Mao Today: “Red Culture,” “Red Songs”–and Now “Red Volleyball”?

May 9, 2011 § 3 Comments

The Red Army fears not the trials of the Long March,
Holding light ten thousand crags and torrents.
The Five Ridges wind like gentle ripples
And the majestic Wumeng roll by, globules of clay.
Warm the steep cliffs lapped by the waters of Golden Sand,
Cold the iron chains spanning the Tatu River.
Minshan’s thousand li of snow joyously crossed,
The three Armies march on, each face glowing.   (The Long March)

Written by Mao Zedong in October of 1935 to commemorate the Red Army’s legendary 6000-mile trek (1934-1935) that broke the Guomindang blockade, the “Long March” is being read avidly today—at least by members of the Chinese women’s Olympic volleyball team.  During practice, the team works on their spikes, stuffs, sets, and line shots; after practice they come together to read the “Long March.”

Why do they read and recite the “Long March”?  The China Volleyball Association website explains,

Through these kinds of activities, the Chinese women’s volleyball team…learns from the old Red Army, stays brave when facing difficulties, devotes itself to daily training, works hard, raises standards and prepares for the London Olympics with the momentum that Chairman Mao had when leading the Red Army throughout the Long March.

Never mind that we can’t know how genuinely inspired team members are by their reading of “Long March” or whether the Chairman’s poetry will provide sufficient inspiration for them to win gold in London in 2012.  What’s notable here is that Mao is enjoying a renaissance.  That the Olympic volleyball team holds study sessions to discuss the poems of the Chairman, much as youths 50 years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, studied the sayings of Mao in the Little Red Book, is but one indicator of his renewed popularity.

Another, more telling indicator is to be found in metropolitan Chongqing (pop. 30 million).  Tune in to Chongqing Television (CTV) at prime time and you’ll no longer see the lineup of popular soap operas and sit-coms; instead you’ll be able to watch epic films or sing along to one of 36 “red songs” (selected by the government) that extol the achievements of Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party.

Watching "red" programming in Chongqing

Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai ordered the change in programming–as part of his “red culture” movement.  For Bo, and others like him– dubbed the “new left”–China has strayed too far from its “red” roots and needs to recommit itself to the revolutionary values of the early People’s Republic.

In the first couple of decades of the PRC (1949-  ), the new left maintains, the Mao-led government guaranteed economic security—jobs for all at equal pay; a safety net—where the elderly and infirm were to be provided for by the state; and a social equality—where distinctions between the privileged and unprivileged, the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural were not indelible.   Zhang Jiedong, a recent graduate of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, says this message resonates now, especially with older generations, in its nostalgic appeal to an era where “there was less stress; income was guaranteed and competition for status symbols was almost non-existent.” (Bloomberg)

Where is all of this–the reading of the “Long March,” the watching of revolutionary films, the singing of “red songs,” and the calling for government policies that hew more closely to the founding ideals of the PRC–headed?  Hard to say.  But that the Chairman’s voice–35 years after his death–is vibrant and influential in China today—is certain.

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Mao Retakes Tiananmen Square: Confucius Departs

May 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

What do Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei and the iconic Sage Confucius have in common?  They’ve both recently disappeared from public sight without explanation.

Ai went missing on April 3.  Only on April 7 did government officials acknowledge that he had been detained as he was preparing to board a flight for Hong Kong.  A few days later, reason for the detainment appeared briefly on the Xinhua’s wire service before it too disappeared: Ai was under investigation for “suspected economic crimes.”

Sure, “economic crimes” is a possible reason.  More likely, Party leaders have grown tired of his in-your-face political activism—directed at the Party.   The photo series of his outstretched middle finger, taken in Tiananmen Square and aimed at the Tiananmen Gate, atop of which Chairman Mao announced the establishment of the People’s Republic 60 years ago, no doubt rankled some Party higher-ups.

If the photo series didn’t, his unrelenting public campaign to hold government officials accountable for the shoddily constructed schools that collapsed in the 2008 earthquake in Chengdu, killing more than 5000 innocent children, did.  Then there’s his ongoing, again very public, twitter-driven rant denouncing the government’s repression of freedom of expression and human rights.

Confucius’ disappearing act remains more mysterious.  Only three months ago, on January 12, authorities placed a 17-ton, 30-foot statue of the Sage in the very square in which Mao declared the new People’s Republic in 1949.  Not just in the very square, but positioned at the northern gate of the National Museum of China, a spot from which Confucius could gaze on the massive 15’ x 25’ portrait of Mao that hangs just above the Tiananmen Gate.  It was, from the beginning, an uneasy relationship.

After all, Mao’s contempt for the “feudal” Confucius, had been deep and enduring, resulting in a massive anti-Confucius campaign that swept through the country during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s, bringing ruin to temples, books, and historical landmarks associated with the Confucian tradition.  Safe to say then that Confucius’ sudden, unannounced appearance across the Square from Mao’s gaze was not a welcome sight to the Chairman or his dedicated followers.  To them—and many observers—it represented the CCP’s rehabilitation of Confucius and his teachings and the Party’s further distancing from Maoism.

But where authorities did, after a few days, explain the “disappearance” of Ai Weiwei, none has yet been given for the removal of Confucius late Wednesday night, April 20.  Visitors to the Square on Thursday, hoping to get a glimpse of him, found only an empty pit cordoned off by blue corrugated iron fencing.  No sign, no explanation.

We can assume, I think, that he is not under investigation for “suspected economic crimes.”  We can assume too that he never gave the finger to the Tiananmen Gate, in the direction of Mao’s portrait; or complained that the corrupt or irresponsible officials in were in part responsible for the deaths of schoolchildren in Chengdu; or criticized the regime for its refusal to open up more political and social space for the Chinese people to express themselves.  (Though the specter of his doing so may have been very real to some.)

So, why the disappearance?  We simply don’t know for sure.  One museum worker is reported to have said that the statue’s placement outside of the museum facing Tiananmen Gate had been temporary and was being moved to an out-of-the-way sculpture garden inside the Museum.  Seems plausible, but why not a more formal announcement to that effect, from either authorities at the Museum or in the government?  And, if that is the case, what was the point, given the massive construction efforts and costs involved, in placing it in the symbolically sacred Square in the first place–the significance of which certainly wouldn’t have been lost on the Beijing leadership?

Chinese leaders today are in a state of high anxiety.  The turmoil in the Mideast has them agitated and overly vigilant.  It seems too that there’s a tug of war within the leadership itself, between hardliners (like Wu Banguo) and more reform-minded liberals (like Premier Wen Jiabao), with the hardliners, for the time being, ascendant.  In any event, the Beijing government doesn’t appear to be in the mood to countenance any threats to its authority—and to the authoritarian principles that undergird Communist Party rule.  Confucius’ very presence in the Square may have been perceived by many as diminishing Mao (e.g., Maoflag.net), the “Great Helmsman” of the Chinese revolution and the continued source of much of the CCP’s legitimacy today.

An emerging “red culture” movement, promoted most famously by rising political star Bo Xilai, Party Secretary of Chongqing municipality, further indicates that Mao and hardline descendants have not surrendered to the reform agenda inaugurated three decades ago by Deng Xiaoping.  They are resisting what they view as the loosening of CCP control over Chinese society.  At the heart of this “red culture” movement, dubbed by some a “New Maoism,” is the celebration of the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party, a reminder to the Chinese people that it is the steady, guiding hand of Mao and the Party that is responsible for the country’s rising fortunes since 1949.

In Chongqing (pop. 30 million), Party Secretary Bo has ordered Chongqing television to stop airing soap operas and sitcoms during prime time and to show instead film epics like Marching Forward for the New China and Liberation of the Great Southwest and public service ads; radio stations are expected to broadcast the 36 “red songs”—selected by the government—like “Ode to the Motherland,” “Without the Communist Party There Would be No New China,” and “Fluttering Flag” throughout the day.  Reports are that this movement is striking a chord, especially among older people who remember nostalgically the first decades of the People’s Republic as a time of social and economic security and equality—a security and equality largely absent today.

To return to the disappearing Confucius: as the story of perhaps the world’s only 17-ton portable statue unfolds, we may learn more about the shifting political winds in China.  Or, we may find that even then we’re still in the dark.  Chinese politics can be hard to read.  But, on the face of it now, it looks to me like Mao has won the recent round in the showdown at Tiananmen.

China Goes on Clean Green Energy Blitz

April 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

In the past week, China’s English language press–China Daily, Xinhua, Caixin, Global Times–has seen an explosion of articles highlighting China’s plans to move ahead in the development of clean, renewable energy.  Here is a small sampling of headlines, with the lead paragraph or two of the articles:

1. New energy industries to fuel China’s green growth (Xinhua) April 9 — With China’s ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions for a greener economy during the 12th five-year plan period from 2011 to 2015, new energy industries are becoming even more significant than in the past. These industries will be responsible for serving the country’s growing appetite for energy to feed its rapid development.

2. China Said to Mull Drastic Solar Power Increase (Caixin) April 12 — China may significantly raise its target for installed capacity for solar power generation over the next decade as the country steps up efforts to tap alternative energy.

China Solar Energy Association plans to present a proposal to the State Council, China’s cabinet, to lift installed photovoltaic capacity to 15 gigawatts and 50 gigawatts by 2015 and 2020 respectively, from the currently planned 5 gigawatts and 20 gigawatts, an industry insider told Caixin.

3. Pledge for more hydropower by 2015 (Global Times) April 11 — China will put more hydropower into use over the next five years, in an effort to transform the country’s energy consumption model, according to the Bureau of Energy under the National Development and Reform Commission.

By the end of 2015, China will have begun work on projects providing an extra 120 megawatts in hydropower capacity.

4. State Grid to Boost Wind Power Delivery Capacity (Caixin) April 15 — State Grid Corp. of China plans to lift its on-grid capacity to more than 90 million kilowatts by 2015, under a new target to reach over 150 million kilowatts by 2020.

5. Inner Mongolia becomes China’s first region with 10GW grid-access wind power capacity (Xinhua) April 10 — Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in north China has become the country’s first province-level region to have over 10GW of wind turbines installed and connected to the power grid.

This makes up about one third of China’s total grid-access wind installed capacity, according to figures from the autonomous regional government.

With this media barrage the Beijing leadership is underscoring for the public that its campaign to promote alternative forms of energy is real. Just-released figures from March 2011 appear to have prompted the blitz and intensified Beijing’s renewable energy efforts: the nation’s energy consumption increased more than 13% over the same month last year, alarming a government that has made reduction of energy intensity and carbon emissions the centerpiece of its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).

Wind power, solar power, water power and nuclear power–the development of which is currently on hold in China–are the country’s most promising alternatives to the coal that now keeps it running (70%-80% of its electricity is coal generated) but at the same time has made China the world’s leading emitter of climate-changing greenhouse gases.  Cleaner sources of energy are essential, so Beijing believes. And, because cleaner energy serves only if it can be transferred from where it’s produced to where it’s needed, the government is doing all that it can to promote and expand the country’s power grid.

No one, however, should conclude that China’s aggressive development of renewable energy and green technology is simply about meeting China’s domestic energy needs or cleaning China’s own air and water.  Look at the 12th Five-Year Plan:  Beijing leaders now see green energy—wind and solar power, in particular—as key to building a more sophisticated, high-tech, export economy.  No more blue jeans, no more cheap throw-away cigarette lighters—no more “workshop of the world” low-tech economy.  The Chinese seek global leadership in the 21st century in the nurturing and trade of clean energy technology.

Americans who aren’t moved to support investment in green energy and technology by the argument that fossil fuels cannot be sustained indefinitely—and may slowly be killing us—perhaps can, and should, be moved by a baser, less scientific one.  To paraphrase President Clinton, “It’s about economic competitiveness, stupid!”

That was U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s message—put more subtly and gracefully–in his speech to the National Press Club in November 2010.  I recommend you read it (here).

NGO Tells Shanghai Residents: Walk, Don’t Drive

April 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

“Walk, don’t drive.”  That was the message of the Green Pedestrian Crossing campaign, sponsored last year by the China Environmental Protection Foundation.  Launched in car-crazed Shanghai, the campaign spread to 15 other Chinese cities and, according to the Foundation, reached “3.92 million people and increased general public awareness about environmental awareness by 86%.”

How the Foundation arrived at these figures is not entirely clear.  But the figures–and their accuracy–aside, the campaign, as captured in the following 2-minute video, was highly original.

In the words of the China Environmental Protection Foundation, the award-winning campaign  (Adfest 2011 “Best of Show”; Gold Design Lion at Cannes International Advertising Festival 2010) “demonstrated to the public that even an ordinary moment could be ‘green,’ and that taking one small step can make a significant contribution to protecting the environment.”

Whether it made a dent in China’s driving mania–or in the country’s carbon output–is doubtful, but the Green Pedestrian Crossing campaign was certainly eye-catching and deserving of all the awards it garnered.

Burning through Money?: Tomb-Sweeping Day in China Goes Green

April 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

You’re dead, but according to traditional beliefs, you’ll rest more content in the spirit world if you are outfitted with some of the comforts you had in life.  This is where your descendants come in: every year on tomb-sweeping day they converge on your burial site to spruce up the site, to celebrate with family who have gathered from far and near, and to replenish your needs for the following year.

Tomb-sweeping day, or the Qingming festival, falls every year as it has now for thousands of years, just after the Spring equinox (April 5 this year).  It’s a day for the living to reunite with family members, to pay their respects to the dead, and to enjoy the warming spring air.  But you too are looking forward to it, because you need stuff, just as generations of ancestors before you have.  You’re keeping your fingers crossed that your descendants will have given careful thought to what provisions will get you through another year.

Of course they will bring oranges, cigarettes, watermelon seeds, shoes, and maotai liquor, because they’ve done that routinely for the past ten years or so, knowing full well how much you enjoyed those things in life.  You’re less confident that this year they’ll bring the cash you need to cover normal expenses, mahjong bets, and occasional bribe to gain preferential treatment in the spirit world.  They’re naturally aware that you, like ancestors in all the neighboring graves, are expecting money (a mainstay of the holiday for centuries), but this year the living have expressed a new concern about the economic and environmental effects of provisioning ancestors with money (see Xinhua).

It turns out that in 2010 people spent 1.5 billion dollars on money and other gifts for ancestors.  That’s paper money, of no use in the living world.  The money, joss paper as it is called, is burnt at gravesites, its essence then transmitted to ancestors for use in the spirit world.

The 1.5 billion dollar cost alone wouldn’t stand in the way of Chinese descendants caring for ancestors.  But people are now calculating the toll on the environment as well. There’s the deforestation that results from the manufacture of the money: more than 1000 tons of papers bills were burnt on last year’s tomb-sweeping day.  The environmental costs continue: 1000 tons of burning paper spews a lot of particulate matter and ash into the air.  Living people have become worried about the pollution and the health effects on the descendants of burning money.  One of them told Xinhua News: “At this time of year, people burning thick wads of yellow-colored paper cash can be seen on the streets. The ashes make the streets dirty and the air sometimes would become suffocating.”

And then there’s the concern with fires.   Last year, burning paper money and other paper goods set off 1651 fires, leaving 17 people dead.  This year, the Ministry of Security has urged fire control bureaus to be more vigilant and “to identify fire risks and prevent major fires during the festival.”  Police departments are expected to increase patrols at sites where fires are most likely to be lit (see People’s Daily). You’re hoping that your cemetery isn’t one of high interest to the local police department.

It’s not just the paper money that’s on your wish list.  There’s the Mercedes Benz that you had always coveted in the world of the living.  Your eldest son was aware of just how much you wanted to own a luxury car.  You’re hoping, almost beyond hope, that he remembers your disappointment and buys a paper Mercedes to transmit for use in your spirit world.  Some of the Mercedes even come with their own drivers!

And it would be wonderful, of course, to get an iPad 2.

But this expectation is pretty unrealistic—you know there’s been a run on them, and paper shops throughout the country simply can’t keep them on their shelves (see Reuters; PC Mag.com).

And there’s always the danger you won’t get anything but the routine oranges and a bit of maotai.  You’ve heard of families that have gone totally low carbon and environmentally friendly on tomb-sweeping day.  Mr. Zhang, who above complained about the suffocating air of burnt paper money, stopped the practice of burning gifts to his ancestors altogether.  He remarked, “In the past we would burn fake paper money for our ancestors on this special occasion. But presenting flowers or silk ones began gaining popularity in Hohhot last year and we have decided to shift to the new way of doing things…It is more environment-friendly.”

Road Rage in Beijing: An Update on the Car Craze

March 28, 2011 § 5 Comments

You’ve heard of road rage.  But Beijing, with its attempt to cut back on car ownership and ease the congestion that frustrates the millions of drivers in the capital city, may be generating a new strain of anti-social disorder, “off-the-road rage.”

As you may remember, Beijingers bought cars in record numbers last year, more than 800,000 units, increasing the total number on the roads there to nearly 5 million and making Beijing, together with Mexico City, the top city in the world for “commuter pain” (IBM commuter pain survey).

By December of 2010, Beijing officials concluded that the car-buying frenzy, though good for China’s economy, had to be reined in; the city’s traffic and congestion were out of control, as was the dirty exhaust being spewed into the Beijing air—by idling cars especially.  With the efficiency a one-party state can muster, Beijing declared that in 2011 car sales would be limited to 20,000/month (17,600 for individual car buyers, the rest reserved for commercial or government use) or 240,000 for the year.  And to ensure fairness, the government would institute a lottery system.  During the first week of each month, individuals could enter their name in lottery; at the end of the month, 17,600 lucky entries would be drawn—with the winners winning the right to purchase a car. (On the late December day that Beijing officials announced its plans for 2011 more than 30,000 residents of Beijing rushed out to auto dealerships to buy a car before the lottery system kicked in.)

In January of 2011, 210,000 people entered their names in the lottery; 17,600 of them won licenses.  That left a lot of disappointed entrants (192,400).  Their names were automatically rolled over into the February lottery, along with the 137,045 new applicants.  So while January’s lottery was competitive, February’s was still more so: 17,600 out of more than 300,000.  The odds of winning had worsened significantly: January’s 1 in 11 had fallen to 1 in 17.  Now, this month, there’s March Madness: including the rollovers from the January and February contests, there are about 400,000 total applications, putting the odds of winning at something like 1 in 23.

It also means that by the end of March you’ll have 380,000 disappointed Beijingers waiting hopefully each month for their name to be drawn.  And, of course, this number will only grow larger with each passing month.

I’m not sure that traffic congestion in Beijing has noticeably improved.  But I am pretty sure that as the odds of winning the car lottery plummet, the frustration among some of the repeatedly unsuccessful entrants will mount.  Give them a few more disappointing months and their rage—as a consequence of being unable to take to the roads—may be no less than the rage experienced by some drivers caught in snarling traffic and unable to escape the roads.T

Think of it as the yang of “on-the-road rage” giving birth to the yin of “off-the-road rage.”

Your iPod is Polluting China and L.A.–and Wyoming Might be Next

March 27, 2011 § 2 Comments

When you bought your last Apple iPod, you may have been aware that it had been manufactured at a factory in China, perhaps the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen in the province of Guangzhou.  (Let’s put aside for the moment the working conditions there.)  You may have been aware too that in manufacturing your electronic marvel, the Shenzhen plant emitted roughly 25 pounds of the greenhouse gas, CO2.   It’s even possible that you were also aware of the 9-10 pounds of CO2 emitted in transporting the device to you from China (see Apples’ environmental report for the iPod classic).

Here’s what you probably didn’t take in account: that the coal that powered the Foxconn plant in the south likely was mined in the far northern province of Shanxi, transported by lorry or rail to coal terminals on the coast (e.g., the port city of Tianjin), and from there shipped by freighter to Shenzhen in the far south.

Nor did you likely consider that the air above the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen moves eastward, making its way to Los Angeles in about three weeks’ time.  Scientists have calculated that roughly 30% of the air pollution in Los Angeles originates in China.

Thus far, then, your iPod has contributed to glacial melting in the Himalayas, the dirty air in Guangzhou, and the increasing incidence of respiratory disease in China.  And once the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter released by the coal that fired the Foxconn plant to manufacture your iPod arrive in LA, your purchase can claim a small contribution to the heavy smog that hangs over the city of Los Angeles—and to the ozone-polluted air Angelinos breath in daily.

But soon there may be yet a new environmental twist you’ll have to factor into your iPod purchase.  As China’s energy needs skyrocket, the country is importing ever more of its coal, even as it mines its own generous reserves.   It makes sense, of course, that Vietnam, a nearby neighbor with large coal deposits, would be the big exporter to China that it is.   But, the state of Wyoming?  Yes, Wyoming will soon be supplying some of the energy needed to produce the Chinese-made iPod that will then be shipped thousands of miles to the States for your use.

Powder River Basin coal mines

That’s if Peabody Energy and Australian-based Ambre Energy get their way.   Their plan is to mine the low-sulfur coal in the Powder River Basin in Southeast Montana and Northeast Wyoming, move it by train 1367 miles (note: Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway estimates that 500 pounds of coal are blown from each rail car for every 500 miles traveled) to a newly- built shipping terminal in Longview Washington, and load it there on to a vessel that will carry it 5852 nautical miles to ports along the southern and southeastern coasts of China.

map by Michael Newhouse, Sierra

Opposition to the plan is growing according to an excellent article in Sierra magazine.  But if Peabody and Ambre do win, next time you buy an iPod, don’t forget to add the CO2 cost of moving coal from Powder River Basin, Wyoming to Guangzhou, China.

One last thing: if you actually use your iPod, every time you give it a full recharge it’s emitting another ½ pound of CO2 into the air.

At a minimum, then, your 4.9-ounce jewel of an iPod, over the course of its life, is responsible for 200 times its weight in greenhouse gas emissions.   And, there still remains the matter of recycling….

I wish I didn’t love my iPod.

Reprinted with permission from Grist.org