack.

To curb such crimes, on April 24, China’s top legal bodies jointly issued guidelines warranting severe punishment for those who attack medical workers.

Hospital violence attracted massive media attention last October when a patient, Lian Enqing, angry over the outcome of his nasal surgery, stabbed three doctors at the No 1 People’s Hospital in Wenling , Zhejiang province, killing one of them. A few days earlier, another unhappy patient stabbed his doctor six times before jumping to his death in northeast Liaoning province.

Many factors contribute to the growing violence in hospitals. A decline in morality has been blamed; specifically, the lack of channels for patients to complain. And the arbitration bodies, often affiliated with medical associations, are hardly independent. According to the Chinese media, before Lian took drastic action, he had tried repeatedly to complain but got nowhere.

Such attacks underscore the ills of the health care system as a whole. On the heels of economic reforms, hospitals were commercialised. With limited government funding, they have to generate income through treatment and drug sales to support themselves.

When I began work at a state-owned enterprise in the early 1980s, medical care was free, and thus wasted. I remember mock fights with a colleague where we would throw around the bountiful headache pills we had been given.

How things have changed. Three years ago, I went to Beijing Capital Dermatology Hospital, one of the largest of its kind, after finding a strange rash on my arm. Like all major state hospitals, queues snaked everywhere. When it was my turn, the doctor took one cursory look and sent me for an allergy test on an imported machine and then prescribed numerous creams and pills. The total bill was US$800 – more than the average monthly salary in Beijing. That is a typical patient experience in China, at least in one respect: I left feeling short-changed, even cheated. Over-prescription and excessive tests are commonplace.

There are 1,000 top hospitals in China. Each has to deal with some 10,000 people every day. Doctors have at best a few minutes for each patient, often leading to a lack of communication, which plants the seed of doctor-patient mistrust.

Then there is corruption. Some doctors, given their long hours, modest salaries (on average, a doctor’s basic salary is on par with a waiter’s – US$500 a month) and hard-earned skills, probably feel entitled to accept red packets, a common delivery vessel for bribes from patients or kickbacks from pharmaceutical firms.

In September 2011, before my late cousin – suffering from bone marrow cancer – underwent an operation on his spine, his anaesthetist demanded 20,000 yuan (HK$25,000) under the table, saying that it was a dangerous operation, and the cash would help him ensure things went smoothly. Our family decided we couldn’t take a risk and so we paid him.

When I visited the hospital a few days after the operation, a girl who shared the same ward said the anaesthetist had demanded 5,000 yuan after an operation on her leg. Her family also paid.

A survey conducted by the China Youth Daily last November showed that two-thirds of those polled don’t trust their doctor’s diagnosis and treatment.

The problematic doctor-patient relationship can easily lead to violent disputes. According to a survey by China Hospital Management Association, medical disputes have been rising yearly at the rate of 22.9 per cent since 2002. In 2013, about 70,000 cases of disputes were reported.

It wouldn’t be fair to blame unethical doctors for everything. China’s medical care is severely underfunded. Although the total government health expenditure has increased over the years, the amount as a share of gross domestic product has been declining. In the past several years, the proportion has been around 5 per cent, much lower than the world average of about 10 per cent.

The Chinese government has made a major effort in providing health care for rural residents as well as the urban poor. For example, the Rural Co-operative Medical Scheme was introduced in 2003, funded by a combination of individual contributions and government subsidies. However, the coverage is minimal and too localised, meaning you can be reimbursed only for certain things, at limited amounts and for treatments at your local hospitals, which are not always equipped to cope with serious illnesses. Overall, only 30 per cent of total outpatient expenses and 50 per cent of inpatient expenses are covered, on average. The out-of-pocket cost is a serious burden for many.

Rising medical costs and low quality of service have led to ever louder complaints about the health care system. And medical workers have borne the brunt of it.

In the wake of the recent hospital attacks, many experts have come up with suggestions for change. One idea is to issue doctors with business licences so they can practise outside hospitals and provide quality services. Others recommend increasing the number of private hospitals to boost competition and improve quality. More and more are calling for the market to play a bigger role, allowing prices of drugs and services to rise to reduce kickbacks and bribery.

The newly published directive is certainly a positive move. But a comprehensive reform of health care is urgently needed. Without it, the law won’t be enough to curb the violence.

Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and social commentator

SEE below the piece – the result of several rounds of edits and tough fact checking. pleased with the final version, though they had to cut out left-behind girls and such. and it was taken by both the internaiotnal edition and the deomestic edition.

The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Sex Abuse and China’s Children


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BEIJING — When I was 13, living in the outskirts of Nanjing, my math teacher molested all the girls in our class, including me. Under the pretense of checking my work, he would lean over me, his face so close that I could smell his garlic breath, and he’d move his hand up my shirt, touching my chest.

Apart from trying to avoid him, we didn’t take any action. We knew what he was doing was wrong, but it never occurred to us to report him. A teacher in a Chinese classroom holds tremendous authority over students, and we didn’t even know the term “sexual abuse.” Most of us made it through the trauma, except for his main target, a plump girl who dropped out of school before she turned 14.

In May of last year, a sordid story of child sex abuse made headlines. Chen Zaipeng, then the principal of Wanning No. 2 Primary School, Hainan Province, together with a government official, took six pupils between 11 and 14 years old to a hotel and sexually abused them. Mr. Chen was convicted of rape and sentenced to a mere 13-and-a-half years in prison for his crimes.



The case sparked a national outcry, particularly over the light punishment Mr. Chen received. In one act of protest, a rights activist, Ye Haiyan, went to the school in Wanning, brandishing a poster that read: “Principal, if you want to ‘get a room’ look for me; leave the students alone!” Images of her action went viral.

Ms. Ye’s protest and others like it rippled through the Internet and, along with widespread exposure of Mr. Chen’s crimes, brought child sex abuse out into the open. Chinese people started to discuss the issue publicly and, as a result, other victims came forward. By the end of May, some 20 more sex-abuse cases, mostly at schools, were reported and publicized.

The trend has continued. According to a Chinese government report, 125 cases of child sex abuse were documented in 2013, a record number for China, where people don’t normally talk about these things.

There is insufficient data to claim that sex abuse of minors is rising. What has changed is that the issue is finally getting the attention it deserves, and that the government is reacting.

In the wake of these scandals, the central government issued sex-abuse-prevention guidelines in September for provincial governments, the education bureau and other departments that oversee children. They recommend an increase in sex education: Students, girls in particular, need to know what sex abuse is and how to seek help if it occurs. School authorities are asked to improve background checks on teachers. Local governments are urged to establish hotlines.

In October, China’s top legal authorities issued their own guidelines, stipulating seven circumstances that warrant severe punishment. Though not law, the guidelines provide a legal and moral framework that officials are expected to follow. The guidelines promise “maximum protection” to children, and zero tolerance to offenders.

Heavier sentences are sought for offenses committed by teachers, health workers or other officials responsible for educating or protecting children. If they are caught having sex with a girl under age 14 — whether or not the act is consensual — it will be regarded as rape.

Both sets of guidelines indicate official recognition of the severity of the problem, but they don’t go far enough. A war on all fronts is needed.

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The controversial “soliciting child prostitution” law should be scrapped. Introduced in 1997 as part of the revised criminal code, it was meant to deter men from paying child prostitutes. But many men accused of child abuse are able to argue that the victim was a prostitute and that they should be sentenced under the soliciting law, which has lighter punishments than child abuse laws.

The October guidelines have made it significantly harder to abuse the child prostitution law and its abolition is being considered by the authorities. There should be no more delay in repealing it.

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2 hours ago

Was there ever a period in China’s long history where sexual abuse was discussed or prosecuted instead of ignored and covered up? Confucian…


3 hours ago

This is heart-breaking and searing. The measures taken to educate girls (and boys) about sex — their right to be safe in their own bodies…

Mark Thomason

6 hours ago

"There is insufficient data to claim that sex abuse of minors is rising. What has changed is that the issue is finally getting the attention…


But China is infamous for having strong laws that go unenforced. And compared to Western countries, Chinese courts tend to give sex offenders, well-connected officials in particular, light sentences. Changing some laws is a first step. More concrete actions should follow.

Governmental social services are essentially nonexistent. Beijing should set up a child-protection network, including a national department for child protection. Social workers, legal workers and psychologists need to be brought into the system.

A change in attitude is essential. A new emphasis on sex education would help. The subject is mostly ignored by teachers, and children seldom hear “the facts of life” at home. Lack of sexual knowledge and the awareness of potential abuse make young girls, like the group in my elementary school class, prone to exploitation.

Toxic traditional beliefs are another hurdle. A long-held Chinese myth says that having sex with a virgin can boost a man’s virility. The modern version has it that deflowering a girl can enhance a man’s chance of promotion because the word “virgin,” chu, is contained in the term chuzhang, which means section chief.


Chinese society will have to continue to open up, enabling more victims and their families to come forward. Up to now, a large number of cases went unreported, and few victims took legal action because the battles were so hard to fight, the punishment to abusers so lenient, and compensation extremely low. Victims’ families are still often stigmatized.

Today’s China is a much better place than the country of my childhood, but we have a long way to go. I often wonder what became of my classmate, the victim of the child abuse. Would she fare any better today?

Lijia Zhang is the author of “Socialism Is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China.”

Last Saturday, I interviewed Dr. Li Yinhe, a top sexpert here in China.

She talked about sexual revolution. Apart from the striking change in pre-marital sex from 15% in 1989 to last year’s 71%, one obvious and visual indication is the sex shop, that gracing every street corner. Dr. Li made the point that in the west, one usually finds sex shops in the red light districts. In China, however, it is every where. The reason for that, Dr. Li, explained, was that a sex shop is connected with family planning – it sells condoms, besides vibrators and other sex toys.

70% of sex toys are made in China, mostly for export. in recent years, the demand from the domestic market has been rising rapidly.

After I went home, I tried to find out when the first sex shop emerged in China. I know I visited it before for a story. it was 1993, in Beijing. and it was called Adam and Eve.

I came cross a well-written article in Granta back in 1997. I loved the subtle humour.

see below. enjoy!


Problems for Adam and Eve



Author Jo McMillan lived for many years in Beijing researching Chinese sexuality. Here she tells the story of visiting one of China’s first sex shops – part of a state-run hospital.

Friday night at the gate of Beijing’s People’s Hospital. Doctors throw lab coats into panniers and pedal hard into the wall of home-time traffic. In the wintry air, their white, wet breath marks out their hurry to be gone. I watch a bus pull up at the stop and nurses lean into each other’s backs until something gives and there is room to get on. There is a door in the perimeter wall, blanked out with paper snowflakes, and a window covered with Santas and piped with drifts of snow. It is 1997, and this is the Adam and Eve, the first legal sex shop to open in China – housed here, in a state-run healthcare facility.

A medicalized sex shop

Inside, I am met with the fat stench of bleach and Swan Lake turned up too loud. Around the walls are neon-lit displays draped with plastic vines, and a dozen men spread around them – one man at each, as if this were a gallery, with gallery etiquette, giving space, taking turns to study the pieces: bottles of disinfectant, breast enlargers, aphrodisiacs, condoms and vibrators. In the glass I see thin reflections of serious faces. One old man is in slippers and stripy pyjamas – he’s probably wandered in from a ward next door. He leans on a stick, chews his cheeks, and takes an age to move along. He doesn’t know where to put his feet without looking at the ground.

In the streets, sex is for sale illegally – in ‘mistress villages’ and in karaoke halls, massage parlours and hairdressers right across the country. Here, in shops like the Adam and Eve, it sells legally and with official approval. Since it opened for business in 1993, sex shops have spread across the country – some neon-lit, plate-glass and scented, others little more than walk-in cubicles no wider than their cash desk. But even so, it has not been an unregulated entrepreneurial bonanza. In China, sex shops have to serve their social function. They are not places for private desires, where under-slept men behind plastic-bead curtains let you buy what you want without asking why. Chinese sex shops are medical centres, drop-in clinics for the sexually dysfunctional. They deal with the body, and the body is a machine: its organs perform the functions vital to life. The lungs breathe; the heart pumps; the stomach digests; the sex organs have sex. And mechanical components need maintenance. They need attention when they break down.

The music falls quiet, and in the lull, I hear a rustle. I look up to find a woman in a lab coat standing at my shoulder. She is rubbery, round-chested, her hair permed into a stack of black curls that the neon lights have turned blue. She introduces herself as Doctor Wang and welcomes me to the Adam and Eve Sexual Healthcare Centre. ‘Not many foreigners come here. They sort their problems out at home. They prefer their own doctors. So tell me,’ she says, moving an inch closer, ‘what is it you need?’

‘I don’t need anything,’ I tell Dr Wang. ‘I don’t have a problem. I’m not here to buy.’ Her mouth opens a fraction. I see a small pink pad of tongue and a ring of even teeth.

She waits.

I wait.

I watch the men shuffle on a place.

Swan Lake comes back.

Dr Wang tells me not to be shy. She understands medicine. She’s worked all her life in family planning. She speaks in a voice brassy with encouragement. ‘All the staff here are doctors. And we’re all married. You can speak freely. There’s nothing we don’t understand.’ I look around for other staff. Behind the cash desk a man daydreams into his newspaper. Over his head, a row of framed certificates. An office door stands ajar and through the gap I see a tight-dressed woman under a poster of Cranach’s Adam and Eve feeding banknotes into a counting machine.

Over the 1990s, more and more people were drawn to the money-making opportunities of the sex shop industry, and the sector mushroomed. But so too did concerns that developments had not been properly managed. Goods were failing to meet the most basic standards for hygiene and safety. What were supposed to be scientific instruments were, in reality, little more than ‘toys’, officials remarked, marketed with hyperbole (in Chinese) and obscenities (in English). In 1998, the Chinese Sexology Association – the professional body for medics and sex researchers – stepped in to become the industry regulator, setting up a committee to oversee the development of the market and manage manufacturer-retailer relations. It required producers to apply for certificates that would guarantee standards to retailers. But it was a body lacking in clout. Under-funded and under-recognized, the CSA for many years had a handful of part-time staff, and its journal, Chinese Sexology, was banned from public sale. One of the ways the straitened CSA has been known to raise funds is by selling sex-shop product endorsements.

My gaze comes back to Dr Wang, and suddenly I see how soft-boned she is. I am sure that if I hug her, I can squeeze until I feel my own fingers. I see she is here to endorse and reassure. In this shop, she has the same effect as plastic grapes and Tchaikovsky. She cushions, takes the edge off embarrassment, makes having a problem less of a problem.

Where is your husband?’ Her question takes me by surprise and I find myself replying with the truth.

‘He’s in England.’

‘So you live apart?’

I nod.

‘For a long time?’

‘A while.’

We’ve been separated for four years. The divorce papers are at this moment lodged at the British Embassy in Beijing waiting for a signature. Dr Wang turns her long, soft cheeks to the displays. Her eyelids close, and she stands there as if asleep on her feet. But she isn’t sleeping. She is thinking.

‘Marital Medicine’

I let my attention wander to the books. I seeMarital Medicine, The Science of Sexual Loveand Diagnosing Marriage. Books like these are thick with text and tables, with flow charts and maths. They offer close-up, colour plates of genitals wet with disease. But there is no pornography here – not even under the counter. In the post-Tiananmen crackdowns, pornography was named one of the Six Evils, and the death penalty instituted for traffickers. Today, the law remains strict (and ambiguous) and the authorities still launch regular ‘Strike Hard’ campaigns to rid the country of ‘pornographic poison’. It might not be sold in sex shops, but it is still easily found – peddled by old migrant women too old to waitress, to work as chambermaids or sell sex, and not clean enough or with the wrong papers to be taken on as a nanny or domestic help. They appear out of tumbledown lanes, flap their pockets at you and sell CDs for 100 yuan a time. Some of the discs are genuine, others just look it, and when you play them, nothing happens, or hymns spill out, or Mormon sermons.

Dr Wang opens her eyes. She is ready now to pronounce, to prescribe for my lack of man. She fishes keys from her pocket and unlocks a cabinet. ‘This is what you need,’ she says, and offers me a pink baton, a face moulded into the head, the shaft embossed with rows of nodules that look – here, in this clinic, in this doctor’s hands – like an unusually disciplined rash. She balances the vibrator in the tips of her fingers, showing it off to me. I catch the smell of garage forecourts. ‘This device is very advanced. It uses high-quality imported macro-molecular materials that are soft and comfortable to the touch. The internal electric circuitry has functions including vibrating, revolving, lashing, extending and contracting. By adjusting the frequency and amplitude, it is possible to stimulate and massage the vagina, labia majora, labia minora, perineum and the clitoris.’ She waves her hands, kneading the air with enthusiasm. As her exposition progresses, I watch the cuffs of a home-knit jumper edge out of her lab-coat sleeves.

‘This device underwent repeated clinical trials on more than one hundred people suffering from sexual dysfunction at two large hospitals in Zhejiang Province. It always met with remarkable success and the leaders of relevant government departments, specialists and professors unanimously agree that this product meets high international standards for design, quality and clinical effectiveness.’

Dr Wang presses a button and I hear a woman’s voice cry, ‘Kuai dianr! Kuai dianr! Wo shufu! Shufu!’ Faster! Faster! Oh that’s nice! That’s nice! I am glad of the Tchaikovsky. No one has turned to look.

I hesitate. I don’t need this vibrator, but I know I’ve had enough of this encounter. I think, all it will take is a smile and ‘No thank you,’ and I can go. But my gaze moves from the hard face of the vibrator to the soft face of the doctor, and I think that maybe I do need it. Or that it would make a curious souvenir. And all of a sudden, I am telling the doctor: yes. Yes, I will buy it.

It costs more than 400 yuan – a month’s salary for many people – and I barely have enough money on me. Dr Wang writes a receipt in triplicate. I take it to the cashier who stamps it without looking up from his newspaper.Jian wei qi, it says. Health consolation machine.

Sex shops describe their goods as ‘machines’, ‘devices’, ‘aids’, or ‘tools’ to avoid breaching medical boundaries and maintain their status as ‘healthcare centres’. But things have started to change. The profit motive is pushing the market into areas that have no clear curative purpose. It is a driving force that is proving hard to resist. Medicine is retreating as the justificatory principle on which these shops operate. Pleasure, fashion and what happens in ‘the West’ are taking its place. It might still be a small corner of the industry, but it is now possible to find the Anal Assault Grenade, Red Spider bondage gear and the Big Bertha Inflatable Love Cow.

Dr Wang wraps the vibrator in reindeer paper, and tells me I should always use it with a condom because it’s more hygienic.

‘I will.’

‘And don’t let anyone else use it.’

‘I won’t.’

‘And don’t miss your children too much over Christmas!’

‘I don’t have any children,’ I say and immediately wish I hadn’t. It is time to go, not start another conversation and as Dr Wang looks at me with a question, I turn my head and let my gaze move around the room. I take in the bottles of disinfectant, the lab coats, the bleached white floor.

‘Medical problem,’ I tell her. She gives me a face pinned between doubt and compassion, then hands me the vibrator and says she understands.

Yesterday was the Earth Day. For some reason, Beijing city government decided to invite students from The British School of Beijing to talk about their views on the environment. As the writer of the class, May was asked to write a piece. See below. At the government office, a classmate of May read out her essay in English and May read out the Chinese version, translated by her Chinese teacher. I thought she did an excellent job.

Earth day speech

By May MacLeod

The renowned ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Zi once said in the Dao De Jing that ‘Mastery of the world is achieved by letting things take their natural course. If you interfere with the way of Nature, you can never master the world.’ From this quote we can see that the Chinese recognised the environment’s importance thousands of years ago. Contrastingly, Chairman Mao once proclaimed in 1940 that ‘man must use natural science to understand, conquer and change nature and thus attain freedom from nature.’ Seventy-four years on, and the country still embraces this ethic; to abuse its earth, and has forgotten the guidance of its ancestors. The students of The British School of Beijing understand why this is happening and propose solutions for it.

The World Wildlife Foundation estimates that by 2025, China will be the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases. Diseases related to air pollution are the leading cause of death in China, 75%of energy production is still dependant on coal and a quarter of all critically endangered animals can be found here. There are many other examples of the issues China faces, but we did not come here today to criticise, but to improve. Young foreigners in Beijing such as I, are shocked by what the statistics show, and are eager to see change happen for the better. The work the Chinese government has put in to hydro-electricity and other sustainable resources is admirable; however, critical progress has to be made in the advancement of the mindset of people in regards to nature and the environment.

Britain itself had a time of great environmental turmoil in the 18th century. The coal dust was so severe it coated trees and buildings. One of the major advancements in solving the issue was raising awareness through education. Such an instalment would be highly beneficial in China, as progress must come from the bottom as well as the top. Children should be encouraged in schools to seek green lifestyles and living spaces, by having things such as recycling bins in the classroom and doing geographical field trips to polluted zones. Young people should also be encouraged to learn about the nature around them, by growing gardens, taking urban walks and bird and animal watching. Advertising could be invested in to demonstrate the consequences of people’s actions and promote and exemplify how the Earth can be saved. Cars are something all Chinese people aspire to, however if this ideal was weakened and cycling was encouraged then it would not only be more convenient to the public but more environmentally friendly. Road safety could be campaigned so that walking is safer for pedestrians to further reduce car use. There are unlimited possibilities on the path of awareness, and immediate action would result in positive results.

Let us make this year’s Earth day one to remember, make 2014 a year of great change and advancement, propelling the world into a more sustainable future. Everyone needs to learn that a single person can make a difference, that the world belongs to us all and it is our duty to protect and cherish it, giving each and every one of us a responsibility to uphold. Thank you for your kind attention.

The China Challenge
Ian Johnson
MAY 8, 2014 ISSUE, New York Review of Books

The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China—and How
America Can Win
by Geoff Dyer
Knopf, 308 pp., $26.95

Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China
by Stephen Roach
Yale University Press, 326 pp., $32.50

China Goes Global: The Partial Power
by David Shambaugh
Oxford University Press, 409 pp., $29.95

China Story Yearbook 2013: Civilising China
edited by Geremie R. Barmé and Jeremy Goldkorn
Canberra: Australian Centre on China in the World, 459 pp., available at

In 1890, an undistinguished US Navy captain published a book that would
influence generations of strategists. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence
of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 posited that great nations need
potent, blue-water navies backed by far-flung naval bases to project power
around the globe. His work was so influential that Kaiser Wilhelm II of
Germany pledged to learn it by heart as he sought to triumph over the
dominant power of his day, Britain and its Royal Navy. When Mahan died
nearly one hundred years ago, just after the outbreak of World War I, he
was widely blamed for being the lead theorist for an arms race that led to
the catastrophic conflict.

It may be a little too pat, but it’s probably no coincidence that Mahan is
enjoying newfound fame in another rising power: China. Mahan’s books have
been widely reprinted in China, including one that features a fold-out map
of the Pacific showing US naval facilities in the region. The lesson for
China is plain—at least in the Pacific region, it must emulate America’s
naval strength if it wants to become a great power.

The popularity of Mahan’s book is one of the fascinating threads in Geoff
Dyer’s The Contest of the Century. The title might sound a bit like a
reality show, while the subtitle (The New Era of Competition with
China—and How America Can Win) has the tone of a self-help book for a
fading superpower. But ignore these examples of editorial overreach;
Dyer’s book is stimulating, erudite, and deeply researched, perfectly
timed to explain the unfolding conflicts in East Asia. He focuses on
maritime affairs as a clue to China’s intentions, which he bluntly states
as: “Forget their bland rhetoric: China’s leaders think very much in
geopolitical terms and would like to gradually erode the bases of American

This runs counter to the two dominant ways of looking at China. One is
that China is so obsessed with domestic issues that it has little real
interest in getting involved abroad. Its corollary is that Beijing is too
insecure about its hold on power at home to think seriously about
challenging the US. But Dyer—a former Beijing bureau chief for the
Financial Times—points out that China already is involved abroad, while
“domestic insecurity is feeding, not inhibiting, the desire to stand tall

Dyer is hardly an alarmist. His main point isn’t that China and the US are
headed for a military conflict. With both sides possessing nuclear
weapons, a war isn’t likely. Instead, his broader point is that China is
shifting from a country that accepts existing rules to one that wants to
make them. Dyer points out a great irony in this: China’s rise has been
made possible because of the global trading system and alliances that
Washington created after World War II. The US hasn’t prevented China from
buying resources or exporting its goods; on the contrary, its navy has
created a calming effect that makes China’s vast seaborne trade possible,
while American consumers have bought its products.

America’s dominance is eroding primarily because China’s economic rise
enables it to assert long-standing territorial claims, and it is doing so
by changing international norms. This is clearest in how China views the
Law of the Sea. This 1982 UN treaty defines territorial waters as
extending twelve nautical miles from a country’s coast. It also gives
countries a two-hundred-mile “exclusive economic zone.” The two are not
the same: territorial waters can be entered only with a country’s
permission; the economic zone is for economic exploitation but foreign
ships, including warships, can pass through it freely.

What China is doing now is to redefine the economic zone into a kind of
territorial air and sea zone—hence the series of conflicts between US and
Chinese forces. In 2009, for example, a US surveillance ship towing a
barge full of intelligence equipment was patrolling seventy miles off the
coast of China when it was confronted by a flotilla of Chinese ships. They
deployed planks to obstruct the US ship. When the US ship turned, sailors
on the Chinese ships used poles to smash the equipment on the US barge.
After completing their mission, the crew of one Chinese boat dropped their
pants and waved their rear ends in the direction of the Americans.

Most recently, in December, China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning,
got into a naval dispute in its first significant voyage. Traveling south
to the contested waters of the South China Sea, it was shadowed at a
distance by a US cruiser. When the US ship got too close—estimates are
that it was several dozen miles away—a Chinese escort ship executed a
dangerous maneuver, cutting directly in front of the US ship and forcing
it to take evasive action. The move was defended as necessary to protect
the carrier. The carrier was under no threat, but carriers are the
ultimate Mahan prestige project—capital ships meant to project power
around the globe.

This near clash came shortly after China redefined the airspace over parts
of the Pacific, creating an Air Defense Identification Zone that covered
islands controlled by Japan. This was the latest in a series of recent
moves to assert sovereignty over the islands, which in Japan are called
the Senkaku and in China the Diaoyu.

Individually, it’s easy to explain away these events, or even to see them
as laughable. (Mooning a ship? Throwing planks in the water? They hardly
constitute the Battle of the Nile.) But taken together they do show
China’s desire to expand its reach. They also become more significant when
China’s territorial claims are taken into account. China claims the entire
South China Sea—which includes almost all the waters between Vietnam to
the west, Malaysia to the south, and the Philippines to the east. These
waters contain contested islands, and if China were to obtain control over
them, as it wishes, and then redefine its economic zone around each one
into quasi-territorial waters, then its territorial waters would include
some of the most important shipping lanes in the world.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider that Chinese law already treats these
waters as domestically controlled. In January, for example, China
announced new fishing regulations that cover most of the South China Sea.
The new measures require foreign fishing ships to obtain permission from
China before operating in the waters. Tellingly, the law says the waters
should be policed by China’s coast guard, not its navy. This can be seen
as reducing tensions, but also that China considers the waters to be so
domestic that it doesn’t need to involve its navy.

Such laws beg the question of who will follow them. It’s hard to imagine
Vietnamese fishing boats faxing requests to fish in waters they have
trawled for years. But in a way, this isn’t the point. The new rules
should instead be seen as Beijing methodically laying the groundwork for
control of these waters, part of a very long-term strategy.

Dyer makes this point most effectively by comparing events today with
those in US history. In 1823, Washington announced what came to be known
as the Monroe Doctrine, stating that any further efforts by European
powers to colonize or interfere with states in North or South America
would be viewed as an act of aggression and require US intervention. At
first, this was mere bluster. The United States had no significant navy,
and Britain continued to act as it saw fit, especially in the Caribbean, a
body of water that’s as close and crucial to the United States as the
South China Sea is to China. As late as 1890, the year Mahan’s book was
published, the US Navy was still the butt of jokes.

But the 1823 declaration was a marker. By the end of that century, the
United States developed a navy that could enforce this claim. Eventually,
the Caribbean came to be dominated by the United States. Britain’s
influence there faded. So too, perhaps, with China and the United States.

I was reminded of this long-term horizon when reading a New York Times
piece from last year on the fate of Ayungin, a submerged reef that is part
of the Spratly Islands. Lying 105 nautical miles from the Philippines, the
reef is part of its economic zone and is claimed by Manila as its
territory. But over the years, Chinese ships have began to patrol the
reef, and essentially have swallowed it up, much as they did Mischief Reef
in the 1990s, eventually turning it into a military base.

Worried that this would be repeated, the Philippines sank an old ship on
top of Ayungin. It now houses eight Filipino soldiers, who hold out in
Kurtzian conditions. Meanwhile, Chinese ships surround the rocky
outcropping, interdicting supply ships. The men are supplied only
sporadically when Filipino fishing vessels slip in, but for all purposes
the territory and surrounding seas have been lost to China. The article
showed the disarray in the Philippines, and how China patiently waits for
its chances.1

China’s neighbors have begun pushing back. Most dramatically, Philippines
President Benigno S. Aquino III said in February that his country’s
situation was analogous to Czechoslovakia’s on the eve of World War II,
when it was forced to surrender parts of its territory. Military spending
is rising in several Asian countries, most notably Japan, while India has
begun testing a new ballistic missile that could hit China.

China’s methodical acquisition of overseas bases is another lesson drawn
from the Mahan playbook of great powerdom. Mahan called on the United
States to acquire bases so its fleet could refuel. It was during this
time, the late nineteenth century, that America made its big push to
incorporate Hawaii, and pushed even further into the Pacific by acquiring
the Midway archipelago—named because it lies roughly midway between North
America and Asia. Soon after, it obtained the Guantánamo Bay naval base to
protect the Panama Canal. Likewise China’s apparent moves to build ports
and deepwater facilities in countries that are somewhat friendly to
Beijing, especially Burma, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Some seem to be mainly
commercial projects, but Dyer argues that one day they could become bases
for the Chinese navy. At the very least, the intention appears to exist.

A subtler point is that both countries’ expansion came about as a result
of broader changes in economics, and in people’s mindsets. Mahan’s book
was so influential because it caught the spirit of the times. In another
era or country, it might not have made a splash. Instead, people like the
financier J.P. Morgan thought it so important that he donated money to
help get it published.

In China, too, one senses that the military buildup and projection are the
result of forces not always part of a government plan. The port in Burma,
for example, is being pushed by a Chinese oil company. It argues that it
would be safer to send Middle Eastern oil to Burma and then by pipeline to
China, rather than by ship through the Straits of Malacca and directly to
China. And then there is nascent public opinion in China, which is often
louder and more bellicose than official pronouncements. In other words,
things like bases don’t always come about because of grand strategy cooked
up by geniuses in Beijing or Washington but because of longer-term forces.

What I also found intriguing about Dyer’s book was his ability to humanize
the Chinese military. We meet Liu Huaqing, the former commander of the
Chinese fleet. Already in 1987, Liu said, “Without an aircraft carrier, I
will die with my eyelids open.” Days before Liu died in 2011, the Liaoning
started its sea trials. Time and again Dyer shows the depth of passion and
long memory of Chinese planners and politicians. They remind us that
China’s aspirations aren’t new; it’s the ability to realize them that is

China’s aspirations could be ignored as unrealistic in the near-to-medium
term; after all, the United States has by far the world’s biggest
military.3 Matching it would take many more decades. But even if this is
China’s long-term plan—and it’s not clear that it is—China’s geopolitical
rise matters right now. That’s because China isn’t trying to match the
United States base for base, carrier for carrier around the world.

“Instead,” Dyer writes, “its military buildup is designed to gradually
change the calculations of American commanders, to dissuade them from
considering military operations anywhere near China’s coast, and to push
them slowly farther out into the Pacific.” To change this strategic
balance, it need only engage in “access denial,” using enough hardware to
make it costly for the United States to get involved.

In some ways, it already feels that we have arrived at this tipping point.
I visisted Taiwan during its first democratic presidential election, in
1996, something China opposed because it implied that Taiwan was
independent enough from the mainland to choose its own leaders. To show
its anger, Beijing fired ballistic missiles that landed just inside
Taiwan’s territorial waters. The crisis ended only when Washington sent
two carrier battle groups to Taiwan. One wonders if the United States
would do the same today; consider that on its maiden voyage in December
and January, the Liaoningpassed through the Straits of Taiwan. Would the
US risk a possible clash such as nearly happened in December?

Expensive military equipment like carrier groups raises deeper questions
about a country’s underlying economic strengths. The United States spends
almost as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. Its
position seems unassailable. But while China is a distant second, its
military spending is growing at a double-digit rate—indeed, in early
March, the government announced that military spending would increase by
12.2 percent—and it is now firmly established as the only country capable
of rivaling the US in military expenditures. It also is unencumbered by
what Dyer sees as wounds the United States has recently inflicted on

While the US has been fighting a losing battle in Afghanistan for over
a decade and poured more than a trillion dollars into the debacle in
Iraq, China has been carefully conducting the biggest military
expansion in the world.

One wonders how much longer the United States can continue to support such
an enormous military. Dyer is a Financial Times journalist and has
something to say about each country’s economic fundamentals, but not as
much as one might like. He is mostly—and correctly, I believe—dismissive
of the argument that because China owns so much US debt it can influence
Washington’s policy. Indeed, as Dyer points out, China is trapped by all
the treasury bonds it owns—like a bank that has lent almost all its money
to one borrower, it is as tied to the debtor as the other way around.

But I would have liked to have read a bit more about how each country’s
economic prospects will influence this growing rivalry. For that, I
learned much from Stephen Roach’s book Unbalanced: The Codependency of
America and China. Roach is a senior fellow at Yale University’s school of
management and a former chief economist at Morgan Stanley, the investment
bank, where he was one of the most influential writers on the Asian
economy in the 1990s and 2000s. His book is a lucid and accessible primer
on each country’s strengths, weaknesses, and prospects, highly
recommendable to specialists and lay people alike.

Roach’s thesis is that both countries are unhealthily reliant on each
other—he uses the analogy of an overly dependent couple, locked in an
unstable condition of mutual need and hate. But he makes the case that the
United States is in a worse long-term position than China. China exports
too much, and relies too much on capital investment for growth. But its
leaders clearly know this and are embarking on structural reforms that
could slowly change its habits and allow for more domestically driven
demand and innovation. The United States, according to Roach, “doesn’t
seem to get it”; its political elite is primarily trying to resurrect the
consumer-dependent growth of past decades.

The guts of Roach’s book are profiles of two pairs of policymakers: Alan
Greenspan and Zhu Rongji, and Ben Bernanke and Wen Jiabao. In the first
matchup, Roach says Zhu clearly wins. Greenspan helped to create one
bubble after the other, while Zhu reformed China’s economy. Zhu did set
China down the road of overreliance on exports, but he also undertook
far-reaching reforms.

Of the second pairing, Roach is more ambivalent. Both men were good at
analyzing their countries’ problems but less effective in engineering
changes. Still, Roach sees Wen as setting the stage for the current round
of reforms thanks to his forthright criticisms of China’s economic system.
Bernanke, by contrast, has not effectively pushed for change, in Roach’s
view. The comparisons might not be entirely fair because Bernanke and
Greenspan were central bankers, not premiers of a one-party state, and
thus didn’t have as much power as their Chinese counterparts. But Roach
effectively uses them as symbols of their countries’ reform history.

Roach is not a defeatist. He says the United States has great strengths
and could start exporting more—for example, to China, if China really does
begin to consume more. But to do that, the United States must strengthen
its hollowed-out industrial base and improve its institutions. Yet as he
points out, the United States is losing its competitive advantage,
slipping steadily in international comparisons. Shockingly to many
Americans, the main culprits are basic requirements such as the country’s
infrastructure, political system, health care, and primary education. This
leads Roach to conclude that the historian Paul Kennedy has it right: the
United States is in decline due to “the imbalance between America’s
unparalleled projection of its vast military power and the erosion of its
domestic economic base.”

This isn’t to say that there aren’t severe dysfunctionalities in China.
The key underlying issue is of course political reform. This term is
widely used in China, but primarily means bureaucratic streamlining or
improved administrative responsiveness to citizen complaints.

One could argue that human rights don’t matter to China’s rise—that these
are domestic issues that won’t affect expansion abroad. And yet China’s
narrow political system is clearly one reason for its neighbors’
suspicions. If the government continues to lock up moderates then many
abroad will wonder if China is the sort of country that can make a
long-term stable friend.

The most recent case was the conviction of rights activist Xu Zhiyong. In
late January, he was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of
“gathering a crowd to disturb public order,” stemming from his work to
organize the New Citizens Movement. That group, entirely peaceful in its
activities, aimed for reforms to the existing system to combat corruption
and promote a fairer education system, especially for disadvantaged rural
children. The two demands are largely in line with priorities of Communist
Party leader Xi Jinping, and Xu was widely seen in dissident circles as a
moderate. Harshness like this at home won’t prevent China from cutting
resource deals—China has money, and these goods are for sale—but it will
make it hard for any developed (and, by extension, democratic) country to
treat China like a true long-term partner.

This theme is picked up with gusto in David Shambaugh’s China Goes Global:
The Partial Power. Shambaugh is one of the most influential analysts of
China–US relations. His book shows the flip side of China’s military rise:
its inability to use its new power to influence the world. It’s a
wide-ranging, impressive work, reflecting Shambaugh’s decades of research
and far-ranging contacts in Chinese policymaking circles. His book makes
use of interviews not only in China but in Europe and other countries,
affording him a 360-degree view of China’s rise.

What Shambaugh makes clear is that for all the bluster, China actually
accomplishes little diplomatically. Except for events directly affecting
its territory, it stays on the sidelines of most international conflicts,
never shaping outcomes. Instead, its main foreign policy tool seems to be
the ritualized state visit by foreign dignitaries.

In one of my favorite sections of the book, Shambaugh describes how these
visits play out. The foreigner always visits the same few places:
Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of the People, the Diaoyutai Guest House,
and the Zhongnanhai leadership compound. At one of the latter two
locations a bizarre meeting takes place. The Chinese leader is kept out of
sight in a room behind a door. He is always standing. The foreigner is
then let in from an antechamber. This forces the foreigner to walk up to
the Chinese leader. The foreign guest arrives on the Chinese leader’s
right side and the two stand facing the cameras. Then they shake hands,
still facing the cameras.

The foreigner’s location on the right is important because the foreigner
has to reach awkwardly across his body to shake hands with the leader,
while the Chinese leader only has to extend his right hand slightly. “As a
result, the Chinese leader always appears relaxed and confident, whereas
the foreigner often seems physically uncomfortable.” These theatrics, of
course, are for domestic consumption. But they also reflect a telling lack
of substance in Chinese diplomacy and an overreliance on showmanship. They
might also say something about the need for an aircraft carrier and to
defend it with theatrical gestures—a desire to measure up and surpass
one’s opponents. In some ways such concerns to make a visible effect
recall the great early-twentieth-century Chinese author Lu Xun and his
berating of Chinese for “spiritual victories.”

Another example is China’s love of slogans. At home, it regularly bombards
citizens with slogans like “harmonious society” or “China dream.” Abroad,
it has used equally empty slogans over the past fifteen years, throwing
out terms such as “new international order,” “new security concept,”
“China’s peaceful development road,” “China’s peaceful rise,” “strategic
partnership,” “peaceful development,” and “harmonious world.” Foreigners
are expected to acknowledge these slogans, a practice known as biaotai, or
“to declare where one stands.” But as Shambaugh points out, this is simply
parroting slogans back to China, not a meaningful discussion.

Digging deeper into these practices, Shambaugh sees a crisis of national
identity. He has a telling interview with Men Honghua of the Central Party
School. Men said China had great, universal values but they were destroyed
in the Cultural Revolution:

We have lost our values—we do not have any common values at all. There
is a vacuum of values in China. Nor do we have an ideology.

The deep structure of Chinese politics and society is also captured in
China Story Yearbook 2013: Civilising China, a compilation of essays
edited by the Australian Sinologist Geremie Barmé and the Beijing-based
writer Jeremy Goldkorn. This is the second year that they have published
this valuable look at the past year, which is available free as a
download. The Yearbook has a summary of recent events with short, punchy
essays by up-and-coming writers such as Leta Hong Fincher on women,
Benjamin Penny on social role models, and Sebastian Veg on nationalism.
Goldkorn also has written a valuable chapter on the government’s efforts
to “civilize” (i.e., control) the Internet.

Barmé’s chapter on the Communist Party’s values is especially noteworthy.
He points out the Party’s central contradiction. On the one hand, it
explicitly rejects what it calls “universal values,” declaring that
Chinese socialism has served China well:

Such triumphalism masks the fact that there is an abiding clash of
cultures within the Chinese Communist Party itself. Its strict materialist
worldview precludes any endorsement of abstract human worth and universal
value. But, rhetorically at least, it recognizes the potentially positive
role of values that, like Marxism itself, first evolved in the West.
After reading these books I was persuaded by Dyer that the US faces a
serious challenge. I also thought that Shambaugh’s discussion on soft
power was especially convincing. Part of being a hegemon is having an
attractive culture that others seek to emulate, and China doesn’t seem to
have this (despite a fascinating history and traditional culture).

But I kept thinking back to Roach’s book. Being clever and having soft
power are fine but they have to be underpinned by serious economic policy
and a sustainable fiscal system. More importantly, they have to be backed
by a populace and political elite that believe in its system. If the
United States continues to disregard these basics, China may not need a
Mahan-like program of building warships; its rise may simply be by

“A Game of Shark and Minnow,” The New York Times Magazine, October 27,
2013. The interactive online version is highly recommended. ↩

One criticism at this point concerns Dyer’s selective endnotes. Dyer
reports that the Pentagon estimates China will have two more carriers
operational by next year—highly implausible, but uncheckable because he
has no citations. ↩

This is a point made in a very worthwhile upcoming volume, Strategic
Reassurance and Resolve: US-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century by
James Steinberg and Michael E. O’Hanlon (Princeton University Press,
2014). This book carefully dissects the main problems discussed by Dyer.
Most striking to me was that while America’s military budget is dominant,
China could have a budget of roughly $300 billion by the end of the
decade, versus $500 billion to $600 billion for the United States. ↩


Chinese civil society

Beneath the glacier

In spite of a political clampdown, a flourishing civil society is taking hold

Apr 12th 2014 | BEIJING, CHENGDU AND GUANGZHOU | From the print edition

  • Timekeeper

AGAINST a powerful alliance of factory bosses and Communist Party chiefs, Zeng Feiyang cuts a frail figure. Mr Zeng, who is 39, works from a windowless office in Panyu, on the edge of the southern city of Guangzhou, where he runs a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the Panyu Migrant Workers’ Service Centre. For more than a decade his organisation has battled against the odds to defend the rights of workers in the factories of Guangdong province. For his troubles, Mr Zeng has been evicted from various premises, had his water and electricity cut off, and been constantly harassed by local officials and their thugs. Then last autumn he received a call from one such official. “The man asked if I wanted to register the NGO,” he says. “I was very surprised.”

Over the past three years other activists at unregistered NGOs have received similar phone calls from the authorities about the sensitive issue of registration, an apparently mundane bit of administrative box-ticking which in fact represents real change. China has over 500,000 NGOs already registered with the state. The number comes with a big caveat. Many NGOs are quasi-official or mere shell entities attempting to get government money. Of those genuine groups that do seek to improve the common lot, nearly all carry out politically uncontentious activities. But perhaps 1.5m more are not registered, and some of these, like Mr Zeng’s, pursue activism in areas which officials have often found worrying.

Related topics

These unregistered NGOs are growing in number and influence. They are a notable example of social forces bubbling up from below in a stubbornly top-down state. The organisations could be a way for the Communist Party to co-opt the energy and resources of civil society. They could also be a means by which that energy challenges the party’s power. And so their status has big implications. Guo Hong of the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences in Chengdu calls the liberalisation of NGO registration laws “the partial realisation of freedom of association”. Just as economic liberalisation in the early 1980s had a profound material effect, so these latest moves could have a profound social one.

We, some of the people

The new rules apply only to some types of NGOs, notably those providing services to groups such as the poor, the elderly and the disabled. Those engaged in any kind of political advocacy continue to be suspect. Human-rights organisations remain banned, as do most groups promoting religious, ethnic or labour rights. Yet Mr Zeng’s experience in Guangzhou suggests the authorities are looking for new ways to deal at least with some labour groups whose activities would once have been seen as unquestionably subversive.

Until 2012, any NGO that wanted to register—and so be legal—had to have a sponsoring official organisation, typically a government agency that worked in the area of the NGO’s interest. This ensured firm government control over all NGOs, or “social organisations”, as the party likes to call them (in Chinese, “non-government” carries a whiff of “anti-government”). Foreign NGOs could operate in China only under strict conditions.

It was a rigid regime, but it actually represented a liberalisation compared with what went before. When it seized power in 1949 the Communist Party eliminated anything that stood between the state and the individual, including churches, trade unions and independent associations of all sorts—it even tried to break traditional family bonds. In other words, what elsewhere came to be known as civil society was shut down completely in China, at least until after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. The only groups allowed to function were state entities parading as non-state ones. They go by the Orwellian name of government-operated non-governmental organisations, GONGOs. One is the China Youth Development Foundation; another the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation.

After the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, and their subsequent bloody put-down, the deal China’s leaders offered the country changed: stay out of politics and you can do almost anything else you want. Most of the new quasi-freedom was economic, but social space expanded, too.

There were clear limits. The collapse of the Soviet bloc, which trade unions, churches and other groups in Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere helped precipitate, reinforced the idea among Chinese rulers that NGOs had to be kept away from issues that were or could become political. Still, local NGOs with limited, mostly charitable concerns were allowed to develop in some areas, provided they submitted to control by the state through the process of registration. Environmental protection and HIV/AIDS were among the first areas to benefit from a new toleration of some NGOs. Even so, on the ground their freedoms were often hard won, and much official persecution persisted.

Running away

The growth of NGOs since has not always been a smooth one. In 2005, spooked by “colour” revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, Chinese leaders clamped down on NGOs, especially in their more activist manifestations. But in recent years that tight control has relaxed again, largely out of necessity. Rapid urbanisation and a more complex society mean that the party can no longer provide everything for its citizens as once it did, or claimed to. Anger over inadequate social services could put at risk the domestic stability that underpins the party’s rule. Nor does it help that the central government has pushed responsibility for health, education and other services onto local governments that are unwilling or unable to pay for them.

The array of unofficial NGOs that have sprung up over the past decade is remarkable. Some are inspired by religious faith: Christian doctors setting up a local clinic to fill gaps left by the health-care system, or Buddhists caring for the elderly. Others involve, for instance, parents of autistic children forming support groups through the internet or a website showing the location of needy schools around a city that urges people passing the neighbourhood to pack a bag of books or pencils to donate. Idealism is far from dead, as the Communist Party increasingly appreciates. When party leaders sent out researchers to look into NGOs, they realised, as He Jianyu of the NGO Research Centre at Tsinghua University in Beijing puts it, that “NGOs are not all revolutionaries who want to overthrow the party—as they had thought”.

A big boost to China’s growth in NGOs—double the number of a decade ago (see chart)—seems to have been a huge earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, which killed 70,000 people. Thousands of volunteers converged on Sichuan to lend a hand to the rescue. Ordinary people found out what it was like to get organised and join in. “We all saw the NGOs at work, and saw that they were much more effective than the government,” says the Sichuan Academy’s Ms Guo. The government drew similar conclusions and allowed more NGOs to register through state organisations.

Behind the growth is the irrepressible rise of a new middle class. It shares the party’s desire for stability. But some members, at least, also want new ways to participate in society. Party leaders, now only vaguely constrained by Communist ideology, have a new sense that something is to be gained by co-opting such activist citizens rather than suppressing them. It may, they think, offer a way of providing some of the social support that the party can no longer supply on its own. Thus the easing of the rules, not just allowing NGOs to register without a state sponsor but actually encouraging them to do so.

Since 2011 four types of groups have been able to register directly in a number of provinces: industry associations, science and technology organisations, charities and outfits providing social services. Later this year, the changes are expected to apply nationwide. Karla Simon, an American academic and author of “Civil Society in China”, says that the number of NGOs could double again in just a couple of years as registration is further eased.

It is telling, however, that these changes come at a time of increased political repression, including against those who simply call upon an overweening party to abide by China’s own (Communist-written) constitution. Since Xi Jinping became party chief in 2012, the state has cracked down on freethinkers. The sentencing in late January of Xu Zhiyong, a prominent academic, to four years in jail, and the constant harassment of other activists, show that even those, like Mr Xu, who have tried a less confrontational approach will not be tolerated. The approaching 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre means control will continue to be tight.

The party appears to believe that it can encourage the expansion of NGOs without relaxing its political grip. Perhaps it is the Leninist chameleon changing colour again, developing a clever new brand of “consultative authoritarianism”, in the phrase of Jessica Teets at America’s Middlebury College, that leaves the realities of power unchanged and room for dissent constrained. But many who work for NGOs suggest the opposite: allowing new freedoms for civil-society groups will slowly transform the party from the inside—just the kind of “peaceful evolution” that party hardliners have always warned against. Though moves towards meaningful political reform remain glacial at best, activists say these new regulations are part of an unseen river of social change that is starting to erode the glacier from below.

From comrades to citizens

Belatedly, the party realises that NGOs have a number of things it lacks: ideas, a hard-won understanding of the issues on the ground and trust from the local community. Few people believe the party on anything. Most think NGOs approach problems with knowledge and sensitivity. For example, they treat drug-users or prostitutes with AIDS as a health issue to be met with care and counselling rather than as a criminal one. A long-awaited party blueprint for urbanisation, issued in March, spoke of the need to “arouse the energy” of such groups. One Beijing academic says the challenge is now as much to help the government learn how to delegate some areas of social policy as it is to increase the capacity of NGOs to do the work.

Philanthropy is re-emerging as a social force as expectations have risen. Some are prompted by religious teachings: Buddhism and Daoism are enjoying a renaissance, and there are now some 80m Christians in China, many of whom want to do good works. Volunteering and working in the non-profit sector is becoming more popular. Charity and philanthropy, says Shawn Shieh, the American editor of China Development Brief, a Beijing-based publication that covers NGOs, have become buzzwords among the wealthy.

The nascent sector has a long way to go. The biggest problem is funding. Some local governments finance NGOs directly: the government of Guangdong province gave 466m yuan ($75m) in 2012; Yunnan spent 300m yuan. Those numbers are expected to increase. But, although many groups no longer need an official sponsor and are free to receive public donations, they are not allowed to raise money publicly. Fundraising activities must go through a dreaded GONGO, which means the government can control how much publicity an NGO receives and therefore its sources of income. Control over foreign funding has even been tightened.

All of this offers new opportunities for corruption. Some local governments have set up shell NGOs to tap into the new official funding. Real NGOs often fail to hear of tenders for service-provision contracts they could fulfil. The jobs go to well-connected insiders, who sometimes subcontract, taking a cut on the way.

Here, though, as elsewhere, the internet is changing things. China’s Twitter-like microblogs enable like-minded people to hook up and rally public support for a cause. It is now possible to complain about things online without being seen as subversive—though there are limits you would be wise to observe: you can tweet about air pollution, but not necessarily about a specific noxious factory with links to certain leaders. Urban middle-class types tweet furiously about food safety, water shortages, the treatment of migrants, education and health care—core NGO issues. NGOs that spread the word about their work online can see significant donations come their way even without actively raising funds.

Working the system

The emerging civil society is not a clear-cut story of stooges and heroes. The action is in the middle ground, where lines are blurred and both sides negotiate for space. The temptation for activists to compromise and tap into government money is great. Still, says a Western diplomat in Beijing, if you are prepared to play within the system you can get a lot done.

Zhicheng, a legal-services organisation which helps the disadvantaged, is an example of how to do just that. It was established in 1999 by Tong Lihua, a lawyer from a poor village, who first set out to protect the rights of rural children. He impressed local-government officials, who were persuaded to give him their support. Mr Tong then began to advise workers who had not been properly paid. Government officials leave him alone, he says, because, although he is dealing with sensitive areas, he is enhancing social stability not damaging it. He says his aim is to promote legal and social reform from the inside. Though sometimes derided by other activists for being too close to the party, Mr Tong says that 99.9% of what he does is independent. He bristles when asked if he is just an agent of the government. He says Zhicheng has provided up to 400,000 people with free legal advice, helping them claim overdue wages and work-related injury compensation totalling 400m yuan.

By contrast, Yirenping works on the fringes, an advocacy NGO staffed by lawyers who take on legal cases with an eye to the precedents they might set. One of its recent cases was that of a girl who was not allowed to take the national high-school exam because she is blind. It has helped people with hepatitis B and AIDS who have been fired from their jobs. One of its lawyers, Huang Yizhi, says the group will probably not try to register. Like many NGOs unable to find an official sponsor, it is currently registered as a business. If it registered as an NGO, says Ms Huang, it might receive government money but it would have to tone down its advocacy. The ambiguity of its status suits it as it chooses its cases carefully, engages in advocacy on issues, such as social equality, that the party says it cares about too and tries not to tweak the dragon’s tail enough to risk being squashed by it.

Ma Jun takes an approach somewhere between the two. A former reporter, in 1999 he published a notable book on the environment, “China’s Water Crisis”. Mr Ma runs the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), which operates legally. Like Mr Tong, he sees co-operation with the government as essential. “We are all in this boat, and we don’t want the boat to capsize,” he says. But he is less co-operative with official GONGOs. With many demonstrations now arising from environmental issues, the party is growing ever more worried about green activism. And Mr Ma is at the forefront of inter-provincial NGO co-operation, another former taboo. The party is afraid of like-minded people, bound by a common cause, linking up around the country. NGOs are not allowed to register branch offices in different provinces. But the IPE is part of a network of 50 environmental groups called the Green Choice Alliance which can speak with one voice. Mr Ma walks a fine line, and fine lines can move. Just a few years ago officials lauded Mr Xu, the recently jailed academic, just as they praise Mr Ma now.

The government is by no means consistent in its approach to NGOs. Last July the environment ministry held a workshop in Beijing to which it invited groups like Mr Ma’s for the first time. That would have been unthinkable ten years ago. According to one startled participant, officials encouraged the NGOs to be strong in order to “confront powerful authorities”—meaning local vested interests. Yet at the same time there are moves to withdraw the ability of environmental NGOs to bring court cases against local governments. And a party brief known as Document Number 9, circulated to all government offices in 2013, accuses NGOs of cultivating “anti-China forces”. The situation is “schizophrenic,” says Mr Shieh. Mr Zeng, the labour activist says that even after being asked to register his NGO, he still gets harassed.

After loosening the restraints on NGOs, the party could easily tighten them again. And Chan Kin-man at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says that NGOs have exploded in number but not in influence. The space in which civil society may operate is actually shrinking, he argues. Aspects of the current political clampdown, such as a law against rumour-mongering, would seem to bear him out. Yet others say that space for action that is won through negotiation, not confrontation, is space nonetheless. Meanwhile, many feel that the party’s distinction between service provision and advocacy will erode. “There is no way to deliver services to the elderly without becoming an advocate for the elderly,” says a foreign NGO worker in Beijing.

Whither China?

Some activists still worry that by allowing themselves to be co-opted, they are strengthening the Communist Party’s dictatorial hold on power because they are helping it to solve its biggest problems of governance. The Chinese head of an NGO says his friends tell him he should let the whole system “rot until it collapses”. His organisation provides funding and support to injured workers, a tricky area. Yet as soon as the NGO received publicity for its work through microblogs, the government donated several million yuan to the cause. “Once you highlight an issue, the government has to act,” he says.

It is not clear that the party believes in civil society. More likely it sees NGOs as a useful tool to achieve its own ends. But with politics directed from on high unable to meet social needs, and a new generation that wants more participation, some increased role for civil society is unavoidable. So a strange, unspoken pact has evolved, where both sides accept the compromise as a way of furthering their goals in the short term, while hoping future developments work in their favour.

Limitations and frustrations are legion. Changes to the registration procedure will be slow to affect the day-to-day life of ordinary Chinese. And other social or financial problems could multiply, negating any progress towards a broader civil society. Yet, in their way, NGOs are starting to provide a glue that can help knit society together as the state retreats, family structures change and the social fabric is stretched to the point of tearing. Today’s NGOs are backed by a new generation of Chinese who feel better off and more empowered. The party will not find it easy to slap them back down.

From the print edition: China

Weekend is a news and current affairs programme which provides the latest news on a wide range of subjects for audience around the world.

Each week the programme welcomes two guests for the entire hour to discuss and comment on the themes and ideas of the week’s news from realms of politics, science, music and the arts.

I was one the guests for this Saturday (April 5)’s programme. The other guest was British cultural historian Christopher Cook.

I have been on the programme once, not too long after the publication of my memoir back in 2008. I found it nerve racking as I had to comment on all sorts of issues/ideas and it was alive. But I enjoyed both times – I always love a bit of challenge. A mental tease.

This time, the producer called on Friday to have a long chat. By then, he already had the rough idea what the programme would be like. Afghanistan’s presidential election, Ukrian crisis and the Malaysia airline’s missing plane dominated the news. So I prepared accordingly, offering China perspective when possible.

As guests, we have opportunities to talk about ourselves, our interests and achievements and so on. I would have liked to talk about my marching with the feminist and the rising feminist activism. The presenter Paul Henley decided to ask me about my memoir, the social changes and my novel on prostitution – that fits nicely with the crackdown on prostitution in Dongguang.

I felt so privileged to have the chance to ask BBC’s Lyse Doucet, the award-winning chief international correspondent, questions about Afghan election. She was reporting from Kabul for the BBC.

All in all, a highly enjoyable and memorable event.

I guess I did alright as they’d like to invite me back later in the year.

If you are interested in listening. Here is the link:

The world produces many books on China every year. sadly few are substantial or enjoyable

The world produces many books on China every year. sadly few are substantial or enjoyable. Nick Griffin’s Ping Pong Diplomacy – the fascinating story how the table tennis changed the world – is one of the few exceptions. It’s also beautifully crafted – Griffin is a fiction writer.

It’s a real pleasure to read the book.

Book Review: How Ping Pong Changed The World

25 March 2014



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We admit we were skeptical when we received a copy of a new book claiming to tell the history of ping pong and its effects on diplomacy and international political machinations. We aren’t big sports fans, the topic is an old one that has been explored by a bevy of other authors, and the title,Ping Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game that Changed the World read to us as tired publishing house propaganda.

But in an example of a proverb actually applying to real life, we’re glad we read Nicholas Griffin’s novel, and not just judged the cover. Ping Pong Diplomacy is a fantastically fun study of the numerous characters that surrounded the rise of the game throughout the 20th century, with a little bit of history and politics thrown in.

The book starts off with the life of one son of British aristocracy, Ivor Montagu, who led a life we previously believed to be the sole property of characters in Somerset Maugham novels. Montagu is an intellectual rebel from an early age, and grows into a left-leaning Communist as a young man in the era of the Great War. Though he frustrates his friends and family, one member of whom is his direct political opposite, none suspect that his beliefs are any more than outsized eccentricities—a useful aura to have about oneself if one is sending information to the Kremlin on the side.

Ivor Montagu

Montagu develops and obsession with ping pong, which he sees as the athletic equivalent of a social equalizer. Anyone can play, anywhere, at any time. It is Montagu that creates the first ping pong player association, writes the rules of the game, and creates the first prize—the Swaythling Cup, named after his mother and father, Lord and Lady Swaythling.

We are soon to meet a cast of characters that Griffin’s skillful prose brings to well-rounded life. We learn of future Japanese men’s table tennis champion Ichiro Ogimura’s humble beginnings playing on a ping pong table that miraculously survived bombings at a Tokyo high school, and follow him as he develops a punishing schedule for himself, including squat-jumping for a kilometer each morning and running for an hour, to reach his goal of being the best player in the country.

So determined is he to head to London for the 1954 World Championships, that he begs for money at train stations in between classes to raise the funds to go.

Griffin, a journalist, has a fiction writer’s sense of character development, mining his subjects for rich details that humanize them and make the reader care. Whether it’s Chinese ping pong hopeful Rong Guotan’s struggles with tuberculosis and uncertainty of whether to live in Hong Kong or move to the mainland at the behest of Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai, or the American, Chinese and Japanese ping pong teams’ meeting in Nagoya in the ‘70s and American Glenn Cowan buying Chinese player Zhuang Zedong a surprising present, Griffin adeptly makes these historical players into people, no mean feat when having to deal with facts and reality rather than fantasy.

His plot and pacing keep the reader involved and guessing about the ending, even though most will know it before they even begin reading the first page.

We often hesitate to recommend historical books on China to friends, but found ourselves enthusiastically telling our coworkers we’d give them our copy of Ping Pong Diplomacy when we were done. Check out the author’s appearance at the Capital M lit fest this month.

Ping Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History that Changed the World, by Nicholas Griffin, is available on

No guns, just knives: Chilling details of ‘China’s 9/11′

Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY12:50 a.m. EDT March 30, 2014

(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)


A month ago, in a nation of mostly unarmed police and wholly unarmed citizens, a small gang of killers with knives brought mass murder to the Chinese city of Kunming in the country’s first major exposure to terrorism outside its restive northwest, home to the suspected perpetrators.

In the weeks since that blood-soaked first day of March, police nationwide have stepped up gun training. More armed patrols visit train stations and public squares. Experts call for quicker use of guns in emergencies.

As Beijing vows tighter security and anti-terror legislation, some analysts worry more crackdowns will just fuel the cycle of violence.

The details of that day, told here, are what is feeding China’s swift evolution.

7:30 a.m.

With big dreams in his heart, and a modest lunch of rice and cabbage in his bag, Zhang Jianyao walked 30 minutes to work at Kunming Railway Station. He saved money on food, and transport, to eke out a $230 monthly wage as a security guard.

His regular shift lay ahead, 24 hours straight, with the next day off to chase his real calling as an inventor. He had registered two patents without attracting commercial interest, yet Zhang, 46, an unschooled migrant from a desperately poor county, believed in his latest creation: a street-cleaning device even his long-suffering family thought could prove his breakthrough.

9 a.m.

Li Jinmei couldn’t tell who was more excited — her mother or her daughter — as they boarded the long-distance bus to Kunming, from Dali in the west. Her mother, 55, had never left her home county, or seen a city, but she finally agreed to visit the neighboring province where Li, 32, had lived with husband Pan Huabing for 14 years.

Like countless millions, Pan, 39, had swapped China’s fields for city work, as a welder. Their daughter, Pan Yujie, 6, last made the trip to her grandmother’s two years ago. Four other relatives also boarded for their return journey at the tail end of the great annual migration home that is Chinese New Year.

11 a.m.

To keep her husband alive, Shi Kexiang said goodbye to him for another year. His illnesses require medicine the family’s drought-prone farming plot could never pay for, so Shi and 21 other relatives crowded aboard a bus to Kunming from Chuxiong for their trek back to work.

With her brother and son, Shi, 57, grabbed piecemeal jobs at construction sites in Tianjin, northeast China, a long train ride away from Kunming, the regional rail hub.

4 p.m.

Arriving at Kunming station, Shi and her family found benches in a covered area on the main square, a temporary facility set up for the holiday crush. They had time to spare before their 10-to-midnight train. Li Jinmei’s party approached two hours later.

"The outside world is so big, there are so many pretty things," gushed her mother, glimpsing her first skyscraper.

8:50 p.m.

Shi Kexiang’s brother gave up waiting for her son, who had left to visit a relative in the hospital. Shi Xuefa, 52, took their heavy luggage through a security check, to pass to family members already in the upstairs waiting hall. He would return to help his sister, saddled with three of the bags.

9 p.m.

Selling instant noodles and other snacks since 9 a.m., shopkeeper Liu Guilin looked forward to his wife taking over at midnight. Liu, 28, took a break to play cards with friends on a bench near his store. Quietly, a gang of killers moved into place, for a city utterly unprepared.

9:10 p.m.

Wielding short swords or knives, they sliced and stabbed anyone in range, including children. One struck at Pan Huabing’s young daughter. Pan threw himself in the way. Cut badly on the chest, he clutched the unharmed child on the ground.


Li Jinmei’s husband, Pan Huabing, was badly hurt in the March 1 terror attack. To save their 6-year-old daughter from an attacker’­s blow, Pan dived in the way.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)

Pan’s cousin Zuo Ruxing, a fellow welder, grabbed the girl and his own son, also 6, and ran for their lives.

The screams sparked panic, but the killers calmly continued their slaughter. They numbered at least five, including two women dressed in black and veils. Two came 50 feet from Liu’s store, including a man about 6 feet tall who resembled the Uighur people from northwest China’s Xinjiang region.

"He held a man, then cut his throat, in the middle of the waiting area. He was so calm, he made no expression at all," said Liu. "They must have been brainwashed or taken drugs, they were so composed. They weren’t running, but taking slow steps."


Liu Guilin, right, stands with the parasol pole he used to defend his store and a dozen women who took shelter there.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)

9:12 p.m.

"Mass fight at the railway station!" squawked a police radio. Car park owner Pu Yuanwei, 48, was chatting with officers at the nearby Beijing Road police station when the alert blared. The officers rushed to collect walkie-talkies and colleagues. Drawn to the drama, Pu beat them there in his own car.

When he arrived, he saw two women, daggers in both hands, cutting down their prey. As people scattered, Shi Kexiang was slashed in the neck. Her brother found her, alive, lying beside three corpses. "There were eight of them, in black. I could only see their eyes," she gasped, as he pinched her neck to staunch the blood.

9:16 p.m.

At his shop, Liu Guilin upended his stool as a weapon, then grabbed the metal pole of a sun parasol to ward off attackers. A dozen women rushed behind him for safety. Liu phoned the emergency line to report the crisis and quickly cursed the operator. "So many people are dead, and you still ask, ‘What’s the matter?’ "

9:17 p.m.

The police were coming armed only with batons, not guns, as is common in China. "Come chop me," shouted railway police officer Zhang Liyuan to draw the assailants to a parking area with fewer people, reported the state-run Xinhua News Agency. They ignored him. Parking lot owner Pu Yuanwei saw him lose a finger as he helped a security guard who was being attacked. "If they had been armed, they could have saved half the dead and wounded," said Pu.

People defended themselves with anything at hand, from fire extinguishers to bamboo bongs for smoking tobacco. "There was no time to be scared," said duty manager Wang Nannan, at Dicos fast-food restaurant, where staff took up floor mops to guard the door and the frightened crowd that had sought refuge.

Motorbike taxi drivers and other unlicensed workers who are often targeted by authorities rushed the attackers several times, said Pu.

9:25 p.m.

More police arrived, some armed and firing warning shots, but again were overwhelmed by the assailants, who moved up Beijing Road, away from the station. The terror they wrought mocked the slogans on roadside billboards: "China Dream" and "harmonious home" of multiple ethnic groups. Cautious police, likely awaiting orders to shoot, exasperated some onlookers who pleaded "Let us fire your guns!" said Pu.

9:33 p.m.

One SWAT team member packed more lethal firepower, an automatic rifle. On Eternal Peace Road, the attackers charged him. "I shot them as fast as I could," said Zhang Jun, Xinhua reported. "After I shot all five, the first one, also the nearest to me, stood up again and threw a knife at me. Luckily, I tilted my head." She was captured alive.

Pu and other volunteers shouted themselves hoarse, stopping public buses to serve as ambulances, and then lifted the wounded on board. At the restaurant where Li Jinmei and her mother had fled, she took a call saying her husband, Pan Huabing, was dead.

Pan’s cousin Zuo soon phoned back with a correction — Pan was headed to hospital, injured but alive.

10:00 p.m.

Guard Zhang’s wife, Wang Shuzhen, typically called him at 10 p.m. each evening, at the end of her dish-washing shift at a cheap restaurant. Tonight, his phone rang without answer.

11:00 p.m.

Bloody busloads of the dying and wounded kept arriving at Kunming No. 1 People’s Hospital. The horrific attack killed 29 people and injured 143. Called in from his day off, neurosurgeon Ma Gang went straight into surgery, working till noon the next day. "Their methods were ruthless and their technique was quite expert, they must have had some training," said Ma, 51. "Their knives went for fatal areas, they were not cutting just to wound," he said.

Shi Kexiang and Pan Huabing began multiple surgeries. Zhang Jianyao’s wife and daughter had rushed to the station but were directed to the wrong hospital, with the news "it’s serious". At 4 a.m., with no clue to Zhang’s whereabouts or condition, doctors told them to go home.


Ma Gang, a neurosurgeon at Kunming No. 1 People’s Hospital, worked all night treating badly wounded patients after the March 1 terror attack in Kunming. Ma says the wounds were expert, and meant to kill.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)

At 11 a.m. Sunday morning, Zhang’s family learned he was dead. Zhang had used a baton to stop an attacker’s blow at colleague Ding Xuefu, saving his life. He bought time for others to escape before he was stabbed several times.

Four weeks later

Beijing says evidence showed the attack was a terrorist plot by "Xinjiang separatist forces," seeking independence for the homeland of the 10 million Uighur, a mostly Muslim people. Overseas, Uighur activists blame repressive Chinese rule for stirring unrest.

Chinese police quickly detained three other suspects of the alleged eight-member terror gang, whom the government said targeted Kunming after they couldn’t escape China to wage holy war abroad. On Saturday, the three and the woman captured at the scene were charged with terrorism and murder. The death penalty is all but certain.

Welder Pan Huabing is recovering and should leave the hospital next month, said wife Li, who worries about their daughter’s mental scars. Shi Kexiang, the elderly laborer, remains in a coma. If she survives, doctors expect she will be left in a vegetative state, said son Shi Youwu, 28. "I hate them, these people must have no parents, no relatives, they have no humanity," he said.


Shi Youwu, 28, and his uncle Shi Xuefa, 52, stand outside the ICU unit in a Kunming hospital, where Shi Youwu’s mother, Shi Kexiang, 57, remains in critical condition after being slashed in the neck, shoulder and ear in the March 1 terror attack.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)

Such anger is widespread in China. Eyewitnesses wonder what could have possessed the killers — "don’t we have good policies in Xinjiang?" asked Liu, the shopkeeper —while some plead for calm. "The terrorists want to create hatred between ethnic groups, but we can’t let them," said Pu Yuanwei, who warns against viewing all Uighurs with prejudice.

One week after death, when Chinese believe the soul of the deceased returns home, security guard Zhang Jianyao was cremated. In mid-March, his family was pressured into quickly accepting state compensation of $48,000, said his daughter Zhang Dali.

"I talked to other relatives, we all think it’s too low. But the officials said they can only offer that amount," said Zhang, 23. The payment relieves her father’s $32,000 debts, from an inventing passion they never understood, but leaves little to replace the family’s main bread-winner.

Much went awry in Zhang Jianyao’s life. He quit school at age 10 to help his parents grow maize. His inventions never turned into money. His poetry, another long-time hobby, never got published. Even the government got him wrong: a mistake on his identity card gave Zhang the first name Jianguang, meaning "build glory."


Mourning a martyr, the slain security guard Zhang Jianyao, 46, are his wife, center, daughter and son.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)

On March 1, he made his mark. Zhang’s ashes remain unburied, as the family wait for the state to designate him a martyr. The award brings honor, some cash and a martyrs’ cemetery berth, but Zhang Dali says the bureaucracy is complex, and they may give up in a year. She already knows her dad died a hero.

"In that situation, most people would flee, but he went to help others," said Zhang. "That was what he was like."

Contributing: Sunny Yang in Beijing

Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong
Ian Johnson,

24 March, NYRB

Earlier this month, I came across a fascinating opinion survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. The report asked people in forty countries whether belief in God is necessary for morality. Mostly, the results aren’t surprising. In advanced democracies, such as those in Western Europe, people say by at least a two-to-one margin that morality is not linked to belief in God—presumably, they think non-believers in God can be moral. In the developing world, the opposite is the case, with citizens of Muslim and poorer Catholic countries overwhelmingly saying the two are linked. And as might be expected, the United States is an outlier among developed countries, with a majority (53 percent) asserting the necessity of belief in God to anchor morality.

But then there is China, which at 14 percent has the lowest percentage affirming the need for belief in God of any country surveyed—even lower than in the secular democracies of Western Europe. It’s especially striking when compared to other Asian countries, such as Japan, where 42 percent of the population links morality to belief in God, and South Korea, where more than half the population asserts such a link. In fact, according to the Pew data, a full 75 percent of Chinese people say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral.

Pew doesn’t explain its findings, but they struck me as extremely odd. If there’s one trend in China that is hard to miss, it’s the growing desire among many Chinese to find some sort of moral foundation in their lives, whether by reengaging with age-old Chinese ethical traditions, or bytaking part in organized religions. In view of this widely-documented situation, how can so few Chinese believe in the link between morality and a supreme being or force?

It is true that it is popular among some Western commentators to discount the importance of religion in both Imperial and Communist China. As late as the 1960s, informed people argued that religion wasn’t important in Chinese society. This reflected the fact that the West’s initial encounters with China had been through its elite, who, in the later imperial era, and especially in the Republican and Communist periods, denied the importance of religion in Chinese society and history. The argument was that China didn’t have real religions, only superstitious folk practices that didn’t rise to the level of the world’s great global belief systems. Most Chinese were not religious and morality was instilled primarily through Confucianism, which was incorrectly presented as a secular tradition.

But these assumptions have long been discredited by scholars. A landmark was the 1961 publication of Religion in Chinese Society by the University of Pittsburgh academic C.K. Yang. As Yang put it, religion in traditional China was “diffused” in society. There were hierarchically organized religious organizations (especially in Buddhism and parts of Daoism) but mostly, Chinese religious practice was part of daily life and organized by lay people. This didn’t make Chinese people unreligious; it was just that religiosity in China was different from that in other countries, especially civilizations dominated by the Abrahamic faiths. In fact, religiosity was so much a part of Chinese society that China has been described by the Sinologist John Lagerwey as a religious state—from the emperor to the peasant. The idea that morality and belief in higher forces could be separated—the premise of the Pew poll—would have struck people of traditional China as inconceivable.

But if this was true in the past, what about now? Have sixty-five years of Communist rule wiped out religion, or reduced it to such a minor role that the Chinese have done a complete about-face? This is easier to rebut; any casual visitor to China can’t help but be struck by how many new churches, temples, and mosques are being built.

How, then, to make sense of the Pew findings? According to Pew’s English-language report, the actual survey asked people to say which of the following statements came closest to their own opinion: “It is not necessary to believe in God to in order to be moral and have good values” or “It is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values.” I was immediately struck by the use of the word “God” in the survey statements, capitalized as it is in the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim tradition. Was the question referring solely to the god of these faiths? But I couldn’t imagine that Pew would ask such a narrow question—after all, the study doesn’t describe itself as asking whether belief in an Abrahamic being is necessary to morality, but rather asking whether belief in any supreme being is.

So I wrote to Pew and also called Horizonkey, the Chinese company that carried out the survey. It turned out that the question had in fact been formulated in precisely that very narrow way. I don’t know how the question was translated for other countries (especially Japan or India), but in Chinese, the question used a term for “God” that is applicable in modern China almost only to Protestant Christianity: shangdi (上帝).

In Chinese, the questions were: “不信仰上帝,也能有良好的道德和价值” and “为了有良好的道德和价值观,信仰上帝是必要的.” I would translate these questions back into English as “Even without believing in (the Protestant) God, one can still have good virtues or values” and “In order to have good virtues and values, one must believe in (the Protestant) God.”

Shangdi has a pre-Christian meaning—referring to a supreme deity—but it was appropriated by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century and since then has come to be synonymous with the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religions, especially Protestant Christianity. (Catholics eventually changed their nomenclature for God to “tianzhu”; see the Rites Controversy of the early eighteenth century, the dispute among Catholics about how far to incorporate indigenous traditions into Catholic practice.)

I emailed James Bell, director of international survey research at Pew’s offices in Washington, who clarified that the survey was purchased from Horizonkey, which has editorial control of its surveys, including translations. “Based on what we know about Horizonkey’s translation, we think it reasonably conveys the idea of a ‘supreme god/being.’ That would be in line with how we translate ‘God’ into other languages around the globe,” Bell wrote.

This is correct in the sense that shangdi is an accurate translation of “God” in the Protestant tradition, but it excludes the religious experience of the vast majority of Chinese, who do believe in higher spiritual forces—and very often link belief in such forces to morality. An alternative way of phrasing this question is found in the 2007 book Religious Experience in Contemporary China by Yao Xinzhong and Paul Badham. It is based on a study of 3,196 people, who completed a twenty-four-page survey. The authors found that 77 percent believed in moral causality—there is a long folk tradition of Baoying (报应) which holds that you reap what you sow, that consequences for moral failure are a form or divine retribution—and 44 percent agree that, “life and death depends on the will of heaven.”

How did Yao and Badham end up with results so different from the Pew survey’s? The crucial difference was that they were framed in a much broader way. One term the authors used was “heaven,” or tian (天), which literally means “sky” or “heaven” but also the idea of a supreme deity or force. It also included fo (佛) or “Buddha.” This is why their findings directly contradicted the Pew poll, which uses an Abrahamic paradigm to survey cultures with completely different religious traditions.

None of this means that the Pew poll is without value. It’s just that what it is telling us is something radically different than what has been suggested. If we are to interpret it to mean that morality is linked to Christianity (especially Protestant Christianity), then the response rate, 14 percent, is actually astonishingly high. Even the most optimistic estimates put the number of Chinese Christians at around 100 million, or 7 percent of the population. (The government’s figure is 23 million and more sober independent estimates run in the range of 60 million, or about 4 percent.) Hence the question implies that many non-Christian Chinese believe that morality is linked to a Christian-like God.

Can this be the case? It could be flawed methodology—perhaps the survey was disproportionately based in big Chinese cities, where Christianity is growing fastest. But it could also reflect studies showing that many non-Christian Chinese believe Christians to be especially moral. In her book Christian Values in Communist China, the University of Westminster professor Gerda Wielander—drawing on extensive readings of Chinese texts, websites, and speeches—argues that Chinese widely view Christians as more moral than others, while Christian terms for love, especially ai, are beginning to be accepted as something positive for society.

Thus the Pew poll, rather than showing something completely at odds with decades of evidence and research—that Chinese are irreligious—might actually be confirming one religion’s growing reach in society.