September 2009

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Wu Wenjie, bassist for GAR. Behind him, Wang Xu on the drums. And behind him ... anonymous Chinese peasant on the pickaxe?

I didn’t make it as far up front as the mosh pit at the gig pictured above. This was disappointing to the inner mosh pitter who lurks deep – deep – inside every public school Brit, but one benefit was a dry and cigarette-ash free camera to take the video clips below with.

The gig was part of the ‘Plastered Rock Weekend’ at Yugongyishan, on the 19th. I would love to claim that the mother of all rock and roll hangovers is why I’m posting ten days later (one day for each pint of baijiu!), but with a sigh I’ll admit that homework was a bigger reason. To further crush the image, the ‘plastered’ bit in the event’s title is down to it’s having been sponsored by Plastered T-Shirts and is not a reference to the British slang word for drunk (see: pissed, blattered, blasted, wasted, wankered, off your face).

Playing on the night were GAR, Carsick Cars and P.K.14. Those are three top names in an ever-growing roster of bands to watch in the emerging Chinese underground rock scene. The  mosh pit and otherwise packed venue – expats far outnumbered by locals – was a testament to the growing numbers of young Chinese listening to this music. Indeed, it was a relief to chat with Chinese students about music other than Britney Spears, as I did so often with Marie.

The week before the gig, I heard Michael Pettis, owner of D22, give a talk on Beijing’s rock scene. As little as five or six years ago, he said, bands like this were getting their first gigs in a scene which was only beginning to attract notice. But his guess is that in thirty years time, the world will be as familiar with Chinese contemporary music as they are with US culture now. The first well known Chinese rocker was Cui Jian, in the mid 1980s: this was the so called ‘generation one’. We are now – conveniently, given the title of this blog – at ‘generation six’. And Pettis compares the Chinese scene now to America in the early 60s – right about to explode. Of course, he would say that, he runs the rock club.

But the music itself is certainly explosive. I’ve had the Carsick Cars’ self titled album on repeat all week – other names to myspace are Joyside and Hedgehog. So without further ado, here are three clips from the night, one from each band. Stay with it until 2.47, and you will be rewarded with a crowd surfer!


PS – as an addendum, here is an interesting interview Michael Pettis did for Danwei with Zhang Shouwang, lead singer of the Carsick Cars and – according to Pettis – the closest thing my generation in China has for a spokesman. Here’s a quote:

Michael Pettis: Can you say a few words to sum up this generation of Chinese youth?

Zhang Shouwang: I think one thing we all have in common is that there is such a huge gap in our experiences and understanding compared to Chinese who are in their mid-thirties or older. It seems that we live in very different worlds. More and more of us are exploring new ways of thinking and living, and I see this even more for young people who are four or five years younger than me.

I think many of us feel that much of what we learned in school and in the media was not really true, or perhaps didn’t really fit our lives, and so we are reading books, listening to music, and sharing ideas that are very different from what we had been given. I think very few of our generation have beliefs the way older Chinese do. We believe in real things, and we find it hard to take seriously all the big, empty ideas that we were given.

Arty house (so very French)

Out in the far flung South-Westerly suburbs of Beijing, Songzhuang is an unofficial artists village. ‘Suburb’ is a misleading term: just an hour’s drive from highrise Guomao, it looks more like the countryside. Lining its dusty streets are eerily accurate reproductions of Renaissance masterworks, side by side with exciting new works by Chinese contemporary artists (with lamb kebab grills filling in the gaps). And even further flung in this ‘village’ lives a French artist, who first came to China in 1988 and has been living in this artists’ community for over ten years. She has a very cool house, every available wall space filled with paintings and sculptures by herself or her friends (it was one of these friends who invited me along for a look).

If I’m back for a closer look at the area, I will write more. It strikes me as more ‘real’ than 798. For the moment, here are some snaps of the French artist’s home (she asks to be anonymous):

Leonidas: Minister of Life

Leonidas, in addition to his Chinese and ancient Greek names, has a new title: Minister of Life. He has held this most responsible of positions since the beginning of the new term at Beida last week. His colleagues include the Minister of Propaganda, the Minister of Academia, and, not to forget, their grand leader the Minister of the Ministers.

Leonidas claims that this clandestine organisation is merely a free society for students of the college of teaching Chinese as a foreign language at Beida, like him and Matilda. As Minister of Life, his duties are to help students buy their train tickets, organise daytrips to the summer palace and so forth. The Minister of Academia invites professors to give speeches. The Minister of Propaganda, allegedly, glues posters to walls. Every subject has its own society (xueshenghui) like this, with new Ministers chosen after interviews at the beginning of the school year.

But I don’t believe a word of it. Leonidas invited me to sit in on one of these interviews last Friday, after we had dinner together. But no sooner had we got inside were we met by the dreaded Minister of Ministers, who turned out to be a rather fierce girl in knee-high leather boots. “The interview is a formal interview”, she told me, “I’m sorry I’m sorry you cannot attend.” I didn’t want to wait until the burly security guards came for me, so I left.

Why such secrecy? What possible answer could there be other than that this supposedly innocuous organisation is a secret society, dedicated to such evil ends that I can’t even imagine? And what other Ministers are there? Their leader wouldn’t even tell me what position was being interviewed for – Leonidas didn’t know himself. Minister of Subversion? Minister of Secrecy? Minister of … Torture?

I took this photo through the window:

It’s always nice when reality rhymes like that.

I met up with Ben last week, after summer break. This time he came over to Tsinghua University, my new campus – twice as big as Beida, and with half as many girls. It’s all male engineers here, in China’s equivalent to MIT: my morning bike ride north into the heart of campus is a terrifying upstream against the current of hundreds of earnest-faced cyclists heading south for their science classes.

When I first met Ben a year ago, he wasn’t the easiest person to talk with, in either Chinese or English. Our respective unfamiliarities in the languages no doubt contributed, but even then his manner was too over polite at first, his laugh too nervous, to feel comfortable. It was an overeager friendliness which, combined with the slight hamster pouch of his cheeks, reminded me of Barney.

We’ve gotten to know each other much better now, and I’ve come to realise that one of the reasons for his initial ill-ease was that I am the first foreign friend he’s had – coming as he did to Beijing two years ago, from the countryside province of Shanxi. In fact, the solar ecplise of last July 22nd marked the two year anniversary of the founding of his online ladies clothes store on TaoBao, the Chinese eBay.

Ben was telling me in Tsinghua about his ambitions for the years to come, now that his online shop is reasonably well established – enough so that he’s currently advertising for a full-time assistant. Besides expanding his current business (a physical store, two physical stores, other Chinese cities, the world…), Ben has another bright idea. He hopes to start a ‘guide’ website for the best buys on TaoBao – renting advertising space for retailers like him, and offering advice to buyers. It wouldn’t be the first of its kind (there’s even an English language one here). But it’s potentially lucrative, and Ben surely has the most directly-to-the-point URL address, which he’s already nabbed: www.taogoodbao.com

Besides the ‘Chinese dream’ of business opportunity – move over America – Ben enjoys his schemes for their own sake. “I like to make new things”, he says. From what age? When he was a kid, six or seven, his father would buy bamboo to shore up the roof of his house with. One time, out of the left-overs, Ben made a bamboo birdcage, and caught two birds to live in it. (They died.) Then he made a bamboo gun with a weak firing mechanism to shoot little steel balls. (At birds.)

Passing over his intentional and unintentional sadism towards our flying friends, Ben describes this moment as the beginning of his wanting to go it alone: to be not a face in an office job but an entrepreneur (even if he’s never heard of the word) who makes his own things, takes his own risks and may wait a long time for those risks to pay off.

Ben, in a photo I took last year at Beida

Last week, The China Beat ran a post by me about the new generation of young Chinese students – like those I follow on this blog. Here, courtesy of Anastasia Maximchuk, is a longer version of its introduction translated into Chinese.

Oh, if you’re reading this in an RSS, the below might appear (as it does in my RSS reader) as a series of exclamation marks and odd squiggles which looks like a rather beautiful alien language. If you click through to the site itself it should work.






我承认自己具有相同的征兆:我在北京大学过了一年,在危险的、可以传染的这代年轻人中(可能因为自己是西方人,所以对我来说跟本来照样的环境)。“老虎庙”,请原谅我的无礼,让我介绍一下。我同意 – 最新一代隔离国家历史的程度比别的一代高,即使不是最高的。跟以前的一代相比,特别50年代的人,现代的青年更会得到具体信息和资料多得多。要说可乐代替水或者看西方电影变成一种时尚的问题,我本人看不到这中消极影响。尽管文革之中的童年可以给一代的人带来各种各样的精神变更严厉冷酷无情,但是这个压力也可以让人们的思想对某个新的建议更开发。



And for those of you to whom the above, despite displaying correctly, still looks like a series of odd alien squiggles, here is the original English:

China’s New New Youth

In 1915, in Shanghai, Chen Duxiu founded a magazine called qingnian zazhi (青年杂志), or Youth Magazine. Soon after, it was renamed xinqingnian (新青年): New Youth. Perhaps Chen came to feel that the youth of the times had something new to offer China, or that his writers had something new to offer China’s youth. Either way, the magazine and the name captured the spirit of the New Culture Movement which led to May 4th. New Youth aimed to call China out of its Confucian slumber with plain, angry writing by the likes of Lu Xun, and essays promoting democracy. Later, it more heavily promoted Marxism and eventually provided an intellectual base for the Communist Party which Chen co-founded in 1921. The name was iconic for a China fresh out of imperial rule, standing up for a new and fairer future.

The next ‘new youth’ to publicly embody this spirit was the Tiananmen students, who with the same fighting words challenged the very new China which the magazine had helped to create. They failed. But now, thanks not to protests at Tiananmen but the slower crawl of global integration, there is a ‘new new youth’ of around my age: in or just out of university. Zhang Shihe (a.k.a. ‘Tiger Temple’), a 56-year old blogger and political activist quoted in the Los Angeles Times, gives them a less flattering but possibly catchier moniker: “the stupid generation”.

“They were raised on Coca-Cola and Western movies,” Zhang enjoys himself, “and they’re very isolated from their country’s history”. I wonder, Mr Zhang, at the extent of your interaction with this youth. Are you really dismissing nearly a hundred million young people from the future of China? Surely your understanding of this generation is deep, but I only worry if in your immersion amongst them, some of their stupidity has rubbed off?

I must admit to the same symptom in me: I studied in Peking University for a year, in dangerously contagious proximity to this generation (possibly due to it being my own). So forgive my rudeness, Mr Zhang, and let me explain. I agree that this newest generation is isolated from their country’s history, relative to other – but not all other – nations. But relative to the generations before them, including that of current 50-somethings, they have more access in their youth to accurate information than ever. And as concerns Coca-Cola for mother’s milk and a diet of Western movies, I don’t see where that comes into it. A childhood in the thick of the Cultural Revolution can harden a generation, and it can embitter or confuse it. A fizz and Die Hard childhood can open minds to different ideas and places, just as it can turn them into mush.

I’m discussing here only the students who reap the positive benefits of what’s available to them. These, after all, are the ones who matter: change in China, like everywhere else, has only ever been started by a few before it is followed by many. The ‘new youth’ of Chen Duxiu’s magazine weren’t all of the new youth. So if you meant to exclude from your pithy tag, Mr Zhang, the exceptional young Chinese passionate to bring China forward into a new millenium, I’ll retract my complaints and accuse you of irrelevance instead.

Here, with permission, is a long email from a friend of mine, Scott Moore, who was in Beijing this last year to study China’s impact on environmental and energy problems. He wrote a blog from here, China Greenspace (blogspot, so blocked in China), and his brain tends to emit a faint buzzing sound from the amount of information he fits in there.


“A year ago I arrived in China to begin my Fulbright grant at Peking University in Beijing, which I completed in July. Since then I have been interning at the US Department of Energy China Office, which is part of the Embassy. As I prepare to return home (I write this in the airport…), I thought you might be interested in some reflections on my experience here.

I believe that to live in China is to feel oneself at the center of something important, to feel the pull of tidal forces that are shaping the future. Any experience here is (or at least should be, in my mind…) colored by big questions, including China’s rise as a world power, its vast social challenges, etc. The differences between China and America, too, are obvious and numerous enough to easily preoccupy one’s thinking. But for all that, the most vivid impression from my time in China is the simple reminder that people are basically the same, generous and kind, and desirous of friendship and opportunity. If nothing else, my year here has provided a poignant reminder of that basic truth!

But beyond that, there is also an earnestness that seems to permeate Chinese society. I think, perhaps at the risk of over-generalizing, that life in modern China is shaped by a basic optimism and sense of possibility and opportunity. One of my most fundamental impressions of China is of a nation obsessed with building itself—I just don’t think anyone has a vision of the end result.

Which brings me to my reason for coming to China in the first place. I was interested in how China is responding to and dealing with the drastic environmental change wrought by its rapid development. As you might imagine with a topic like that, I hardly scratched the surface, let alone plumbed the depths (especially given China’s many distractions – so many cuisines, so little time). But in broad terms, I think the right way to think about China’s environmental future lies in some accommodation between two basic truths.

The first is that China has done a great deal, perhaps more so than any other country in the world at a comparable stage of development, to blunt the environmental impact of its development. China’s people have no desire to tolerate severe air, water, and soil pollution, and its leaders are eager to move the country to a less-resource-intensive, greener economic model (they, too, read reports claiming that the next economic revolution will be a green one!). In short, China gets it.

The government has set out a number of policies to minimize resource consumption, improve energy efficiency, and, more recently, to control its greenhouse gas emissions. China has programs that are little-known, but of staggering scale, to encourage afforestation and the use of renewable energy in rural areas. Environmental NGOs represent one of the most vibrant civil society sectors in China, and green consumerism and corporate social responsibility are growth areas. In these and several other respects, I believe China has made a serious effort to set out a vision for sustainable development, which again to its credit nobody has really ever done (despite constant references to sustainability in Europe and the US). You certainly don’t find a model for sustainable growth in the records of Western countries!

But the other side of the equation is that China’s efforts do not come close to preventing or ameliorating devastating ecological consequences, both for itself and the world at large. For one thing, some its accomplishments, which look impressive on paper, are paper tigers. Torrid growth in renewable energy, for example, masks serious issues with actually channeling the electricity produced to the grid. Greenwashing is common – China has a phrase, shengtai wenming, or “ecological civilization,” that seems to mean little apart from appearing on signage against a green background. But even more serious are the macro-scale, out-standing sustainability challenges that China will need to tackle over the next thirty to fifty years.

The first of these is to decrease the proportion of coal in its energy mix. Coal is extremely dirty, both from the perspective of environmental health and its contribution to climate change. However, it is cheap and abundant, promoting both energy security and grist for rapid industrial development. While there are many efforts to burn coal more cleanly, or to sequester its carbon content during combustion, there is little in the way of proven technology, and widespread deployment of these technologies is likely to be extremely expensive. Large infusions of cash, and the attention of thousands of researchers, are needed if these kinds of technologies can be made commercially viable.

The second challenge is to accommodate tens of millions of new urban dwellers in energy efficient buildings linked to sustainable transport systems. Estimates of the impact of China’s urbanization in coming decades are breathtaking – the entire population of the United States (300 million people) could move to cities, and be accommodated in some 50,000 new skyscrapers, by 2030. To avoid being swamped by a tidal wave of cars, smog, and other emissions, these new urbanites will have to live, work, and play in buildings that maximize the use of natural light, incorporate renewable energy sources like solar and wind and use cutting-edge insulation, and travel by subway, light rail, bus, bike, electric car and foot. If this is to happen, China needs massive assistance in improving energy modeling and in developing the sustainable design and planning sector.

Third, China’s water resource management system needs an overhaul. As a result of climate change, massive shifts in the distribution and availability of water throughout the country will imperil agriculture and rural development. Adaptation is probably feasible, but it will be expensive. Large investment in water storage, efficient irrigation, flood control, and water conservation technologies will be required. Moreover, China will need to accelerate water price reform, to encourage conservation, something that is politically unpalatable since the burden falls on poor rural farmers. Better water allocation systems also need to be developed– one promising method is payment for ecosystem services (PES), whereby downstream water users, like urban industry, pay upstream “guardians,” like those living in headwater regions, to preserve forest land to prevent erosion and upstream water pollution.

Finally, China will need to rebalance its mode of development in several crucial respects. It must ease the disparity between the coasts and inland regions, but even more crucially it must allow and encourage the growth of public interest institutions—independent media, NGOs, citizen groups, and litigation. Since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has operated on the assumption that the Communist Party can best serve the country’s interests. Whether that was ever true is of course in my mind very doubtful, but in any case it’s clear that China is now too complex a place for one institution to do what’s best and right for the country as a whole. For the environment as in other issue areas, state-led capitalism has to be replaced with a richer, more complex, and more durable fabric of actors. China’s pollution and land use challenges will certainly never be solved by government fiat – the pressure of outside institutions is essential, as it was in the United States and other nations.

This last claim leads me to my final reflection, on China’s political future and relations with the United States. Having lived here for a year, I do of course have deep appreciation for many things about China, especially its people. I also believe that, at its best, China’s current regime and political system can effectively guide China towards a sustainable and liberal future. But I have little faith that China’s government will often act at its best. Like most political parties elsewhere in the world, the Chinese Communist Party is interested principally in maintaining power. Other interests, including those of the public, are subsidiary. In the absence of strong countervailing influences (which, in fairness, may yet emerge—never underestimate China), I believe that China’s political system will continue to be prone to corruption, injustice, and occasional extreme brutality (some of you may recall my email on my experiences in Xinjiang).

In my view, this state of affairs will have two primary consequences. The first is to increase the chance of acute civil strife. I am not one of those who believe that China is a powder keg waiting to explode. But there are several potential social time bombs—the most evident is the issue of self-determination for minority nationalities. Moreover, in general terms, I think that China may be headed for a severe identity crisis. The task of economic development has for the past thirty years provided a unifying mission for China, forestalling a coming to terms with its traumatic recent history, including the Cultural Revolution. At some point in the near future, I believe that this unifying thread to Chinese society will start to fray (perhaps it has already), and at that point serious questions will start to be asked about modern China and where it is headed. Beyond the general vision of becoming a developed country, I don’t think anyone has the answer, and that question will become increasingly important and divisive. One influence I fear could be decisive is that of extreme Han nationalism. I personally find this phenomenon terrifying, reliant as it is on xenophobia and bigotry. It is certainly not a dominant social influence at present, but it is virulent, and in a chaotic social situation I could see it gaining a great deal of influence.

The second consequence is that US-China relations may come to be increasingly defined by compromises on traditional American values. By this I mean generally Wilsonian liberalism, valuing human rights and the promotion of democracy abroad. There is no question that the US and China will need to cooperate as equal partners on a huge range of issues, from climate change to North Korea to global currency reserves. But to do so it America will have to downplay, or at least set aside, its traditional critiques of Chinese policy towards Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and other human rights and values issues. In my mind, some progress is to be made by recalibrating human rights relations – if it is approached more as a dialogue on the challenges and ultimate benefits of building a multicultural and open society, in which the US has long experience, more headway might be made. But I think Americans will increasingly have to come to terms with the idea that their most important partner country is one which has fundamentally different political and social values.

One final thought: for the issue I’ve focused most intensely on, climate change, much will be determined by US-China cooperation in the coming months and years. I remain optimistic that such a partnership can avert the worst consequences of climate change, though some are inevitable. But it will mean a fundamental shift in economy, politics, and society. We will have to approach the entire earth system as something to be managed – the atmosphere as a common resource, and things like industrial structure as the concern of all countries, not only one. If this all is to come to pass, reflections like these I’ve offered on what distinguishes China will become far less important than those on what binds us all together.”

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