Premier Wen: the need for democracy and freedom is “irresistible”

Premier Wen Jiabao at the 2009 World Economic Forum. Image from the World Economic Forum's Flickr photostream. Used under a Creative Commons license.

In a recent CNN interview, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao pledged that China will carry out political reform alongside economic growth. Speaking to Fareed Zakaria, the premier said,

I believe I and all the Chinese people have such conviction that China will make continuous progress and the people’s wishes and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible. I hope you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China.


I believe freedom of speech is indispensable for any country, a country in the course of development and in a country that has become strong.

He added that, in order for China to have a “normal order”, reforms must be “conducted within the range allowed by the constitution and the laws.”

In his first interview with a foreign journalist in two years, the remarks are Wen’s third mention of the need for such change in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the premier called for a loosening of the “excessive political control” of the CPC, and last week told the UN General Assembly that the People’s Republic would “push forward” political restructuring.

There has been increasing pressure for political change in China in recent years, much of which has been amplified by the new media revolution giving ordinary citizens a vehicle to express their views. Episodes of dissent have received much Western attention, such as the case of pro-democracy Charter 08 co-author Liu Xiaobo, who was imprisoned for 11 years last Christmas for “incitement to subvert state power.”

However, analysts have reminded us we should treat Wen’s remarks with caution, not as evidence that political reform is rising higher on the Communist Party’s agenda. Speaking to the Guardian, Columbia University professor Andrew Nation said,

It’s impossible to know exactly what Wen means by ‘political reform’ and ‘universal values’ … he probably envisions a great deal less reform and a great deal less human rights than we would think such words imply.

There is also skepticism over whether Wen, who will step down in 2012, has the time or political prowess to instigate such widespread reform. Activist and scholar Chen Yongmiao also told the Guardian,

It is pie in the sky. He only has two years left in office; even if he really sincerely wants it to happen, he cannot make it. For political reform to take place we need a really powerful leader to face the bureaucracy that’s constituted by so many people, to challenge it and to defeat it. Only Mao or Deng has had that kind of power.

Political reform, both at government and grassroots levels, have long been resisted by the CPC for fear of conceding its monopoly on power, and therefore its legitimacy as an authority. Wen has, however, made far greater mention of the need for political reform than President Hu Jintao. Hu instead prefers to err on the side of orthodoxy, emphasising the need for a ‘harmonious society’, often at the expense of addressing the root of China’s pressing social issues.


‘Strike hard’ campaign: a deeper approach to social unrest?

Police across China have this week started a seven-month crackdown to curb rising crimes and ease escalating social conflicts. Known in Chinese as yanda (‘strike hard’), the Ministry of Public Security announced that the campaign will target extreme violent crime, including gun and gang crime, as well as telecom fraud, human trafficking, robbery, prostitution, gambling and drug-related offences. This is the fourth round of such campaigns since 1983.

Police nationwide have also been told to monitor high-risk areas more closely and, China Daily reports, “nip violence in the bud by being more vigilant to social conflicts and helping resolve problems.”

In May, Premier Wen Jiabao expressed this need for a deeper approach to social unrest in response to a spate of school killings that killed 15 and injured 60 others:

As well as adopting vigorous safety measures, we also have to pay attention to addressing some deep-seated causes behind these problems, including dealing with some social conflicts and resolving disputes.

On Sunday, vice-minister of public security, Zhang Xinfeng, echoed Wen’s sentiment:

China, during a process of social and economic transformation, is facing emerging social conflicts and new problems in social security. Police at all levels must fully realise the complexity of the problem.

It would seem the government is becoming increasingly aware that antiquated methods of repression are no longer sustainable in dealing with social unrest. The Communist Party is now having to manage a multitude of social contentions that illustrate the country’s growing inequalities (the recent labour protests and spate of suicides at Honda and Foxconn are two examples), and a public that has a growing awareness of their legal and human rights and the government’s responsibility to them. Put together, they create a recipe for a social discord that will only be exacerbated by hardline suppression.

The social underbelly of China’s school killings

Image from China News Service

This spring has witnessed a series of horrific attacks on Chinese schoolchildren that have killed 15 and injured around 60 others. The discussion over the patterns and motives of the killings has been rampant, with Stan Abrams helpfully summarising much of the conversation here and here. One theme is undeniable: that the attacks are underscored by the growing severity of China’s complex social problems. Fundamentally, they typify the dark side of the China’s glittering economic growth: that it has not come with deeper social and political reforms that must be delivered in order to sustainably manage the country’s growing contentions.

The events appear to have been copycat incidents, with middle-aged men attacking defenceless children. The most recent occurred in Linchang, Shaanxi Province, on Wednesday, when Wu Huanming, a well-liked 48-year-old local man, slaughtered seven kindergarten pupils and two adults. It has since been found that a property dispute between Wu and the school’s administrator, Wu Hongying, triggered his deadly actions.

On the surface, the row was perhaps a trivial one: Wu Huanming had rented a house next to the kindergarten and wanted it to be vacated when the lease expired in April, while Wu Hongying wanted to stay until the summer. Yet, the details of the other attacks – a jobless man allegedly angry over a series of personal and professional setbacks who then slaughtered 29 children and three adults at a Taixing kindergarten, and a 33-year-old teacher on sick leave due to ‘mental problems’ who injured 15 students at a Guangdong primary school – point to a darker, more serious root of social frustrations leading to vindictive actions.

In spite of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms that have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in the past thirty years and created a socially mobile, urbanised middle class, a sizeable pool of disenfranchised citizens has been deepening. Measures such as the hukou (household registration) system continue to limit China’s 200 million migrant workers’ access to basic services in cities, and the urban-rural divide is ever increasing, exacerbated by poor medical service provisions in rural areas and China’s widest wealth gap for thirty years.

The debate has also rippled to a wider discussion on mental health issues in China. Talking to AP, Renmin University’s Zhou Xiaozheng said,

The perpetrators have contracted a ‘social psychological infectious disease’ that shows itself in a desire to take revenge on society. (…) They pick children as targets because they are the weakest and most vulnerable.

The provision of adequate mental health care has long been neglected in the PRC. According to the National Centre for Mental Health, China has around 100 million mental health sufferers, with only 5% actively seeking treatment. When treatment is sought, it is largely insufficient: there are allegedly 11 hospital beds and fewer than two psychiatrists for every 100,000 people in the PRC (the world average currently sits at 43 beds and four doctors). Fundamentally, mental health remains a social stigma, with economic growth having overshadowed any psychological changes that may have come with it, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday.

This sombre melange of inequality and inadequate care has created a fertile ground for social contentions to grow. As ChinaBizGov’s Greg Anderson argues, the killings are symptomatic of the disappointment and powerlessness borne by China’s lower classes. Evan Osnos has termed this the ‘marginalisation’ suffered by those disorientated in China’s rapidly changing society.

At a policy level, such fatal contentions are beginning to chip away at the Hu-Wen trajectory of social harmony, raising questions over how such social inequalities can be tackled and what the future will hold for China’s mental health care. The government can no longer avoid dealing with such home truths. As Chatham House Senior Fellow Kerry Brown told me,

China’s more unstable than people think. Economic growth has been the great unifier, and the CCP has the objective of creating a strong, powerful country. This will continue to work in short to medium term, but beyond that, you’re hitting issues of stability, sustainability, equality and social justice. These could become killers in their own right.

It does seem as if this realisation for a more sustainable approach is taking hold. In the first public acknowledgment that Beijing is looking to the root of the problem and not merely increasing school security, Premier Wen Jiabao expressed his anguish over the attacks. He told Hong Kong’s Phoenix network,

As well as adopting vigorous safety measures, we also have to pay attention to addressing some deep-seated causes behind these problems, including dealing with some social conflicts and resolving disputes.

If there ever were a chain of events pushing a changing China closer to the crossroads of the need for deeper social reforms, it has most certainly occurred. It is only too poignant that innocent and vulnerable lives were lost in order to make the CCP realise that society is not, and cannot be, harmonious.

Holding up half the sky?

Photo by K. Sawyer

To mark International Women’s Day, a recent UNDP report has stated the continent is ‘missing’ 96 million women. In the report, entitled ‘Power, Voice and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific’, females were warned against “taking survival for granted.”

The staggering figure was reached by calculating the actual sex ratio in the continent’s population compared to what it would be, were equal treatment to be given to the sexes during pregnancy, birth and afterwards. However, the figure itself was also skewed by the outliers of China and India’s huge birth gender disparities. Between them, they made up around 85 million of the final 96 million.

Female infanticide and sex selective abortions have ravaged the continent. According to the report, East Asia has the world’s highest male-female sex ratio at birth, with 119 boys born for every 100 girls. Global averages currently sit at 107 boys for every 100 girls.

In terms of China, research published last year in the BMJ also showed that this imbalance peaks in rural areas, and will continue be affected since women are ‘marrying out’ into cities. UCL’s Therese Hesketh, one of the paper’s co-authors, told The Guardian,

In the past, migrants have tended to go back home to permanently settle. But women [now] are finding partners in urban areas and not going back. Men are unable to do that. Urban women will not marry a migrant man; men can’t marry up.

Besides this imbalance, the report also revealed how women’s access to health, education and employment, their political participation and protection from violence are dire in South Asia in particular. The report said,

Nearly half of the countries in South Asia, and more than 60 percent of those in the Pacific, have no laws against domestic violence. Nor are there many provisions against sexual harassment in workplaces, though 30 to 40 percent of working women report experiencing verbal, physical or sexual abuse.

But, highlighting the merits of East Asia, a piece by Ananth Krishnan in The Hindu today proclaimed China’s achievements over India’s in improving the social and economic status of women.

Women’s participation in the labour force in China is now 70 per cent, far higher than the 35 per cent in South Asia and the global average of 53 per cent. Life expectancy has risen to 75 years, while female literacy rates are more than double India’s.

True, sweeping advances have been made in empowering women since the dawn of the PRC in 1949. As part of China’s intense industrialisation (and boosted by an ideology affirming gender equality), women were encouraged to enter the workforce from the 1950s onwards, accounting for a large part of China’s subsequent boom.

But, in addition to the said bleak landscape of a gender imbalance, another area where women are not empowered in China (as opposed to other parts of Asia) is politics, Krishnan claimed. Today, only 10% of the CCP’s 371-member Central Committee, its highest body, are women.

Lest we forget some of the other dire areas women in China find themselves in. It has only been five years since China outlawed sexual harrassment and the PRC is the only country in the world where the suicide rate for women is higher than for men. Further, recent figures released by the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) revealed authorities receive 50,000 annual complaints of domestic violence (though of course, this could also mean that women are speaking out more about such cases, rather than the crime itself increasing). All of these realities manifest themselves in a society that is still incredibly traditional and steeped in Confucian ideology that upheld women as subservient to men.

Plus, as pointed out by Shanghaiist’s commander in chief, Elaine Chow, Krishnan does not address why this figure of women in the CCP’s Central Committee is so small. She says,

Most people, unless they’re born into political families (and then they tend to be boys), are kind of afraid to get into politics here. …In politics, getting anywhere up to the top requires some combination of sneaky maneuvering and guanxi because, let’s be honest here, they don’t promote based solely on merit.

But it will be some time before a greater interest in and access to political participation among women in China grows. The wider context of the country’s gender inequality also shows slow progress, unlike the breakneck speed China’s economic development is moving at.

UNDP head Helen Clark concluded that the whole continent is at a crossroads. “Whether gender equality is pushed aside or pursued with greater energy amid the economic downturn depends on actions taken or not taken now by governments.”

The Shanghai and Rio spring cleans

No more of these to be sold on Ipanema?

It seems it’s not just Wujiang Lu and Shanghai’s historic houses that are suffering a severe shake up, or, in many cases, total demolition. In hastily tidying up the city for the 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro’s beaches are also subject to spring clean at the hands of mayor Eduardo Paes’ “Shock Order” programme, the New York Times reported today.

The Times’ Alexei Barrionuevo said,

Citing health reasons, the mayor has outlawed the sale of boiled corn and freshly cooked foods like steak and shrimp on the sand. And for still less obvious safety reasons, beachgoers are prohibited from playing paddle ball or kicking a soccer ball near the water’s edge between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Pets at the beach? Forget about it.

In the program’s first month, city officials confiscated 2,375 items on the beaches, including portable grills, drinks, push carts, clothes and cooking utensils. Shock Order agents also arrested 62 people over the past two weekends for not availing themselves of the 4,000 chemical toilets that have been set up around the city for Carnaval — twice as many as last year.

For anyone who has hit Rio’s beaches, it’s hard to imagine them without the array of clothing, food and drinks vendors selling everything from towels to skirts, pastries to shrimp, freshly-made caipirinhas to huge coconuts. But it’s not all bad news, as Barrionuevo reminds us: “In the case of maté, a Brazilian iced tea sold by vendors shouldering small metal kegs, the reaction proved too strong and a ban was relaxed.”

The results appear to be mixed: while the jobs of these vendors are clearly at risk, many of Rio’s residents are welcoming the change and asking it be extended beyond Avenida Atlantica to their own neighbourhoods. Unlike in China, then, it seems these attempts at a clean up aren’t based simply on ‘sanitary’ aesthetics.

HIV phobia: China’s new epidemic

One report that caught my roaming eye today was BBC News’ Chris Hogg’s tale of HIV phobia in China. Hundreds of anxious patients are worried they’re suffering from a “new disease with HIV-like symptoms”. So convinced was one that he refused to acknowledge all seven of his HIV tests that came back negative. Doctors at Shanghai’s Pasteur Institute repeated to him that it was his extreme guilt over having had sex with a prostitute that was doing his immune system zero favours.

But, for all its child-like obstinacy, HIV phobia isn’t entirely unjustified. These patients aren’t listening to their doctors due to mistrust, hardly earth-shattering given China’s long track record of covering up fatal diseases (e.g. Sars). And, sadly, the grave truth is that AIDS certainly is spreading throughout the country: government officials say around 700,000 people in China are living with the disease, and some 50,000 new infections occur every year. Meanwhile, concrete knowledge of HIV prevention remains incredibly low, not least in rural China.

The reality is that a well-informed discussion of sexual matters is slow to catch up with China’s increasingly liberalised younger generations. China is dealing with this at two grave extremes: at one end is the intense crackdown on online pornography and ‘harmful’ content, and on the other end of the spectrum lies the ill-informed public, from the disease phobes to the sexually curious (and active) and the actual HIV sufferers. Thanks to this lack of a balanced middle ground, sex education remains incredibly poor (once the sexual organs are covered, school’s out).

This is proof of China’s immaturity in dealing with a topic that, far from simply being ‘unhealthy’, may well bear serious consequences if it is not approached in a responsible way. Traditional taboos and Confucian values of male dominance and the consequential female sexual frigidity and ‘purity’ still hover. Extreme policies breed extreme results, and so it is no wonder that, without the appropriate guidance, HIV spreads and cases such as mistaking teenage pregnancy for weight gain occur.

As CNN reported, the government is working to curb the spread of HIV, namely through running educational campaigns to inform high-risk groups, such as sex workers. But deepening such knowledge amongst China’s curious younger generations by revitalising the country’s sex education is equally vital if positive steps are to be made in reducing paranoia and increasing responsibility. Sadly, though, overcoming social and cultural taboos is far easier said than done, and it may be a while until attitudes mellow down.

Blaming blame culture


Over the weekend I saw this peaching-to-the-converted piece by Nick Cohen in The Observer. Lamenting the UK’s shameful rape conviction rate of around 6%, Cohen placed most of the blame on the jury:

A representative sample of the people who pass them [men] in the street, takes their account of themselves literally and says that, if the defendant is really so brassy and sassy and in control of her life, then rape isn’t the responsibility of the rapist and the victim must pay.

Sadly, Cohen is not exaggerating. The UK’s blame culture is still in full swing when it comes to rape. In 2005, Amnesty International published statistics showing that 30% of Britons believe a rape victim would be partially responsible for her ordeal if she was drunk, dressed provocatively, or had had several sexual partners. Of course, here the obvious issues would be defining how drunk is drunk, what constitutes provocative attire and how many sexual partners are ‘several’ or ‘too many’.

The courtroom also provides the arena to drive this blame culture home: speaking at a public trial I attended in early 2008, rape victims affiliated with Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town, north London, called their violating and intrusive court cases ‘a second rape’, a process they would rather not repeat were their ordeals ever to happen again. The bottom line seemed to echo ‘you’re asking for it.’

China is sitting in the same trap. One recent example comes from the light sentencing of two civilian police assistants charged with the rape of a young girl in Huzhou, Zheijang province. Their case garnered attention because the judged ruled the crime a “temporary” one that occurred “on a whim.” The judge ruled that, although the two officers had raped the teen, having wined and dined her and then taken her back to a hotel to allegedly “let her sober up”, the act itself was never a part of their game plan. Plus, since they turned themselves in, they were in the market for a fair amount of sympathy. Crucially, their crime was treated as a spontaneous and whimsical time-filling activity, trivialising the domination, intimidation and horror embroiled in rape itself.

Examples of blame culture were evident in the rampant discussions that followed the news of this “temporary” (i.e. not pre-meditated) crime. Blatant misogyny was found on various blogs and comment boards, with the victim being told she was a ‘bitch’ who ‘had it coming to her’, and that the case sat in a sexual act twilight zone, blurred by the copious amounts of alcohol consumed by all involved. Alongside such comments, however, were also instances of outrage at the judge’s sentencing. One contributor from Tianya wrote,

the law has become a plaything in the hands of judges. Being born in a China this terrifying is too frightening.

Of course, my comparison can only go so far since the social realities for women in China and women in Britain are vastly different. The gender inequalities suffered by women in the PRC are far more blatant and less widely challenged than those in the UK. For instance, the concept of face bears a heavy weight in China: a colleague told me about a domestic violence crisis centre that had opened in Beijing last year, but due to shame and embarrassment embedded in a far wider socio-cultural context, no victims came forward.

Yet, the two countries also share the reality that rape is a topic so often trivialised by a lack of understanding and an immense stigmatisation of women, providing a fertile ground for a blame culture to blossom. This is our twenty-first century version of reinforcing female subjugation and limiting female social mobility: if women are blamed for rape due their alcohol intake, the freedom to dress as they wish and the illustriousness of their sexual past, then they are subsequently being confined even further into boxes of ‘appropriate behaviour’.

This is not to say women are or should be void of any responsibility. On the contrary, we need to understand and respect ourselves and our bodies by being in control and not putting ourselves at risk. We should know how much Grey Goose it takes for us to become paralytic.

But with this comes an even wider responsibility on the part of society to draw the difference between sex (i.e. consent on both sides) and rape (i.e. domination and control on one side over the other). In China’s case, of course, this is easier said than done, given that sex itself is a topic so rarely discussed (unlike in the UK), and sex education remains drastically poor (not too dissimilar from the UK). Online, however, more liberal attitudes and curiosities have a chance to run wild, as shown in this recent, if tasteless, series on chinaSMACK. The online arena, away from traditional social constraints of offline life, may well provide an environment for more diverse understandings to germinate.

All this talk may be purely hypothetical; there is clearly a lot of work to be done in breaking down gender barriers and pointing fingers on both sides of the globe. In theory, a deeper awareness of the severity of rape could deter us away from an all-too-easy blame culture. But in practice, we continue going around in circles bordered by misogyny and trivialised understandings.