Author Archives: msheehan

About msheehan

Matt is a writer who lives in Beijing.

A Day in the Life of China’s First Cyber Dissident

Why is Huang Qi the only activist optimistic about human rights in China?

(You can read the original post here.)

CHENGDU — It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Friday, and Huang Qi is knee-deep in the drudgery of defending villagers’ rights.

We’re driving south out of this steaming metropolis in southwest China, headed to a village restaurant slated for demolition to make way for high-voltage power lines. The family that owns the restaurant thinks the government is stiffing them on compensation. That’s where Huang comes in.

Huang is a talker, but his vocabulary is drastically different from that of China’s other prominent human rights defenders. He doesn’t discourse on the nature of freedom; he rarely mentions the constitution or the inviolable dignity of the individual.

As the high-rises give way to corn fields, Huang is quizzing villagers about the compensation per square meter of the restaurant. He’s explaining the government permits required to carry out a legal demolition. He’s weighing the appraisal of fruit trees. He mentally catalogues each answer, assessing the government’s compensation package and what can be done to increase it.

Huang Qi takes in reports of government land seizures and state violence from around China.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANHuang Qi takes in reports of government land seizures and state violence from around China.

“Democracy is great; elections are great. But in China you need to work on very practical things when you’re working on this stuff,” Huang said. “Democracy is an action — not something that comes out of your mouth.”

Huang has been waging a campaign to protect the interests of China’s dispossessed for 17 years — eight of which he spent in prison. After working for more than a decade in manufacturing and business, in 1998 he created a site exposing human trafficking and then started China’s first domestic human rights web site. Two years later he became the first known “cyber dissident” to be jailed in China for online activity. Released in 2005, Huang went right back to human rights work. In 2008 he was rewarded with another three-year jail stint for reporting on how shoddy construction of a school led to student deaths following an earthquake.

Now 52 years old, Huang maintains many of the mannerisms of a Chinese factory owner. He chain-smokes cigarettes and relishes a good deal — or a good fight. When not fielding phone calls from aggrieved citizens, he is coaching farmers on how to resist forced demolitions and squeeze more compensation out of local officials.

Guo Yingliang, a farmer who has protested over compensation on his seized farmland, holds up a certificate commending him as an "Excellent Communist Party Member." Three days after this photo was taken his wife, Wu Ping, was reportedly detained.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANGuo Yingliang, a farmer who has protested over compensation on his seized farmland, holds up a certificate commending him as an “Excellent Communist Party Member.” Three days after this photo was taken his wife, Wu Ping, was reportedly detained.

His website,, is a clearinghouse for the injustices that plague the bottom rungs of Chinese society: violent evictions, forced abortions, attacks by club-wielding thugs. The site has been blocked in China for a decade and a half, but Huang shrugs that off. He believes it’s still reaching its audience.

Higher-level government officials monitor Tianwang for tip-offs about corruption among local officials, Huang says. China’s leaders are in the midst of the most sweeping crackdown in decades on corrupt officials — and rival political factions. With fear gripping Communist Party cadres, the threat of publicity can be an effective deterrent for local despots.

“In China the law isn’t important — power is important,” Huang says. “The key is finding the methods that the government is most afraid of.”

Urbanization and nail houses

At the restaurant on the rural outskirts of Chengdu, Huang gives the owners a 30-minute crash course in negotiations and resistance: Demand to see all the government permits. Don’t allow any demolition before compensation is agreed on. If there’s violence, take pictures and immediately send them to Tianwang volunteers to put on the website.

Li Min and other Tianwang volunteers pick vegetables as a gift for Huang Qi.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANLi Min and other Tianwang volunteers pick vegetables as a gift for Huang Qi.

“Resistance gives you bargaining power,” Huang says. “Power produces respect.”

As he departs, the family that owns the restaurant loads the car down with bags of peaches from their trees.

Huang’s success in helping China’s poorest residents stand up to the Chinese state keeps his phone buzzing throughout the day.

“Hello… yes, this is Huang Qi… ok… look, send me this in a text message. Write the time, place, people and your phone number. Don’t include your own commentary, don’t curse the government — just write down what happened… If you can’t type then have a kid type it for you.”

Rural land seizures, both legal and illegal, have been the grease in the wheels of the largest wave of urbanization in human history. As China’s leaders flung sprawling networks of highways, high-rises and high-speed trains across the country, farmland has been acquired and repurposed en masse.

A "nail house" in the middle of a road in central China is finally demolished in 2012.CREDIT: STR/GETTY IMAGESA “nail house” in the middle of a road in central China is finally demolished in 2012.

Deals turning rice paddies into shopping malls are immensely profitable, but little of that profit reaches the land’s original inhabitants. Land seized by local governments is often resold to developers for dozens of times the compensation that farmers receive. In return for being kicked off their land and deprived of the only occupation they’ve ever known, farmers are usually given a lump sum payment or apartments in new developments.

Villagers who hold out for higher compensation sometimes end up living in “nail houses” — a Chinese term for the last building left standing after its neighbors have been demolished, like a stubborn nail that can’t be hammered flat or yanked out. Occupants of nail houses are often subject to the full gamut of intimidation and violence: bricks through windows, illegal detentions in “black jails,” and vicious attacks by armed gangs.

Huang meets a group of core Tianwang volunteers for lunch before visiting Yuan Ying, the proud resident of a “nail car.” Yuan, a 46-year old woman who used to work in a bread shop, refused the compensation offered for her home. After the building and subsequently the tent she lived in were toppled, Yuan bought a boxy van and parked it on her property. She now sleeps alone in the van amidst a vast sea of rubble.

Yuan Ying stands beside the car that she uses to block construction on the site of her former home.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANYuan Ying stands beside the car that she uses to block construction on the site of her former home.

Crushing corruption and dissent

Driving toward our last stop of the day, Huang proudly catalogues the local officials who have been thrown in jail after corruption exposés. China’s President Xi Jinping has pursued a two-track approach to squelching disobedience, simultaneously jailing huge numbers of corrupt officials and the very activists campaigning against corruption.

Most activists describe China as in the midst of a mounting crackdown on the pillars of civil society: independent media, activists and lawyers. That momentum culminated in the recent detentions of many well-known human rights lawyers, a move that some say marks the death knell for the rights defense movement.

Huang sees things very differently. He is one of the only high-profile activists who say the human rights situation in China is improving. He’s also one of the only activists who has spent more than a decade fielding phone calls from peasants who are having their land seized and their loved ones thrown in prison.

Scrolling through his website, Huang says he’s seen a dramatic drop in human rights abuses at the grassroots: violent evictions and illegal detentions. In 2013 the government abolished the dreaded “re-education through labor” system, a move that Huang says signals major progress.

Huang Qi visiting the area affected by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANHuang Qi visiting the area affected by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

But other activists are clearly dismayed about Huang’s claim that things were improving.

“This is a dangerous thing to say,” said Liu Feiyue, founder of Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a prominent human rights web site. “It’s a lie that’s not based in reality.”

Liu has worked on civil rights issues for a decade and has been detained briefly by police. Earlier this year he described the human rights situation as the worst since 1989. Liu suggested Huang’s positive spin was rooted in hopes that “he could win favor with the government.”

Is this progress?

A more generous interpretation might point to how long Huang has been in the movement and just how bad things were when he began. One of the first major investigations by his website documented government officials profiting from forcing fishermen to undergo mandatory appendectomies. Other pieces detailed the brutal suppression of Falun Gong practitioners. When he began, without social media or web sites challenging government propaganda narratives, there were virtually no channels for individuals to air their grievances.

If Huang and his volunteers are currently trying to avoid confrontation with authorities, they’re not doing a very good job. Li Min, one of the leading citizen journalists documenting abuses for Tianwang, disappeared into police custody 24 hours after accompanying us on these home visits. Li’s husband had spent the previous three months in the hospital after he was brutally attacked by men armed with wooden clubs. (Local police hung up the phone when questioned about both cases.)

Other Tianwang volunteers are currently awaiting trial and subject to ongoing harassment of their families. Huang gives himself a 90 percent chance of spending another few years in prison.

Liu Zhizhong searches his wife, Li Ming, outside a prison on July 20th. Li was detained on July 18th and remains in custody on charges of "obstructing official duties."CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANLiu Zhizhong searches his wife, Li Ming, outside a prison on July 20th. Li was detained on July 18th and remains in custody on charges of “obstructing official duties.”

After one last visit to victims of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, we pile into the car and head back toward Chengdu. Over the course of nine hours and 200 kilometers (124 miles), we’ve visited four homes and one hospital, accumulating several gift bags of peaches, lettuce and green beans in the process.

Looking out the window as we fly down the highway, Huang reflects on the number of calls he gets and how things have changed since he began this work almost two decades ago.

“When the people take part in defending their own rights, that is the first step in a democratic movement,” said Huang. “You must have the people first.”

These Chinese Rappers Are Trying To Take Hip Hop Mainstream, But Who’s The Bigger Hater: The Communist Party or Confucius?

(You can read the original piece here.)

CHENGDU, China — Earlier this week, the Ministry of Culture banned 120 songs from Chinese websites on the grounds that they “trumpeted obscenity, violence, crime or harmed social morality.” Hip-hop accounts for just a tiny sliver of mainstream music in China, but at least 50 of the 120 banned songs are by mainland Chinese and Taiwanese rappers. No one ever thought hip-hop and the Chinese government would be a match made in heaven, but this was pretty cold.

Still, here in a modest apartment covered in cat hair, an architect at the local Chengdu zoo is plotting his takeover of the Chinese hip-hop scene. Xie Yujie, aka Melo, is a 23-year-old recent college grad who spends his days designing structures for animals, and his nights ripping into rival emcees.

The rapper Fat Shady gets a crowd live in Kunming, China.

Rail-thin and with a chest covered in tattoos, Melo came up in the local freestyle battle scene, plowing through opponents until there weren’t any challengers left. He took on the nickname “Mr. Nobody Can Fuck With Me.”

Hip-hop is carving out a niche within Melo’s generation, and he’s confident that his localChengdu rap collective is going to steamroll rivals and dominate markets.

“Back in old-school China… the emperor was like, ‘If there’s more land and we don’t use it, we’re fools,’” Melo told The WorldPost. “There’s only one standard for success: using rap, using my fame and my music, to earn enough money to really” — here he switches into English — “make it rain, get that paper.”

In discussing his plans for domination, Melo likes to allude to the Mongol Empire’s 13th-century invasion of Europe, but for now his aims are more modest. He’s in a duo with another rapper, Psy.P, and they’ve printed 1,000 copies of their first full mixtape, “Prison Trap.” The group, Tiandi Hui, is hoping to sell at least 500 units.

The rappers in Melo’s crew are some of the most talented hip-hop artists in China, but only a couple can support themselves with music alone. The crew records songs in home studios and shoots music videos using GoPro cameras on selfie sticks.

For the past decade in China, if you wanted to live like a hip-hop star, you wouldn’t actually go into hip-hop. You’d have a much better chance of partying in the champagne room as aprovincial tax official than a top-tier rapper.

That is starting to change — for corrupt officials and aspiring rappers alike — but hip-hop still faces a serious culture clash in the Middle Kingdom.

Violence, rebellion and sexually explicit rhymes are common themes for many of the American artists whom local rappers idolize. But the Chinese Communist Party has shown zero tolerance for any of the above, and has blacklisted artists who cross these unwritten lines.

Then there’s the Chinese listening public itself. Can chest-thumping emcees find a wide audience in a conservative culture where education, family and personal humility are among the most dearly held values?

Fat Shady, a 25-year-old rapper and a member of the same crew as Melo, is easily one of the country’s most successful hip-hop artists. But he sees China’s culture and history as major obstacles to the art form’s growth.

“Chinese audiences can’t accept music with any attitude or individualistic stuff,” Fat Shady told The WorldPost. “China used to be a Confucian society, and it was all about being humble, stifling, smothering, suppressing. Then we went through a lot and everyone dressed in exactly the same clothes. Again — stifle, smother, suppress.”

English-language tattoos on Fat Shady's arms read "Hustle & Flow" and "Shady."

But hip-hop is perfect for giving voice to that kind of frustration. That’s exactly what Fat Shady did with his song “Daddy Ain’t Going to Work Tomorrow,” an angsty anthem in which the emcee rails against the petty indignities of the working world and demands a chance to “live out a little bit of truth.”

“When I finished writing it, I was like, ‘This track bangs, the people are going to love it,’” Fat Shady said. “Every week I’d perform it for all kinds of different people — old dudes in their 50s with gold chains, young tech kids with glasses, soldiers.”

Local love turned to national fame when Fat Shady performed the song on a TV talent show similar to “The Voice.” Video of the performance went viral among Chinese workers fed up with the daily drudgery of their jobs.

Video Editing by Audrey Horwitz

Just as important as what Fat Shady was saying in his rhymes was the way he said it: Fat Shady, like all the members of the Chengdu hip-hop collective, raps almost exclusively in the local Chengdu dialect of Chinese.

The languages spoken in China comprise a sprawling family of tongues, some of them as unintelligible to each other as French and Romanian. Today, speaking in dialect or with a regional accent is often seen as a sign of poor education. Ambitious young Chinese men and women work hard to scrub such inflections out of their speech.

But Fat Shady and Melo are proud of their hometown, and when they rap, they don’t try to disguise where they’re from.

“Every city has its own personality, and the personality is in the dialect,” Fat Shady said. “When you hear the Chengdu dialect, it has a kind of ‘whatever’ feeling to it. Standard Mandarin just doesn’t give you that feeling.”

Fans of Fat Shady gather at a show marking the opening of the Golden Paris real estate development in Luzhou.

Staying true to his roots paid off: Fat Shady has managed to turn his song about quitting his job into a lucrative career in and of itself. During a typical week he bounces between corporate events, doing short sets that always end with “Daddy Ain’t Going to Work Tomorrow.” Last month, he performed at a local mango festival and the opening of a real estate development called Golden Paris.

Although Fat Shady still believes most Chinese listeners can’t really handle hip-hop with attitude, he was able to support himself with these shows while putting together his new album, “People, Society, Money.” The album is inspired by trap music, a genre that developed in the American South and takes its name from a slang term for drug houses. That world might seem light-years away from this corner of southwest China, but Fat Shady sees parallels between the seedy underside of his home country and the Atlanta neighborhoods where trap evolved.

“China is full of these low-class, dirty millionaires, and they live the same way,” he said. “They don’t give a shit. They might have people killed, or a bunch of their workers might die on the job, but they’re still rich. Thirty workers die? No problem. They just cover up the news about it. To me, China is one big trap.”

Fat Shady signs autographs backstage before a show in Luzhou.

Hip-hop in China — as in many other countries that have adopted the form — exists as a striking mashup of global and local cultures. Fat Shady has inked Eminem’s face and the phrase “Hustle & Flow” onto his arms, but he raps in a dialect so local that even other Chinese people can’t understand it. Melo took his alias from the NBA star Carmelo Anthony, but the name of his duo with Psy.P comes from an 18th- and 19th-century secret society dedicated to the overthrow of China’s last dynasty. Rappers mimic the dance moves coming out of Compton, but instead of handguns, they carry blades of the sort favored by local criminals.

Of all the nefarious foreign influences that could have gotten Melo into trouble, it was Uber that finally pushed him over the line. In May, when Melo heard that Chinese police were cracking down on his beloved ride-hailing app, he went straight to his home studio to throw down the gauntlet.

“Where there’s oppression, there’s resistance,” Melo declares at the start of the track. “I only represent myself. I just like taking Uber. It’s just better than your taxi. What you trying to do? Bite me, bitch!”

The song takes aim at taxi oligopolies and meddling bureaucrats. Within hours, the track was trending on social media and gathering hundreds of thousands of hits. But the joy was short-lived. In the second verse, Melo had crossed way over one of the invisible lines.

“I don’t write political raps,” he says in the song. “But if politicians try to force me to stop rapping, I’ll cut their heads off with a knife and lay them at the feet of their corpses.”

The Chinese rapper Melo gained notoriety in May with a song that accused government authorities of interfering with Uber.

The song was scrubbed from the Internet, and local police called Melo to the station. After warning him that he could be charged with promoting terrorism, the police made Melo promise never to release the song again.

It was a scare, but one that feels good in hindsight.

“It proves that I can stir things up so much that the government has to hold me back,” Melo told The WorldPost. “I think if I can make one song like this, I can make a second and a third.”

Whatever comes next, the Uber incident changed the game for Melo.

“The path of a rapper is a hard one — only a tiny percentage will end up succeeding,” he said. “Even though the government stopped one of my songs from breaking out, this gives me a big push. I’m like, fuck, all that practice wasn’t for nothing.”

Proof That Chinese Grandparents are More Athletic Than You

(Here is a link to the same video on Youku)

BEIJING — No treadmills, no iPods and no sweat-wicking fabrics. No protein shakes, no hot yoga and no Fitbit. Armed with just jungle gym equipment and mind-boggling levels of physical fitness, these elderly Chinese people are putting on a showcase of human dexterity at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park.

temple of heaven park

This 86-year-old Beijing native ran his last marathon four years ago.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that few of them exercised seriously before retiring. In China, it’s common for people’s athletic lives to begin in old age, when their daily duties often consist of haggling over vegetable prices and watching the grandkids. When that’s finished, they hit the park to chit-chat and work up a sweat.

Almost every person captured in the video is retired and over 60 years old. The man on the ab roller at the start of the video? He’s 86 and ran his last marathon at 82.

Geng Zhi, shown swinging like Spiderman at 0:13 and torquing his leg behind his head at 0:56, is 67 years old and retired. He spent his working years on an assembly line at a car parts facility.

“Back then I didn’t exercise at all,” said Geng. “Who would have thought of exercising? If you had enough to eat and a place to live that was enough.”

temple of heaven park

Geng Zhi is 67 years old and has been exercising since retiring from his job at an auto parts factory.

Spry and with supple wrists, 80-year-young “Old Liu” (seen at 0:51) prefers to sweat it out on the ping pong table. He sends men a quarter his age scrambling from corner to corner, and celebrates slams with a fist pump. Originally hailing from impoverished Gansu province in western China, he came to Beijing at age 19 having never finished elementary school. At the time, the People’s Republic of China was just four years old, and Liu enrolled in a night school that granted him an elementary school degree after six months.

Old Liu’s relationship with ping pong has tracked with international affairs: He learned of the sport when Rong Guotuan became the first Chinese person to win an international sports championship in 1959, and Liu really began playing during “Ping Pong Diplomacy” of the 1970s, a series of international friendly matches between the U.S. and China that signaled a thaw in icy relations.

old liu ping pong beijing

“Old Liu” turned 80 this year but still slugs it out with young guns.

Back at Temple of Heaven Park, you won’t find Liu or the others using ear buds: Exercise is a fundamentally social phenomenon among China’s elderly. Grandmothers gather in parks at dusk for group line dancing routines, and old men chat as they take turns on the parallel bars. Private space is a rare commodity in cities, and cramped apartments drive both the young and the old out onto sidewalks, parking lots and parks, where they take advantage of every inch of public space.

Exercise equipment like that shown in this video can be found in most Chinese neighborhoods, with jungle gyms and metal exercise bikes offering the raw material needed to construct a workout regimen. Metal bars are the platform for some high-flying aerobics, but traditional Chinese beliefs about the need to balance one’s inner qi(“life force”) also have many aging athletes simply standing in one place and rubbing or hitting their limbs.

temple of heaven bar spin

The bars in Temple of Heaven Park play host to elderly acrobats.

Your personal trainer might question the science, but it’s hard to argue with the results: Despite rampant cigarette smoking, suffocating pollution and some ghastly food-safety scandals, China compares favorably with other upper middle income countries on life expectancy. At 75.2 years, China’s life expectancy currently lags only 3.5 years behind that of the U.S., despite China havingaround one-eighth of America’s per-capita GDP.

What those statistics don’t reveal is the organic joy and community vibes that emanate from these temples of public health in China’s parks. Monkey bars, concrete and a little bit of free time form the foundations of these communities that might beat the hell out of a nursing home.

That’s something to remember next time you’re strapping on your heart rate monitor, connecting it via Bluetooth to your iPhone, and driving to the gym to watch House of Cards while on the elliptical. You can do much more with much less — and right now, some Chinese grandparent probably is.



Why Young Chinese People Love Ultimate Frisbee’s Hippie-Go-Lucky Culture

ivan dope

(link to original piece on The Huffington Post)

BEIJING — These are not the Chinese athletes you’ve seen on TV, those scarily synchronized divers or the gymnasts plucked from preschools for their bone structure. The Ultimate Frisbee players running and diving all over these fields are too scrappy, too goofy and having way too much fun.

Ultimate Frisbee (often called just Ultimate as “Frisbee” is a trademarked brand) is growing in China, and 17 teams gathered here in Beijing for the national championship in late May.

The sport’s hippie-go-lucky slice of American culture has also migrated to China, and tournaments offer some grassroots cultural diplomacy. Many Chinese players have their first meaningful interactions with foreigners on the field — and at the after party. It’s an intoxicating gulp of fresh air for young people coming out of the stultifying Chinese education system.

The game resembles a mix of soccer and American football — you score points by catching the flying disc in the end zone — but without the tackling or stoppages in play. Competitions in China are self-officiated, with players resolving foul calls on the field.

The weekend Ultimate tournaments are 48-hour marathons of sweat, beer and social bonding. The co-ed teams cram onto overnight trains and converge on the host city. Games last all day Saturday, culminating in a dinner banquet and costume party. Sunday sees more games, a finals match-up and an awards ceremony.

The May contest served to crown the Chinese champion of Ultimate for 2015. Teams came from 13 provinces. Squads include graduates of local sports colleges, Chinese returning from university in the U.S., and Uyghur players from Xinjiang province. Many teams also feature foreigners, although the weekend’s rules limited the number of non-Chinese players on the field at any time. A team of graduates from the Tianjin University of Sport was a consistent favorite, but they faced a veteran Hong Kong squad as well as last year’s champion, Wuhan C.U.G.

selfie pic

Tournaments like this give the players a taste of what’s often lacking in the lives of Chinese youth — sports, dumb decisions and a chance to get weird.

If you’re a Chinese teenager with ambitions beyond a factory job, your high school life revolves around one event: the country’s college entrance exam, or gaokao (pronounced “gow-cow”). The test is sometimes likened to the SAT, but in reality there is no comparison. Thegaokao is an all-consuming black hole at the end of high school.

The two-day test is given once a year, and a person’s score is the sole criterion for most college admissions. High school seniors often study more than 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week. Some schools have hooked students up to IV drips during cram sessions and installed so-called suicide nets at dorms.

In the minds of many Chinese parents, the gaokao determines a child’s future. Succeed and you go to a top university, securing a place among China’s rising middle class (as well as a comfortable retirement for your parents). Fail and you’ll be working construction or other jobs serving the new elite.

warm up buttkickers

But that obsession with job security and status no longer sits well with 29-year-old Ivan Xu.

“F–k the job,” said Xu. “Just be good at what you love, become the best possible at it, and then you’ll be fine with the jobs and income.”

Words like that strike terror in the hearts of conservative Chinese parents. They might even have shocked Xu himself a decade ago. That was before he fell in love with Ultimate, founded the first team at his school, became one of the best players in the country, and started a bike journey around the world.

Growing up in a small city in central China, Xu was a short, shy kid. He stood just 4’10” when he started high school, and he was bullied for his size and poor grades. His parents run a dumpling restaurant. Xu threw himself into test prep for the last years of high school.

“I just studied, only studied,” Xu told The WorldPost. “I come from kind of a hard background — my parents are not rich. If I don’t study well, they don’t have any means to support me. … I don’t have another choice.”

Xu’s cousins working in the factories of southern China serve as a constant reminder of the way life’s path can be changed by a test score. For him, the hard work paid off. At the end of his senior year, Xu tested into a top-ranked university in the provincial capital of Wuhan.

leapord skin tights

Chinese college life is much less pressure-packed than high school. But after years of intensive test prep, many students lack hobbies or the habits of socializing. They end up sleepwalking through a bachelor’s degree on a diet of instant noodles and computer games. If they’re lucky, something — a romance, a sport, a trip abroad — shakes them out of their post-gaokao stupor.

Xu first encountered Ultimate in 2006 during his junior year of college. An English teacher from the U.S. schooled him in the basics, and at the end of the year the pair traveled to a tournament in Shanghai. For Xu, the weekend’s antics were eye-opening.

“It was crazy and something I hadn’t seen before,” Xu said. “These people seemed happy.”

Xu returned to the China University of Geosciences his senior year on a mission to spread the gospel of Ultimate. He started by converting a room of freshmen across the hall and anyone else whom he could grab (“I made all my friends play”). Together they founded a team: Wuhan C.U.G.

ivan fris

After graduating, Xu moved to southwest China, where he started a local pick-up game and worked a series of jobs. But his mind was never at the office.

“All I thought about was Frisbee so my boss didn’t like me,” said Xu.

He spent almost all of his earnings traveling to tournaments around the country. Chinese people associate suntanned skin with manual laborers and farmers, one reason why young men and women play so few outdoor sports. When Xu returned to his hometown with a tan, he’d make sure to come in at night so as not to lose face for his parents.

His travels eventually went international, taking him to tournaments in the Philippines and then Prague. A chance meeting with a Russian model at the Prague airport inspired Xu to study Russian. In Belarus for three years, he developed a working grasp of Russian and got the idea for his next project: biking and walking across every continent, promoting Ultimate along the way.


Last year Xu traveled around 14 European countries by bike and won a Latvian Ultimate championship along the way. Those exploits earned him a corporate sponsorship that is funding his current 1,000-mile journey across China. Along the way he puts on clinics and speaks at universities, hoping to shake students out of their obsession with job security. A U.S. trip is planned for this fall, followed by South America and India.

But on this May weekend, the goal is to repeat Wuhan C.U.G.’s championship run from last year. Xu has supplemented a core of C.U.G. alums with players from around China and a Cambodian all-star he met there on a trip to donate Ultimate discs. (This author also played with C.U.G. during the tournament.)

Saturday went as planned for the squad: C.U.G. won all four games, including a nail-biter against a Beijing team. After each game, the two teams cheered for each other and huddled together for a pep talk.

“Today we’re opponents, but next time we might be teammates. Let’s go, Chinese Ultimate!”

high fives

Sunday morning saw players trudging to the fields while nursing sore legs and hangovers from Saturday night chug-offs. As the championship bracket took shape, players on eliminated teams climbed into the bleachers to heckle their friends.

In the semifinals, C.U.G. faced the veteran Hong Kong team. Xu started the game off with fireworks, diving and snagging a long throw as it faded over his shoulder. But that grab proved to be the peak for C.U.G. An ankle injury sidelined Xu for part of the game, and the rest of the squad struggled to break through Hong Kong’s suffocating zone defense. Hong Kong won the game, earning a match-up against the Tianjin University of Sport grads in the finals.

With the grandstands filling up with players-turned-fans, organizers handed out the beer. The Tianjin team plays a fast-and-loose style ripe for highlight reels. Their athleticism proved too much for Hong Kong’s defense, and Tianjin took home the title.

As the victorious athletes drank out of the trophy cup, other players hugged it out and promised they’d see each other at the next tournament. The sun hit the tree line, and everyone loaded onto the tournament bus and then the trains and planes carrying them home.

liang zhuang crazy face


Rhapsody in Beijing

“Rhapsody in Beijing” is my video tribute to the city I love. It was inspired by the people who live here and the song Rhapsody in Blue, a piece that perfectly captures a city on the verge of something big. You can watch the video below (I recommend full screen), and read my (somewhat gushing and often cheesy) write-up below that.

Here is a link to the same video on Youku.

Beijing is a city with a public relations problem. It’s plagued by all manner of 21st-century urban maladies: clogged streets, packed public transit, an astounding wealth gap and the occasional “Airpocalypse.” Those are real problems with real consequences for real people.

But beyond the banner headlines there is another Beijing that’s rarely seen in the international press. The city is home to millions of human beings trying to make a life in one of the fastest-changing societies on the planet. They grind away at offices, schools and construction sites with a patience and a tolerance for drudgery (the Chinese call it “eating bitterness”) that astounds foreign eyes. Many of Beijing’s newly arrived urban workers — called “Beijing floaters” — are one generation away from tilling rice paddies, and the sacrifices that brought them to this metropolis aren’t easily forgotten.

Each city block or packed bus is a human medley of class and culture: migrant workers fresh off the train from China’s poorer interior provinces, first-generation college students getting a taste of international lifestyles, and multi-generational families whose roots in the city date back to China’s dynastic era. It’s a bubbling and sometimes volatile mix that turns an ethnically homogenous city into a stunningly diverse human cityscape. For its many problems, Beijing is a city with a pulse, a place that is changing the world as it constantly reinvents itself.

I made the short film “Rhapsody in Beijing” because I wanted to capture the city in all of its grit and glory. One video in itself could never encapsulate Beijing’s manifold lifestyles and characters, but my hope is that this brings the city to life by zooming in on the people and places that drive it.

Privacy is rare in China, as few Beijing residents are blessed with spacious living rooms or solitary studio apartments. As a result, private lives — the romantic courtships, conversations between old friends and instrumental jam sessions — unfold in the most public of spaces. Many Chinese parks are packed at sundown from March through November. Three generations are often interacting in the same space, doing everything from singing Mao-era “red songs” to taking cheesy group selfies.

For a culture often derided as clan-like and a political system averse to crowd-sourced anything, Chinese urban life is a miracle of spontaneous organization. There’s no app or listserv needed to create and sustain the daily badminton games that endure for years, and the line-dancing grandmothers aren’t part of any Facebook groups (not that they could be if they wanted to). What brings them together is a desire for connection and ritual, something most Chinese don’t have the luxury of finding in their crammed apartments.

At the 2:15 mark of the video you’ll see Beijingers rallying for deceased Chairman Mao Zedong in the city’s central Jingshan Park. Thirty-five seconds later, you’ll see a woman from China’s Uyghur minority dancing in the same park despite ethnic tensions in the city running high; one day before, an Uyghur man had killed two people while speeding through crowded Tiananmen Square in a car, just a mile and a half from where the woman danced.

For all the bustle, pressure, tension, pollution and poverty at play, Beijing still manages to chug along. In that way it bears a resemblance to the New York that George Gershwin had in mind when he composed “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924: a city that combines exorbitant wealth with widespread injustice, and harsh realities with almost limitless possibility.

A Day in the Life of a Chinese Muslim Migrant Family

This piece documents a day at a small restaurant in my neighborhood run by the Mao family. To read the original piece on The Huffington Post click here.

 A Day in the Life of a Chinese Muslim Migrant FamilyDSC_4268

BEIJING — Fourteen-year-old Mao Baolong wears a goofy grin as he pinballs up and down the restaurant’s cramped aisle — taking orders and delivering bowls of noodles, taking money and returning change, taking dirty dishes and returning with a rag to whisk over the tabletop. It’s grinding work, but Baolong appears to be on the edge of a giggle, and the regulars love him for it. Ignoring the baby fat that still softens his features, some of them have taken to calling him shitou — “rock.”

The restaurant is a family business through and through, funded by family savings and operated by everyone. Baolong and his 19-year-old sister Mao Fangfang act as the wait staff, while their mother and father chop, fry, knead and boil the day’s offerings. A second sister, Yufang, works at a cousin’s restaurant nearby, but comes back after midnight to help close up.

Baolong and his family came to Beijing from their hometown in Gansu province, 900 miles to the west and a world away from life here in the capital. Gansu is a rural and rugged corridor that once hosted Silk Road traders shuttling spices and religion between China, Central Asia and Europe.

baolong mirror happy

Baolong peeks out from the restaurant’s kitchen. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
But today, interior provinces like Gansu pale in comparison with cosmopolitan coastal regions. Members of the Mao family have been traversing the country in search of work for decades, as have most of the 260 million migrant workers in China. The children’s father left home at the age of 15, traveling to neighboring provinces on construction jobs. Their mother was on the move at a young age as well, staying home in Gansu mainly around the years her children were born.

When Fangfang was 10, her parents deemed her mature enough to take care of her two younger siblings. She began cooking the family meals while her parents labored in distant cities. All three children dropped out during middle school (“I just couldn’t sit still,” explained Baolong), and they joined their parents in Beijing during the years most Chinese students would be in high school.


The Mao family is part of China’s Hui ethnic minority — Muslims who trace some of their ancestry to Persian and Arab traders on the Silk Road. While scrupulous in their avoidance of pork and alcohol, the family does bend certain religious dictates to the realities of running a business. They serve beer to their customers, and opportunities for prayer are scarce.

“We should be praying five times a day,” lamented Baolong’s father. “There’s just no time.”

family close

Baolong (left), Fangfang (right) and their parents in their restaurant. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
Time flies when you’re working 15 hours a day. Doors to the restaurant open around 11 each morning and close when the last patron calls it a night, usually around 1:30 a.m. It’s a grueling schedule, with the only benefit being that no one has time to reflect on how grueling it is. The family works 364 days most years, with the lone day of rest coming at the end of Ramadan. Like many Hui, the family doesn’t celebrate Chinese New Year, the one time of year when China’s churning economic engine sits idle.

Such thoughts are no help during the lunch rush, though. On Dec. 9, Baolong and his sister arrive at 11:22 a.m., two hours after their parents began work and about 15 minutes before the rush begins.

The restaurant’s patrons are primarily men who work with their hands: construction crews, delivery men and self-employed mechanics. Menu offerings are an Atkins adherent’s nightmare and a working man’s dream: large bowls of noodles and piles of white rice sprinkled with fried meat and vegetables.

The tables fill up, and orders echo off the walls. In the small kitchen tucked in the back of the restaurant, four family members move in an intricate choreography, handing off steaming bowls of noodles as flames dance around the wok.

Out front, Baolong laughs when the regulars tease him about his outfit (pleather on top and bottom, every day), and he dishes just enough back at them so they know he’s got it. Fangfang is quieter with the customers, but still commands the attention of her younger brother.

At 1 p.m., after an hour of unceasing activity, the restaurant empties just as suddenly as it filled up. Customers will drift in throughout the afternoon, but the next four hours will be the calmest of the day.

mom sleeping

Baolong’s mother sneaks in an afternoon nap to break up the 15-hour day. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)

As the midday crowd subsides, Baolong buries himself in cell phone games and Fangfang walks the one block back to the 12-by-12 room she shares with her brother. At night, both parents sleep on a cot nestled between the tables and the kitchen, and Baolong’s mother uses the afternoon lull to nap there while her husband and son handle any customers.

A Silicon Valley denizen might describe the Mao family as “serial entrepreneurs.” They’ve opened and closed about half a dozen restaurants in different cities. The current location is their third in Beijing. The previous two were bulldozed to make way for new construction, and this one will almost certainly meet the same fate.

“They say the neighborhood is gonna get torn down,” Baolong says. “If not this year, then next year. If not next year, then the year after that.”

Amid apartment towers and multistory buildings, the neighborhood is an anomaly in this part of Beijing — a two-block cluster of single-story dwellings that share walls and public restrooms. Narrow alleys between the shack-like homes open up onto small plots of total destruction: About a quarter of the homes in the area were bulldozed several years earlier by a developer who failed to finish the job. The caved-in structures now serve as open-air bathrooms and community gardens.

baolong in room

Baolong and his sister Fangfang share the one bed in this room a block from the restaurant. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
When the bulldozers reach the Maos’ latest restaurant, the family will likely pick up stakes and move to another location on the margins of Beijing society.


Working in the restaurant means the Mao children don’t have to worry about the punishing preparation for China’s college entrance exam. But they also lose any chance to hang out with kids outside their own family. Baolong had one friend in Beijing, the son of a local street sweeper, but the boy has now returned to his home village. Given a day off, Baolong says he would love to visit the Beijing zoo.

The world outside these walls filters in by way of the always-on television and talkative customers. Those are narrow channels, and glimpses of far-off countries produce more questions than answers.

“Do black people come from America?” one member of the family wants to know.

“Are American cartoons in English or Chinese?”

“So Americans don’t really believe in any religions, right?”

dad barbecue

Baolong’s father uses a hair dryer to prepare the barbecue coals. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
Fascinating as these questions are, the family has more pressing matters at hand. By 5:30 p.m. the restaurant begins to fill again with dinner customers and everyone is back at work.

Now Baolong gets to show off the two newest bullets on his resume: whipping dough into noodles and roasting lamb kebabs. The noodle strands he casts into the steaming cauldron are usable, but he can’t make the dough dance the way his father does. Trips to the outdoor barbecue mean braving the biting wind, and after he deposits the finished skewers, Baolong grips the room’s hot water pipes with both hands.

“When I first learned to barbecue, it’s all I wanted to do all day,” Baolong says with something between a smile and a grimace. “Now when I hear ‘kebabs,’ I just want to throw up.”

restaurant outside night

The restaurant on the night of Dec. 9, 2014. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)

By 11 p.m. the customers are thinning out, and Fangfang and her mother sit around a table, skewering lamb and mulling over the next few years.

“Back at home, a lot of girls my age already have their families setting them up for marriage,” says Fangfang.

Her mother recalls how girls were pressured to marry between ages 16 and 19 when she was growing up. She’s decided to be more lenient with her daughter.

“When our friends come by, they’re already starting to say, ‘I know a really good guy to introduce to your daughter,’” she says. “But she’s still only 19, and I don’t think she can handle that kind of responsibility. We’ll wait until she’s 20.”

Baolong still has a few years before marriage prospects enter the conversation. His earning potential will weigh heavily in those calculations. For now, he’s playing his part and learning the fundamentals of the family business.

“Of course we’d have liked him to stay in school a little longer, but that didn’t happen,” his mother says while pouring water over the kitchen floor. “Now he’s in a big city like this and we hope he can find out something about himself, find out what he can do.”

chuanr skewering

Fangfang and her father preparing lamb skewers. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
After midnight, Baolong’s other sister, Yufang, comes back from work at their cousin’s restaurant, and the family sits down together for the first time all day. They devour a massive plate of flat noodles and chicken, and the three kids clear the dishes, wipe down the tables and sweep up. When the kids say good night and head out, the parents are left hanging a sheet across the sliding glass doors.

At 1:18 a.m., 14 hours after it opened and 10 hours before it opens again, the front door to the restaurant is locked shut for the night.


The piece below documents my thirty-nine hour hard seat train ride from Beijing to Urumqi at the height of the 2015 Chinese New Year migration. All photos by my partner in crime, Matjaž TančičYou can read the original piece on The Huffington/World Post by following this link:


39 Hours Inside The Biggest Human Migration on Earth

large crowd

Looking across this sea of anxious faces, it’s easy to forget this is a holiday. Knotted brows frame weary eyes in a crowd as deep as a football field, all of them waiting to catch a train out of Beijing.

The mass exodus from China’s cities is the roaring crescendo leading up to Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it’s known in the country. On paper the holiday can be equated to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s rolled into one, but on the ground the holiday unfolds on an entirely different scale.

Spring Festival is a crater in the middle of China’s calendar, a multi-week event when factories, schools and offices are shut down, and the country’s 30-year urbanization drive is jolted into reverse. Tradition dictates that all Chinese return to their hometowns during Spring Festival, spurring the largest human migration on Earth. Chinese New Year is the chance for migrant workers who have been grinding out 60-hour weeks in the city to show off their earnings at home, and for grandparents still tilling the soil to size up their collegiate grandchildren.

On Monday alone, two days before New Year’s Eve, China saw roughly 80 million departures by train, bus, boat and plane. That’s equivalent to every single resident of California, New York and Florida skipping town on the same day.


Slow train to Xinjiang

For this crowd pressing up against Beijing’s ticket windows, those numbers are just an abstraction of the very real crush of humanity they will soon be inhabiting. Trains are swamped, with the unfortunate holders of standing-room-only tickets setting up shop in the aisles, stairwells and sinks.

Seating stakes are highest on long-haul routes, and the T177 is about as long as they come. This hulking vehicle will take 39 hours and 25 minutes to traverse the 1,998 miles from Beijing to Urumqi in northwest Xinjiang Province.


Xinjiang is home to the bulk of China’s Uyghur population, a Turkic and central Asian ethnicgroup that practices Islam and maintains a culture and language indecipherable to members of China’s dominant Han ethnic group. Tensions between Uyghurs and Han have boiled over in recent years, with deadly riots and terrorist attacks sparking state-mandated bans on Islamic hijabs and long beards. Chinese police say that foreign-trained jihadist cells operate throughout the province, while Uyghur activists decry what they call discriminatory treatment on jobs and religion.

Passengers on the train T177 hail from Han, Uyghur, Kazakh and Mongol ethnic groups, but during boarding they all share a common goal: locking down a (relatively) comfortable surface for the ride ahead. Chinese train cars have a clear hierarchy of accommodations, with the “hard seat” compartment at the bottom of the totem poll. Those sitting in the stiff seats share their floor, bathroom and luggage space with the standing passengers, making for compulsory coziness.

Hard seat compartments present a cross-section of middle-class Chinese society. Here in carriage 17, migrant workers rub shoulders with bubbly university students eager to show off their big-city styles to high school classmates. Policemen, noodle chefs and white collar workers face each other across cramped booths, and the combination of card games, grain alcohol and forced cohabitation nudges most people into conversation.

cell phones

Cigarettes and Instant Noodles

“Is it easy to find work in Urumqi?” asks 42-year-old Liu Changbao, looking up from a sturdy squat in the linkage car.

Beside his feet lies all the luggage he’s bringing for the train ride and the year of manual labor ahead of him: a plastic bag holding two cups of instant noodles and a pack of cigarettes.

Liu is unusual in that this train is taking him away from home rather than back there. He says he doesn’t care about the Spring Festival family gathering –- a sacrilegious sentiment in China’s Confucian culture -– and that he’s trying to get a jump on the job rush that kicks into gear after the holiday. Liu has worked as a farmer, welder and driver across China, and he picked Urumqi after seeing a television segment about Xinjiang.

After the 39-hour ride, Liu plans to find a flophouse near the station and immediately commence his job hunt. He doesn’t know how to use a computer or a cellphone, but remains confident that once he hits the streets he’ll be back at work in a matter or days. For now his main concerns are whether it’s cold in Xinjiang and whether locals will speak Mandarin.


“We welcome you to Urumqi”

Back in carriage 17, a young train attendant named Zulpikhar is checking tickets against IDs. He makes small talk while squeezing past people huddled in the aisles, commenting on the passengers’ hometowns.

“It says here you’re a journalist,” Zulpikhar says while scanning a visa. “We welcome you to come to Urumqi. I’m a Uyghur.”

He holds the glance for a moment and flashes a smile before winding his way down the crowded car. Once Zulpikhar is out of earshot Wang Xin, a 32-year-old dentist standing over my seat, leans in with a worried look on his face.

“You’re not afraid of going to Urumqi?” he asks.

The city has seen knife and bomb attacks on local Han, and that has scared many Chinese tourists away from the province’s gorgeous landscapes.

“If you stay in the city it should be OK, but don’t go out to the villages on the outskirts,” Wang continues. “The Kazakhs are alright, but the Uyghurs … it’s hard to say.”

Wang’s unease is partially rooted in fear of Uyghurs’ foreign customs and religion, but he echoes a common Han refrain about the superiority of his culture’s business acumen.

“When Han businessmen arrive [Uyghurs] just can’t compete,” Wang claims, “so they turn to violence.”

guitar sleepers

Li Xin dropped out of middle school and has been playing music on the road since he was 17.

As the sun tucks itself in behind rolling hills, Li Xin unpacks his acoustic guitar. The initial rounds of small talk have died down, and 26-year-old Li feels out the mood as he picks a few gentle chords. His first Chinese love ballad receives approving applause from the carriage, and he transitions into a smokey-voiced tribute to his adopted home of Beijing.

Li grew up on a grape farm outside of Urumqi, and he dropped out of middle school to apprentice as a welder. At age 17 he joined a traveling song-and-dance troupe that tricked him out of a year’s worth of wages. After singing folk ballads on the streets of Urumqi for a couple years, he headed to Beijing and found good work performing at a local bar.

After a couple of songs, Zulpikhar steps in and asks to borrow the guitar and a seat, quickly launching into flamenco-infused Uyghur folk songs. Syncopated rhythms and pleading vocals fill the carriage, captivating the surrounding booths and drawing shouts of encouragement. After a couple songs and a crooning duet with Li Xin, Zulpikhar makes his way back down the aisle, blushing at the compliments as he heads to his booth.

Half an hour later, Zulpikhar’s manager marches him back into the car, this time with her video camera in tow. When she hits record, Zulpikhar introduces himself, offers to play his culture’s traditional music for weary travelers, and launches into a reprise of his earlier performance. While Zulpikhar plays a song called “White Rabbit,” a middle-aged Uyghur woman is summoned from an adjoining car to perform a traditional dance to the music. The orchestrated curtain call makes for a well-documented display of ethnic unity and social harmony, slogans the Chinese government has plastered throughout Urumqi and backed up with heavily armed military police on street corners.

After the performance, passengers return to their phones, blasting out the videos they just took across Chinese social media. Minutes later Zulpikhar walks back down the aisle, this time with a large black bag in hand.

“Trash, trash, anybody have trash?”

guitar dancer

Zulpikhar entertaining carriage 17.

Pompeii on a Train

Once the card games, drinking games and cell phone games have shut down for the evening, the people of carriage 17 shift and wriggle uncomfortably toward sleep.

Even in the dead of night, fluorescent lights in the hard seat compartment never shut off. It’s a policy with a purpose — total darkness in a packed car would be an invitation to mayhem — but the unceasing illumination presents passengers waking at 4 a.m. with a Pompeii-esque tableau: hundreds of men, women and children slumped unconscious across the booths, sinks and stairwells.

At 5:30 a.m. one chipper passenger signals the start of the day by blasting local music out of a tinny radio. For most of the day ahead, the carriage exists in the throes of a collective hangover, never fully awake and nowhere close to comfortable.

sleeping legs

Consolation comes in the form of a steady thinning out of the train. The western half of China’s landmass is home to just one-twentieth of the Chinese population, and by the time train T177 has entered the deserts of Ningxia province, empty seats begin to open up.

In the dining car, young couples snap selfies and tease each other as they prepare to meet the parents. Bringing a partner home during Spring Festival can be a nerve-wracking experience, with parental judgment often coming swift and harsh. But for now the train is spacious and the scenery is gorgeous. T177’s entrance to Gansu Province is marked by the appearance of camels set against snow-capped mountains.

Welcome to Urumqi

The final 16 hours of the train ride practically fly by. At each stop in the Gansu corridor passengers step out to breathe the crisp mountain air they’ve sorely missed in Beijing. As night falls for the second time, carriage 17 breaks into several games of the “Struggle the Landlord,” the official card game of long-distance train rides.

lone house

T177 crosses into Xinjiang Province around midnight, but it’s another six and a half hours to the provincial capital of Urumqi. For Zhao Xiaohui, an economics master’s student in Beijing, Urumqi isn’t even the final destination — he’s got another 12-hour train ride to the village where his parents grow peppers, wheat and the occasional batch of watermelons. He’ll stay there for seven days before making another 50-hour hard-seat journey back to Beijing.

But is it worth it?

“It’s all right,” Zhao shrugs. “When I was an undergrad I would ride this same train but I wouldn’t even have a seat. I’d just lie on the ground at night.”

The sky is a deep purple as T177 pulls into Urumqi station at 6:40 a.m. It’s been 39 hours since these passengers left Beijing Railway Station, and in another 41 hours they’ll ring in the year of the sheep. They grab the bundles, buckets and suitcases stocked for celebration and set off into the Urumqi dawn.

night boarding All photos by Matjaž Tančič.

Translation: Collective Actions by Chinese Migrant Workers Drive Union Reforms

09labor-inline-articleLargeBelow is my translation of a Caixin piece summarizing a report on how protests by Chinese migrant workers (sometimes involving gangs), are pushing reforms to China’s government-controlled labor unions. The original report was done by sociology researchers at Tsinghua University in partnership with the China Youth Development Foundation (中国青少年发展基金会).

The usual disclaimers apply: I’m not a professional translator and I’d love to hear suggestions for improvement. I’ve inserted the original Chinese where useful or where I’m unsure, and pasted the original text below. The original Caixin piece was by intern reporter Liu Jiaying (刘佳英);  I can’t find the original Tsinghua report online, so please let me know if you do.

Report: Collective Actions by Migrant Workers Drive Union Reforms

As industrialization and urbanization gain momentum, strikes by migrant workers continue to make the news. Recently a report by a Tsinghua University task force indicated that the new generation of migrant workers are expressing a strong desire to organize, and they’re using collective protest actions (体抗议等行为) to push forward reforms to collective bargaining and democratic elections at low-level unions. However, under the current union system, it’s very difficult for unions to represent the demands of migrant workers.

The report was jointly produced by Tsinghua University’s Department of Sociology and the China Youth Development Fund. Tsinghua sociology professor Shen Yuan (沈原) and Ph.D. Wang Jianhua (汪建华) together with other researchers used field research in the Pearl River Delta as well as large survey samples from Tsinghua University’s “New Generation Migrant Worker Research” (清华大学“新生代农民工研究”大样本抽样调查数据). Their research revealed new trends in the organization of migrant workers born after 1980, as well as the impact of these trends on reforms to unions.

The reported indicated that with employers effectively breaking up the interpersonal networks of this new generation of migrant workers, workers have been forced into a state of “atomization,” (原子化) making attempts to seek help from unions and other official organizations futile. Instead, workers rely on gangs (帮派)and other unofficial power centers in carrying out collective protest, demanding the creation of “democratic” unions capable representing the workers’ interests. Although this has driven reforms to some low-level unions, it has yet to create a stable and reliable mechanism to represent the interests of migrant workers.

Gangs enter migrant worker protests

Different from their predecessors, the new generation of migrant workers place greater emphasis on relationships among co-workers. The older generation of migrant workers primarily sought advice from relatives, kinship networks, and people from their hometown. However, when members of the new generation of migrant workers encounter problems, 40.7% will choose to first discuss the problem with friends, a 19.5% increase over the older generation. In addition, 25.1% of the new generation see their classmates and co-workers as their primary cell phone contacts, a 14.2% increase over the older generation.

These changes are connected to the educational experiences of the new generations. The report showed that 53.7% of the new generation of migrant workers received some middle or high school education. 40.2% directly entered the workforce upon graduation, with 6.6% being placed in a company by their school. Particularly for those workers who were recruited as part of “student work groups,” (学生工群体) co-worker networks are increasingly more important than traditional kinship or regional networks.

  However, the existing structures of production that migrant workers interact with (现行的“农民工生产体制”) constantly weaken co-worker networks, forcing them to seek help in gangs, “local toughs” (混混团体, really don’t know how to translate that) and other unofficial groups. The report states that the transient nature of living accommodations, the widespread use of worker placement groups, the staggering of workers’ work-rest shifts, and other structural arrangements limit socializing and group unity. This forces workers into a situation where they are “atomized” and separated, generating strong feelings of frustration.

This has only strengthened the demand of the new generation of migrant workers to organize. In addition to committing suicide by jumping off buildings and seeking vengeance outside of the workplace, workers rely on the strength of gangs in collective protest, demanding democratic union elections and collective bargaining. As an example, the report cites the 2011 riots in the Guangdong city of Zengcheng: members of Sichuan gangs (川籍帮派) were mobilized, overturning police cars and destroying stores, among other violent acts.

Limitations on reforms to low-level unions

Under pressure from the increasing number of collective protests by migrant workers, a portion of low-level unions have pushed reforms for democratic elections and collective bargaining in their area of jurisdiction. The report cites Shenzhen as an example of such reforms: in 2012 the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions (深圳市总工会) pushed 163 low-level unions to directly elect union chairpersons. Guangdong province and Xinzhou district in the city of Dalian also executed reforms following collective actions by migrant workers.

Despite these moves, the current system of unions has made it exceedingly difficult for reforms to move forward. The report argues that China’s company unions (企业工会) are organizations for protecting rights in name only (具有“形式化维权”的本质). The administrative structure means that low-level unions are controlled by higher-tier unions, and union representatives are frequently company managers. Because of this, reforms to low-level unions will never push beyond the limitations set by the union system and higher-tier unions. In this system, it remains difficult for low-level unions to change their fundamental function: as a “buffer” to defuse the contradictions between labor and capital (难以摆脱缓解劳资矛盾的“缓冲器”这一基本定位).

In addition, the loss of the “right to strike” limits reforms to low-level unions. The report argues that without the legal right to strike, low-level unions will never gain individual strength and or turn into leaders in collective actions by workers. Reforms advanced by the government and higher-tier unions remain essentially an attempt to dissipate collective protest by migrant workers, contributing to the goal of “social stability.”

The report states that only when the demands of the new generation of migrant workers are both recognized and respected, when channels are opened for effective protection of worker rights by unions, will the contradictions between labor and capital be eased and social stability protected. Overlooking or even suppressing the demands of migrant workers to organize will only force them to rely further on gangs and other unofficial sources of power, leading to more violent and disruptive forms of collective protest.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics’ 2013 “National Migrant Worker Monitor and Survey Report,” China already has approximately 269 million migrant workers. The new generation of migrant workers make up 46.6% of that total and primarily cluster in the eastern part of the country and in major cities.

Original Chinese:















根据2013年国家统计局发布的《全国农民工监测调查报告》,中国农民工总量已达26894万人,新生代农民工占比46.6%, 且主要集中在东部地区及大中城市务工。

Translation: “Protect the lifeline of the people and the Party” People’s Daily, 10/14/13

Below I’ve translated a very long front page People’s Daily editorial (written under the pen name 任忠平) on the Communist Party’s mass line education campaign. This article was suggested to me by Bill Bishop, who featured it in Sinocism’s Esssential Eight and said it was an important piece in terms of political significance. The state media isn’t solely a propaganda machine: it’s both outward facing (toward the people) and also acts as a way for Party leaders to communicate with each other and with lower level cadres. In reading the state media I find it very difficult to sort out empty rhetoric from the truly important stuff. I won’t do any analysis here, but I’d challenge readers to try and make that distinction, to sort out what is being signaled with this kind of editorial. I’d love to hear any thoughts in the comments section.

On the translation: this was by far the longest and most difficult piece of writing I’ve ever tried to translate. The language was often complex, full of 成语 and references to Party concepts and historical events. I’ve inserted clarifications and the original Chinese where I found difficulties. As always, suggestions for improvement are much appreciated. Also, to anyone looking for an informed analysis of the mass line campaign I’d recommend Alice Miller’s China Leadership Monitor article.

The People’s Daily: Protect the lifeline of the people and the Party

1. The political line is the key choice in determining one’s fate

In October of 2013, the APEC summit returned to Indonesia after 19 years. Amidst hopes that “resilient Asia” can serve as a “global engine,” the choices of the twenty-one members will decide success or failure. With America’s Democratic and Republican parties still unable to overcome their differences on health care reform, the federal government’s non-essential departments have been forced to close and the debt-limit crisis presses close. As the special group of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Syria, opposition forces and the Syrian Army remained locked in a stalemate… the world’s future remains shrouded under a cloud of uncertainty. The parting message from the Voyager II as it left the solar system carried a deep meaning: “Goodbye, humankind. You guys can figure it out.”

In China, the long National day holiday just ended and curbs on public spending made for a notable highlight. The leading group for Central Party’s Mass Line Education and Implementation Campaign (from here on out, “mass line campaign”) met urgently, and the Politburo Standing Committee attended meetings throughout focusing on “democratic life meetings.” (“民主生活会”) At the meetings, the criticism and self-criticism by leaders and cadres made for a refreshing change of pace.

Looking ahead, the coming of the 18th Party Congress’s third plenum has received plenty of attention. Thirty-five years after marching out into the currents, the great ship of Chinese reform and opening faces these questions: how to upgrade development? how to deepen reforms? how to expand opening up? 1.3 billion people are waiting. It almost seemed like a metaphor when on the morning of October 1st the five-star flag was raised amidst pouring rain and wind on Tiananmen Square. Opportunities and challenges both lie ahead for this country.

What flag to raise and what road to take? The Party’s 18th Congress once again came out with a resolute reply. But how to turn the announcement of the “five integrated” (五位一体, Economic, political, social, cultural and ecological construction) into specific tasks, how to turn the blueprint of the “two one-hundred years” (两个百年, 100 years after the founding of the party create a well-off society, 100 years after the founding of the PRC create a strong, rich, democratic, harmonious and civilized modern socialist society) into a beautiful reality, behind each step up toward the peak lie hidden dangers and even crises. Faced with such a large chessboard, such a large responsibility, such a large China, we must find a sturdy starting point in order to complete this perilous climb.

“If the Party is strong and remains linked by flesh and blood to the people, the country will be prosperous and stable, and the people will be happy and healthy.” The 18th Party Congress’s report revealed the key to revival. To forge iron one must be strong oneself. The entire Party must be vigilant, resolve outstanding problems within itself in a practical manner, and give both history and the people solutions that are up to standard. The announcement of Xi Jinping as General Secretary placed Party-building and relations between the Party and the masses at the center of the grand and lengthy project of revival.

In this way, the Mass Line Campaign was launched throughout the entire Party.

2. Reform and Opening has pushed China to unprecedented heights. With continuing success come serious difficulties.

If the break in the ice 35 years ago was a return to humanity, common sense and welfare, if liberating one’s thinking was a blade that could everywhere open new horizons (如果说35年前的破冰,是向人性、向常识、向利益的回归,思想解放的刀锋所向,处处都能打开一片新天地), then the current deepening must smash conceptual obstacles in ideology and break down the barriers of entrenched interests. It seems that the contradictions and problems that a developing China now faces are sharper and more complicated.

On the macro-level, structural transformation is met with major structural inertia. Altering the development path faces a rock-hard bottleneck in innovative abilities and personnel training. Transforming government functions doesn’t just require heroic courage, it also takes the meticulousness and care of walking atop an iced-over pond. (也不能没有临渊履冰的精细 和严谨) The growth of democracy requires accompaniment by the rule of law. If one departs from democracy, the sanctity of the law can easily turn into arbitrary decisions (民主的发育,要有法治护航;法治的尊严,离开民主又极易专断. Need help on this one). It’s already clear that the “GDP-ism” that overlooks equal enjoyment of the fruits of development is unsustainable. If expectations are too high then the measures taken will be too drastic, and they may even warm the bed for the kind of “welfare-ism” that ties down development… Faced with so many dilemmas, one hesitates, afraid to make a move in this game of chess.

On the micro level, local government debt is high and not falling, and housing prices continue their ups and downs. “The visible hand” is caught between advance and retreat, while “the invisible hand” rarely displays itself. An aging society is swallowing the “demographic dividend” and creating the difficulty of “growing old before growing rich.” On one side it’s hard to find a job, and elsewhere there’s a shortage of workers. On one side the urbanization fire rages on, while you still have have towering city gates and empty highrises. Here we’ve seen great strides in moral education, but outside the campus high-end cram schools cater to the elite. On the one hand doctors working overtime lament their low salaries, while at the same time patients complain that it’s difficult to see a doctor, expensive to see a doctor, and after all that you still have to give a red envelope. With so much conflict, the unhappy, unharmonious and unstable emotions are piling up.

After continued price unification, SOE reform, and government-SOE separation, China’s development has once again entered a period of growing pains. There’s no doubt that in recent years as China became the world’s second largest economy and countless people’s livelihood underwent huge changes, foreign media proclaimed “The Chinese Communist Party is to date the most successful people’s party.” But needless to say, the shaping of this diverse system has made reform backed by “the masses united as one” into a luxury. The wind of corruption has majorly worn away at government departments’ and government employees’ credibility with the people. The rustic innocence of the ordinary people has in some cases given way to unrelenting suspicions.

As the rulers of a rising power, one faces a constantly changing international landscape and the increasingly diverse demands of the people. Faced with this era’s major task of broadly deepening reform and opening, one must continue toward victory in this “great struggle defined by historically new characteristics.” (要在这场“具有许多新的历史特点 的伟大斗争”中继续取得胜利) In the ongoing struggle to realize the Chinese dream and charge through the deep-water rapids that lie ahead, we must: constantly refresh our image with high expectations for ourselves; use sincere interactions based on equality to interact with and soothe the emotions of the masses; fulfill the aspirations of the masses and consolidate their trust; and win the support of the masses and bring together their wisdom.

This is the real background for the current Mass Line Campaign.

3. Looking at the thousands of political parties across the world, on cohesion and strength, none can compare to the Chinese Communist Party (遍观当今世界数以千计的政党,若论凝聚力和战斗力,无出中国共产党其右者)

[Translator’s note: I will summarize rather than translate this third section because I think the jist of the argument is far more important than the details and language]

In this section the author lays out some of the historic examples of famous Chinese Communist revolutionaries and the way they stayed close to the people. First he gives the example of how in the early 1960s the Party downsized the number of officials and their salaries in order to alleviate food shortages [my note: likely caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, let’s remember]. It ends by quoting Mao saying “If the Communist Party weren’t in power, what Party could handle this?” and then the author asks “Why could it (the Party) handle this?”

It then relays how when Edgar Snow visited the Communist base in Yanan in the 1930’s, he was impressed by the simplicity with which leaders like Mao, Zhou Enlai and Peng Dehuai lived, and how students at the Red Army’s school would use the back of the enemy’s propaganda flyers for taking notes.

Peng Dehuai

It then goes on with a long quote from Zhu De about how his mother was an ordinary person, and how he is sure that the Communist Party can make a better life for his mother and people like her. Next is an anecdote about how Zhou Enlai demanded relief for drought-stricken Gansu province in 1973. There is also an anecdote about Deng Xiaoping reminding local cadres that they have to look out for small farmers because the people need to eat.

[back to translation]

“Everything is for the masses, and everything relies on the masses.” The mass line is our Party’s value and our political line. Facing the masses, the Party shouldn’t have it’s own special benefits or any special privileges. The people’s happiness has always been the Party’s root and the fountainhead of its strength. Scholars have a concluded: other ruling parties failed to complete “the historic task of building modern China” because they “all lacked a connection to the people and became like rootless algae on water.” From the beginning the Communist Party has been “the Party connected to the people.” Because of this, the Party was able to travel the perilous route of revolution, construction and reform, and now to stride toward revival and glory.

“To come from the masses, and to go toward the masses.” Stick to the purpose of serving the people and follow the mass line. Our Party has displayed “that kind of spirit, that kind of strength, that kind of desire, that kind of passion … It’s the diverse and brilliant essence of human history.” It’s this “Eastern Magic” that has drawn western people’s eyes like a magnet. It’s this “light of national rejuvenation” that illuminates the journey, and it’s the source of strength as we today struggle against difficulties and follow dreams.

4. From a revolutionary party to a ruling party, the conditions have changed and the environment has changed. The Party’s Mass Line will have to face severe tests. This is especially the case for large party ruling for a long time.

In times of war, the Party’s existence was directly dependent on the attitudes of the masses toward the Party. After taking over governance, the Party’s political position has changed. With all the country’s apparatus under its control, the Party has an unprecedented richness of resources. On many levels, whether or not the lives of the masses can be improved, and whether or not productive forces can smoothly develop, now this instead depends on the line policies of the Party, on the work attitude of Party organs of all levels, on the work style of Party cadres. This kind of reversal in dependent relationships has often been the breeding ground for bureaucratism.

When a party’s cadres wield great public power and also lack corresponding constraints, the malicious wind of “bureaucratism” can take hold and even spread. When the Party pays attention to the construction of good work styles, leading cadres will consciously connect with the masses and help the masses resolve difficulties. On the other hand, when the Party’s work style is off, that’s when “officials’ power stands out and the people’s power disappears, when officials are the master and the people are the servants, when officials are central and all starts with them, when their is grave opposition between the Party and the people.” In this situation, officials’ self-centered thinking will spread like a virus in all directions and Party members’ lives will become more relaxed, their behavior more vulgar. Liberalism and “making nice” will be in vogue (党内自由主义与好人主义盛行), and some Party members won’t be able to resist the temptations, they’ll know no bottom line, and the distance will grow between the powerful cadres and the masses.

Formalism and bureaucratism are twin brothers. The similarity lies in the inversion of responsibility between those above and below. Those below are submissive, always staring intently to see if the bosses are happy or not, satisfied or not. It gets to the point where they don’t hesitate to lie and deceive, where they’ll drain the pond to get the fish, where they’ll eat next year’s harvest this year, all in order to rack up “political achievements.” As to the feelings of the masses they aren’t sensitive in the least; they don’t pay attention and just don’t care. Towards higher-ups they “check the weather” and towards those below they rain down hail. In the office they’re always looking for that magical wind, while the masses are trying to capture the dew on the ground. (note: this is all a tricky play on words in Chinese that I tried to capture, check the original 对上“看天气”,对下“耍霸气”,办公室里“找灵气”,却 唯独不到群众中“接地气”). If you want them to take a principled stand for the sake of the people you’re going to offend somebody, move your own cheese.

For the rulers, the corrosion caused by power can be fatal. When one has been in power for a long time, it’s all too easy to blur the line between public power and private interests. The seizing of political power was the people seizing power, but in the ruling through political power it’s easy to fall victim to the illusion that one is the father of the country. (”打江山”是人民的江山,“坐江山”却可能有“家天下”的错 觉. Tricky to translate, check links for Chinese explanation of these rhetorical concepts). When faced with the steady flow of wealth and resources into one’s hands, it takes only the slightest loosening up before subjective consciousness and objective oversight are blurred. At that point resisting the temptations of hedonism and wastefulness becomes harder and harder.

It’s not that we lack examples to learn from. The most shocking disintegration occurred in the place that once struck terror into the hearts of imperialist countries: the socialist Soviet Union. During the time of the grain crisis that followed the October Revolution, Commisar Qu Luba (Soviet official, can’t find Russian name), who had the right to allocate billions of tons of food collapsed from hunger during a meeting. Lenin had to propose the creation of a “recuperation cafeterias,” forcing high level party cadres to go there and “eat for the sake of the people.”

But by the end of Kruschev’s time these “recuperation cafeterias” had spread to the whole country and changed into “little white birch” shops (“小白桦”商店). They offered up all kinds of rare imported products for close to a million people with special privileges. “Special hospitals, special recovery homes, beautiful restaurants and feasts with special delicacies. Also, comfortable transportation options,” Boris Yeltsin remembered. As an alternate to the Politburo, he had three chefs, three waitresses, one cleaner and one gardener. “If you climbed to the peak of the Party’s pyramid of power, you can enjoy everything — you’ve arrived at communism! At the time we’d think, what world revolution? What peak labor efficiency? And that national people’s harmony? We don’t need all that.”

Today, the Soviet Union with its 74 years of history has been broken up for 22 years. With these past 20 years to reflect on the death of the Soviet Union’s communist party and the country, Chinese socialism has never stopped. We’ve been faced with the danger of spiritual slackening, abilities weakening, and corruption growing. We’ve been put to the test of governance, of reform and opening, of the market economy, and of the external environment. And we’ve remained through it all, passing through the gates of fire and realizing the goal of long-term order and lasting peace. (Difficult section, I got a bit creative at points. 精神懈怠、能力不足、脱离群众、消极腐败 的危险,执政考验、改革开放考验、市场经济考验、外部环境考验,防住了经得起,我们就能涉险过关,实现长治久安.) If we can’t stand our guard against the spread formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance, it won’t just bring about the “capsizing of the boat” that we’ve been warned about for ages. It could be the disaster that brings about the death of the Party and the death of the country. (所带来的不仅是“载舟覆舟”的千古警思,更有亡党亡国的灭顶之灾).

Now standing at these heights, Secretary Xi Jinping has solemnly emphasized: the problems with “work styles” are absolutely no trifling matter. If one doesn’t resolutely correct bad work styles, if these developments go unchecked, it will be like an invisible wall that divides the Party from the masses. Our Party will lose its roots, lose its lifeblood, lose its strength. It might turn into what Comrade Mao Zedong described with the metaphor “Farewell My Concubine.”

5. Wavering in beliefs and ideals is the root of the departure from the masses. The barriers that lie between the Party and the masses are more complex than those described in any of the classic works.

The older generation that made revolution and seized power was made of many people from the lower, oppressed classes, and also quite a few “rebels” from important families. There feelings toward ordinary people were truly sincere; they knew the sufferings of the people like the back of their hand, and they were as one big family with ordinary people (与平民大众“天生就是一家人”).

When Zhou Enlai arrived in the Hebei countryside to conduct investigations, he sat his butt right down on the threshold of a farmer’s house. Sitting next to him was farmer Zhang Ermin, telling him what was in his heart. From that time onwards, Zhou Enlai, the man willing to listen to the truth, promised that every year he would send someone to that village to represent him in listening to his farming friend who dared to speak the truth. When Peng Dehuai went back home to conduct surveys, the cadres at the evening discussions told him how high the grain yields were stacked. He grabbed a flashlight and headed out to the grain fields, feeling the grain himself. He wanted to see it with his own eyes.

Today, the style of the older generation has already become a memory. Many Party leaders that have grown up in these peaceful and prosperous times lack that immediate sense of the Party and the masses mutual reliance, of the flesh and blood, life and death connection between the two. Some people only emphasize “leadership by elites,” “leadership by experts,” and forget this root in the masses. Even more common are the “three gate cadres”: when they leave the gates of their home they enter the gates of the school, and when they leave school they enter the gates of a government department. They lack work experience and they lack an understanding of things at the bottom level of society. Some Party leaders see the ordinary people as the object from their studies in management; they don’t have any deep feelings for the masses and they’re just not sufficiently concerned about them. Sometimes they lack the ability to resolve difficult problems at the bottom levels of society: there’s an awkward juxtaposition as some are afraid to go down to those levels of society and others want to go down but they just can’t make it happen.

What’s more, sometimes the “close connection to the people” turns into a “close connection to money and power.” Their own interests override the interests of the masses, turning “the relationship between fish and water” into “the relationship between oil and water” or even “the relationship between fire and water.” [reference to Mao’s invocation that the Party/Red Army should move amongst the people like fish in water]. The connection between the cadres and people has been pulled further and further apart.

“Breaking away from the masses” has roots in a lack of personal effort, and also in the real difficulties brought on by changes in the environment.

Following along with the deepening development of the socialist market economy, China’s socialist structures have undergone deep changes. A trend has emerged of increasing competition, movement and division between people. In breaking down the borders between units, regions, and the city-country divide, “fluid/mobile China” (流动中国) has increased the interaction between people, increased society’s vitality, but also increased the scope of conflicts amongst the people.

Just as the children of migrant workers from the countryside hope they’ll be able to enjoy the high-quality education resources of the city, urban parents are afraid that education resources are being diluted and competition to get into good schools will intensify. Just as some people think that small carts lining the sidewalks, with the owners shouting out their wares, makes life more convenient, some people think it disturbs public order. Some people think those clogging up the city streets should be punished, and others think that weaker groups in society need to be protected. When it comes to resolving traffic, congestion bikers fight for their right of way, drivers demand more parking spaces, wealthy families oppose license plate lotteries, and low-income people think collecting congestion fees discriminates against poor people.

These attitudes are completely different, with the demands going off in all different directions, but each person is one part of the masses, and each person should be served by the Party and the government. Faced with this diverse and ever-changing landscape of interests and demands, the difficulties of working for the masses grow each day, and presenting unprecedented challenges.

In recent years there have been sizable crowds of petitioners and we frequently hear of mass incidents. On the one hand, this shows that the masses are always becoming more concerned and more sensitive about their own rights, and thus the difficulty in coordinating and planning one’s work for the masses is growing. It also shows that when working for the masses some Party cadres have lost their words and some methods have lost their effectiveness. In terms of the mass line they’ve lost their place, and their ability to connect with the people has fallen. Taken together, this means the connection Party cadres and the masses now faces an unprecedentedly difficult test of the times.

6. We often say that development is the key to solving all of contemporary China’s problems. This “development” is used in the broad sense of the word, including innovation in the work for the masses and the upgrading of governing abilities.

The Chinese Communist Party of today has kept up fast-paced growth in terms of the number of party members. By the end of 2012 the number of party members broke the 85 million mark, with annual growth of 3%. Based on this rate of growth, members of the Chinese Communist Party will break 100 million within a few years, a number that exceeds the total population of most countries.

Compared with the past, the strength of our Party members has greatly increased and our economic and financial strength has shot up. Today the multi-faceted resources we control has increased and the technological methods at our disposal have been enriched. Still, all comrades must remember: there is no strength on Earth that can replace the strength of the people. If one doesn’t represent the interests of the people, doesn’t adhere to the principles of the masses, no matter how abundant the strength or how numerous the forces, they will be nothing more than a platform without legs, a tree without roots, a stream without a source. All comrades must remember: 64 years after taking over governance, the new resources and avenues we have merely show that we need to have more determination, wisdom and flexibility in grasping the thinking, resolving the problems and fulfilling the desires of the masses.

History has proven this. In 1990 the Soviet Union’s “Siberia Report” gave results from a survey in which people were asked “Who does the Communist Party of the Soviet Union represent?” The results were as follows: 7% believed it represented the workers, 11% believed it represented all Party members, and 85% believed it represented the bureaucracy. If the people believe that a party doesn’t represent their interests, it doesn’t matter how long or glorious of a history it has, in the end its fall is inevitable.

Foreign observers have pointed out that of the many concepts used by the Chinese Communist Party, “the mass line” is the most complex and the most universal. It “contains all the secrets of the CCP” and is “the most important form of soft power.” Truly, the Chinese Communist Party’s biggest political advantage is its close connection to the masses. The mass line is our political party’s lifeline in maintaining our advanced nature, our purity, in consolidating our political position and in pushing forward the work of socialism.

How do we care for this lifeline of the Party and guarantee that cadres are not willing, not able and not daring to break away from the people? How do we safeguard the long-term governance by the Party and enduring peace in the country? These are the big questions of the new age in terms of building a ruling Party, and they are questions that need to be explored and resolved. The mass line campaign is like this era’s test paper that’s been handed out by our Party, and this generation of communists should solemnly ask themselves: “what have we to write?” (群众路线教育实践活动,在这张 我们党交出的时代答卷上,这一代共产党人都应严肃自问:我们该有怎样的书写?)

7. “Looking in the mirror, straightening one’s dress, taking a bath, and curing the disease,” [note: using Alice Miller’s translation for this slogan] the bottom-up mass line campaign has been launched and has already spawned some changes and gained some clear achievements.

But the launch of the campaign  has  also  revealed some problems, namely that some leading cadres still think the “four winds”  [formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance] problem has nothing to do with them. They treat the masses in just the way Deng Xiaoping once criticized: “In difficult times they rely on them, in smooth times they don’t rely on them. When they need them they rely on them, when they don’t need them they don’t rely on them. In their words they rely on them, but in their thinking they don’t.” As a result, they treat study as a mere formality, acting as if it were an extra burden and stopping when they’ve just gotten the general idea.

They’re afraid to listen to complaints will mean losing face and harming their authority. They lack the courage and the mindset to enjoy correcting errors that have been pointed out. In revealing problems, fear is at the front of their mind. “Criticize the higher ups and you fear reprisal; criticize your peers and you fear the fire will spread to you; criticize lower levels and you fear losing support; criticize yourself and you fear you’ll destroy your own image.” These people hesitate when implementing rectification and reform, looking all around them with fear that once these limits on power are institutionalized they will limit their freedom.

This reminds us once again: the Party-masses relationship embodied in the mass line campaign must be made more specific, more clear and more standardized. It’s for this very reason that the Party center has emphasized that the mass line campaign must go hand in hand with institution building. The campaign can be used to build lasting attitudes and lasting methods in the system. It must fundamentally resolve the existing “four winds” problem in the Party as well as problems in the Party-masses relationship. “Once the institutions have taken shape, they must be strictly adhered to, ensuring that their are no exceptions in implementation.”

In reality, improving work styles, cleaning up the “four winds” isn’t just a one-time “revolution in thinking”: it’s more of a “exploration of institutions”. “Achieving the macro requires doing the micro” (“天下大事,必作于细”); the small opening created by improved work styles opens up a huge space for work.

On one hand, the question of work styles has a real connection to the desires of the people. Beginning with resolving outstanding problems and the most sensitive issues for the masses, the Party can finally begin building up political credibility. On the other hand, whether it’s reviving the treasured practice of criticism and self-criticism, or “opening the door and doing one’s work,” or holding “democratic life meetings,” these are all expressions of the principles behind our Party building democracy. As political scientists have observed, the mass line campaign is “a kind of reverse mode of public participation.” It emphasizes that policy makers must pro-actively go out into the masses, and that should turn into a determination by the ruling Party to conduct self-purification, self-improvement, and self-renewal.

Transforming work styles is intimately connected to the the masses, and is also a force pushing reform in all sectors. In the economic sector, work-style construction squeezes the bubble of public expenditures and pushes forward healthy and reasonable spending behaviors. This will shape rules about sustainable and efficient use of public money, and will bring together stronger positive energy behind development.

In the political arena, changes to work styles will raise administrative efficiency. By standardizing the operation of power, optimizing the mechanisms, and innovating in institutions, it will plug up the leaks in the operation of government. In the social and cultural sphere, changes to work style will doubtless push a plain and simple style throughout all of society. This will build a strong foundation of values for economic and social development. From here we can see, the mass line campaign that sets correcting work styles as its goal is really like “the wings of a butterfly”: it beats out a breeze that will bring deep and far reaching changes.  And at the center of all these changes is one relationship: the relationship between rights and power. (权利与权力)

One still remembers that during the victory in the war of resistance against Japan, when the American military observer group finished its inspection at Yan’an they praised the new style of the CCP’s administration there to Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Upon hearing this, Madame Chiang Kai-shek disdainfully said that this was because the CCP hadn’t yet truly tasted power. These disdainful doubts were like a mirror, a warning to the communists who were marching toward power. For the past half century, “to serve the people,” these golden words carved above the Xinhua University gate, are further carved into the hearts of tens of millions of Party members. The “Two Musts” of Xibaipo act as a warning that forever resonates. (Xibaipo was the Hebei city where the Communist army stayed in preparation for it’s march on Beijing. The two-musts are roughly: comrades must remain modest, prudent and free from arrogance in work style, comrades must continue to maintain the work style of arduous struggle.)

When our Party does anything, it must first ask: “do the people support it? are the people happy? will the people go along with it?” The Party must “always represent the the interests of the overwhelming majority of the people”, and practice “development for the people, development that relies on the people, development that benefits the people.” “The people’s desire for a good life is the goal of our struggle.” Generation after generation of communists have not for a moment forgotten the exhortations of the people, always strictly governing the Party and diligently practicing that earliest promise made 90 years ago.

“At all times and in all situations, one must never depart from the position of breathing with the people and sharing the people’s fate. Never forget the command to wholeheartedly serve the people. Never lose the principle of materialist philosophy: the masses are the true heroes of history.” “Take the Party’s nature and cultivate it correctly; take Party members responsibilities and understand them thoroughly; take Party discipline and national law and tighten them up.” (“把党性修养正一 正、把党员义务理一理、把党纪国法紧一紧”) “Never loosen your grip on work-style construction, don’t stop even for a moment.” The constantly deepening education activities are crystallizing the political principle of governing for the people, forging the political ethics of people’s democracy, and embodying the historical consciousness of an ever-vigilant Marxist political party. (体现了一个马克思主义政党居安思危的历史自觉.)

8. During the 8th Party Congress of 1956, one poet wrote out these thoughts:

“Don’t forget the mothers in the countryside! Don’t forget the brothers sleeping on their broken kangs! Don’t forget the friendship of the sisters who did the mending! You must deeply reflect on their frustrations and difficulties. This is our fundamental character and our history. Carve them like a monument into your hearts!”

    Ninety years ago, when our Party had 50 members it was able to attract countless people to gather under the same banner. When it had 1.2 million members, it ushered in victory in the War of Resistance Against Japan. When it had 4.5 million members it founded a new socialist China. When it had 35 million members it pushed us on the path toward catching up with the world through reform and opening. When it had 80 million members it led China to becoming the world’s second largest economy. Today, we have 85 million members leading 1.3 billion people toward realizing the Chinese Dream of the great revival of the Chinese people..

During the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the founding of new China, an old revolutionary stood on the Tiananmen gate watching the endless stream of the National Day parade. He spoke this deeply meaningful sentence: “The people are the nation, the nation is the people.” (人民就是江山,江山就是人民. Going out on a limb by translating 江山/”rivers and mountains” as “the nation” but I think it captures the meaning better than “The people are the rivers and mountains.”)

The past, the present and the future, everything originates from this promise:

“Be as one with the people, share their hardships, and unite with them in struggle.”

The People’s Daily, 10/14/2013

Translator’s Note: If you made it his far, congratulations! That was long, dense and often stuffy. I’d love to hear any comments on content of the piece, what it is signalling to the people/cadres, and what your general tolerance is for over-the-top CCP rhetoric.

Translation: “The Deep Significance for Reform in Shanghai’s Free Trade Zone” by Hu Shuli


In last week’s Caixin Hu Shuli (胡舒立) wrote about her belief that the Shanghai FTZ marks a new beginning for economic reforms, potentially marking the “third wave” of reforms (after the SEZ’s of the 80’s and WTO entrance in 2001). She claims that the Shanghai FTZ (technically called the “China (Shanghai) FTZ”) will serve as a gateway and a testing ground for major financial reforms that will then go national. It’s an optimistic take on a policy that has somewhat underwhelmed other commentators, but my understanding is that Hu enjoys strong connections to the new administration. Here’s to hoping she’s right.

As always, comments appreciated on the translation. Link to the original piece here, h/t Sinocism.

The Deep Significance for Reform in Shanghai’s Free Trade Zone

by Hu Shuli

    High-level designs and roadmaps for the new round of reforms remain unclear, but “using opening up to promote reform” has already taken off. On September 29th, half a year after high-level leaders put forward a motion to establish a free trade zone, the China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone officially opened. The initial batch of 55 policy trials all came on line, and the remaining 43 policies should come out before year’s end.

    The meaning of this initiative is deep and far-reaching. In the past ten years China has trekked into the deep waters of reform, but interests have solidified, constructing numerous obstacles and clearly slowing the pace of reforms. Over the past year, the new generation of central leaders have together returned to “using opening up to promote reform.” Decision-makers have overridden the objectors and forcefully pushed forward the construction of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, in the process receiving the enthusiastic support of the markets. We can look forward to the founding of the Shanghai pilot free trade zone as a major step in national reform strategies. It seems likely the FTZ could become the third wave of China’s opening up to the outside world, following on the 1980’s special economic zones and the entrance into the WTO at the turn of the century.

    Currently lots of analysis of the FTZ has focused on which stocks or related real estate assets will gain value. The points of interest are what kinds of “policy dividends” might be included in the FTZ’s trials and how much benefit the local economy will derive from the project. The approval of the Shanghai FTZ set off a craze of applications for free trade zones, a phenomenon not unrelated to this expectation of “policy dividends.”

    Actually, the fact that the Shanghai FTZ has been crowned with the word “China” reveals that the focus of experiments in reform isn’t beneficial measures or preferential policies. Instead, the focus is on innovations in the market economy, and is actually a localized test-arrangement with an eye toward the broader situation. This Chinese FTZ located in Shanghai will undertake the mission of the liberalization of trade, the facilitation of investment, the internationalization of finance and the streamlining of administration. The essence of this is using opening up to promote reform, and to use the achievements of experiments in institutional innovation to realize the national strategy. Success or failure is directly connected to the entire situation.

    Let’s take exchange rate liberalization as an example. We can anticipate the prioritization of experiments in innovation of financial market products, offshore operations, financial opening to the outside world, and both domestic investment abroad and foreign investment in China. According to the latest statistics from the Bank for International Settlements, of the $5.3 trillion of daily foreign exchange, the daily RMB exchange has already expanded to $1.2 trillion, representing the first time the RMB has made it into the top ten most used currencies. I believe the FTZ, this bridgehead of opening to the outside world, will become an engine and platform for convertibility of the RMB.

    On the method of opening up, the foreign capital management model of pre-admission national treatment and negative listing (准入前国民待遇和负面清单的外资管理模式, sorry, really don’t understand this jargon) has already become a new trend in the development of international investment rules, one adopted by over seventy countries worldwide. More important is that this model is in step with the direction of reform that China is pushing in its system of administrative approvals. At its essence, it’s a way of creating a fair competitive environment for enterprises under all forms of ownership. However, over the past few decades the complicated “approval system” has already become what economists call “path dependent”: complete reform can only be started with a push from outside, and a fresh start to major changes can only come by way of the experimental zone.

    Looked at from an international perspective, calls for change are already quite urgent. The U.S. and Europe have actively pushed the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP), the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement (TTIP), Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) and the U.S. Model Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT2012). It’s not merely that these agreements cover a wide scope and affect a great deal of economic activity. They use the resolution of issues regarding market access for trade and investment to establish new standards and rules in the areas of the environment, labor, intellectual property, competition, and the transfer of funds. The new situation forces one to either advance or retreat. This means that in exploring new investment management models, the Shanghai FTZ not only benefits internal pushes for reform, but also learns from the experience of the ongoing China-U.S. negotiations over investment agreements. The FTZ will help China win the right to speak on the establishment of new rules, allowing it to play a greater role in global management.

    Of course, the two-track system of policies in and outside the Shanghai FTZ  contains certain dangers and has related supervisory departments worried. The difficulty lies in policy coordination in and outside the FTZ, and the close cooperation of central government departments, especially in terms of integrated supervision and regulation. During the beginning phase of the pilot zone, the strategy of “first line opening up, second line taking control” (“一线放开,二线管住”) will be implemented. This will attempt to both guarantee a localized breakthrough while also strictly controlling the potential for outside risk and preventing the formation of a large shockwave. (力图既保证局部性突破,又严格控制可能的 外部性风险,以防形成过大冲击波)

    The cultivators of the pilot fields must liberate their thought and have the courage to act. Using the courage of reformers and wise, meticulous planning, they must bravely explore and steadily push ahead. They can’t be fettered by the interests of their own departments or their own areas. This requires a rather long process of exploration. The earliest stages of implementation should be a trial-and-error process of relaxing controls and elevating regulatory efficiency. As the FTZ steadily accrues more mature reforms, it will become a “replicable and widely applicable system and regulatory model,” one that can be spread to the whole nation. With that, the reform mission of the China (Shanghai) Free Trade Zone will finally truly be realized.

    In any event, this 28.78 square kilometer hotspot is merely a starting point: the opening up of the Shanghai FTZ is just a prelude to future reforms that will be even larger in scope. In the time between planning and opening up the FTZ, public opinion has been strong and the markets have been enthusiastic. One can see that throughout the country people are eagerly anticipating reform. The luck, glory and hardships of reformers don’t merely belong to Shanghai. From now through after the end of the year, we’ll see every locale and every industry gain more of the reformer’s bravery, and wisdom will transform into major action for reform. China will eventually see the emergence of a rolling high tide of reform.