Search: Great Leap Forward

Book Review: Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine

By , April 18, 2011

When teaching about China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), my Chinese history professor would remind students that history is not necessarily written by the victors but rather is written by those with the ability to transcribe and communicate their experiences, namely the educated.  A comparison of our knowledge of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a campaign largely against the Communist China’s remaining vestiges of wealth and educational elitism, with our knowledge about the Great Leap Forward proves his point.  A simple search on Amazon reveals 20 memoirs, just in English, about the Cultural Revolution.  The number of memoirs on the Great Leap Forward in English?  Zero.  We don’t even know how many people died as a result of one of the worst famines in modern human history (the traditional estimate is 30 million but many believe this is too low).

But Frank Dikötter, in his new book Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, seeks to enlighten us on this horrifying period in Chinese history, or as he puts it in his opening sentence when “China descended into hell.”  With access to recently published provincial archives from the time period, Dikötter shows a China when all semblance of a rule of law vanished and society returned to a Hobbesian state of nature.

Dikötter goes deeper than just explaining the misery; instead he seeks to refute many common-held beliefs regarding the Great Leap Forward and hold the Chinese Communist Party, in particular Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, directly responsible for the tens of millions of peasants who unnecessarily perished.  For Dikötter the Great Leap Forward is not a famine but rather a genocide on par with the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags.

Parts one and two of the book – which are perhaps the most interesting – convincingly argues that the highest echelons of power knew exactly what was happening on the ground during the Great Leap Forward and largely didn’t care.  For the leadership, proving to the rest of the world that China had already made the successful “great leap” to an industrialized, rich, Utopian communist society became paramount, even at the expense of Chinese lives.  Mao’s Great Leap Forward began with the complete collectivization of farms, village duties, factories, and most of society.  Dikköter shows that although some in the leadership, most notably Peng Dehui, criticized the rapid drive to collectivization as early as 1959, others like Zhou Enlai who was desperate to return to Mao’s good graces vigorously supported the Great Leap Forward, even with its half-baked ideas of digging crops deeper, smelting steel in backyard furnaces, and building useless irrigation projects that took farmers away from farming the land.

For Dikötter, the leadership’s stupidity was augmented by its arrogance.  To prove to the world that China had

French Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson visited China during the start of the Great Leap Forward (1958) for Life Magazine. Here is a backyard furnance.

successfully made the transition to communism, Mao didn’t just pressure local leaders to meet agricultural and industrial targets, but to surpass them.  The excess grain and goods were sold, below market value even, abroad.  But in reality, as Dikötter makes clear, there was no excess grain – local cadres lied about the numbers, causing the central government to take what was viewed as excess, but which was largely the sum total of all that a particular village produced.

Dikötter disproves the notion that the central leadership was unaware of the mass starvation.  Instead, Dikötter portrays a leadership that made a choice: instead of returning the grain that it knew would keep people alive, the leadership, at the behest of Zhou Enlai, needlessly sought to pay off China’s international debts through grain’s export.  What is perhaps one of the more shocking aspects of the book, Dikötter goes on to explain that although most of China’s treaties provided 18 years for China to repay its debt, the leadership was intent on paying off all debt by 1965.  Because China did not have cash or bullion, the only commodity it could use to pay off its debt in only 5 years was grain.  For Mao, the choice was simple – “when there is not enough to eat people starve to death.  It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill”  – the image of China that Mao wanted to portray to the rest of the world trumped any local needs.

Mao’s Great Famine, with access to the provincial archives, focuses on the systems in place that allowed the famine to continue as well as the callousness of China’s leadership.  At times, one is left wondering what vestiges of the Great Leap Forward still remain; what is not unique to the time period but instead applicable to the modern-day CCP?  Today, the Chinese government still maintains targets for local cadres, and local officials are desperate to meet these targets, even at the expense of the law.  Prof. Carl Minzner has analyzed the current “cadre responsibility system” especially in terms of forced abortions to meet local one-child policy targets.  See Carl Minzner, Riots and Cover-Ups: Counterproductive Control of Local Agents in China (November 9, 2009). University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, Vol. 31, 2009; Washington U. School of Law Working Paper No. 09-11-01. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1502943.

Dikötter also describes the increasing politicization of the legal system, or what was left of it after the Ministry of Justice was disbanded in 1959.  “Every one of our party resolutions is a law.  When we have a conference it becomes the law….The great majority of rules and regulations are drafted by the judicial administration.  We should not rely on these….”  Epitomizing this politicalization of the legal system, Dikötter points to the creation of re-education through labor (laojiao), an extra-judicial proceeding where prisoners could be held indefinitely.  Interestingly, China today, even on its alleged quest for a rule of law, has maintained re-education through labor and has largely kept it an extra-judicial, politicized process.

Cartier-Bresson photographs children paving the road after school.

Dikötter’s book is a necessary read to understand the misery that the Chinese people, especially in the rural areas, suffered during the Great Leap Forward.  Its description of the idiocy of the central leadership in caring more about China’s image abroad than the suffering of its own people makes Mao’s Great Famine an important read, especially parts one and two, in any Chinese history class.  But the book itself isn’t a particularly enjoyable read; certainly not a good subway ride book.  The story of the Great Leap Forward is not told in a lineal way; instead, Dikötter breaks up the story by topics, making it difficult to follow the progression of certain events.  Additionally, Dikötter has a large amount of data to share which is impressive indeed.  But at times the constant recitation of numbers is overwhelming and largely causes the reader’s eyes to glaze over.  Dikötter would have done better to add more charts to the book to reflect these numbers.

Finally, Dikötter cites often to two books about Mao Zedong – The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician by Li Zhisui and Mao Zedong by Jung Chang and John Halliday.  The veracity of these books, particularly the latter, has been called into question by some academics.  Dikötter’s reliance on these books, particularly when it comes to quoting Mao, is slightly problematic.

But this is a small issue in what is otherwise an important addition to the understanding of the Great Leap Forward and today’s China.  As Dikötter notes throughout the book, the publication of the provincial archives is only the beginning; we will only know the truth when Beijing finally releases the central government’s archives from the time period.  Dikötter implies that this is an inevitably, but given the current political environment, we will likely be waiting a long time.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, by Frank Dikötter (Walker & Company 2010), 448 pages.
 

Parallels in Authoritarianism: Trump and the Chinese Communist Party

By , January 31, 2017

President Donald J. Trump (courtesy of whitehouse.gov)

For years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was in denial about the extent of its air pollution problem, often referring to smog-infested days as perfect “blue sky” ones.  Then, in July 2008, @BeijingAir, a U.S. Embassy-created twitter account, began tweeting accurate pollution data throughout the day. Beijing was furious, claiming sole legal authority to monitor and publish air quality numbers.  But the U.S. Embassy stood its ground, and slowly, the CCP began to acknowledge that pollution levels were dangerously high. By January 2013, the Beijing government began reporting accurate, hourly data and by the end of 2013, climate change, pollution levels, and green technology had become important parts of the CCP’s platform.

Fast forward four years, and it is now the United States that is censoring tweets about climate change. Instead of the transparency that has long been a bedrock of the United States’ political system and that we encourage in other, less democratic nations, President Donald Trump appeared to take a page from the CCP’s playbook: he ordered that the Badlands National Parks remove tweets about increased CO2 omissions and climate change, statements he disagrees with.

In fact, in much of the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency, the parallels to authoritarian regimes, specifically the CCP, have become all too real.  It has become clear that Trump is not going to be the rational businessman that people had hoped for; he is not going to surround himself with advisers who temper his rash decisions. That is not how authoritarian leaders behave.

Upending Society – Trump, America’s Mao Zedong?

Chairman Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong came to power as a revolutionary, a populist and as a man intent on turning over the old world order.  Those tendencies – among other things – help to explain why China was enveloped in disarray for most of Mao’s 27-year reign. Similarly, these are the same impulses found in Trump, his campaign and thus far his presidency, as noted China scholar Orville Schell pointed out two weeks ago at an Asia Society event.  Trump’s preeminent goal is not necessarily to  advance the United States economically or even to advocate a coherent, ideological policy platform; rather his motivating impulse is to upset the current world order: “I think there is a bit of an outsider, troublemaker, turner-over of old orders, putting fingers in the eyes of the establishment in Donald Trump” Schell noted.

It is the disarray and the upending of society that appeals to Trump.  “If you don’t destroy, you can’t construct” was a favorite saying of Mao as he took China on the pointless path of a continuous revolution. Understanding that aspect of Trump is important in figuring out how to deal with his presidency.  Appealing to economic logic when he calls for a 20% tariff on Mexican goods and calling on American values when he institutes a ban on Muslim immigration is not going to resonate with Trump.

Projects That Are Ideological, Not Beneficial

Rural residents and victims of China’s Great Leap Forward

Part of an authoritarian regime is the dedication to ideological-based projects, even at the expense of economic or social progress. For Mao, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) stands out.  In order to prove that China had made the “great leap” to an industrialized, rich, communist society, Mao ordered the complete collectivization of farms, factories, and most of society. Harebrained ideas of digging crops deeper, smelting steel in backyard furnaces, and building useless irrigation projects, resulted in one of the greatest man-made famines in history. Within a year, the leadership knew that the program was a failure. But the CCP ignored this fact and continued the campaign, committed to the ideological line.

In his first week, Trump has already called for an ideological project that most agree will hurt America more than it will help: building a wall between the United States and Mexico. But most undocumented immigrants over-stay their legally-obtained visa, not walk across the border. Trump ignores this fact and instead has proposed building a border wall that will cost between $10 billion (Trump’s estimate) and $38 billion (MIT’s estimate) and distract America from dealing with more compelling issues.  While he demands Mexico pay for the wall, the only proposal Trump has offered is a 20% tariff on Mexican goods, a tariff that will likely be borne by the American consumer.

Some of the wall that already exists between Mexico and the U.S. (courtesy of NBC News)

Because the emphasis is on ideology and not practicality, ideological projects are neither particularly well-thought out nor properly executed.  During the Great Leap Forward, Mao decided that China would double its steel production.  To meet this goal, Mao instituted “backyard furnaces:” every item made of metal – doorknobs, farm tools – was smelted down. But as Mao would find out, smelted down metal produces inferior quality pig iron that cannot be used, let alone sold abroad as steel.

Similarly, Trump’s January 27, 2017 executive order, to ban immigration of Muslims from certain countries, gave no thought to its legality or to its implementation.  Signed after 4 pm on a Friday and to take immediate effect, the world was left unprepared. Immigration officials, who had no prior notice of the precise contents of the executive order, were left largely in the dark, and when refugees, green card and visa holders arrived, chaos ensued.

But logical arguments and exposing impracticalities are likely not going to cause Trump to change his mind.  His campaigns are about ideology and like Mao, expect Trump to double down when confronted with facts and the failure of their implementation. Much like he did on his twitter feed on Monday regarding Friday’s executive order.

Of Purges & Sycophants

As part of his purge, Liu Shaoqi, was often publicly criticized during the Cultural Revolution

From Mao to Xi Jinping (pronounced See Gin-ping), Chinese politics have been roiled with political purges.  It is a way for the current leader to eliminate threats to his power, maintain his authoritarian control and ensure that those remaining quickly fall in line. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao purged Liu Shaoqi (pronouced Leo Shao-chi) and Deng Xiaoping, two senior officials who had gained support among the Party for their economic reforms. Liu eventually died in prison but Deng was able to survive, and in the early 1990s, implemented those economic reforms that caused Liu his life.

Current President Xi Jinping has also purged those he considered a threat to his rule, using the Party-controlled legal system to do so.  In 2012, photogenic, ambitious and popular politician Bo Xilai (pronounced Bwo See-lie), long considered competition to Xi and his power base, was arrested and tried on charges of corruption, receiving a life sentence.  In 2015, Zhou Yangkang (pronounced Joe Yongkong), the former head of China’s powerful Ministry of Public Security and a supporter of Bo, received the same fate. A life sentence in a Chinese jail is a good way to eliminate perceived rivals

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates

Under Trump’s rule, New Jersey governor Chris Christie was the first to go, even before Trump officially took office.  While the reason is unclear, some saying his son-in-law didn’t get along with Christie while others maintaining that Christie’s honest advice was too much for Trump, it wasn’t the most practical move to remove the head of your transition team – and all of his staff – in the midst of executing the transition plan.

But on Monday, Trump carried out his first purge of his Administration: the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates who, like the courts, questioned the legality of his executive order and called on the Justice Department staff to decline to defend it.  Reminiscent of CCP use of inflammatory rhetoric for its purges, Trump issued a similar factional statement, stating Yates’ “betrayal” of the Justice Department and that she is “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”

But these purges are not just about eliminating threats and consolidating power, it is also to ensure that those remaining toe the party line.  Before the Great Leap Forward, Premier Zhou Enlai (pronounced Joe N-lie) had fallen out of Mao’s favor.  Desperate to get back in his graces, Zhou became an ardent supporter of Mao’s Great Leap Forward even though he quickly became aware that the program was a failure with hundreds of thousands starving to death. But, fearful of a purge, Zhou never revealed the truth to Mao, afraid to challenge him. Instead, Zhou remained committed to the program and ordered that Mao’s irrational demands be fulfilled: that China immediately pay off its international debt through grain export.

Pence and Mattis watch Trump sign Friday’s executive order.

Most Republicans did not speak out against Friday’s executive order that essentially banned Muslims from a select list of countries from legally entering the United States.  Even those who had previously condemned Trump’s call for a for a Muslim ban – Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker Paul Ryan, newly appointed Secretary of Defense James Mattis – have yet to utter a word.  But speaking up may mean falling out of Trump’s favor. And like Zhou Enlai before them, they appear to prioritize their position in Trump’s inner circle over everything else.

This is why Trump’s cabinet appointees’ statements to the Senate – that climate change is real, that water boarding is torture – cannot necessarily be relied upon.  Once in office, will they be like Pence and Mattis, willing to fall in line with Trump’s extreme views and carry out his orders?  And now that Trump has appointed Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, confidant and heretofore intelligence novice, to the National Security Council, while simultaneously downgrading the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to a need to know basis, is Trump messaging to his cabinet that ideology takes precedent over expertise – that in red versus expert, red wins?

Attack on the Press                                                                                                    

Press Secretary Sean Spicer on January 21, 2017 discussing the size of the crowds at Trump’s inauguration (courtesy Getty Images)

Calling the press “the opposition party,” lecturing reporters on what they “should be writing,” referring to journalists as “the most dishonest human beings on earth,” are all a part of the Trump Administration’s strategy on how to interact with the media, or more aptly, how to crush it.  Eerily, it is also the strategy of the CCP, in its efforts to ensure that freedom of the press never takes hold in China: “the ultimate goal of advocating the West’s view of the media is to hawk the principle of abstract and absolute freedom of the press, oppose the Party’s leadership in the media, and gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology” (translation of the CCP’s Document No. 9 courtesy of Chinafile).

With its attacks on the media, the question remains just how far the Trump Administration will go in trying to clamp down on the press. The CCP offers a frighteningly effective alternative, with its arrest and prosecution of journalists on trumped up charges, its random detention of reporters critical of the government, its toying of the visa process – and for some outright repulsion from China – for foreign journalists when the CCP does not approve of their coverage of China.

But even in light of the Trump Administration’s censure, the U.S. press continues to try to serve its role as a watchdog of the government. But if the Trump Administration steps up its campaign against the press à la the CCP, who is going to win that battle?

(courtesy of China Digital Times)

Creating a Ministry of Truth

Throughout his campaign and now, in the first week of his Administration, Trump has been accused of telling lies and at times, trying to censor the truth.  But alternative realities are nothing new to an authoritarian regime.  The Chinese government is a master at it.  Referring to hazardous pollution as mere fog?  Trying to hide from your people and the world that SARS is spreading and hitting epidemic proportions? Blaming the recent downturn in the economy on mysterious foreign forces?  Having web pages just disappear? All alternative realities that the CCP uses to maintain its authoritarian control.

Insisting that your inauguration crowd was larger than President Barak Obama’s when the pictures clearly depict otherwise?  Pretending that your executive order is not a ban on Muslim immigration? Claiming that you lost the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally?  Having web pages just disappear? These are all alternative realities the Trump Administration has offered in just the past week alone.

Lies and alternative realities come with a real danger – that people will start to believe them or will never know the truth.  Take for example the Chinese government’s censorship of the its violent crackdown in 1989 on the students protesting in Tian’anmen Square. For the first few years after the Tiananmen massacre, the question was, how long will the Chinese government refuse to investigate the government-sponsored murder of hundreds of Chinese students. Twenty-eight years later, the question now is, will the Chinese ever know their own history?  Most below the age of 30 have never seen the photo of “tank man” let alone have any idea about what happened on that fateful night in June 1989.

Conclusion

Protests erupt on Saturday at San Francisco International airport (courtesy of AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

To be clear, America is not China.  This is not how things have to progress nor necessarily how they will. But what we see with the Trump Administration is a start.  And even a start is dangerous. But at the same time, many of America’s most revered democratic institution – the courts, its lawyers, the media, the American people – have spontaneously stood up to try to protect this country and its people.

But for the past week, Congress has been too slow to realize that the Trump government is no ordinary administration: this is a president and an administration that in its first week in power is more reminiscent of an authoritarian regime than a democratic one.  The ordinary tactics of politics – the give and take, the horse trading – are not going to suffice; bolder steps need to be taken.  Like the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, politicians need to constantly and publicly pressure and oppose the Administration if they want to ensure that America stays true to her democratic ideals.

To Never Forget? China’s Cultural Revolution

Public struggle session during the Cultural Revolution

Public struggle session during the Cultural Revolution

Tomorrow will mark an important anniversary in China, an anniversary that will neither be celebrated nor condemned by the Chinese Communist Party; an anniversary that can only be acknowledged privately, by the millions who lost much; an anniversary that is not admitted to by the perpetrators who destroyed so many.  For May 16, 2016 is the 50th anniversary of the start of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a decade-long, and ultimately senseless, political movement that shutdown Chinese society and resulted in the deaths of at least 1.5 million people, with tens of millions more publicly persecuted.

The Cultural Revolution began as a way for Mao Zedong to re-assert his leadership and consolidate his power.   Only eight years prior, in 1958, Mao launched what history would also determine a worthless campaign – the Great Leap Forward. Less than 10 years after establishing the People’s Republic of China, Mao was gung-ho to move China to the next stage of communism – complete collectivization of farming and industry.  China was nowhere near ready, resulting in one of the worst man-made famines of the 20th century, with over 30 million dying of starvation and other related disease.  With that debacle,  Mao, and with him, Mao Zedong Thought, were marginalized.  For a brief period in the early 1960s, more pragmatic communist leaders like Liu Shaoqi (pronounced Leo Sh-ao Chee) and Deng Xiaoping, took control.  Under their leadership, China pulled back from complete collectivization and permitted some economic liberalization, allowing society to get back on its feet.

Mao Zedong uses the Cultural Revolution to regain power and legitimize his ideology

Mao Zedong uses the Cultural Revolution to regain power and legitimize his ideology

But China’s development was short-lived.  On May 16, 1966, Mao, at a Party meeting, came out of his semi-retirement and announced the start of the Cultural Revolution.  In a notice to the Party – as well as to the Chinese people – Mao warned:

Those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various spheres of culture are a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists. Once conditions are ripe, they will seize political power and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Some of them we have already seen through; others we have not. Some are still trusted by us and are being trained as our successors, persons like Khruschev for example, who are still nestling beside us.

What ensued were ten years of political purges, including the mysterious deaths of two of Mao’s rivals – Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao (pronounce Leen Bee-ow), as well as criticisms, abuse and murder of millions of innocent Chinese people as Mao sought to rid China of its “bourgeoisie” elements.  Mao permitted Chinese society to resort to violence, carte blanche, to achieve his objectives.  Anyone who had a family history of privilege, no matter how far back or how minor, was a target.  As were intellectuals or anyone who did not appropriately parrot the words of Mao.  These “counter-revolutionaries” would be subject to public humiliation, physical abuse and, at times, death by the hands of their families, neighbors and fellow countrymen.  Many would also take their own lives.  Schools were disbanded, work was minimal and “struggle sessions” constant.  While the most violence erupted in the late 60s to early 70s, the Cultural Revolution was not over until Mao died on September 9, 1976.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Although the Cultural Revolution is not fully taught in schools in China and government-supported amnesia is the status quo, stories of that bleak time still emerge.  The author Yu Hua has probably done the most to keep these memories alive.  “To Live,” one of his many books about ordinary people trying to get through the insanity of the Cultural Revolution, is a best seller in China and was made into a celebrated motion picture by the famed director Zhang Yimou.

But more recently, ordinary citizens are demanding that the Cultural Revolution not be forgotten.  Last month, on the eve of the Tomb Sweeping holiday in China, where families return to grave sites to pay their respect to their dead relatives, retired Chinese Supreme People’s Court judge, Cai Xiaoxue, explained in a blog post that he cannot.  During the onset of the Cultural Revolution, his mother, a teacher, was constantly interrogated by her colleagues, not permitted to return home and in June 1966, died in their custody.  Judge Cai’s family did not find out about her death until a month later, by which time her ashes were nowhere to be found.  In 1969, after undergoing constant and public humiliations, writing various self-criticisms, and being fired from his post at the publishing house because he was a “capitalist roader,” Judge Cai’s father took his own life.  Fifteen-year old Cai is the one who discovered the body and who, the next day, was required to attend a struggle session against his dead father.  He was forced to sit in the front row.

Today, Judge Cai has no ashes to honor on Tomb Sweeping Day.  His father’s ashes also were never returned.  But he has purchased a plot where all he was able to bury were his father’s writings and his mother’s clothes.  On the tombstone are carved only two words: Never Forget (勿忘).  According to Judge Cai, only by remembering the horror can China ensure that that nothing like the Cultural Revolution happens again.

President Xi Jinping, trying to be more Mao than Mao?

President Xi Jinping, trying to be more Mao than Mao?

What makes Judge Cai’s story – and this 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution – particularly significant is that the current leadership has recently resorted to some of the methods used by Mao and the Red Guards.  Like Mao, current Chinese President and General Party Secretary, Xi Jinping, is intent on consolidating his power to a single man rule.  Through a campaign against corruption, Xi has rid the leadership of those he perceives as major threats (think Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang).  And these officials are dealt with outside of the legal system, through the Party disciplinary committee, with a court of law merely an afterthought and rubberstamp.  Public, forced confessions and self-criticisms – now on TV – have made a comeback.  And, for the past few years, deaths of dissidents while in police custody appear to be a yearly occurrence – Cao Shunli in 2014, Zhang Liumao in 2015, and now, this Friday, environmentalist Lei Yang (although he likely could not be called a dissident).

Never forget the horror of the Cultural Revolution

Never forget the horror of the Cultural Revolution

Will Xi Jinping return to the levels of violence that existed during the Cultural Revolution?  Likely not.  But even some regression, no matter how small, is a dangerous step.  As Judge Cai’s blog post reveals, the Chinese people suffered tremendously during the Cultural Revolution.  They do not need to do so again.

For another poignant story similar to Judge Cai’s, see the New York Times’ re-telling of the loss of Chen Shuxiang’s father and the mere $380 he received in compensation for his death.

Xie Jin’s “Two Stage Sisters” & Xi Jinping’s Recent Thoughts on the Arts

By , October 26, 2014
Movie Poster for Xie Jin's Two Stage Sisters

Movie Poster for Xie Jin’s Two Stage Sisters

The China Institute‘s Cultural Revolution film series kicked off with a bang the other week with a rarely-viewed Xie Jin (pronounced Sye Gin) film, Two Stage Sisters (舞台姐妹).  All of the films being shown  makes this little series a gem.  But it is the series’ fortuitous timing – with President Xi Jinping’s (pronounced See Gin-ping) recent speech on the arts – that makes it a must see for anyone trying to understand the possible direction China’s arts may take in the future.

Two Stage Sisters, filmed in 1964 during a more open time before the onset of the Cultural Revolution, breaks down any notion that  propaganda films from this time period could not also be art.  The film follows the lives of two Shaoxing opera actresses – Yuehong and Chunhua – as they travel through a turbulent time in China’s history.  The film opens in 1935’s rural China.  Chunhua, who has run away from her in-laws who had plans to sell her, finds herself hiding in the store room of a local opera troupe.  The troupe – run by Yuehong’s father – adopts her and discovering that she has a natural talent for Shaoxing opera, makes her the star of the show along with Yuehong.  Showing the abusive practices of pre-revolution China, after the father dies, the two stage sisters are sold to a Shanghai opera troupe to pay off their father’s debts.

In early 1940s Shanghai, Yuehong and Chunhua become stars.  But slowly, as China begins to change, so does the relationship between the two women.  Chunhua remains the virtuous peasant.  Even when a wealthy patron wants to adopt her as her daughter, Chunhua, ever pure to the art, rejects the patron’s advances.  Yuehong questions Chunhua’s decision and is slowly seduced by the opera troupe’s manager as well as the Guomingdang, bourgeois lifestyle that he offers.  While Chunhua, inspired by Lu Xun’s work, begins to write revolutionary operas, Yuehong retires and fills her life with pearls, furs and diamonds.

Two Stage Sisters is marked by amazingly intense melodrama with the growing tension between the two sisters and the impending revolution

Chunhua (left) and Yuehong begin to lead different lives

Chunhua (left) and Yuehong begin to lead different lives

building in every scene.  It is in that melodrama that director Xie Jin excels and makes this film into a masterpiece.   The drama crescendos in an artfully shot courtroom scene that demonstrates that if history did not get in the way, Xie Jin could have been China’s Kurosawa.

But like most things in China, history and politics did get in the way, essentially putting Xie Jin’s career on hold for the next twenty years.  Two Stage Sisters, filmed with the approval of Xia Yan (pronounced Syia Yen), China’s Vice Minister of Culture, was produced at time when Mao Zedong’s power was at its lowest due to the tragic debacle of the Great Leap Forward.  But that period would not last and it is the Cultural Revolution itself that becomes Mao’s plan to regain complete power.

With the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Xie’s film was condemned precisely because it had not been hard enough on Yuehong, the sister that succumbs to materialism.  Xie Jin’s art of portraying even the “villain” in a nuanced and sympathetic manner did not fly during the Cultural Revolution.  For the Red Guards who would begin to rule society for the next few years, Chunhua’s forgiveness of Yuehong came too easy.  For them, Yuehong – an enemy of the socialist state – should have been punished more for her capitalist ways.

Director Xie Jin at work.

Director Xie Jin at work.

Additionally, produced with the assistance of Xia Yan, a vocal critic of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and a target of Mao’s wife and former actress Jiang Qing, Two Stage Sisters’ condemnation was inevitable.  Soon after the start of the Cultural Revolution, Xia was purged and jailed for the eight years.  Xie Jin would spend much of the Cultural Revolution and what should have been the prime of his career in a labor camp.

Two Stage Sisters, and the history that surrounds it, shows that art in the People’s Republic of China, while ostensibly required to “serve the people” in fact serves the political whims of its leaders.  Given this history, Xi Jinping’s recent October 15, 2014 meeting with China’s artists might be a bellwether for his attempts to tie art not just more to the Chinese Communist Party but more to his rule.  The Cultural Revolution found its origin in Mao’s 1943 speech at the Yenan Talks on Literature and Art.  For Mao, the revolution had two fronts – the arts and the military; there was no such thing as art for art’s sake.  Art and literature were essential for a successful revolution and the Yenan Talks made clear that art and literature needed to extol the masses and propel them forward for greater revolution.  At a point though, Mao noted that with the masses’ rising cultural levels, art standards would have to rise as well.  But the art would still need to serve the people.

Xi’s October 15 speech, while not as obvious, has aspects that are eerily similar to Mao’s 1943 Talks.  According to Xinhua News agency, which summarized Xi’s remarks rather than print them, Xi called on artists and authors to be one with the people and to use their art to promote the Party: “Literature and art must reflect well the people’s wishes; it must persist in the fundamental orientation of serving the people and serving Socialism” (translation courtesy of Rogier Creemers).  Xi also digressed on the need to produce quality works for the masses’ increased cultural awareness.

Will Xi try to dominate the arts the way Mao did during the Cultural Revolution?  Or was this just a roundabout way to state the obvious: even

Xi Jinping speaking on arts in literature in today's China

Xi Jinping speaking on arts in literature in today’s China

Chinese people don’t really want to watch Chinese movies and there is a genuine need to improve quality?  Or is it something else?  For sure we won’t be seeing a Cultural Revolution anytime soon.  But if I was an artist, author or director in China right now, with a speech that makes reference to “a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend (百花齐放、百家争鸣的方针),” I would certainly sit this round of art-making out.  That unfortunately means the arts in China – at least those sanctioned by the state – will continue to stay at its current level.

Two Stage Sisters
Director: Xie Jin
1964
Rating: ★★★★½

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The China Institute’s Cultural Revolution Film Series runs now through November 19, 2014 with a movie shown every Wednesday night.  Tickets are $15 and each movie is followed by a Q&A session with either the director or someone expert in the movie.  The China Institute is located at 125 E 65th Street in New York City. 

Just For Fun – Movie Review: Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin

By , October 13, 2013

a_touch_of_sin_posterA Touch of Sin  (天注定), mainland director Jia Zhangke’s new movie, is certainly not a tourist flick.  While Jia’s cinematography in the movie lends itself to beautiful sweeping vistas of various parts of China, including the gorgeous Three Gorges area, the focus of the film is on the underbelly of China.  An underbelly that is increasingly prevalent across the country and as Jia vividly, artistically and intensely demonstrates, increasingly violent.  To understand present-day China and the pressures, challenges and threats it faces, that underbelly must be seen.

The four narratives that tell the story of A Touch of Sin are not mere embodiments of Jia’s mind. Rather they are ripped from the headlines or more aptly, from weibo, the Twitter-like microblog where news events are often first reported by average citizens, quickly spread throughout the country, and then suppressed by the central government.  Two of the narratives – the murder of an attempted rapist by his sauna worker victim and the suicide of a young factory worker in Dongguan – will be well known to many China watchers as the Deng Yujiao Incident from 2009 and the 2010 Li Hai suicide at Apple’s Foxconn factory in respectively.

The other two stories – that of Dahai (played by the teddy bear-looking Jiang Wu), a villager in a Shanxi coal mining town angry at the corruption that has allowed the selling of the state-owned mine to benefit a select few, and the story of Zhou San (well played by Wang Banqiang), a hitman returning to his less than grateful family in Chongqing for Chinese New Year – are perhaps less well known outside of China.  But, in the case of Dahai, the comparison between the shockingly savage beating which he experiences and that of real-life Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei’s assault can’t help but be made: both receive a beating by officials (or quasi-officials) in response to their attempts to seek transparency and accountability of “the people’s government” and both have eerily similar head wounds.

In an interview at Asia Society (a must watch before seeing this movie), Jia described his movie and the characters in it as on a quest for dignity –

Dahai seeks his revenge

Dahai seeks his revenge

dignity in a society that is increasingly unequal, dignity in a place that appears to have left so many behind, and dignity in a country where without the rule of law to objectively handle society’s strains, violence is the only answer.

But while Jia’s story certainly focuses on reclaiming that dignity, it is unclear if that is what motivates the individual characters.  For Dahai, does his murderous rage come from a true feeling of societal injustice or from a lack of opportunity to share in the wealth?  It is unclear that if Dahai was put in the same position as the corrupt local officials or his schoolmate, that he wouldn’t have jumped at the opportunity.  Is Dahai a “hero” because he had nothing left to be?

The same questions emerge with Zhou San, the hitman.  Does he really choose this lifestyle because it is the only path he can take?  Or is he a lonely, degenerate unable to maintain healthy relationships even with his own son?  The innocently young Foxconn worker (played by Luo Lanshan) leaves you wondering what motivates his suicide – is it the pressures of the factory life or unrealistic expectations about what life is and what to expect?  Only the sauna worker, Xiao Yu (aptly played by Jia’s beautiful wife Zhao Tao), seems to regain her dignity in the traditional sense.  After receiving a beating from her boyfriend’s wife and her henchmen, Xiao Yu doesn’t take a second beating sitting down.  Instead, she kills the man trying to rape her with a fruit knife.  The movie closes with a return to Xiao Yu’s story, where she has had to flee her village and find a new life.  But even with her apparent restoration of dignity, her life still seems like a hopeless, lonely mess.

Xiao Yu in her murderous rage

Xiao Yu in her murderous rage

This lack of clarity concerning motivation is what makes A Touch of Sin a fascinating movie and ultimately leads the viewer to realize that the individual stories are less important for Jia than the overarching story of that harsh reality known as present-day China.

That is perhaps what will leave the Western viewer perplexed the most – is this really today’s China?  My movie companion and China-hand (who likes to refer to herself as “your good friend Cynthia Nixon”) questioned if Jia’s movie is in fact present day China and if A Touch of Sin is an accurate portrayal.  Definitely there is a lot of violence in contemporary China; but there always was.  It’s not like 1949 to 1976 was some walk in the park: first the killing of landlords, then the Great Leap Forward, then the Anti Rightist Campaign, and the finally the Cultural Revolution.

But Jia is not attempting to give us a complete perspective of modern day China; nor should he or his art be burdened to do so.  Instead, Jia is attempting to show us the future – that if the Chinese government doesn’t curb the rampant corruption that has corroded China, if it doesn’t deal with huge inequities in both wealth and power, if it doesn’t find a legitimate outlet for society’s inevitable anger (like an independent and functioning legal system), then the violence that permeates his movie will soon be more than just a story from weibo.  It will be destined to be a commonplace occurrence.

This premise might be the reason why Jia’s A Touch of Sin might not make it past the Chinese government censors.  According to Jia, the censors have okay’ed his film and rumor has it that it will begin to be shown in China in November.  There are reasons why the censors might be okay with A Touch of Sin.  Philana Woo over at Jing Daily does a great job of explaining why the film “bows” to censorship, namely by avoiding the obvious – an outright attack of the central government.  Dahai’s issues are local, the central government is never implicated in the decision to sell the mine to an insider who retained all the profits.   Even the story of Xiao Yu was toned down.  Deng Yujiao, the real-life sauna worker Xiao Yu’s character is based on, was attacked not by local businessmen (as Xiao Yu was in the movie), but rather by government officials.

But with its emphasis on China’s increasing violence, A Touch of Sin questions one of the central tenants of the Chinese Communist Party’s

Xiao Hui, an ardent Buddhist.

Xiao Hui, an ardent Buddhist.

(CCP) rule: that the Party’s specific type of leadership is necessary to promote “social stability.”  But with the Party’s inability to deal with the rampant corruption and the increasing inequities in Chinese societies that leave individuals with no other choice but to resort to violence, the myth that is the Party’s promise of social stability becomes apparent.  Jia is looking for an alternative.  Religion, including Catholicism and Buddhism, deftly punctuates key scenes.  Traditional Chinese culture including opera plays and old novels keep returning in each scene.  And Jia has repeatedly mentioned that without a fair legal system, people are left with vigilante justice.

It is this conclusion – that the Party’s version of social stability is a mirage and that there needs to be an alternative be it religious, cultural or legal – that ultimately makes A Touch of Sin subversive and could railroad its showing in China.  For our readers outside of China, make sure you see this one as it is a thought provoking, beautifully shot film.  For our readers in China, get the bootleg copy from your local VCD store.

Rating: ★★★★½

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A Touch of Sin is currently showing in New York City through October 17 at IFC and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.  It will then travel throughout the United States.  For schedule, click hereA Touch of Sin will allegedly open in China in November.  For readers in China, we look forward to your feedback when (or if) this movie opens there. 

Book Review – The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up

By , October 10, 2012

Too often Westerners’ views of China are shaped through the eyes of a select few – Ai Weiwei, Han Han, and in the legal world, He Weifang, Xu Zhiyong, and Chen Guangcheng.  How they see China is often how we see it.  China is far from an open society and these individuals are educated, media savvy, and maintain a good rapport with foreign reporters.  Make no mistake, they have important stories to tell.

But it is rare to know what the average Chinese person thinks and feels about his own history; what is important and what shouldn’t be forgotten.  Although China has a history that spans more than 2,000 years, it doesn’t have the same respect for the individual history and experiences of the everyman.  There is no Library of Congress that attempts to collect the stories of former slaves before they die or a StoryCorps project where anyone can go to a recording booth and interview a friend or family member.  In some ways, there are likely stories that the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) would rather forget.

Fortunately for China and for us, there is LIAO Yiwu and The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up.  In his way, Liao Yiwu is trying to be the Library of Congress, interviewing average people before their histories are forgotten.  In The Corpse Walker, 27 of Liao’s interviews with average Chinese people are translated into English, giving the reader a more democratic view of China.

Three of the first four of Liao’s  interviews – The Professional Mourner, The Public Restroom Manager, and The Corpse Walkers – paint a picture of a China that is long gone.  But Liao is able to capture these  dying professions and the men who filled them.  And while they tell the stories of China’s past, their stories are still familiar.  The public restroom manager is still bitter from an incident with a young punk who teases him because of his work, but ultimately he is just happy to have a job.  The corpse walker discussing how to “walk a corpse” and tells his story with the nostalgia of an old man thinking back to other times.

But in each of the 27 interviews, not a single person has been left unscathed by the CCP’s various campaigns and politics.  Liao doesn’t have to delve deep to get these stories.  For each person, the Land Reform Movement, Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Cultural Revolution, or the Tiananmen crackdown, have shaped their lives.

It is particularly poignant in The Yi District Chief’s Wife.  The wife – Zhang Meizhi – and her family did not fare well during the Land Reform Campaign.  As members of the highest caste of the Yi minority, a caste-based ethnic group in southwest China with land being owned primarily by the highest caste, Zhang and her family were major targets of the Land Reform.  After witnessing her husband’s execution and the subsequent cutting of his tongue from his mouth,  Zhang’s struggle was far from over.  Her eldest son became a target, forcing him to live in a hole in a ground for years to avoid the same fate as his father, all the while degenerating into a wild existence.  Today, Zheng has not forgotten; she has forgiven to a degree, but she has not forgotten.  Unfortunately, as she points out, the children of those who want to forget already have.

In The Retired Official, Liao interviews Zheng Dajun, an official who headed a government work team in rural Sichuan during the Great Leap

Rural residents and victims of China's Great Leap Forward

Forward.  Zheng eye-witnessed a country descending into one of the worst famines in modern history and a people spiraling to a state of nature in the rural areas.  Slowly the starving people moved from eating white clay and drinking castor oil to cannibalism.  Although Zheng repeatedly informed higher officials, nothing was done to stop the export of needed grain from the rural areas to the cities.

Perhaps the most moving of all of Liao’s interviews is The Tiananmen Father.  As poor workers in Sichuan province, Wu Dingfu and his wife felt lucky that one of their sons excelled in school; both were ecstatic when their son passed the college entrance exam and attended college in Beijing.  Wu tells the story of his son, a young man who believed in something and then like many college students, got in over his head.  But before he could get out, he was killed by the troops on their way to Tiananmen Square.  In Wu’s interview, you can feel not just the ache of a father bringing not just his son’s body back to Sichuan, but the collapse of a dream that his family could do better.

The Corpse Walker is an important read since the voices of China’s average person are finally heard.  And what’s remarkable is that while their stories are different from ours, the emotions are not: the bitterness of working a menial job; the need to forgive to go on living; the anger of a former government official who tried to do the right thing; the emptiness of a father who has to bury his son.  If just for this reason – for showing the humanity of the average Chinese person – The Corpse Walker is an important read.

But The Corpse Walkeris vital as a depository of China’s history, the history that the people – not the Party – wants to tell.  The Chinese Communist Party is in denial of its past; it does not want to recognize the divisions and violence that has been a result of its rule and it hopes

The author, Liao Yiwu

that China’s economic miracle can serve as bread and circuses for the young, causing them not to even ask about the past.  But as Liao makes clear in some of his more prescient interviews, the past is often the catalyst for the future.  Can it be forgotten or more importantly, should it be?  For Liao, the answer is no, but for the rest of China, the answer is much less clear.

Not all of Liao’s interviews are as remarkable as the ones mentioned here.  Some are boring and at times, Liao can be rather didactic in his questioning of those that he has less sympathy for which detracts from the stories he is trying to tell.  But the interviews mentioned here, especially The Tiananmen Father, must be read.  Because to understand China’s present, we must understand how the victims of China’s past live today.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu (Anchor 2009), 352 pages.

CL&P Exclusive – Talking North Korea with Jenny Town (Part I)

By , March 30, 2017

Part I – Shifting U.S.- North Korea Relations

Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the US-Korea Institute

Since January, the situation on the Korean peninsula has become increasingly tense with North Korea test firing missiles, using toxic nerve agents to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s half brother, and announcing that it has the capability for its missiles to reach the West Coast of the United States. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has responded to North Korea equally bellicose and frightening with threats noting that no options are off the table in dealing with North Korea including possibly preemptive strike.

Are we on a collision course for nuclear war, and what role does China play in all of this? To answer those questions and more is noted North Korea expert Jenny Town. Ms. Town is the Assistant Director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is the managing editor and producer of 38 North, a web journal and vital resource on all things North Korea.

Read the transcript below for Part I of this two-part interview, where Ms. Town discusses shifting U.S.-North Korea relations.  Or click the media player below to listen (total time – 16:26).

CL&P: Thank you for joining us today, Ms. Town. Before we get into the current situation on the Korean peninsula, I wanted to give our listeners a little bit more background on North Korea. In the western press, North Korea is often portrayed as a hermit impoverished kingdom run by a dictatorial mad man, but is that perception true? Is that how we should view North Korea?

Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) (Photo courtesy of CNN)

JT:      Thank you. It’s great to be here. I’m happy to be a part of this podcast. I think you’re asking all the right questions. The problem is that the more we treat North Korea as a caricature and we don’t take it seriously, the harder the problem becomes in the long run. A few years ago my colleague and I, we did write an article that talked about these myths about North Korea. It’s not a hermit kingdom. I think at some point we’re more isolated from it than it is from the rest of the world. There certainly are restrictions on information access and travel and movement, but there is a lot of contact with the outside world. There’s a lot of trade that goes on. There’s a lot of businesses, a lot of tourism. There’s a lot of NGO workers and diplomats, and so they do have access to the outside world. Not the same level that other countries have, but it’s not completely isolated.

The idea that Kim Jong-un is a mad man is also a dangerous characterization because he’s actually very calculating. The North Korean regime, even when Kim Jong-il was there, people liked to make fun of his sort of eccentricities. But when it came to state security, the decisions that he made were very rational. Sometimes miscalculated, but he’s the ultimate realist. They’re a country that perceives to have many enemies, and in the process will make decision on how to protect itself and how to protect the regime.

North Korea’s missiles in a military parade. (Photo courtesy of BBC)

CL&P:            So in essence, we should see their movements as something that is rational if your goal is to protect the current regime?

JT:      Yes, and we should take them seriously for what they’re doing because discounting them is not serving anyone’s good.

CL&P:            Agreed. Recently there seems to be a lot of bellicose activity from North Korea. In the middle of February it test fired a medium long range ballistic missile, and then it used, I guess, what’s known as an illegal nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s half brother at an airport in Malaysia. Then two weeks ago, it announced a successful test of a high thrust rocket engine. Then this week they had two failed missile attempts.

Why are we seeing such activity, so much activity that seems warlike in the past month or two? Why now? What’s going on?

US-South Korea joint military drills (Photo courtesy of The Sunrise)

JT:      Well, some of this is a little bit expected. This is a time when the U.S. and ROK [South Korea] are running their joint military exercises in South Korea. Over the past year, especially the last year and this year, the nature of those exercises has expanded. It’s become more belligerent and it’s also included such things as decapitation drills and strategic over flights. These kinds of things always spark some kind of response and a strong response from North Korea because again, they do see it as more than just business as usual; but as a more provocative, more aggressive signaling to North Korea. Over the past couple of months, though, we’ve really seen an acceleration of testing and demonstration of capabilities over the past year.

At the end of the Obama administration, when it was clear that the nature of U.S.-DPRK [North Korea] relations was not going to change under the Obama administration, we saw a lot of demonstrations. In the past, there might have been missile tests, but they [North Korea] didn’t send out pictures of it, for instance. They didn’t send out pictures of Kim Jong-un celebrating different successes. I think now they’re clearly trying to prove capacity to the outside world. I think it was actually though very quiet from elections until inauguration and for a short time after inauguration as they [North Korea] were trying to figure out what to expect from America and if there was room for changing the nature of our relationship.

CL&P:            Just to go back, when you were talking about the exercises that the U.S. and South Korea are doing, you’re saying because those have become stronger and more belligerent, North Korea is taking it more serious?

US and South Korean soldiers at the DMZ

JT:      Yes. The exercises have been going on for decades and part of the function of the exercise is also signaling as to how the nature of the relationship with North Korea. There are times when they’re much more kind of routine standard operations and drills, but over the past couple of years, they’ve been adding drills and expanding it. And on top of that, the messaging coming out to the media about the [U.S.-ROK] drills and to the public about the drills has really emphasized certain things like decapitation strikes and strikes on Pyongyang and things like that. So it’s really become a much more antagonistic venture.

CL&P:            Then [what about] the recent U.S. response to North Korea’s actions the past couple months, especially with the new administration. So Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, when he was visiting South Korea this past month, announced that the U.S. policy of what he called strategic patience has ended. I guess can you first explain a little bit more what this policy of strategic patience is or was?

U.S. Secretary of State Re Tillerson visit South Korea, March 2017 (Photo Courtesy of NY Daily News)

JT:      Sure. So strategic patience was the Obama policy.  Basically it was a supposedly principled approach that negotiations were only under certain conditions, and that in the meantime it was kind of doubling down on pressure on the regime to change it’s strategic calculus using such tactics as mostly sanctions. And then also trying to bolster defenses in the region, so in South Korea and Japan as well. But it was largely dependent on this whole intimidation, kind of pressure and intimidation factor to try and get North Korea to change its mind about how it wants to move forward.

CL&P:            Under strategic patience, I assume that the policy, whether or not it was a failure, was put in place to try to limit North Korea’s ability to develop its nuclear weaponry. Was it successful with that at all?

JT:      Absolutely not. It was a complete failure. If the goal of strategic patience really was to deter

President Barack Obama implements Strategic Patience

North Korea from developing it’s weapons programs, it’s WMD programs, it’s a complete failure because they have completely accelerated their programs during the Obama administration. In 2013, for instance, they restarted their five megawatt reactor to help produce more plutonium for nuclear weapons. In 2010, they had revealed that they had a uranium enrichment program, and in 2013, we saw that the main facility that they had shown to U.S. inspectors before had doubled in size. The centrifuge hall has doubled in size, potentially doubling it’s capacity to create weapons-grade uranium or highly enriched uranium.

We’ve seen several demonstrations of tests. Last year alone, we had two nuclear tests and over 20 missile tests. During the Obama administration, there’s been four nuclear tests. So, if the goal of strategic patience was to deter North Korea from moving forward and making the cost of nuclear weapons programs and WMD programs so untenable that it had to come back to the table, then of course it completely failed.

CL&P:            So then they’re not going to come back to the table?

JT:      Well, I wouldn’t draw that conclusion that they’re not going to come back to the table. What I’m saying is that the policy is not compelling the right response.

CL&P:            In terms of all this development, I mean I guess this goes back to the first question, and your answer to the first question about not perceiving North Korea as this shut in country, where do they get the ability to develop this technology? How do they have the knowledge to develop this technology for nuclear weapons?

JT:      They’ve been working on this program for a very long time, for decades. They have scientists in country. We know there has been cooperation with other states. They’ve gotten information from Pakistan and Syria and Russia in the past. There’s definitely plenty of people that they’ve worked with over the years to get to a point where some of it’s indigenous, some of it’s reverse engineering of designs that they’ve gotten from other countries. They’re a very resourceful people, and I would go back to again your first question and tying this all together, too. I think the underlying premise of strategic patience was this idea that Kim Jong-un would never be able to consolidate power under a third generation of the Kim family and that all we had to do was wait them out, and that eventually the state would collapse and then we could deal with someone else. That’s just simply not the case.

CL&P:            No, it doesn’t look that way. I guess since the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience allowed North Korea to develop it’s weapon technology, and it had all these tests and it’s really advanced, just to put it in more perspective, where exactly is North Korea as a likely  nuclear threat? What can it do right now to its neighbors in Asia, and is it really true that they could potentially in very near future have something hit at the West Coast of the United States?

JT:      We did a series of reports last year that was a technical assessment of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. And based on what we know or what we estimate to be their capacity to make fissile materials or to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, we estimate the baseline for their nuclear weapons arsenal to be somewhere between 12 to 15 nuclear weapons. They would have enough material to be able to make at least 12 to 15 nuclear weapons now. Given the capacity that they have to produce more – their five megawatt plutonium reactor, their uranium enrichment facility – we did projections that with the worst conditions for North Korea, making it most difficult for them for instance, that even by 2020 they could double the size of their arsenal.

By 2020 under mid-range with a little better conditions and getting their experimental light water reactor partially militarized as well, so they’d have more fissile materials, they would be able to produce maybe 50 nuclear weapons by 2020. Under the best conditions for them, if they have ample procurement, international procurement, and they have everything running in tip-top shape, at the high end we estimated they would have the potential to make about 100 nuclear weapons by 2020.
We see them really now in those ranges under those conditions that are laid out in the report. They’re somewhere on that mid to high range track. Then you add in the ballistic missile programs, and the fear is always for the how soon are they going to get an ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile. With the new engines that they tested last year and this year, [engines] that would be suitable for missiles and not rockets, space rockets, we’re talking that once they have an operational capacity, that they would be able actually to hit the East Coast of the United States, not just the West Coast. What we see that is probably given the designs that we’ve seen in the prototypes that they’ve displayed to us, we would suggest somewhere around 2020, somewhere in that range. Some estimates have that a little bit earlier. It really just depends.

But the reality is that they don’t need ICBMs to be a strategic threat because our strategic partners and strategic alliance partners are in Asia, so it’s South Korea and Japan. They definitely have missiles that can reach South Korea and Japan already. The big question is whether or not they have miniaturization capabilities. A lot of experts do believe they have the capability even if they haven’t been able to demonstrate it. Given the number of partners that they’ve worked with and the programs that those partners have as well and how long that they’ve been working on it. We do believe they do have the capability. It’s a huge threat, and it’s a growing threat the longer it takes to be able to have a real strategic dialogue with them.

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To listen to Part 2 of this two-part interview with Ms. Town, please click here.

 

On the Eve of Copenhagen – China and the U.S. Join the rest of the World at the Table

By , December 7, 2009

Our last posting about the upcoming global climate change negotiations was not very positive; in fact very few analysts have been positive.  But the past week has proved interesting, with both the United States and China issuing carbon reduction plans, forcing us to reconsider our previous notion that Copenhagen will produce little results.

 

The U.S. and China Issue their Respective Climate Control Plans

cop15_logo_imgRight before Thanksgiving, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. will be attending Copenhagen with a promise to cut emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020.  While it is a step forward that the U.S. will be attending the climate change talks with specific targets, those targets are still very much provisional.  Any targets coming out of the climate change talks will require Congressional approval post-Copenhagen.   While the 17% cuts proposed by the White House are identical to the GHG emission targets found in the House of Representative’s climate change bill passed in June, that bill has been languishing in the Senate, and will likely face an uphill battle once the Senate turns its attention from health care to climate change.   So whether the 17% cuts become a reality remains to be seen.

The day after the U.S. announcement, China issued a “carbon intensity target” reduction of 40-45% by 2020 to bring to Copenhagen.  While this looks huge on paper, in reality, it would allow GHG emissions to increase while China’s economy continues to grow, albeit GHG would grow at a lower rate.  Carbon intensity measures carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP), so if your GDP skyrockets ever year, like China’s does at a rate of 8% a year, you can actually increase your absolute greenhouse gas emissions, and still show a 40-45% reduction by 2020.  Julian Wong on the Green Leap Forward also gives a good description of the math behind this.  China expects its GHG emissions to peak around 2035, a time that many experts believe is too late.

Although both the U.S.’ and China’s plans are far from perfect, at this stage, something is better than nothing from the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters.  And China has made concerted and sincere efforts thus far to increase its energy efficiency and reduce its greenhouse gas emission rate.

Now that China has set Some Targets Will it Be Able to Measure Them?

China is not known for reliable government statistics and while there has been notable improvements, its ability to

Copenhagen remains a game of Chinese chess

Copenhagen remains a game of Chinese chess

accurately measure and report its greenhouse gas emissions, and thus be held accountable to international commitments, has remained an issue leading up to Copenhagen.  Currently, China lacks the capacity – both technical and institutional – to provide such reliable data.

However, China has recently agreed to some cooperation with international and U.S. bodies to assist with developing its capacity to accurately measure its GHG emissions.  The U.S.’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its Chinese counterpart, the National Development Reform Commission (NDRC), signed a memorandum of cooperation (which is a step up from a memorandum of understanding) to work on China’s capacity issues concerning its ability to measure its emissions output.

But as Charlie McElwee over on the China Environmental Law blog [website no longer available], the EPA-NDRC memorandum currently lacks particulars and will likely go nowhere without being fully fleshed out.  At Copenhagen, the U.S. and the E.U. need to pressure China to work more closely with foreign bodies in developing its capacity.  It is important that Copenhagen does not conclude without a detailed plan to develop China’s capacity.  Additionally, this capacity development, especially in terms of institutional development and the ability of China to enforce its environmental regulations at the local level, could potentially influence the enforcement of regulations in all fields of law, providing for greater rule of law in China.

China though will not make this access easy; China has already begun to use this as a bargaining chip for greater financial assistance from developed countries for its climate change policies.  China’s climate change ambassador, Yu Qingtai, announced recently that China will only allow foreign verification of its GHG emissions if it receives outside financial assistance: “Actions would be measurable, reportable and verifiable if (international) support is measurable, reportable and verifiable.”  China’s stance on this should not be surprising.  It has repeatedly asked for international financial support for its efforts to curb its GHG emissions since the current climate crisis has largely been a result of the developed world’s past actions and not because of China’s development (it’s the future environmental crisis that China will largely play a role in if things remain as is).  China’s argument is understandable and rings true.

Fortunately, the Obama administration remains open to discussing a financial commitment.  China appears ready to bargain – if the U.S. wants the access to assist China with developing its technical and institutional capacity, which is necessary for any agreement out of Copenhagen to truly succeed, it must be ready to bargain as well and provide some financial assistance.

The U.S. & China on Climate Change at the U.N. General Assembly

By , September 24, 2009

un_symbolThis past week the U.N. General Assembly in New York was filled with wave after wave of speeches and meetings dedicated to limiting global climate change.  With the December Copenhagen conference less than three months away, the question remains – has there been any progress?

On Tuesday, September 22, both President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao (pronounced Who Jin-Dao) separately addressed the General Assembly, each discussing their country’s commitment to a global climate change agreement.   Their rhetoric was considerably more conciliatory, signaling that perhaps the two largest polluters of greenhouse gases are finding common ground.  The substance of their speeches though, indicated that there still remains a large division between these two critical countries.

Conciliatory Rhetoric

This past summer saw many important countries digging in their heels on climate change.  In July and August, both China and India adamantly stated that they would not agree to any type of defined targets that would limit their greenhouse gas emissions.  In June, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed a climate change bill which received notable criticism from both sides of the aisle upon its passage, questioning the bill’s ability to pass the Senate.

But on Tuesday, President Barack Obama reinforced his Administration’s commitment to limit greenhouse gases, indicating his willingness to push his Democratic colleagues in the Senate to pass a climate change bill.  In response to the E.U.’s recent promise to assist developing nations both financially and technically in battling climate change, President Obama also committed the U.S. to help.

President Hu Jintao’s speech was heralded as a huge step forward for the Chinese.  President Hu affirmed his country’s

President Hu Jintao speaking to the U.N General Assembly on Tuesday, Sept 22, 2009

President Hu Jintao speaking to the U.N General Assembly on Tuesday, Sept 22, 2009

promise to tackle climate change and surprisingly mentioned China’s “mandatory national targets for reducing energy intensity and discharge of major pollutants…”

India also seems to be moving in the direction of targets.  In an interview with the Financial Times on Tuesday, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh discussed the possibility that India could adopt legislation increasing its energy efficiency and thus having “implicit targets.”

Divisions That Could Hamper an Agreement in Copenhagen

Target: What is in a Word?
The press has largely been positive to President Hu’s discussion of “mandatory national targets for reducing energy intensity,” heralding such a step as China’s “first commitment to climate change targets” and that China “pledges to lead effort to combat climate change.

While it is true that this is a step forward for the Chinese – never before have they used the word “target” in reference to climate change on the world stage – in no way is this a “carbon emissions target.”  In fact, China has been using “energy efficiency targets” domestically since 2005.  As John Romankiewicz explained on the Green Leap Forward, in China’s 11th Five Year Plan passed in 2005, the Chinese government established a 20% reduction target in energy intensity from 2006 to 2010.  While this is a laudable goal, it still allows China to increase its carbon emissions since there is no cap – the calculation is relative to the percentage growth of GDP.

China’s goal is to cut energy intensity as a percentage of its GDP.  If GDP rises, a rise in energy use, as long as it is lower than the previous year, can still show a reduction in energy efficiency.  For example, China’s National Development & Reform Commission (NDRC) noted that a 4% rise in energy consumption in 2008, matched with a 9% increase in GDP for that year, resulted in a 4.2% decrease in energy intensity from the previous year (see Green Leap Forward).

Additionally, a focus on energy intensity only marginally impacts carbon emissions, a fact not lost on President Hu in his speech on Tuesday.  After committing China to set targets to reduce its energy intensity, President Hu vaguely addressed carbon emissions by noting that China will “endeavor to cut carbon dioxide emissions [inaudible in original speech but likely “as a percentage of”] GDP by a notable margin by 2020 from the 2005 level.”

China has certainly taken a step forward on approaching some form of targets.  Furthermore, by even mentioning targets, China implicitly commits to making those targets measurable and verifiable as Julian L. Wong from the Center for American Progress noted, something that China in the past was not willing to do.  So there has been progress which China should be rightly commended for.  But at this stage, to limit global warming to the U.N. target of 2º Celsius, the world community needs to push China to agree to carbon emissions targets.

Obama Adverse to China Being Defined as a Developing Nation?
Central to the requirement of carbon targets is the definition of “developing nation” and this was perhaps the greatest divide between the U.S. and China, and could possibly stall progress in Copenhagen.

For purposes of climate change negotiations, China has repeatedly portrayed itself as a developing country.  In his speech on Tuesday, President Hu dedicated around two-thirds of it to discussing the special circumstances of developing countries, implying that China is one such nation.

Under the previous international climate change treaty, the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, China was defined as a developing nation.  China is keen to keep this definition in Copenhagen for two reasons: (1) emission targets are not applicable to developing nations, and (2) developing nations can avail themselves of financial and technical aid provided by developed nations.

It is the second reason that appears to be more important to the Chinese.  In prior climate change negotiation simulations that global power participate in as practice for Copenhagen, the Chinese representatives do not budge unless there is an offer of technical or financial assistance from other countries like the U.S. or the E.U.  President Hu’s speech reiterated the importance of such assistance to the Chinese: “developed countries should take up their responsibility and provide new, additional, adequate and predictable financial support to developing countries…”

President Obama wholeheartedly agreed with President Hu’s sentiment to assist developing nations.  However, he

President Barack Obama before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009

President Barack Obama before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009

appeared to disagree with President Hu that China is such a country.  In his speech before the U.N., President Obama put China and the U.S. on the same level in assisting developing countries: “These [developing] nations do not have the same resources to combat climate change as countries like the United States or China do…” (emphasis added).

This division between the two countries regarding the developmental status of China could do one of two things: (a) completely derail any agreement in Copenhagen that includes both the U.S. and China, or (b) provide the compromise necessary to have the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases agree to a climate change agreement.  U.S. policy makers should look to the latter.  Agreeing to provide financial and technical assistance to China might just be the push necessary to get it to agree to carbon emission targets, a necessary goal to limit global climate change.

For a transcript of President Barack Obama’s address to the U.N., click here.

For a transcript of President Hu Jintao’s address to the U.N., click here.

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