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Grain Politics and Sichuan in the 1950s

There are few lines of historical investigation more fraught in China than those concerned with food, security, and famine in Sichuan province in the 1950s. But where to start the investigation? Which reference points obtain?

For Frank Dikotter, the reference point is Mao, and the beginning point seems to be 1953. In his book Mao’s Great Famine, the historian locates the origins of the famine at the top levels of the CCP, Mao’s resentment of Stalin and the deterioration of the Stalinist personality cult. To the extent the localities matter at all, it is in their expression of or victimization by centralized themes — brutality, mostly.

A text which is less forceful in its advancing of a monolithic thesis is no less brutal thereby; Zhou Xun’s collection of translations from local archives provides a picture of widespread suffering from a number of points in Sichuan:

The situation was particularly severe in eastern Sichuan. High up in the hills, in houses clinging to the banks of the Yangtze River, peasants faced harsher conditions than in the western plains of the province. Though not far from prosperous Chongqing, Shizhu county had an average death rate between 20 and 50 percent from mid-1959 to mid-1961. In some areas of the county the death rates were as high as 60 percent. While the majority of those who died did so as the result of starvation, many were also beaten to death. In the Xianfeng big brigade of the county’s model Huaban commune, more than 70 percent of the local population were battered during the Anti-Hiding Campaign. Some areas not only had special ‘people-beating squads’ but local cadres even encouraged children to attack other children. (Zhou Xun, pp. 19-20)

Dikotter’s book circles back in Chapter 17, “Agriculture”, to an institutional aspect of Party control of grain which ultimately facilitated famine — the development of the Unified Grain Purchasing and Market system, more fluently known as the tonggou tongxiao. Here the historian leans quickly on the interpretation put forward in Vivien Shue in 1980:

In 1953 a monopoly over grain was introduced, decreeing that farmers must sell all surplus grain to the state at prices determined by the state. The aim behind the monopoly was to stabilise the price of grain across the country, eliminate speculation and guarantee the grain needed to feed the urban population and fuel an industrial expansion. (Dikotter, p. 127).

There is no time in this text to suss out the debate that arrived at such a policy, or to note that the CCP had achieved a kind of gradualist attitude toward the grain markets in prior years: it is merely the command economy impinging upon the otherwise self-respecting peasantry. And it tells us little about the shape and function of Sichuan’s grain market or agricultural mercantile class over which the CCP would have needed to assert control.

Work now being done by Wankun Li, a graduate of Shanghai Jiaotong University (and currently my PhD student at the University of Leeds) aims to document in much greater detail the meaning of the tonggou tongxiao system in Sichuan, focusing on counties in greater Chongqing.

Why does a local point of view matter when it comes to researching grain policy in Sichuan or the greater Southwest region of the PRC in the 1950s?

In his extraordinary ethnography of the mountainous southwestern region of Zhizuo, Yunnan province, Erik Mueggler describes the arrival of the tonggou tongxiao system. Like Dikotter, he relies entirely on Shue for the historical background, but mentions a specific class of people left out of the Hong Kong scholar’s book: grain dealers.

The supply and marketing cooperatives instituted a new system for the procurement and rationing of grain in late 1953. Called ‘unified purchase and supply,’ this system required peasants to sell quotas of surplus grain to the cooperatives at prices set by the state. It was intended to overcome an immediate serious shortage of grain in state granaries and to create conditions for quicker progress toward socialism int eh countryside. the new system virtually eliminated private grain markets. Peasants were free to sell any grain they produced in excess of quota, but only at government-supervised markets and only to working people and grain-short peasants, not to grain dealers.

In Zhisuo, where virtually all households had been defined as grain-short and exempted from the requirement to sell grain to the state, the most important effect of this system was to make it impossible for residents to continue to buy their grain from dealers. Cooperatives were encouraged to establish grain markets on the sites where traditional periodic markets had once flourished. (Mueggler, p. 169)

Unfortunately for CCP cadre in Zhisuo, the new market was unsuccessful due to the fact that locals thought it was inhabited by ghosts.


Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (London: Bloomsbury, 2010).

Chen Yun, “On the Socialist Transformation of Private Industry and Commerce,” in New China Advances to Socialism: A Selection of Speeches Delivered at the Third Session of the First National People’s Congress (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1956), pp. 102-117.

Erik Mueggler, The Age of Wild Chosts: Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Frederick C. Tiewes with Warren Sun, China’s Road to Disaster: Mao, Central Politicians, and provincial Leaders in the Unfolding of the Great Leap Forward, 1955-1959 (M.E. Sharpe, 1999).

Zhou Xun, The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962: A Documentary History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

Zhu Yonghong, “Reflections on the Party’s Policy Toward the Rural Individual Economy Druing the First Seven Years of the State,” in Frederick C. Teiwes and Warren Sun, eds, The Politics of Agricultural Cooperation in China: Mao, Deng Zihui, and the ‘High Tide’ of 1955 (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1993) pp. 51-59 [originally published in Zhonggong dangshi yanjiu, no. 9, 1989].



Writing the Early Postwar: White and Jacoby’s _Thunder Out of China_

Foreign correspondents are crucial conduits for insights into contemporary East Asia. As I’ve learned from my conversations with various bureau chiefs, stringers, and greybeards in the region, there are few people willing to share insights as journalists, as it is their job to be, and to stay, plugged in.

For the contemporary historian, reading the accounts of journalists in the region in the 1940s an 1950s is particularly salutary. They are layered and numerous — some journalists wrote books, works indicating a kind of concentration of what is usually years in the region, activity which itself emerged out of hundreds of dispatches which can often also be tracked down. The reporters may have left personal papers behind, or have done oral histories/interviews for documentary films in their later years. The papers of even journalists whose work is more general, like John Gunther, the supremely productive globetrotter whose papers are at the University of Chicago, can be very useful.

What follows are my own notes on and quotes from an important summary of China at a crucial turning point — the years 1945 and 1946, when the Republic of China was again on the brink of civil war, and yet trying to process the massive contusions that the just-ended War of Resistance had wrought.

White and Jacoby were both keen observers and sharp writers — the prose has a certain assertive momentum to it, and their summary of China’s nominal victory in the Second World War is excellent. At times common propaganda memes work their way into the writing, and China is ignored completely; at one such point the Japanese loss was ascribed to the fact that “they were led by military technicians who had only a jungle understanding of politics.” (p. xiv.) In describing the milieu onboard the USS Missouri at the most emblematic surrender of the Japanese to the Allies:

Shigemitsu was dressed…as if he were attending a wedding or a funeral. He had a wooden leg, and he limped along the deck; when he began to clamber to the veranda deck where the peace was to be signed, he clutched the ropes and struggled up with infinte pain and discomfort. With savage satisfaction everyone watched Shigemitsu struggling up the steps; no American offered a hand to help the crippled old man. (p. xii)

The events at Nanking a week later, and celebrated heavily today by the CCP, are left completely aside.

 The wells of hatred and terror that the Japanese had opened by their ferocity were ready to be tapped, and the Communists tapped them. (p. 50)

As ever, returning to writing that is 70 years old helps to remind us that the CCP’s attachment to anti-Japanese propaganda is hardly a new construct, and has some deep reservoirs of continuity.

However, White and Jacoby are justly more focused on the Kuomintang in this text, which is the foremost opponent of Japan in wartime. The government gets very little credit however for properly commemorating the war, or for defending Chinese territory or populations during the prior eight years (the Manchurian Incident of 1931 and the construction and destruction of Manchukuo is beyond the ambit of this very ambitious work):

Not even today is there any accurate estimate of the carnage at Shanghai [in 1937]; Chinese casualties mounted to the hundreds of thousands as the blood and courage of the soldiers absorbed the shock of Japan’s charges. (p. 52)

Held up equally for their flaws are the Japanese strategists who stumbled into a quagmire in China. White and Jacoby weave through some first-hand field observations of the static front lines with their excellent assessment of how Japanese intelligence on China had ‘blinded’ the Japanese general staff. Again the analysis gets mired in wartime propaganda memes about how Chinese peasants and endless tracts of soil would overcome — themes which were so pervasive in the war that even German reporters writing books about the Sino-Japanese conflict were duty-bound to cover them prominently.

What more recent analysis would tell us about Japanese foibles is how the general staff was shot through with somewhat personalized wishful assessments of the attractive  power of Japanese pan-Asianism in China. One is reminded of General Matsui Iwane’s pronounced views of Chinese warlords and dismissal of Chinese nationalism — that is to say, Matsui and some of his colleagues with experience in early-20th-century China saw the country less as a unifying nation-state under Chiang Kai-shek then as a collection of brutal local warlords who local residents would be glad to see displaced by a benevolent foreign power. In any event, this meant an erroneous assessment of the ease of Japan’s task on the mainland. (p. 54)

If the Japanese leadership (the homefront is not really broached here) was feeding itself illusions about the ease of the task at hand, White and Jacoby also pour scorn on the divorcing of Chinese propaganda from wartime reality. (p. 61-62).

The authors witnessed Japanese air raids  on the wartime capital of Chongqing (Chungking), which are dealt with descriptively in the first chapter of the book.


Points about rural destruction by Japanese troops are also informed by first-hand observation, and are worth quoting in full given recent controversies over “comfort women” narratives:

The Japanese had just left, but they had blazed a black, scarred trail of devastation across the countryside. You might ride for a day through a series of of burned villages that were simply huddles of ruins…The peasants had fled before the Japanese advance. When they did not flee voluntarily, they were forced to leave by government edit, and they took with them everything from seed grain to furniture…The Japanese entered a barren wasteland. They had been held up by floods, and when they reached their key objectives they had two weeks’ growth of beard; caked with mud, they were exhausted and furious.

In some of the districts through which I passed, every woman caught by the Japanese had been raped without exception. The tales of rape were so sickeningly alike that they were monotonous unless they were relieved by some particular device of fiendishness. Japanese soldiers had been seen copulating with sows in some districts. In places where the villagers had not had time to hide themselves effectively, the Japanese rode cavalry through the high grain to trample the women into showing themselves. The Japanese officers brought their own concubines with them from the large garrison cities — women of Chinese, Russian, Korean, or Japanese nationality — but the men had to be serviced by the countryside. (p. 65-66)

Japanese revisionists prone to minimizing the above account will be glad to note that the authors do include a tale of communist women being raped by Kuomintang government soldiers after the the New Fourth Army incident in 1940 (p. 76), but the latter story lacks the systematic — and foreign — character of the first.

Drawing again on fieldwork on the front lines in North China, the authors provide a good sense of the stasis along the front (p. 67), the lack of mobility in the war, the front as “anticlimax”. With this kind of depressing ethos, the feeling of a phony war, some readers will be prone to liken it to the war novels of Jean Paul Sartre, Le Chemins de la Libertebeing written in that same pregnant year of 1946, but not to be translated into Chinese until the early 1980s.

Chen Lifu in 1947, TIME magazine cover, art by Boris Artzybasheff

The authors embark on an epic description of one leader of the so-called CC Clique and influential figure in Kuomintang youth organization, Chen Li-fu:

[Chen Li-fu was] easily the most impressive man of the triumvirate of deputies. He had an exquisitely handsome face, with burning eyes and glossy silver hair, and seemed as as a piece of old ivory. He was a ruthless, hated zealot– high-principled, relentless, and incorruptible; he wad a mystical nationalist…Chen was a great Kuomintang theorist, and his writings were an inchoate mass of half-rational, half-mystical pronouncements; no American could possibly understand them…His sleep was untroubled by the screams of those who suffered in Kuomintang concentration camps or by the terrors his policy imposed on liberals…During the middle years of the war Chen Li-fu rode high. His censors made the press, stage, and literary world writhed under his directives. (pp. 107-110)

Chapter 8, “Chiang Kai-shek — The People’s Choice?” is an evocative one whose questioning title tells the reader what he or she really needs to know.

Finally, White and Jacoby do succeed in breaking down the Sino-Japanese binary decades before historians of East Asia finally stole a page out of the French historian’s repertoire (which itself only had really got off the ground in the 1970s) and developed an interest in Chinese collaborators.

Japanese agents were everywhere. One war area commander admitted that he paid a friendly visit to the Japanese commander he opposed, because the commander had been his schoolmate in Japan. Individuals went back and forth between Chungking and puppet officials of the Japanese government in Nanking. (p. 141)

A very demoralizing unpublished account is included by a  Chinese journalist about Chinese peasant apathy toward Japanese occupiers in 1943-44. (pp. 143-44) Such writing is a clear reminder that for every patriotic journalist like Wang Yunsheng, braving Japanese air raids in Chongqing, there were other writers working for the Japanese in the interior or Manchuria, and others observing the deep failings of the Chinese national project on the margins during the War of Resistance.



Second-Hand Stories: East Asia in the Bill Clinton Autobiography

This essay was written in Seattle on 24 February, 2009; a shorter version was published at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma that spring.

This past weekend I took a long walk up Seattle’s Dearborn Ave, encountering errant alcoholics, homeless in their shopping carts, shards of sunlight, and football fans with sandpapered hands.  As is often the case when seeking out new information, my goal was amorphous and yet my needs were cavernous: Like addicts haunting the International District, I felt the nervousness of pre-acquisition jitters, in this case of a good book. 

Fortunately my dilemma was solved as a sepulcher of learning appeared in the guise of a huge “Goodwill” second-hand store.  Why Goodwill?  Because within its vast horde of bronzed lamps, random CDs and piles of lost stories lay several shelves of books.  Something interesting was sure to spring into my hand. 

Sure, I didn’t need any books.  My home and office were already glutted with partially-read DS 777s and partially-gnawed-upon Dewey Decimal counterparts.  The very thought of taking on further ballast from silent stacks – being tethered by yet another barcode – or scrawling a few more pages of notes in some lost notebook about the Cold War in Asia simply did not appeal.  I needed something more contemporary, something…Clintonian.

I had grazed upon the chaff of internet news, and was wholly unsatisfied.  On the day after Hillary Clinton’s visit to China, the Beijing’s central Xinhua.net had confirmed its own irrelevance via breathless and stomach-churning accolades for its own saintly (though admittedly adorable) Premier, Wen Jiabao.  Some solid European reporting on China offered relief, but was fifteen clicks and a library card away.  And thus my sojourns commenced into the maze of the Goodwill stacks, a task risking irrelevance, fraught with the uncertainties of the poorly sorted and self-published conspiracy theories with which the cash economy of book markets in the US are so often barnacled. 

The hazards of this endeavor became immediately clear, as I nearly tripped over an older gentlemen who was methodically culling the stacks of all things FDR, capitalizing on the boom of literature on busting economies.  Perhaps he was wheeling off with all of Arthur Schlesinger’s work to feed hungry minds at a working group of unemployed historians.

For a moment, I was tempted by a self-published Christian numerologist’s 1987 book entitled “Gorbechev!  The Arrival of the Anti-Christ?”  Similarly self-published, the “Islamic Threat Report” from spring 2002 was hot with translations of the Israeli right-wing press and adorned with a graphic conflation of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. 


Hillary Rodham Clinton greets US troops at Camp Casey, South Korea, in July 1993. Image via US National Archives. 

Culling through the printed detritus of wars in Central Asia and devilish foes, I became momentarily lost within the twinges of a distinctly Anglo-American nostalgia.  However, the true delights of my foray into the livre d’occasion quickly became apparent when something fat and golden began to call: “My Life,” it breathed, and the hefty tome of Bill Clinton’s memoir (Knopf, 2004) pressed into my palms.    

Like most memoirs, Bill Clinton’s book is a study in self-defense, a poorly-ordered jumble of experiences lent coherence only by the author’s prominence and ambition.   Nine hundred and fifty-seven pages of prose with nary a footnote in sight!  Clearly the President was too busy unburdening his busy mind and making speeches after January 2001 to be bothered, say, to visit the archives to consult the ten thousand pages of his wife’s schedules, research his funding to Iraqis in exile in London or reprint amusing letters from deranged constituents.  Only the index existed to bridge the gap between the author’s shrewd obfuscations and my desired understanding of what the man had done (and how perhaps his capable spouse had helped him?) with regard to the People’s Republic of China.

Clinton’s two terms had witnessed great changes in China itself, and more than a few unpredictable Sino-U.S. dustups.  China’s entry into the World Trade Organization is touted as a great achievement, and Clinton’s 1998 visit to the PRC is touted as an amazing display of the fruits of democracy.  Here Clinton enters a broad stream of American politicians who travel to China armed with a few perishable platitudes about free markets and religion and come home imagining they may have changed a few thousand minds.  Obviously, Clinton has never ridden in a taxi in China’s northeastern rust-belt unemployment meccas, for there he would hear, see, and choke upon the stories of how China, urged on by American consumers, has jettisoned its comprehensive system of total employment and cradle-to-grave social services for the unforgiving edges of disaster capitalism. 

In some ways, Clinton’s memoir hails from a bygone era.  It is stacked high with pre-Terror War heresies, ignorant of the “Surge” of the great General Petraeus; it is littered with finite military actions, and stacked high with legislative achievements. Further confirming its old-school pedigree, Clinton’s entire book was drafted without the benefit of anything other than a couple hundred yellow legal pads and fountain pens.  How students today will assemble their memoirs in 2050 without reference to the happily narcissistic, scandalously ubiquitous, and data-voracious tool known as “Facebook” is a question that Clinton’s amazingly productive Luddite tendencies call into question. 

Finally, Bill Clinton’s memoir brings us to an axiom of U.S.-China relations in the era of Hillary: the relationship between the US and the PRC is fundamentally strong, but it has yet to be challenged in a period of supreme economic stress.  Issues of human rights, concerns about Taiwan, all add stress to this relationship.  And all it takes is a few errant cruise missiles to empty China’s college campuses in anti-American protests.  About a year after Bill Clinton dialogued with Beijing University students in 1998 and had a public debate with Jiang Zemin, Clinton was roundly denounced for bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. 

But today Hillary Clinton might well be able to forge the kind of cooperative U.S.-China relationship focused on common environmental and economic challenges which she advocated so clearly on her recent trip to Beijing.  After all, if the United States and China start talking trade war, we will all be shopping at Goodwill soon.

Report on Opium in China from the German Embassy in Tokyo, 1944

On June 8, 1944, the German Embassy in Tokyo sent a report back to the Auswärtiges Amt, or Foreign Ministry. Unlike so many other files dealing with foreign affairs, at this particular dispatch showed no signs of Ribbentrop’s blue pencil — the German foreign minister was notoriously narcissistic and had to see the full text of every article mentioning his name.

Instead the leader dealt with most in this text was China’s Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang was no stranger to the politics of commemoration in his day; the CCP learned far more from him about the ‘politics of national humiliation’ than is usually admitted. In summer of 1944, Chiang might have been preoccupied with things like Japan’s renewed offensive in the south, but instead was looking at questions of opium.

Chiang was commemorating the anniversary of the Opium War (begin in 1839). But rather than a narrative of fully national humiliation, the leader was keen to see a reduction in opium smoking in his capital city. This was the top priority as expressed in the speech, on with curtailing opium production in the mountains in Sichuan. Secondly, opium traffic from Japanese occupied areas into areas of China controlled by the Nationalists had to be interdicted. Third, China had to have a plan for how it was going to deal with the opium problem in what it called ‘currently occupied areas’ and put into place plans so that when the new areas that would presumably fall under Nationalist rule when the war ended were not overrun by addicts.

Source: Stahmer in Tokyo, “Für Rundfunkabteilung,” Bundesarchiv file R901/73380.

Photo by George Lacks (LIFE magazine photographer in Shanghai c. 1940s) 

Notes on Teaching the Nixon Visit to China

Nixon_Mao_1972-02-29The Nixon visit was as clear a turning point as will ever arrive in diplomatic history, involving two of the world’s most important nations. The Nixon visit is a prism into talking about what had come before (the breaking off of relations in 1949), the crisis of the Cold War (inclusive of the Korean war), the Cultural Revolution, and what would follow – China’s “opening up.”  Additionally, students tend to be relatively more interested or fluent in Nixon than in other 20th century US presidents, and almost everyone is interested in Mao once they “get to know him.” 

One point that is often lost in the discussion of the Nixon visit, however, is the fact that formal U.S.-China relations were finally and actually established in 1979. It’s often lost on students and even occasionally (non-Asianist) scholars who think Nixon’s visit led to normalization right away.  It isn’t necessary to get into some long discourse on Carter administration foreign policy to explain this, but given the heavy focus on Deng Xiaoping in the next phase of PRC history, more discussion of how 1979 finally came about or the long-term implications of the rapprochement never hurts. We need not turn our lectures into sunny advertisements for the pure capitalist delights of Dengist brilliance, but the 1979 turning point in Chinese history more generally merits greater discussion.

Citation: (2012). Adam Cathcart, “Musical Diplomacy in the Nixon-Kissinger China Visits, 1971-1973,” Yonsei Journal of International Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring/Summer) 31-38.

The “Ground Zero Mosque”: The View from China


This op-ed was written in August 2010 as a submission for the New York Times but never published. Things have changed quite a lot in the intervening five years, but perhaps the reading of the Chinese sources, if not the somewhat narrow US perspective, will be of some minor value.  Many thanks to Charles Kraus, among other things a Xinjiang specialist, for his comments on it at the time. For readers in the UK seeking to catch up on the historical background, Charlie Booker of The Guardian provides a characteristically blunt introduction. – AC

The recent furor over the proposal of a mosque and Muslim community center two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York has attracted global attention, but few commentators seem to understand the potential potency of the issue in the US relationship with China.  Like the United States and Europe, China continues to deal with questions about the relation of Islam to the body politic and the proper role of that religion in public life.  In the wake of the uprising in Xinjiang, the Muslim-majority region of China’s northwest in July 2009, in China the answer has become, simply, repression towards and oversight of ethnic Uighurs and Muslims generally.  The Chinese government absolutely regulates the construction of new mosques.  The Uighur umma (religious community) is beholden to the edicts of Han-ethnicity bureaucrats from Beijing.  Uighur students and government officials are even not allowed to worship in mosques. 

This is not a model which the United States should seek to emulate. 

Moreover, to the extent that the US injects government control where it does not constitutionally belong, offering a mistrustful profile toward Muslim-Americans, it weakens the country’s ability to speak directly and forthrightly to China about such issues as institutional racism, religious liberty, and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.   

Do Chinese really care about the “Ground Zero Mosque”?  Certainly Chinese readers are appraised of the issue.  Indeed, if recent press reports are any indication, they are devoting particular analysis of late to the area that George W. Bush used to call “the broader Middle East.”  The withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq has elicited scepticism from the favourite newspaper of liberal intellectuals here, Southern Weekend, which in 2009 opined that the American pledges to “build democracy” in Iraq had given way to a kind of cynical neo-Vietnam withdrawal, if not outright defeat of American principles.  U.S. commitment to Iraqi democracy may be perceived in China as a wash – in spite of the fact that it has yielded lucrative contracts for Chinese oil companies – and steady Chinese news coverage of the U.S. in Afghanistan does not seem to be favourable in the least in its emphasis on institution-building.  US military drills in Kazakhstan garnered criticism as well.  If anything, scepticism toward American intentions in countries with Muslim populations seems to be rising. 

When it comes to China’s perceptions of the US relations with the Muslim world, the appearance of Barack Obama and the President’s early speeches in places like Cairo have has hardly made a dent.  This is unfortunate, because, in the past, American policy toward human rights and democracy has served as a rallying cry for Chinese intellectuals and posed a clear theoretical alternative to a Chinese dictatorship that has no problem stating that “our policy towards ethnic minorities is 100% correct.”  In the wake of the Iraq fiasco and while prosecuting a war in Afghanistan, the United States should remain committed to repairing relations with Muslims around the world, particularly those in China. 

The mosque issue – and the questions of some misguided Americans about Barack Obama’s alleged zeal for Islam – represent an opportunity for the United States to bring Islam more centrally into discussion in China.


In a recent prominent full-page article in China’s top foreign-affairs newspaper, the Huanqiu Shibao (also known as the Global Times), Chinese journalists explained in great detail the attacks which the Republicans were levying on Obama over the Manhattan mosque issue.  In a keen choice of words, the article explains that the mosque question is “torturing the United States” and that it represents part of “the Muslim problem” in the U.S.  Amazingly, detractors of the mosque get most of the column inches.  Translated into Chinese, people like Rep. Peter King of New York State, a frequent guest on CNN, sound even more dogmatic about bringing Muslims under control than Hu Jintao, China’s General Secretary. Fortunately, President Obama’s remarks at the Ramadan dinner at the White House are excerpted briefly, allowing for a discussion about the role of religion in the American constitution and Islam’s place in American culture.  Such allusions are the best that Chinese state media can do to lay out alternative models to China’s method of dealing with Uighurs in in the northwest. 

We should not underestimate the power of American debates in providing fodder, if not some prescriptive road map, for Chinese elites in their own discussions about Islam and public life.  When FOX News commentators assert that every mosque is a terrorist feeding ground or make linkages between anti-state violence and practicing Muslims, these assertions are echoed in China.  In the Chinese context, views voiced by Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin and Peter King allow the Chinese Communist Party to point to American hypocrisy while tacitly spreading the idea that surveillance and government regulation of mosques is both necessary and constitutes a global norm.     

In a long epilogue to the Global Times analysis of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” an anonymous Chinese source actually goes so far as to point to the debate in the U.S. as being indicative of a “Western sickness” in dealing with Muslims, as opposed to the enlightened policies of the Chinese Communist Party.  The US is then explicitly linked to recent enactment of restrictive policies toward Muslims in France, where veils have been banned in public schools and the executive branch has been aggressive in removing public expressions of Islamic faith (apart from a huge mosque constructed in Marsailles).  American racism is likened to anti-Arab racism in Sweden, and so on.  But even within this discouraging discourse, the American constitution is discussed, and the possibility of the U.S. building the mosque and moving forward with a more “harmonious society,” to use a common phrase here, is raised. 

It is doubtful that American conservatives and opponents of the “Ground Zero Mosque” recognize that the content of their critiques is so heartening to repressive elements in the Chinese government and demoralizing to liberalizing elements in the PRC who, in spite of the massive errors of the Iraq War, may still look to the U.S. for alternative approaches to its relations with religious believers within the polity.  

Image: Via Smithsonian Magazine, March 1984.

Opium and National Humiliation: Another Commemoration

On June 8, 1944, the German Embassy in Tokyo sent a report back to the Auswärtiges Amt (Foreign Ministry). Unlike so many other files dealing with foreign affairs, at this particular dispatch showed no signs of having encountered Ribbentrop’s blue pencil — the German foreign minister was notoriously narcissistic and had to see the full text of every article mentioning his name.

The subject of the document was China’s Chiang Kai-shek.  In summer of 1944, Chiang might have been preoccupied with things like Japan’s renewed offensive in the south, but instead was looking at questions of opium.

Chiang was commemorating the anniversary of the Opium War (begin in 1839). But rather than a narrative of fully national humiliation and regeneration, the leader used the speech to argue for three contemporary policy needs. The top priority as expressed in the speech was a reduction in opium smoking in his capital city of Chongqing, which would be achieved in part by curtailing opium production in ‘mountain regions,’ presumably in Sichuan. Secondly, opium traffic from Japanese occupied areas into areas of China controlled by the Nationalists had to be interdicted — a subject I dealt with in a forthcoming summary of China’s World War II experience. Third, Chiang argued, China had to have a plan for how it was going to deal with the opium problem in what he called ‘currently occupied areas’ and put into place plans so that when the new areas that would presumably fall under Nationalist rule when the war ended were not overrun by addicts.

Chiang was no stranger to the politics of commemoration in his day; the CCP learned far more from him about the ‘politics of national humiliation’ than is usually admitted. But even in 1944, commemorations of the past had very ready, even urgent, policy applications.
Source: Stahmer in Tokyo, “Für Rundfunkabteilung,” Bundesarchiv, Berlin, file R901/73380.

Image: Print collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, photograph by Adam Cathcart.