During a speech on Tuesday in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told his audience that the Jews "have contributed greatly to America. No group has had such an outsized influence per capita," inspiring the New York magazine headline, "Biden Praises Jews, Goes Too Far, Accidentally Thrills Anti-Semites."
But cringe-inducing philo-Semitism is not just a U.S. phenomenon. In a recently published memoir, titled A Collection of Works Written During Leisure Time, Wu Guanzheng, who from 2002 to 2007 was China's top anti-corruption official, reminisces about his time in Israel. "I bought some books on the Jewish people," he writes. One, which he cites later, is written by someone with the name "Abraham" and called --- you guessed it! -- Why Are Jews Intelligent.
Wu notes how Jews "attach extreme importance to study" and how they see scholars "as their spiritual leaders." Somewhat ironically for the man who was once the seventh-highest-ranking figure in an authoritarian system, Wu also praises Jews' ability to "speak truth to power" and "freely express different opinions."
Chinese are notoriously philo-Semitic. Jewish visitors are often greeted with the platitude, "Ah, Jews, you so easily make money" (no joke), and there are dozens of Chinese-language books promising insight into Jewish secrets like raising smart children, succeeding in business, or unlocking the moneymaking secrets of the Talmud.
Wu also tweaks China's conventional wisdom about Judaism. "There are people who say that the world's wealth is in the Jews' pocket," he writes. "Actually, Jews' wealth is in their own brain." (The line works better in Chinese, where Wu uses a word for brain that literally means "brain pocket.")
Many retired Chinese officials publish (or try to publish) books after leaving office. And it is required -- or at least strongly recommended -- that Chinese news outlets covering these memoirs say nice things about them. The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, has applauded Wu's book for exhibiting a "deep and true unaffected emotionality," while Xinhua, China's state news agency, has noted how the book's "sincere and honest" writing style has received attention "from all walks of life," which explains why the publishers issued 300,000 copies the first week after the release. (According to a write-up in China Publishing News Online, the book includes "essays, reflections, jottings, fiction, discussions" and features discursions on the legal system as well as "how to conduct oneself in society.")
The news website for Wu's birthplace, part of the Jiangxi provincial city of Shangrao (a city I'd never heard of before, but which apparently has a population of more than 6.5 million people), published an article titled, "The Party Officials and Ordinary People of the Entire City Have Set Off a Popular Craze of Studying" Wu's book.
The praise from Chinese state media does not necessarily mean the book is filled with drivel -- Southern Weekly, a liberal newspaper that generally publishes less censored news than its competitors, remarked on its "unconventionality" in featuring a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's most powerful body, "exposing his inner thoughts."
Wu's inner thoughts include a verdict on Franklin Delano Roosevelt ("excellent"), Bill Gates ("he stepped down to let talented youth take on heavy responsibility"), and retirement ("I look up and observe the universe, I look down and observe all living things -- I feel totally full of vitality.")
And when he does look down and observe all living things, there's apparently a special place in his heart for the Jews.
At 7 a.m. on May 6, Yu Xuejun received a phone call from the captain of a fishing boat he owns. "I asked him what the problem was," Yu told state broadcaster China Central Television in an interview broadcast Monday, "and he said one of the ships was missing" from off the coast of Liaoning, a Chinese province that borders North Korea.
Thus began the bizarre, opaque, and as-yet unresolved saga of the North Korean kidnapping of 16 Chinese fishermen.
The next day, May 7, Yu received a call on a satellite phone from someone he identified only as "the North Koreans' translator." The mysterious caller asked for $200,000. "Then," Yu told CCTV, "they said we don't want that much, just $130,000." Yu asked, "Why did you take my boat?" He couldn't understand the caller's answer.
"If you pay, we'll release the boat," the translator told Yu. The calls kept coming, from the same number. On the fourth call, Yu says, the captors dropped the number to $100,000 and allowed the captured captain to speak to him. "His voice was trembling. I could feel he was very afraid," Yu wrote on his microblog, where he broke the news of the kidnapping. "I suspected that my crew had been mistreated. I can't imagine what the North Korean side could do."
China remains North Korea's closest ally, yet often gets repaid for its friendship with inexplicable acts of aggression. The kidnapping was probably coordinated by Pyongyang -- as the Chinese newspaper the Global Times wrote on Monday, the kidnappers are "highly likely from the North Korean army." The paper also quoted Jin Qiangyi, director of the Asian Studies Center at northeast China's Yanbian University, speculating that North Korea is "taking revenge on China" for approving the U.N. sanctions that followed its nuclear test in February.
According to Yu, his boat is now by the island of Changyon, which hosts a North Korean military base -- one would guess that the boat would only be allowed to dock at that island with permission from Pyongyang. According to the website for state radio service Chinese Radio International, Kim Jong Un visited Changyon in 2012 and "expressed satisfaction" at the navy's state of readiness.
But if the "pirates" were actually members of the North Korean military acting in concert with Pyongyang, why the laughably small ransom? Yu told a Chinese journalist that he can't pay the "sky-high price" of $100,000 -- that may be true, but the sticker price for international incidents is usually higher than that of a luxury car. (By comparison, in 2010, the average ransom demand from Somali pirates was $5.4 million.)
It's not the first time this has happened. A year ago almost to the day, North Koreans abducted 29 Chinese fishermen; the identity of the North Koreans, or whether they were authorities or autonomous kidnappers, remains unknown. The fishermen were returned and relieved of all their possessions, in some cases even including their clothes and the pencils in their pocket. Is the North Korean army so starved of resources that it would steal writing utensils from Chinese fishermen?
Throughout its history, North Korea has been more on the receiving end of piracy, as its ships have rarely ventured overseas. In the Historical Dictionary of Democratic People's Republic of Korea, former British diplomat James Hoare writes that Japanese pirate attacks in the 16th century are one reason for North Koreans' historical hatred of Japanese.
So far, Beijing's public response to this latest hijacking incident has been muted. The Wall Street Journal reports that "Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China is in close communication with Pyongyang, without offering details," while China's Internet universe is understandably angry. ("Americans say, 'I'll attack whoever I want,'" writes Weibo user Christopher-Columbia in a typical post. "Us Chinese, we say, 'whoever attacks us, we'll just insult them in return,'" he adds.) The Journal also quoted retired general Luo Yuan as writing on his microblog, "North Korea has gone too far. Just because you're poor, that doesn't mean you can cross borders and detain people for ransom." Unless China does something, Pyongyang may prove Luo wrong.
It seems like a story cooked up by a columnist for China's patriotic tabloid Global Times hoping to write about the problems with American democracy and press freedom: The U.S. Justice Department snoops on the Associated Press, and, without informing the news agency, obtains two months of reporters' and editors' phone records.
And yet the response from the Chinese press has been surprisingly muted. An article entitled "The White House's Explanation for 'Eavesdropping' on the Associated Press Gets Refuted" on People's Online, a website affiliated with the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, covers the revelations as a news story, writing that the U.S. media is "abuzz" and then explaining the facts of the case. China's state news agency Xinhua described the developments in a similar way to how Western news outlets are approaching the story (the IRS scandal has also received desultory coverage). The Global Times, a popular tabloid known for its nationalistic views and the most likely home for a strongly worded editorial deriding American press freedoms, instead published an uncharacteristically measured take on the debate between what is "allowed by law vs infringing upon press freedoms."
So why is the Chinese media not jumping on this story to score points against a liberal press? (After all, a Russian Foreign Ministry official seized on the opportunity to express concern about U.S. officials attacking press freedom.) One reason is that it's such a damaging example of government encroachment on the media that the facts literally speak for themselves, and little embellishing or editorializing is needed.
But the Chinese public is also paying far more attention to developments in the contested waters near China than to U.S. scandals. On Thursday, for instance, the Philippine Coast Guard shot and killed a Taiwanese fisherman in disputed waters 170 miles south of Taiwan. The killing and the Coast Guard's response -- "if somebody died, they deserve our sympathy but not an apology" -- infuriated Taiwanese and Chinese alike, and protests erupted in Taiwan. For the last few days, the Global Times has been running heavily promoted stories about the Philippines needing to apologize for the shooting as well as several features about Taiwan, which mostly functions independently as a nation but which China claims.
For much of the last two decades, relations between Taiwan and China were frosty at best. But since the signing of a landmark trade agreement in June 2010, the relationship has been warmer and more stable, and both sides seem to have tacitly agreed to shelve the sovereignty dispute for now. This has freed China to focus on its other island claims -- with Taiwan as an unlikely ally. China and Taiwan, for example, both agree that the Diaoyu Islands (which the Japanese, who call them the Senkakus, claim as well) belong to Taiwan."We have 99 percent the same view," but we don't agree on whether or not Taiwan is part of China, a Taiwanese diplomat told me.
One lesson from all of this: The Chinese media has more pressing concerns than taking potshots at the United States.
Just how bad are U.S.-Chinese relations these days, and who's to blame for the downturn? China's former Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei has published an essay in Foreign Policy today on the worrying state of the world's most important relationship. The Obama administration's pivor to Asia, he writes, has "aroused a great deal of suspicion in China."
High-ranking Chinese officials rarely speak so directly about China's concerns, and He's essay is one of the most comprehensive explanations of Beijing's views published in U.S. media since China's new president Xi Jinping was appointed in November.
He, who's currently deputy director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office in the powerful State Council, is known to be outspoken. During a 2009 U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen, for instance, he told reporters that the top U.S. negotiator "lacks common sense or is extremely irresponsible."
In what may be the most alarming section of his FP essay, He writes:
[S]uspicions deepen when the United States gets itself entangled in China's dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands and in the debates over maritime issues in the South China Sea. Should this ill-thought-out policy of rebalancing continue and the security environment worsen, an arms race would be inevitable. China, despite its intention to pursue a strategy of peaceful development, might be forced to revisit some aspects of its policy for the region.
I sent He's article to several scholars who closely follow the U.S.-China relationship to get their take on his argument, and I've summarized their reactions below.
Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, called He "one of China's most experienced, smartest and most articulate diplomats" but said that Beijing "often has a difficult time realizing that China has, in effect, become a Great Power." That newfound status, he explained, makes the country's aggressive behavior more worrying than before.
Trust is also a major concern in the U.S.-China relationship, and Beijing seems unaware of the mistrust with which other countries view its foreign policy. In his essay, He writes that the "United States has nothing to fear or worry about, and everything to gain, from a strong, peace-loving, and prosperous China," and that the threat of China revisiting its regional policy won't materialize if the United States and China can work through their issues.
Meanwhile, however, China has disputes with Japan over the Diaoyu (which the Japanese call the Senkakus), with several Southeast Asian nations over territory in the South China Sea, and with India over the border between the two countries. China "will be unable to reassure neighbors and the United States of its commitment to a 'peaceful rise' as long as China is presenting such a pugnacious and intractable face to its neighbors," Schell wrote.
Shen Dingli, associate dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, also noted the importance of mutual trust -- as He writes, "trust will not just fall out of the sky." An arms race, Shen said, "would be ridiculous." Instead, he added, both sides should build trust by taking a "criticism and self-criticism" approach, welcoming criticism from the other party with "enhanced humility and confidence."
Perry Link, a professor at the University of California Riverside who recently wrote a book on language in Chinese politics, had a more negative opinion of He's essay: "In their 2011 book Mao's Invisible Hand, Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry write that today's Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policy-making inherits Mao Zedong's 'guerrilla policy style,' which they summarize as fundamentally dictatorial, opportunistic, and merciless," Link noted. He's essay "is but a tool in this policy style. Its purpose is to maximize the power of the CCP. Period."
Link noted how the Communist Party, in He's essay and elsewhere, has tried to equate itself with China. "Rule 1 for U.S. policy should be to recognize that the China = CCP claim is far from true. No one is clearer about its falsity than the CCP itself, whose overwhelming concern in recent times has been how to stay on top of a rising, ever-better-informed, and, thanks to cyber-assembly on the Internet, ever-better-organized populace who resent CCP bullying and corruption."
The Party's rule will "not last," Link wrote. "The big questions are how bloody the transition will be and what kind of regime will come next. A wise U.S. policy would be crafted with these questions in mind, and with the whole Chinese population in mind -- and that would mean seeing the He essay as only a grain of irritation on a vastly broader canvas."
What do you think about He's essay? Let me know in the comments.
On Tuesday, the U.N. Human Rights Council announced the three individuals who will lead the body's first-ever human rights investigation into North Korea. In an interview with the Australian broadcaster ABC, new panel member Michael Kirby, a former justice of Australia's high court, acknowledged the challenges facing the probe but added, "the media gives North Korea a hard time and that maybe or may not be justified. We just have to, as a judge would, decide the matter on the basis of the material that's given to us and report faithfully and honestly."
North Korea is infamously opaque -- a New York Times article on Monday about "the black hole of North Korea intelligence gathering" argued that U.S. "understanding of North Korea's leadership and weapons systems has actually gotten worse." And the outside world may know less about North Korea's gulags -- thought to hold roughly 150,000 to 200,000 people -- than its weapons capabilities.
Not only will North Korea not cooperate with the investigation (it has never admitted to the existence of its gulags), but it's very likely that no one from the United Nations will be allowed to enter the country to investigate. Even if they are allowed to enter, they won't be able to get anywhere near the gulags -- and perhaps won't even make it outside the capital city of Pyongyang.
So how does one investigate human rights abuses in North Korea from Geneva and Seoul? The answer's pretty simple: defectors and satellite maps.
The most comprehensive testimony on human rights abuses in North Korea comes from the NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, which in April 2012 released its second report on North Korea's hidden gulags:
In addition to the testimony and accounts from the former political prisoners in this report, this second edition of Hidden Gulag also includes satellite photographs of the prison camps. The dramatically improved, higher resolution satellite imagery now available through Google Earth allows the former prisoners to identify their former barracks and houses, their former work sites, execution grounds, and other landmarks in the camps. The report provides the precise locations exact degrees of latitude and longitude-of the political prison camps that North Korea proclaims do not exist.
The problem is, North Korea is so isolated from the rest of the world that some changes only become apparent months, if not years, after they occur. After defectors cross the Chinese border, for instance, it usually takes them years to be in a position to safely tell their stories. And satellite maps show buildings, but not people. The U.N.'s testimony will no doubt be extremely thorough, but still woefully incomplete when judged by similar human rights inquiries. If, for example, North Korea were to shut down its gulags, how long would it take the rest of the world to discover they no longer exist?
A surprising topic has dominated Chinese social media over the last few weeks: the story of Zhu Ling, who in 1994 was an undergraduate at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University. "Enthusiastic, intelligent and attractive, she was an active member of the college folk music team, and was already considered by many to be a model student with a wonderful future," recalls the Help Zhu Ling Foundation, which describes itself as a California-based non-profit.
That year, Zhu was stricken by a mysterious illness thought to be caused by thallium poisoning, and speculation soon centered on one of her roommates, Sun Wei, the granddaughter of a high-ranking Chinese official named Sun Yueqi who was rumored to have close ties to former President Jiang Zemin. Questioned but never arrested, Sun reportedly fled to the United States. Much of the anger surrounding the case stems from the belief that Sun's connections shielded her from a serious investigation.
In recent days, Yao Chen, a Chinese actress who has the most popular account on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo, has written several posts on the case, including one that got forwarded more than 100,000 times (Emily Parker's recent New Republic article on Zhu has been reposted more than 100,000 times on Sina Weibo as well). More than 100,000 people have signed a petition asking the White House to deport Sun.
So what's going on? The reappraisal of the case seems to have been triggered by the unrelated poisoning of a student at another prestigious Chinese university in mid-April, and the commentary the incident triggered about a life wasted. But Zhu's case is more morally ambiguous than the latest episode (for one thing, Sun might not be guilty), and it's these shades of gray that may be giving the story legs. An article published Tuesday on the Financial Times' Chinese website, for instance, channels Socrates in meditating on the Zhu case, the rule of law, and what justice should mean in modern-day China. Prominent Chinese leftist Wu Danhong, whose weibo account is a pun on his name and an expression meaning lawlessness, praised Zhu's father's "clear rejection" of the White House petition -- and thus his faith in official channels and Beijing's ability to govern.
Zhu, for her part, is now a "200-pound, paralysed, diabetic, almost-blind woman with the mental capacity of a six-year-old," according to the South China Morning Post. Sun's whereabouts are unknown, and old cases like these are difficult to solve -- especially for a country with as creaky a justice system as China's. As Hu Xijin, a well-known commentator and editor of the Global Times newspaper, wrote on his microblog, even the O.J. Simpson case never got cracked. This one might not either.
This week's Economist cover story is about Xi Jinping's catchphrase "Chinese dream," which symbolizes the aspirations of the Chinese people and nation. The magazine suggests, bizarrely but convincingly, that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is responsible for the slogan now known by hundreds of millions of people across China:
Where did the slogan come from? Quite possibly the New York Times. Last October, in the run up to Mr Xi's ascension, the Times ran a column by Thomas Friedman entitled "China Needs Its Own Dream". Mr Friedman said that if Mr Xi's dream for China's emerging middle-class was just like the American dream ("a big car, a big house and Big Macs for all") then "another planet" would be needed. Instead he urged Mr Xi to come up with "a new Chinese dream that marries people's expectations of prosperity with a more sustainable China." China's biggest-circulation newspaper, Reference News, ran a translation.
According to Xinhua, a government news agency, the Chinese dream "suddenly became a hot topic among commentators at home and abroad". When Mr Xi began to use the phrase, Globe, a magazine published by Xinhua, called Mr Xi's Chinese-dream idea "the best response to Friedman."
I asked Friedman whether all this was true, and he responded by email:
"I only deserve part credit," he noted. "The concept of 'China Dream' was created by my friend Peggy Liu, as the motto for her NGO about how to introduce Chinese to the concept of sustainability."
Friedman's "China Dream" column references Liu and her NGO JUCCCE. In his email to me, he wrote, "I adapted her concept in the column below and just took [it] all the way to [the] top and made it a challenge for Xi Jinping." "I just took it to a higher level -- put it right in his face so to speak -- in hopes of making it scale by challenging the next party chairman to adopt it," he added.
So there you have it. I doubt Xi Jinping -- or anyone familiar with his thinking -- will ever deny this account, and perhaps it will take hold. (James Fallows at the Atlantic points out "the idea of a 'Chinese dream' has been around for a long time," but Friedman's China op-ed appears to have done what he tries to do in many columns -- repackage an old idea and sell it to his readers. If the Economist's theory is right, Xi bought it.)
On April 23, a gang of 14 "suspicious people" took three community workers hostage in a house in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. When police and officials rushed to the scene, the gang, all of whom were members of China's Uighur minority, attacked them with axes and large knives, murdered the hostages, and set the house on fire, according to local Chinese authorities. Twenty-one people died in the violence.
As I wrote on Friday, while the government's version of the events may seem far-fetched, journalists' inability to report in the region and prove otherwise has lent it credibility. The incident has gotten a lot of airtime on China Central Television, the state broadcaster, which on Tuesday released gruesome images of the murdered cadres. Stills have been circulating online as well. Most of the websites that have hosted the photos appear to have had their comment sections deleted, but on Literature City, an overseas Chinese website, many of the comments take an uncharitable view of Uighurs, ho make up 45 percent of Xinjiang's population. "This is human scum complaining about unfair treatment," wrote one commentator.
In the days since the bloodshed in Xinjiang, police have arrested 19 suspects. The Associated Press, citing Xinjiang's propaganda office, said the suspects "belonged to a terrorist group founded in September, whose members regularly watched video clips advocating religious extremism and terrorism, and attended illegal preaching ceremonies." Whether that's actually true or not may never be known.
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