Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

I’ve just returned from HK where I gave a speech to the International Trademark Association’s Annual Conference about how to give a good public speech. Below is a much edited version.

I became a public speaker after the publication of my last Socialism Is Great! in 2008. At first, I got invited to attend literature festivals around the world. (I was very lucky to have received a few invitations as I am one of the few Chinese writers who can speak English.) Naturally I talked about my book and my experience as a writer. That wasn’t too difficult – I’ve never have trouble talking about myself privately or in public. Then other organizations started to invite me to talk about China related issues, which I felt confident to do so, having worked as a journalist for years. I discovered I very much enjoyed speaking in public. In fact, I love it. When I stand on the stage and speak in front of audience, I get a kick out of it!

The next thing I knew was that various speech agents got in touch and signed me up as a public speaker. Now I often give key note speeches at company’s annual conferences or some business seminars. I don’t really understand economy. But I use my story to offer a broad social context of China’s reform and opening up or to give China a human face, to explain where China is coming from. I also give inspirational speeches, again using my own story to inspire people to break the boundary and to chase their dreams.

Several factors might have helped me to get there: by 2008 I had become a social commentator, often been interviewed by the world media, notably BBC, CNN and such. Also, I worked for two years as a talk show host, which has helped me to cope the pressure of speaking under spotlight. There’s another factor, which is my little secret: I was the number two child in the family, I never had too much attention. Now I crave for all kinds of attention。

There’s yet another and important reason: I see the meaning of what I do. You know, my self-appointed mission in life is to be the cultural bridge between China and the outside world. China has grown too important to be ignored yet there’s so many misunderstandings and even fear about china and china’s rapid rise. What I try to do is to help people outside China to understand where china is coming from, what are happening and where is China going. Once you understand china better, there’d be less fear.

The first public speech I ever gave was back in 1989 when I organized the demonstration among the workers from the factory in Nanjing. I addressed a large gathering of about ten thousand people at Gulling Square, our equivalent of Tiananmen Square. I talked about why I, a little factory worker, wanted to organize a demonstration because I believed that the individual could make a difference. I had absolutely no experience in public speaking. Yet I won such applause that it thundered in the sky. It was because I spoke with passion and the words came from my heart.

This brings to one point I’d like to make. That is: when you give a speech or a presentation, you, too, should speak with passion and conviction that you have something meaningful to say. No one likes to hear a flat or half-hearted speech.

My next point is to bring your own story to the presentation. Last year, I gave many keynote speeches at a series of training sessions for company executives organized by the London Business School, the organizer said to me: your story is just perfect. Even the details are perfect. If you worked for a toilet seat factory, we might not have invited you. You probably did not work as a rocket factory girl, but everyone has a story and a personality. Everyone is special in some ways. It might be interesting to bring your character to the presentation, if you are willing to run a little risk instead of being safe and generic. Let your personality shine through in your presentation.

Of course, I also follow some very basic rules: do your homework properly. People often say to me: “Oh, you are so natural!” Natural? Well I’ve put in enough work to make it appear to be natural. Anyway I never read from my notes. A piece of paper is a wall between you and the audience. You wouldn’t want that. You want to engage with the audience.

Know your audience. For example, if I give a talk to a group with little China background, I would explain some basic concepts such as the Cultural Revolution and so on.

Now humour. I usually start with a joke. It relaxes your audience and grabs their attention. But no need to try too hard. After all, you are not a stand-up comedian.

Finally, bear in mind that listening is a very different experience from reading. Usually people don’t get 100% of what a speaker is saying. So you should use simple sentence structure, simple language, no jargons. This suits me perfectly. English is not my native tongue. I tend to use simple sentence structure and don’t know too many complicated words.

On that cheerful note, I’ll end my speech. Thank you for your attention, which I enjoyed very much.


Posted: May 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

I turned 50 today.

I spent the day travelling back from HK, after a very successful speech. As soon as I returned home, I took my girls to Feast at East Hotel where we enjoyed, well, a feast. Then I had a swim at the hotel. Back at home, I opened some of the many gifts I received on Friday at my birthday bash.

What a day. What a life!

Looking back at my life, I couldn’t help but feeling extremely fortunate: I have two beautiful, healthy daughters; I have many good friends scattering around the world; I have travelled to so many places, including some far-flung, wacky places such as Tibet and Uzbekistan; and I’ve lived a full life.

When my mother retired to let me to take over the job back in 1980, she was 43. I thought she was old. Now at 50, I feel so young and still in my prime. Compare to my younger years, I know much better who I am and what I want from life. Indeed I feel a lot happier with myself.

50 is a great age. I’ve accumulated some life experiences yet I am still young enough to dream and to embark on new adventures.

Yes, life starts at 50!

burning tibet

Monday, 5 May 2014

Mishra Recommends

pankaj-mishra.jpgDuring the discussion last Saturday with Pankaj Mishra – who Pico Iyer calls ‘a rare writer who is at ease as a historian, philosopher, traveler, and memoirist’ – organized by Tibet Policy Institute in Dharamsala, I asked if he could recommend three books that every Tibetan should read on China.

Here are Mishra’s recommendations in the same order he mentioned:

1. China in Ten Words by Yu Hua, the author of To Live, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant and many more.


"Framed by ten phrases common in the Chinese vernacular, China in Ten Words uses personal stories and astute analysis to reveal as never before the world’s most populous yet oft-misunderstood nation. In "Disparity," for example, Yu Hua illustrates the expanding gaps that separate citizens of the country. In "Copycat," he depicts the escalating trend of piracy and imitation as a creative new form of revolutionary action. And in "Bamboozle," he describes the increasingly brazen practices of trickery, fraud, and chicanery that are, he suggests, becoming a way of life at every level of society. Witty, insightful, and courageous, this is a refreshingly candid vision of the "Chinese miracle" and all of its consequences.”

2. Red Dust by Ma Jian, the author of Noodle Maker, Stick Out Your Tongue and many others

"In 1983, at the age of thirty, dissident artist Ma Jian finds himself divorced by his wife, separated from his daughter, betrayed by his girlfriend, facing arrest for “Spiritual Pollution,” and severely disillusioned with the confines of life in Beijing. So with little more than a change of clothes and two bars of soap, Ma takes off to immerse himself in the remotest parts of China. His journey would last three years and take him through smog-choked cities and mountain villages, from scenes of barbarity to havens of tranquility. Remarkably written and subtly moving, the result is an insight into the teeming contradictions of China that only a man who was both insider and outsider in his own country could have written. "

3. Socialism is Great by Lijia Zhang, a writer, journalist and public speaker.


With a great charm and spirit, “Socialism Is Great!” recounts Lijia Zhang’s rebellious journey from disillusioned factory worker to organizer in support of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, to eventually become the writer and journalist she always determined to be. Her memoir is like a brilliant miniature illuminating the sweeping historical forces at work in China after the Cultural Revolution as the country moved from one of stark repression to a vibrant, capitalist economy.


I am adding one more to the list, which is Mishra’s own A Great Clamour: Encounters with China and its Neighbours.
‘Journeying to Tibet on the newly built express from Beijing, to Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and then through Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan, he draws, too, an vivid portrait of China’s neighbours, and the shadow the restless giant casts over its stage.”

Enjoy Reading.



  • pReporting & Opinion
  • Blog
  • Library
  • Multimedia
  • Topics
  • Contributors

Search form


Asia Society

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise

  • 08.10.06

The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing Public Security Bureau ordered me—“controlled” me, in police lingo—to go to the Fanjiacun police station in the Fengtai District of Beijing. This “practical action” of the Chinese government, although it violated basic human rights, was taken in support of the “stability” that the violent suppression at Tiananmen had brought about.

I recall the early hours of June 4, 1989. The few thousand students and other citizens who refused to disperse remained huddled at the north face of the Martyrs’ Monument in Tiananmen Square. The glare of fires leaped skyward and gunfire crackled. The pine hedges that lined the square had been set ablaze while loudspeakers screeched their mordant warnings. The bloodbath on outlying roads had already exceeded anyone’s counting. Martial law troops had taken up their staging positions around the square, awaiting final orders, largely invisible except for the steely green glint that their helmets reflected from the light of the fires. It was then that I turned to a friend and commented that the Martyrs’ Monument might soon be witness to our deaths, but that if not, I would come back to this place every year on this date to remember the victims.

* * *

That comment somehow turned into a vow—one that I may need to be fulfilling indefinitely. So far, I have. Every year on the evening of June 3, I have come back to Tiananmen to linger for a while. My wife and I join a few good friends—and beginning in 1995, have brought our son—to gather at the base of the Martyrs’ Monument and spend some time in reflection.

For me these visits have also aroused guilt feelings. The government’s pressures to forget June Fourth have caused the day slowly to erode in public memory: each year the Tiananmen Mothers seem more isolated, and the massacre seems more a topic to be avoided in daily conversation; even singing “The Internationale,” as students did that night, has become vaguely embarrassing. A certain lazy comfort attends this forgetting, and that is why I feel guilt. If I just slouch along through life, taking the easy route, what do I say to the spirits of those murdered “rioters” of seventeen years ago? And if everyone forgets, are we not opening the door to future massacres? Our Tiananmen generation is now in middle age; we are in positions where we can make a difference. Do we not want to? At a minimum, my guilt feelings cause me to telephone Professor Ding Zilin, a leader of the Tiananmen Mothers, every year on June 3 from Tiananmen Square. It allows me to feel that I am bringing greetings to this white-haired mother from the spirit of her dead son.

I know that I am not alone in these feelings, and that is why I involve others in my annual visits. My purpose is not to stimulate resentment. Reconciliation is fine, but it must be based on truth.

This year, about 9 PM on June 2, I sent the following cell-phone text message to a number of friends:

On the evening of June 3 we will gather at the base of the Martyrs’ Monument in Tiananmen Square to reflect upon the 1989 massacre. The purpose is to remind ourselves that those events have not been consigned to history but remain deeply rooted in our minds. Pu Zhiqiang asks your support in declaring: do not forget the massacre; uphold truth; promote reconciliation based on legal rights.

In fact it was a minimal gesture, aimed mostly at assuaging my own unease.

I also forwarded the message to the low-ranking police who are assigned to “care for” me. I did the same last year. It is better for all concerned to do this. It prevents causing a shock to the police higher-ups, who, if angered, take it out on their underlings as well as on me. I did not anticipate that this time my message would set off a ruckus.

* * *

At 1:10 AM on June 3 my phone rang. It was Officer Cheng Guanglei of the National Security Unit in Fengtai District. He had been ordered to “find his way” to the doorway of my building, from where he was calling to inform me that the Public Security Bureau of Beijing City wanted to have a chat with me. He earnestly hoped that I would “coordinate” with this plan. I offered a perfunctory protest, but then went downstairs, got into the officer’s car, and went to the Fanjiacun police station. As we entered the main hall I noticed a blackboard bearing the words “Be Civilized in Raising Dogs.” I had to stifle a laugh. If our government were to reach the level of “civilization in raising dogs,” then, yes, we would be well on our way to the “harmonious society” that our leaders were touting.

Deputy Chief Sun Di and Officer Han Feng were waiting for me. Sun Di is about six feet tall. He struck me as good-natured, but deadpan: there was no way to guess what he was thinking. He said the police had received a report about my text message, so they needed to talk to me in order to understand the details.

“We all know what place Tiananmen Square is, and what day tomorrow is,” he said. “You sent a text message to a lot of people, including quite a few foreign and domestic media, saying that you intend to go there. If everybody goes, and something happens, then what?” In the view of his superiors my text message “endangers stability,” he said, so he needed to get clear on a few things: my motive, the message contents, the number of recipients, and the identity of each recipient. He invited me to explain.

I began by saying that I was confident that no one on my list of recipients would inform on me. I didn’t imagine that all the recipients would head for Tiananmen Square, either. “I don’t have that kind of charisma,” I said, “not even Hu Jintao does.” Would reporters go? Chinese journalists had long been frightened into silence on this topic, and even if one went, no report could be published. The foreign media? They always report the Tiananmen anniversary anyway—there’s nothing you can do about that. People are going to have their own opinions of what I’m doing in any event, so there’s no point getting all hot and bothered by it.

Then I explained why I had forwarded the text message to the police. Since I had been under their surveillance for some time now, I thought I might as well be aboveboard about everything and avoid any misunderstandings. But you can’t deprive a person of his will, I said, and going to Tiananmen every June 3 to commemorate the dead is a promise that I made to myself. I go there to keep the promise, and would feel wrong if I did not.

I ended by saying that I understood it to be legal to send text messages in China and legal to go to Tiananmen Square on June 3. Moreover, no law prohibits citizens from commemorating the victims of 1989. Since this is so, our whole chat right now is superfluous. For you to come to my building in the middle of the night, without any legal papers and asking for a “chat,” is itself an example of illegal use of police power.

Deputy Chief Sun responded that he wished I would lower my profile a bit and stop sending text messages all over the place. “If you want to go, then just quietly go,” he advised. “What’s the need for text messages?” He promised not to restrict my movements, but said he might assign some people to accompany me “for protection.”

“Fine,” I said. “I understand.” Then I asked Sun to relay to his superiors my own promise that, although I view China’s “Law on Assembly, Marches, and Demonstrations” to be in violation of China’s constitution, I would make written application in advance if I ever were to plan “an assembly, march, or demonstration.” But since my present plan is a purely personal matter, and since Tiananmen Square is a public space, police obstruction of my movement would be unconstitutional. Please also tell your superiors, I said, that I hope the government will finally face history squarely and solve the “June Fourth” problem. A world of make-believe on this issue cannot last forever, and it generates quite a lot of contempt.

Our chat ended about 3:00 AM. Officer Cheng Guanglei saw me home. But that was not the end of it.

At 10:20 AM the police called my home to tell me that I could not go out. This meant, without their saying it, that Sun Di’s promise of a few hours earlier was no longer valid. Although I had half-expected this news, it angered me. I went downstairs to walk the dog. Three patrolmen from the National Security Unit of Fengtai District were already on duty at my door. They looked bedraggled from lack of sleep. I telephoned Sun Di from the spot. Since he had broken his promise, I had no choice but to send out a text message explaining that fact, I said. I hoped that he would stay in touch, though, both with me and with his superiors, and do what he could not to break his word too grievously. At least, I said, he should help me to keep my promise of a yearly visit to Tiananmen this evening. Then I walked the dog.

The police joined me on the walk, and afterward I invited one of them, with whom I was fairly well acquainted, to come upstairs for lunch. My elderly mother was home, and we didn’t often have guests, so she was delighted to have one. She made special dumplings, and the young policeman helped by rolling the dumpling skins. I was busy composing my text message about “the story that I had no choice but to tell.”

* * *

Shortly after 1:00 PM Officer Cheng Guanglei reappeared downstairs. He called on his cell phone to invite me down for “another chat.” I gobbled down a few dumplings, pressed “send” on my text message, and went down to see him dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and slippers. He, too, looked short of sleep. He told me I would need to come down to the police station again, because some municipal-level officers wanted to see me.

“Why don’t they come here?” I asked. “See how cool and bright it is here?”

“You know such things aren’t up to me,” Cheng said. “Could you cut the questions and just ‘coordinate’ with us again?”

I could see what was going on. In order to guarantee that I would not be seen that night at the base of the Martyrs’ Monument, the police were going to “spend time” with me for a while. They had instructions from above to “frustrate” my personal plans, but they couldn’t plainly say so.

The people waiting for me were Jiang Qingjie and Zhang Kaijun of Department 1 of the Public Security City Bureau. Sun Di joined us later. Jiang Qingjie, a 1996 graduate of the Chinese People’s Public Security University, was the picture of competence and efficiency—but, like his colleagues, skipped the step of showing any legal papers. Their formal agenda remained the same: they wanted to inquire about my text message, my motive for sending it, and a recipient list. But their real objective, clearly, was to “tie up” my time.

Jiang Qingjie began by saying that to send a text message like this, at a time like this, harms stability and produces consequences. This is why he has to get clear about everything.

I responded that Sun Di had broken his word. Then I inquired whether sending text messages, going to Tiananmen Square, or commemorating June Fourth was illegal. Who, I asked, was actually breaking the law? Just as I have no right to force other people to commemorate June Fourth, so the government has no right to bar me from doing so. But that, I said, is exactly what you are doing right now. If we go by the rules, I don’t have to “coordinate” with you and we can end our chat right here.

* * *

But the chat did drag on, all afternoon, as the room grew heavy with cigarette smoke. Every now and then we discussed some legal matter, but for the most part the topics lay elsewhere. I asked if the inmates at their detention center could eat wheat pancakes and dough-drop soup these days, or if they still had to survive on corn balls. The policemen offered many topics of their own: how their pay was low, promotions were impossible, and how they always had to work overtime because there were too many cases. I joked with them that if they did a good job “accompanying” me they might get raises. Last year the young man who was assigned to be with me around the clock during the “sensitive time” after Zhao Ziyang’s* death got a promotion shortly thereafter to deputy station chief in charge of several dozen people.

About 6 or 7 PM, after box dinners all around, they wanted to “do a formality” about my summons.

“Summons? You mean this was a summons?” I asked. “To me it felt rather more like a kidnapping.” I told Zhang Kaijun that if I’d known it to be a formal summons, I would have wanted a lawyer.

Zhang answered that he was basing himself on article 82 of the Penal Code of the People’s Republic of China on the Management of Public Order.

I said that I was used to illegal detention for “chats,” but had never received a summons before. So could he please read to me what that article says? He didn’t read it, but showed it to me.

“You’re mistaken,” I said after glancing through it. “It says here that a summons may be issued ‘according to law’ only after discovery that a person’s behavior has violated the penal code on public order. My behavior has not.”

The police responded that article 82 was only a procedural regulation. “If you don’t agree with what we’re doing, you can go into detail in your statement.”

So I “coordinated” again. I answered their questions—pointing out, in passing, where they had broken the law. They took notes. In the end I affixed my signature and thumbprint to their written record, noting explicitly that they had omitted mention of the illegal behavior of the police.

By then I was starting to get cell-phone calls from friends at Tiananmen who wondered where I was. Something else strange was going on, they said. In earlier years the police cleared the square sometime after 9 PM, but this year they were already shooing people out by 8 PM. I explained to my friends that I was at a police station, kidnapped “according to law” for seven or eight hours, and that they should take care not to get into trouble.

At 9:30 PM Sun Di asked me to sign my name “confirming” that my summons had ended at 10 PM. It had begun at 2:30 PM, he said, and as long as it ended within eight hours it was legal. I congratulated him on the successful completion of his mission, which was, as both he and I knew, to thwart my plans to go to Tiananmen. On my side, though, the half-day detention at a police station made me feel as if I had, in fact, kept my promise to remember the massacre victims.

I reminded Sun Di that, counting the two hours of summons in the middle of the night, the total for the day was more than eight. Was this not a dangling vulnerability in his work?

“The morning wasn’t a summons,” he said. “It was just a private chat.”

At noon on Sunday, June 4, I went into the offices of my law firm to do some overtime work. Two policemen, assigned to “maintain overall stability,” came with me.

Translated from the Chinese by Perry Link.

You are here

Home Comment Insight & Opinion


Xi Jinping

Malaysia Airlines flight 370

H7N9 avian flu


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

Recommended by


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


Continue reading the main story

Continue reading the main storyShare This Page

Continue reading the main story

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.

Continue reading the main story
Continue reading the main story Advertisement

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.

Continue reading the main story



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