Category: Chinese Politics

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. 

Must Read: Bill Bishop’s Analysis on the Anti-Japanese Riots in China

By , September 18, 2012

Anti-Japanese Protests in Beijing this Weekend

China Law & Policy has been following the anti-Japanese riots that spread across China this past weekend.  These riots appear to be a somewhat orchestrated response by the Chinese government – through the masses – to their dispute with the Japanese government over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands located in the East China Sea.  While this dispute has been ongoing, last week’s purchase of the islands by the Japanese government from the private owner, lead to saber rattling from China and this weekend’s violent protests.

At China Law & Policy, we have yet to blog about this affair, mostly because orchestrated, nationalist protests are difficult to divine.  Who are these protesters?  Just how orchestrated are these events?  Would the majority of Chinese allow their young children be witness to looting and violence and scream words like “kill the Japanese”?  Is this really about a pile of rocks?  There are limitations to our – and for that matter most people’s – ability to truly know what is going on.

The Western media has largely been focused on the violence that has erupted in China around these protests, and the use of the protests as possibly a government tool to hide issues of succession in the Party leadership.

But Bill Bishop, who runs the excellent blog/email newsletter Sinocism (if you are not subscribed to this, you should be), offers a much more nuanced view.  Yes, the protest are violent and yes they are likely orchestrated, but they do not reflect the sentiment of the majority of the Chinese.  Additionally, Bishop inquires as to what Japan was thinking in all of this.  Why would Japan choose to make these islands an issue now during China’s tense party leadership succession?  Bishop also analyzes the perhaps overblown contention that the U.S.’ treaties with Japan would require the U.S. to get involved.

Bishop’s post is a good read and an important fresh perspective.

Changing Media, Changing China…Changing Me!

By , January 7, 2011

After following China for most of my adult life and intently analyzing its development these past three years, I find many China events to be rather staid affairs; it’s usually obvious where the conversation will go and most speakers hedge their bets on China’s future, committing to neither its success nor its failure.  But not Susan Shirk.  Last night, at an Asia Society event to promote her new book, Changing Media, Changing China, Susan Shirk was able to educate, entertain, and at times stun the audience on one of the least understood aspects of Chinese society: the media’s role in changing domestic politics in China.  But one would expect nothing less of a woman who dared to wear a fabulous red suit to the affair.

Shirk, who edits Changing Media, Changing China was joined by one of the contributors to the book, Prof. Benjamin Liebman of Columbia Law School, as well as sociologist Yang Guobin of Barnard College whose recent scholarship focuses on online activism in China.  Shirk began the night’s discussion by putting the role of the media into a historical context.  Comparing access to information in today’s China to the China of the 1980s, Shirk highlighted the fact that Chinese people today have much more access to information; during the 1980s the Chinese leadership had the monopoly on such access, but today, with a commercialized press and and the internet, there is a narrowing of this gap in access to information, putting the people’s access on par with their leaders’.  Shirk noted that it is this new style of media – with newspapers competing with each other for a story that sells papers and blogs spreading stories like wild-fire across China – that improves the Chinese government’s responsiveness to its people.  Although the central government is still ambivalent about the role of the media, it recognizes the media’s “watchdog” potential – through local newspapers, blogs and internet chat rooms, the central government is able to monitor and police the bad behavior of local officials.

Liebman on the other hand, offered a more cautionary view of the media, at least with respect to its role in the legal system.  When a case is picked up by the media – be it by blogs or newspapers – judges are under pressure, usually directly from Party officials, to decide the case in ways that will cool public passion, even if it means deciding the case irrespective of legal precepts.  Liebman went on to note that media coverage of a case only serves to reinforce the Party-State’s oversight of the courts; to guarantee a harmonious society, officials will demand that judges look to social stability as their primary goal, not the actual law.  But Liebman went on to note, it is not a one-sided game.  As the media has become more active in legal cases, the courts have fought back by liberally applying defamation laws.  Liebman noted that not only are plaintiffs overwhelmingly the victors in defamation cases in China (making media the losers), but in the past few years, Liebman has also noticed a surge in the number of criminal defamation cases.  Likely initiated by local officials after bad press coverage from the local media, the courts are caught in between this power struggle, making the establishment of a rule of law a more difficult task.

Yang had a more positive view.  Focusing on the internet and microblogging in China (microblogging is  a longer form of texting, allowing for conversations to develop), Yang has been amazed and impressed by the persistence of online activism in China.  While the Chinese government still maintains strategic control of the internet, Yang noted that there is only so much it can control.  People in China are communicating constantly over the internet, making it difficult for the government to monitor all conversations.  While many conversations are social, some eventually veer to the political, and the government is unaware to stop them.  Yang also noted that the number of online protests in the past year or so has increased substantially.  But Yang noted that the internet is still controlled; the government will erase postings and flood certain message boards with government-sanctioned comments.  Corporations have begun to steal a page from the government’s playbook.  Corporations also hire people to write positive reviews of their products, or negative ones of their competitors’.  Known as “water armies,” these hired guns make it more difficult to trust online information.  Similarly, the government’s control of chatrooms makes it difficult to use the internet in China as a barometer of public opinion.

Unfortunately each speaker was only given six to seven minutes to speak on such a huge topic.  The last hour of the program was dedicated to audience questions.  While the panel discussion offered a fascinating and thought-provoking analysis of arguably the most influential factor in China today, the audience’s questions veered off topic, with one woman – a self-proclaimed netizen – asking what the U.S. government can learn from the Chinese government’s promotion of the internet.  Fortunately Shirk felt no need to entertain the question, cutting it short with a resolute “nothing.”  Few of the questions were as nuanced as the initial discussion; Google’s “moral stance in China” was repeatedly referred to (making me realize that the Asia Society-set is not reading China Law & Policy’s Google analysis) and the ability of the internet to bring down the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In regards to the question of CCP downfall, Shirk offered a refreshingly frank answer: even without censorship or the propaganda department, Shirk believes the CCP would still be able to maintain its power.  For Shirk, the fact that the CCP can: (1) point to huge improvements in the people’s living standards, (2) perpetuate the belief amongst most Chinese that without the CCP, China would descend into chaos, and (3) highlight the fact that China is now an important international power, would likely mean that many CCP candidates could easily win elections if China ever had any.  Even if China was to have an economic setback, Shirk still believes that it could maintain the sincere support of the Chinese people.  Shirk suspects that censorship is allowed to continue not because the Chinese government as a whole wants to suppress freedom of information; likely many government officials realize that by having a way to gauge public anger and a means to respond to it, their legitimacy could ultimately be bolstered.  Instead, Shirk speculated that it could be the powerful Propaganda Department that doesn’t want to budge from its culture of censorship, perhaps causing a split in the upper echelons of the Chinese leadership.

Asia Society’s “China’s New Media Landscape” only scratched the surface of the role of the media in China.  The discussion left one wondering – who wags the dog here.  While I’m usually the quintessential free-rider at these events, for this one, I was so intrigued by the discussion that I did buy the book. 

Changing Media, Changing China, edited by Susan Shirk (Oxford University Press, December 14, 2010), 288 pages.
 

Just for Fun: A Review of the National Day Celebrations – Fashion & More!

By , October 1, 2009

China does very few public celebrations haphazardly and yesterday’s National Day Parade, marking the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, was no exception. With months of pain-staking practice, teaching participants to march in perfect formation and training them to change formations at the drop of a hat to create intricate symbols and slogans, the 2009 National Day spectacle will be the military parade by which all future military parades are judged.

Women Soldiers in Hot Pink, October 1, 2009

Women Soldiers in Hot Pink, October 1, 2009

But if you were looking for the subtle artistry of the Beijing Olympics’ Opening Ceremony, forget about it.  This parade was about military might and lots of it.  As if out of a hip-hop video, President Hu Jintao rolled his bad-self onto the scene in a black limousine, standing up through the sunroof and pugnaciously shouting at each of the military branches as his car drove by.  Even the women of the parade were flexing their military muscles.  Don’t let those hot pink skirt suits fool you; with guns drawn, these ladies were ready to play with the boys.  The Rockettes should be afraid, very afraid.

Most interesting though was what President Hu Jintao was wearing or in the alternative, what no other Chinese leader was wearing: a Mao suit.  Did President Hu not get the memo to wear a boring black western suit with some version of an equally uninspiring maroon tie?  Or was he just throwing all caution to the wind, blazing his own path?  In 2005, the fashion world decreed that the Mao suit’s peak was reached; that it was going the way of the fedora, in other words, to the scrapheap of fashion.  But recently the fedora has made a comeback among the hipsters in places like Williamsburg and Wicker Park.  Does President Hu sense an emerging trend amongst the hipsters that even the editors of

Former President of China or Leader of the Hipsters?

Former President of China or Leader of the Hipsters?

Vogue and GQ are missing?  Former Chinese president Jiang Zemen rocked the old lady-style glasses during his tenure and since then, such glasses are ubiquitous among the hipster set.  Will President Hu do for the Mao suit what President Jiang did for the old lady-style glasses?  Perhaps. Expect to see Mao suits soon on a hipster near you.

All in all, the Chinese should be very proud of yesterday’s festivities.  The parade was more than just impressive – it was a powerful reminder of how far China has come in the past 60 years.  The only thing we at China Law & Policy thought was missing was Matt Lauer and Al Roker and their endless commentary about every unimportant, but yet fascinating detail of the parade.  Perhaps for the 70th anniversary.  And yes, Matt Lauer and Al Roker would definitely wear Mao suits for the event.

Matt Lauer and Al Roker of the Today Show dressed in Rhythmic Gymnastics outfits for the Beijing Olympics

Matt Lauer and Al Roker of the Today Show dressed in Rhythmic Gymnastics outfits for the Beijing Olympics

Happy Birthday China!

By , September 30, 2009
Chairman Mao Zedong proclaims the founding of the PRC, Oct. 1, 1949

Chairman Mao Zedong proclaims the founding of the PRC, Oct. 1, 1949

October 1 marks the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and to all our friends in China, China Law & Policy wishes you a happy birthday!

China’s history spans over 2,000 years, but the existence of China as a communist country has only been for the past 60.  Up until 1911, China was ruled by various different Chinese dynasties.  The last imperial dynasty, the Qing, ruled China from 1644 until its overthrow in 1911 (The Last Empror tells the story of the final days of the Qing).  While the Kuomintang (pronounced Gwo-Min-Dang and also known in English as the Nationalist Party) nominally ruled China, control really rested with the various Chinese warlords.  It was not until 1927 that Nationalist leader and Republic of China president, Chiang Kai-shek, was able to eliminate the warlords and truly unify a modern China.

However, while the Nationalists unified the country, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was founded in 1921 as

The Last Emperor of China, Child Emperor Puyi, 1909 (3 years old)

The Last Emperor of China, Child Emperor Puyi, 1909 (3 years old)

an urban intellectual movement, was quickly becoming a revolution in the countryside under the leadership of Mao Zedong.  Soon, the Nationalists had to contended with the growing forces and guerilla tactics of the CCP, beginning the Chinese Civil War.  However, both sides came to a truce in order to fight the Japanese invasion and World War II (1937-1945).

At the conclusion of the War, the Nationalists and the CCP resumed their civil war.  By 1949, CCP victory was all but certain and the Nationalist forces began to flee to Taiwan.

Sixty years ago, On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong stood on the gate of Tiananmen in Beijing and declared the People’s Republic of China.

60th Aniiversary festivities have already started in Beijing and will continue throughout the day Thursday.  Pictures have yet to be released from the celebrations (it started 10 AM Beijing time), but Reuters has a great live blog going.  According to Reuters, President Hu Jintao has dusted off his Mao suit and is going retro!  Only question remains – is it a blue, green or a black Mao suit? Inquiring minds want to know.

2012 An Election Year…..In China

By , September 21, 2009

The United States is not the only country that will face a potential leadership change in 2012.  Under the Chinese Constitution, the President of the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”) is limited to two consecutive five-year terms,

Heir Apparant?  Current Vice President of China, Xi Jinping

Heir Apparent? Current Vice President of China, Xi Jinping

forcing the current Chinese president, Hu Jintao (pronounced Who Gin-Tao), to step down in 2012.  This past weekend saw a setback for his presumed successor, Xi Jinping (pronounced She Gin-Ping).

Unlike the U.S., a change in leadership in China is anything but apparent and requires the successor to simultaneously hold three positions:  General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”); President of the PRC, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.  Only by filling these three roles is the individual considered the paramount leader.  The person to fill these posts is hand-selected by the current CCP leadership, even for President of the PRC, which is arguably not a party position.  But in a country with one-party rule, the National People’s Congress of the PRC (“NPC”) merely confirms the successor chosen by the Party leadership.  Click here for an in-depth illustration of the Chinese government and party structure.

While the next leader of the PRC will be only the fifth since the PRC’s founding in 1949, the road to that position is fairly settled.  First is the presumed leader’s appointment to the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee.  The Politburo Standing Committee, currently made up of nine members, is the highest-ranking decision making body of both the Party and the Chinese government.  Second is the individual’s “election” by the NPC to the position of vice-president of the PRC (again more a rubber stamp of the Party’s selection than an actual election).  Finally, the individual, usually three years prior to the change in leadership, is appointed to the vice-chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) by the CCP.  The CMC controls the People’s Liberation Army and while there is a Party CMC and a government CMC that is supposed to be independent from the Party CMC, the two are identical, with the same people filling the same positions in both CMCs.  Although nominally accountable to the NPC, in reality, the government CMC answers to the Party.

Xi Jinping, 56, just needed the final appointment of vice-chair of the CMC to be solidly on the road to paramount leader.  In 2007, he was appointed to the Politburo and 2008, elected vice-president.  But this past week, in a shock to most China-watchers, the CCP closed its annual meeting without designating a new vice-chair of the CMC.  Current President Hu was appointed to the vice-chairmanship of the CMC three years prior to his accession to top leader.  The same was true of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.  Is China in the wake of a succession crisis?

Some argue no; that the pattern established by Mr. Xi’s predecessors is not set in stone; perhaps he will be appointed vice-chair of the CMC next year.  But what is causing this delay?

Many speculate that there is dissension amongst the top ranks of the Party as to who should be the paramount leader in 2012.  Underneath the veneer of uniformity and consensus that the Party maintains to the outside world, lies at least

Looking over the rice fields, Vice Premier Li Keqiang - President Hu's Protegee

Looking over the rice fields, Vice Premier Li Keqiang - President Hu's Protegee

two factions that often wrestle for control.  Interestingly, Mr. Xi is not the chosen heir of President Hu Jintao.  Instead, President Hu’s protégé has been Li Keqiang (pronounced Lee Kah-Chiang), a mentee of his from when he headed up the Chinese Communist Youth League.  Mr. Li was appointed to the Politburo at the same time as Mr. Xi but was ranked lower in command of that body.  Then in 2008, when Mr. Xi was elected to the office of Vice President, Mr. Li was elected as Vice-Premier, signaling that Mr. Li would take over the premiership in 2012.

While Mr. Li is a member of President Hu’s faction of “Youth Leaguers,” Mr. Xi is a member of former President Jiang Zemin’s “Shanghai Clique.” As Cheng Li of the Brookings Institute points out, there is a big difference between the two factions.  The Youth Leaguers are more concerned about the growing inequities between the rich and poor in China and providing a better social safety net for those areas of China negatively impacted by its quick economic rise.  The Shanghai Clique on the other hand stresses economic development, high GDP, and continuing China’s integration into the world economy.  Currently, the CCP leadership is evenly split between the two factions.

Furthermore, since ascending to the vice-presidency, Mr. Xi has at times been outspoken of China’s foreign critics, contrary to the diplomatic image that President Hu works hard to portray.  While on a state visit to Mexico and before a crowd of overseas Chinese, Mr. Xi criticized China’s critics stating that “a few foreigners with full bellies who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country.”

However, Mr. Xi has the support of the powerful Shanghai Clique and appears to, at least in the past, have had the support of President Hu and the Youth Leaguers since Mr. Xi was appointed to the Politburo and elected to the vice-presidency.  Mr. Xi’s appointment to vice-chair of the CMC has likely been postponed, affording the leadership time to work out fundamental issues pertaining to the direction of China is this current economic crisis.

While what happens in the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party is anyone’s guess, most likely Mr. Xi will become paramount leader in 2012.

Let's Shake on It - Former PRC President Jiang Zemin and Current PRC President Hu Jintao

Let's Shake on It - Former PRC President Jiang Zemin and Current PRC President Hu Jintao

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