Thursday, June 21, 2018

"Little Reunion": Eileen Chang gets another turn in the revisionist meatgrinder

"Eileen Chang's fractured legacy" is a piece I wrote for Asia Times way back in 2009, when Chang's "Little Reunion" received its first posthumous publication in Chinese to much excitement in Taiwan and also, remarkably, on the Chinese mainland.

Now the English translation has come out and has occasioned a spate of articles seeking to place Eileen Chang and her apolitical and alienated artistic vision in a contemporary context.

The most noteworthy effort is probably "Before the Revolution", an essay by Louisa Chiang and Perry Link at the New York Review of Books. 

It places the "Little Reunion" fad of a few years back in the context of  "Republican fever", which the authors interpret as a subversive nostalgia for the Republican era of intellectual ferment and artistic achievement that contrasts with the "ethical and intellectual wasteland" the authors see in the contemporary PRC.

I think a more authentic context for the Eileen Chang craze was an effort by the CCP to present itself as heir to the achievements and aspirations of "Greater China" including the KMT years on the mainland and the Chinese community on Taiwan.  

This effort culminated in the massive 2015 China Victory Parade in Beijing, commemorating the 60th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.  The KMT officially declined its invitation but an ex-chairman of the KMT did attend, inviting accusations that the now-pro-mainland KMT was complicit in CCP attempts to erase the leading role of the KMT (and minor role of the CCP) in resisting Japan during the Second World War. 

On the Eileen Chang front, the PRC gave full support to Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee's NC-17 Shanghai production of Lust, Caution (Eileen Chang's first go-round at wrestling with the issues of shame and complicity that she addressed in Little Reunion) in order to burnish the PRC's credentials as a Greater China nexus for cultural achievement, while insisting that the final, degrading denouement get fudged in the interests of Chinese national honor.  I wrote about it here

So observations of a spontaneous public "Republican fever" breaking out in the PRC should be taken with a grain of salt, especially as they pertain to Eileen Chang.

The "Greater China" gambit fizzled with the defeat of the KMT in the Taiwan election of 2016 and the election of independence-oriented Tsai Ing-wen (who had criticized KMT participation in the parade).  

Now, as can be seen from "Before the Revolution", the shoe is on the other foot, with critics of the CCP working to diminish and delegitimize the CCP as ruler of China, let alone the spiritual heir of "Greater China".  Or as Chiang and Link put it, "The Republican era, whatever its flaws, seemed the last in which an authentic China could be found."

Historical nihilism (the code word for denial of CCP legitimacy and achievements) backatcha!   Who will triumph in this goat rodeo of competing Hegelian-idealist historical narratives?

Eileen Chang, however, is not a particularly effective poster child for the glories of the Republican era.  Leaving aside the acrid taste of shame and degradation that infuses "Little Reunion" at her sexual complicity with a Japanese collaborator, the key modern trend in Eileen Chang studies--and the factor that delayed publication of Little Reunion until after her death--was a "Republican craze" on Taiwan that denigrated her importance and achievements in favor of her ex-husband Hu Lancheng.

The phenomenon persists today, with famed filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien collaborating with one of the leading lights of the anti-Chang faction to diminish her legacy.

It appears Eileen Chang wrote "Little Reunion" in large part to process her feeling that she had been effectively marginalized and rejected both by the Communist mainland and Republican Taiwan.

So, if you want to tie the Eileen Chang story into a neat historical bow, you can say she belongs to no one...and everyone.

This piece is reproduced at China Matters with the permission of Asia Times, which holds the copyright, and cannot be further reproduced without permission from Asia Times.

CH, 6/21/2018   


Eileen Chang's fractured legacy
By Peter Lee

In 1976, Eileen Chang's close friend, Stephen Soong, earnestly advised her not to risk her reputation as a cultural icon - and her position in the Taiwan literary market - by publishing an autobiographical novel entitled Little Reunion.

"You might not only lose your reputation, your livelihood in the Taiwan literary arena might end and the goodwill accumulated over many years might be swept away. I'm not saying this just to alarm you. I have a lot of experience in PR, I've seen a lot, and I'm not pulling these fears out of thin air."

What a difference 30 years - and a hit movie, a sea-change in  cultural attitudes and the rise of a pan-Greater China cult of celebrity - can bring.

Little Reunion was published this year in Taiwan (February 24), Hong Kong (February 28) and China (April 8) editions in a whirlwind of publicity and sales.

Little Reunion is on the top of the best seller lists in Taiwan (where it is in its eighth printing) and Hong Kong (sixth printing).

In China, the first printing of 300,000 copies sold out before the official data of publication and a second printing of 100,000 has been ordered. The Taiwan version (in traditional characters) came out a month earlier and has already been bootlegged by China's indefatigable intellectual-property pirates. The false promise of the downloadable text has been used as a lure by China's equally indefatigable propagators of computer malware.

Well-heeled mainland buyers are also acquiring copies of the Hong Kong and Taiwan editions to evade possible censorship of political and sexual themes and get their Eileen Chang undiluted and uncut (the publisher insists that the mainland version has not been snipped).

It's an odd fate for an instinctively elitist, introspective and apolitical writer who wrote her greatest works in Japan-occupied Shanghai in the 1940s and died alone in Los Angeles in 1995.

Chang is revered as China's first truly modern writer. Her sensibility could be described as the acute social and emotional observation of Cao Xueqin (author of Dream of the Red Chamber) filtered through the sensibility of Virginia Woolf. She secured her fame with a series of jewel-like short stories of manners, morals and folly including The Golden Cangue and Love in a Fallen City. In 1957, the pre-eminent Chinese literary critic in the West, Columbia University's C T Hsia, anointed her as the most gifted Chinese writer to emerge in the 1940s.

Beyond Chang's literary merits, her emergence as a Greater China literary celebrity can be attributed in part to the extremely public unwinding of her intensely fraught bond with a traitor, hanjian, her first husband, the pro-Japanese collaborator, Hu Lancheng.

Hu Lancheng was a literary figure of some note in 1940s China. He threw in his lot with Wang Ching-wei, the one-time revolutionary, patriot and Kuomintang (KMT) big-wheel who broke with Chiang Kai-shek and was installed by the Japanese as the head of a puppet regime in Wuhan.

Hu was installed in the regime's Ministry of Propaganda and charged with publishing Da Chu Bao, ie The Great Chu News, an attempt by the Japanese to evoke memories of the glorious and ancient independent state of Chu as an alternative focus for the loyalties of the residents of central China - as Manchukuo was meant to encourage the centripetal tendencies of Northeast China.

During the period of Japanese occupation, Hu spent a good part of his time pursuing literary and ultimately physical companionship in Shanghai with Eileen Chang. They married in 1943.

Once Hu had bagged his literary trophy, he went to Wuhan to run Da Chu Bao - and engage in a dalliance with a 17-year old nurse, Zhou Dexun.

Intelligent and charismatic, Hu was always aboil with ideas and ambitions.

Hu styled himself another Liu Bang - the brilliant, bootstrapping rebel who overthrew the established order in the state of Chu 2,000 years before and established the Han Dynasty.

He actively pursued the patronage of the Japanese officers who ran the regime more or less behind the scenes, obtaining their backing for a Whampoa-style military academy in Wuhan that would churn out cadres loyal to Hu.

In 1945, when Wang Ching-wei died and the Japanese surrendered, Hu's moment was at hand. However, the military academy hadn't started up and Hu had no muscle or money of his own.

Hu tried to jawbone the commanders of the Chinese forces holding onto Wuhan into establishing it as an independent power center - instead of promptly handing it over to Chiang Kai-shek - and using the local military stockpiles provided by his Japanese friends to conduct a multi-year guerilla war in central China's mountains.

However, his proposals fell on deaf ears and within two weeks the demoralized and war-weary commanders in Wuhan capitulated to the Chunking government.

Hu, his transgressions upgraded from feckless collaborator to genuine traitor against Chiang Kai-shek's KMT, went on the run, eventually bringing his criminal baggage and philandering habits to Wenzhou for a brief and disastrous reunion with Eileen Chang that has achieved legendary status.

Chang had learned of Hu's whereabouts from a mutual friend and surprised him in his sanctuary. The visit was 20 days of pure misery. Hu, preoccupied with rationalizing and coping with the utter collapse of his ambitions and the threat of execution hanging over his head, clearly regarded Chang as a closed chapter in his life.

During his fugitive wanderings through central China, Hu had taken up with an accommodating 40-year-old widow Fan Xiumei, whose education had gone no further than the local sericulture school. Hu apparently did not miss the intellectual stimulation; more importantly, Fan provided him with the added security of making it possible to travel as a couple, and also assiduously tended to his needs.

Chang tried to make the best of it during awkward meetings in her hotel, and offered to paint Fan's portrait. But when it came time to sketch Fan's mouth, she was unable to proceed, telling Hu she could not continue because “[Fan's] mouth looked more and more like yours”.

Chang wasn't even second in line in Hu's catalog of girlfriends. Hu proclaimed his continued infatuation with the young and delectable Zhou Dexun, who was by this time incarcerated in Wuhan.

When Chang tried to force Hu to choose between her and the absent nurse - whom it was clear that Hu would never see again - Hu refused. Rejected, miserable and tearful, Chang returned to Shanghai, aware that her marriage, such as it was, was over.

Hu justified and excused his personal and political transgressions with reference to his unique genius. In a passage written in the 1940s, Hu emphatically stated his personal and artistic credo - no apologies and no regrets:
I write for my own pleasure and not for any reason. My attitude toward revolution is the same. Some people can make mistakes that aren't crimes; there are people who can do good, but that doesn't make them great.
After the Wenzhou sojourn, Hu escaped to Japan where he scratched out a living courtesy of his erstwhile Japanese patrons. Through the 1950s and 1960s, he pursued a career as a writer and lecturer in Japanese exile and infuriated Chang by publishing his memoir, This World, These Times, which placed Chang in an overlapping continuum of eight girlfriends and provided a detailed and self-aggrandizing account of the excruciating sojourn in Wenzhou.

Chang divorced Hu in 1947 and later remarried. However, the matter of Hu agitated her and continued to inform her work - work that she dithered over, revised frequently, and, in the case of Little Reunion, could not bring herself to publish in her lifetime. (She died on September 8, 1995.)

Prior to Little Reunion, the most high-profile workout of Chang's issues with Hu Lancheng is the short story Lust, Caution, on which the Ang Lee film of the same name is based.

Eileen Chang's short story dealt with a failed assassination attempt on a high-level Chinese collaborator. The plotters rely on an idealistic young actress/student, Wang Chiachih, to serve as a sexual lure to trick the target, Mr Yee, into fatally disregarding his normal security precautions.

The conspiracy goes pfft as the discombobulated Wang responds to a genuine but superficial display of affection by the middle-aged, toad-like apparatchik she has endured two years of effort, danger and degradation to murder, and impulsively warns him to flee the approaching assassins.

Yee escapes and immediately issues the order to round up Wang and her accomplices. The conspirators are interrogated and executed within a few hours; and Eileen Chang provides the merciless coda:
He was not optimistic about the way the war was going, and he had no idea how it would turn out for him. But now that he had enjoyed the love of a beautiful woman, he could die happy - without regret. He could feel her shadow forever near him, comforting him. Even though she had hated him at the end, she had at least felt something. And now he possessed her utterly, primitively - as a hunter does his quarry, a tiger his kill. Alive, her body belonged to him; dead she was his ghost.
Behind Chang's nervous, sardonic laugh is the ghost of her relationship with Hu Lancheng.

The toxic relationship receives a further workout in Little Reunion, an explicitly autobiographical roman a clef that deals both with Chang's messy, privileged childhood and her traumatic romance with Hu Lancheng.

The title itself is a mocking inversion of the "Big Reunion", the joyful celebration when a scholar's triumph at the imperial examinations guarantees the power and prestige of his household and allows the wives and concubines to take a break from their habitual backbiting and jealousy to enjoy their shared success.

By contrast, the "Little Reunion" presided over in Wenzhou by would-be culture hero Hu Lancheng served up only a sordid threesome stewing in shame and resentment.

In the book, Chang's stand-in describes her thoughts as she deals with the reality of her philandering, unapologetically no-good husband:
There was a carving knife in the kitchen - too heavy. There was also a knife for cutting watermelon that lay in the hand more comfortably. Aim the blade at that narrow golden spine ...
Instead, Chang decided to write a novel about Hu, which she was unable to bring herself to publish.

In fact, in 1992 she mooted destroying Little Reunion as recorded in a letter she wrote to Stephen Soong. The decision by Roland Soong, the respected proprietor of the blog EastSouthWestNorth - who inherited the role of Chang's literary executor from his deceased parents - to publish Little Reunion therefore provoked an agitated outcry among the guardians of Eileen Chang's reputation.

One Taiwanese literatus angrily called for the book "not be bought, read, or reviewed".

However, Little Reunion was clearly a work ready for publication - its imminent release had been promised by Chang's Taiwan publishers, Crown, numerous times.

Chang's anxiety and ambivalence over the work had little to do with its merits and lot to do with the re-emergence of her bad penny ex-husband, Hu Lancheng, at the center of the Taiwanese literary community.

Reeling from the shock of president Richard Nixon's recognition of China's government, the KMT government was happy to garner support wherever it could find it in the diplomatic, political and cultural realms. In a let bygones be bygones spirit, Hu was allowed to enter Taiwan in 1974 and lecture at an unaccredited institution outside Taipei

After reading the manuscript of Little Reunion, Stephen Soong wrote Chang:
Don't forget, there's a time bomb: that worthless fellow who, through whatever route, managed to get to Taiwan and become an instructor at the Chinese Academy of Literature …if Little Reunion is published, it will be like delivering a fat pig to the door. He will welcome this opportunity to make a fuss and write all sorts of wild stuff …A drowning man will grasp at anything, and if he's able to grab onto you he'll drag you under as well.
Indeed, Hu was at this point under attack for his collaborationist past and on his way to losing his post at the academy.  Eventually, he would be forced to leave Taiwan and would die in Japan in 1981.

However, Hu did not quite resemble the drowning man that Stephen Soong feared would drag down Eileen Chang's reputation by peddling sensationalistic revelations. His actual attack on Chang's literary standing in Taiwan was much more subtle.

After Hu was dismissed from the academy and asked to vacate his housing, a prominent author, Zhu Xining, stepped forward and arranged for Hu to stay in an apartment next to the Zhu household.

Over the next six months, Hu lectured on the Book of Changes and Book of Poetry and created an indelible impression on Zhuand his daughters, Zhu Tianwen and Zhu Tianxin, both of whom became leading literati of their generation.

The Zhu family created a periodical, the Sansan Jikan, as a vehicle for Hu to publish his writings. Young writers clustered around Hu and Sansan Jikan became the intellectual guiding light for a generation of Taiwanese authors, and a direct challenge to Eileen Chang's literary legacy and the widespread veneration she enjoyed inside Taiwan.

In post-1949 Taiwan, Chang's disengaged, apolitical stance had filled a dual need. As an alternative to the doggedly leftist attitudes of the great mainland writers such as Lu Hsun (Lu Xun), she could be claimed by the Chiang Kai-shek regime as a Chinese writer of world stature who was not hostile to the KMT. For mainland emigre readers on Taiwan, her dispassionate use of the Japanese occupation as little more than context for her fiction offered them the license to regard their regime's undemocratic occupation of Formosa as simply the background for the private, privileged dramas at the center of their lives.

By the mid-1970s, however, the KMT's loss of international legitimacy and the political and literary challenge of the burgeoning Formosan movement for self-determination could no longer be complaisantly ignored.

In the world of literature, young mainlanders bursting with intellectual and emotional energy but unwilling to engage with the moral bankruptcy of the KMT's control over Taiwan's political and cultural life busied themselves with the expression and promotion of transcendental and eternal Chinese cultural ideals.

A group of these self-consciously erudite young reactionaries rejected the West-inspired iconoclasm of the May 4th movement and the instinctive, immersive modernism of Eileen Chang. Instead, they adopted the stance of neo-literati, protecting the essence of Chinese civilization against the destructive forces of Chinese communism, alien Western culture, and Formosan provincialism.

Hu Lancheng - who himself had defiantly and energetically collaborated with a bankrupt regime because it was the only available vessel for his exalted ambitions - was a fitting godfather to the new literary movement, sometimes characterized as “Greater China Utopianism”, centered on the Sansan literary journal.

Hu Lancheng directed and validated the emergence of young Taiwan writers from Eileen Chang's shadow. He shifted the debate over Chang's legacy to the more favorable terms of Chang's naivete versus his rich life experiences - albeit, in the realms of love and politics, experiences of the most discreditable sort, but still darkly fascinating to his youthful coterie.

The group constellated around Hu considered themselves as writers in the Eileen Chang tradition - with a difference.

The new dispensation was that Chang and Hu had formed a complementary literary diad: in Chinese operatic terms Chang sang the qiang and Hu the diao. Some went further, stating that Hu had “instructed” Chang, providing crucial intellectual insights that raised Chang to greatness.

Today the Zhu sisters regard Chang as an emotionally and intellectually immature writer lacking the necessary “perspective” - an understanding of the crucial cultural and philosophical context in which great literature is embedded - that Hu bestowed on the literati of the Sansan group.

Hu's followers critiqued and deconstructed Chang's influence, ironically guaranteeing that the flood of Eileen Chang literary studies could only increase as the theses and counter-theses multiplied exponentially in the world's universities and academic and literary journals.

It would be easier to dismiss Hu as an opportunistic poseur. However, both Zhu sisters became leading literary figures in Taiwan and Hu's close and formative association with so many of Greater China's greatest writers is difficult to gainsay.

Even on the mainland, where Japanese collaborators and Taiwanese literary squabbles are given short shrift, the leading Eileen Chang scholar, Zhi An, has cautiously endorsed Hu's exceptional literary ability.

On Taiwan, there is a certain sense of awe surrounding Hu's charisma, intellect and mysterious talent-spotting mojo.

Zhu Tianwen, in particular, has displayed her adoration for Hu in the most extravagant terms in the 30 years since she first met him.

In an English-language interview promoting Hou Hsiao-jen's film Sing Song Girls of Shanghai, Zhu, who wrote the screenplay, rattled on and on about Hu Lancheng with not a word about Eileen Chang - even though the movie was based on a 19th century novel that Chang devoted the last years of her life to translating, first into Mandarin and then into English:
The Sansan jikan ... was actually only started because of Hu Lancheng. Because of his controversial political past, serving under Wang Jingwei in the Japanese-run puppet government, he was labeled a traitor to China and his writings were banned. We, on the other hand, saw something really special in both he and his works that other people didn't seem to recognize.
In many ways, the aforementioned aspiration to become more than a mere writer or literati and strive to become like a traditional Chinese scholar, or shi, all had its start with Hu Lancheng.
Hu Lancheng passed away in 1981, so all together we only knew him for seven years. He was only in Taiwan for three of those seven years and only lived next door for six months - but those six months had an immense influence on our later lives as writers ... There is a line of poetry ... that goes, ... "The hand plucks the five strings, while the eyes see off the flying geese." What it means is that although what you are doing may be a relatively small task, like playing the zither, your mind is far off, gazing at the geese soaring at the edge of the heavens ... This perspective, this vision is really perhaps the greatest gift that Hu Lancheng left us with.
(Hou, Hsiao-hsien, 1947- and Zhu, Tianwen. and Berry, Michael. "Words and Images: A Conversation with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chu T'ien-wen." positions: east asia cultures critique 11.3 (2003): 675-716)
This context fills Eileen Chang's ambivalence about publishing Little Reunion with special pathos.

As Chang sank into a life of seclusion and disappointment in the United States, her detested ex-husband energetically and effectively nurtured an entire new generation of female writers who want not only to claim but supersede her legacy with his help.

Chang struggled to maintain control over her art and her history.

She originally wrote Little Reunion as a direct response to a letter from Zhu Tianwen's father, Zhu Xining, proposing that he write a biography of her - with the assistance of Hu Lancheng.

In Little Reunion there is a sly passage that seems to refer to Hu's overbearing efforts to appropriate her emotions and her voice:
He kissed her. A shudder shook his shoulders and she felt his forearms, so robust, through his sleeves. “He really loves me,” she thought. Then the blocky tip of his tongue suddenly jutted between her teeth, like a cork, dry from all the talking he had done. He sensed her disgust and released her with a smile.
Zhu never proceeded with his biography, so Chang apparently did not feel compelled to publish her version of events during her lifetime.

Ironically, it was only after her death, after control of her legacy fell into the hands of other artists with their own agendas, that her status as a Greater China cultural icon was assured.

Ang Lee's 2007 film version of Lust, Caution played an important role in expanding the readership for Chang's work in China, and establishing Eileen Chang as an important cultural brand - while distancing itself from the low-key observational style that is Chang's trademark.

The film did virtually no business in the United States, where its NC-17 rating excluded it from the main movie chains; however, it became a cause celebre throughout Asia, where passionate debate over its sexual explicitness, respect for the film and its source material, and the awareness of unfinished business in Chinese attitudes toward the anti-Japanese war combined to create intense interest in the film.

Lee's Lust, Caution could be characterized as The Passion of Wang Chiachih, in which Chang's doppelganger is exalted, transformed and destroyed by her illicit relationship. Wang is ennobled and excused for her warped liaison with the collaborator - the glamorous Tony Leung - in a way that it's difficult to believe Chang intended.

China, anxious to accommodate Ang Lee as an important filmmaker and burnish China's credentials as an international destination for movie projects, nevertheless insisted on putting its own spin on the movie's theme of passion over politics for the mainland release.

China's censors decided that Wang Chiachih's character could not be permitted to save her traitor-lover from the assassins. In the mainland version, Tony Leung's character intuits the conspiracy by himself and flees; Wang simply murmurs, “OK, go. [zou ba].”

Indeed, China's cultural guardians, ambivalent about providing official recognition of Chang's merits and importance, organized and then cancelled a planned conference on her work as recently as 2005.

Meanwhile, the descendants of a real-life female assassin asserted that the film was based on and traduced the true story of an attempt to kill a high official in Wang Ching-wei's government, Ding Mocun - a contention that Ang Lee has denied. The Taiwanese authorities obligingly determined that the lady in question was chaste, resolute and betrayed only by a malfunctioning revolver.

The price and glory of literary fame is apparently that readers and critics are all eager to appropriate Eileen Chang for their own purposes.

In an ironic intersection of censorship, piracy and post-modernist literary theory, a mainland critic addressed the controversy over publishing Little Reunion without Chang's explicit clearance for publication by invoking Roland Barthes to declare that once the story was written, it achieved an existence independent of Eileen Chang and her intentions.

Over the next few years, we will continue to hear Eileen Chang's unique voice, albeit filtered through our own preconceptions and expectations. Roland Soong has announced that he is preparing two more pieces for publication.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.) -

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Hey! What About Term Limits for the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping??




In my most recent China Watch video for Newsbud, I have some fun with the ostentatious handwringing and concern trolling the West concerning the CCP proposal to abolish term limits for the presidency of the PRC.

Here’s the trailer!


The video offers my unique take on U.S. presidential term limits, one that I think is surprising and revealing.  That’s a teaser, folks.  Go to Newsbud.com to subscribe and take a look.

In interest of time and in consideration of the general-interest audience, Newsbud edited out the inside-baseball slice of my video that discussed the real issue behind the presidency dustup: Xi Jinping’s move to affirm a succession protocol for party General Secretary that could give him three or more terms, instead of the two terms that have been customary for the last couple decades.

Here’s the script for the bit that pretty much got dropped:

Long story short, the primary significance of the proposed abolition of term limits for presidency of the PRC is that it essentially confirms that Xi Jinping is going to go for at least one additional term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

 And where it counts, inside the Chinese Communist Party, there are no term limits.  Not really.

The reported rule of thumb for membership in the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of collective leadership in the Party and the pool from which party general secretaries are selected, was “seven up/eight down.” It meant that cadres 67 years and under could advance to the Standing Committee and have a shot at becoming general secretary; those 68 and older should retire.   This rule was supposedly instituted by party secretary Jiang Zemin in 2002.  

Actually, the rule was a rather special interpretation of the principle of generational renewal of the CCP leadership cadre ever ten years instituted by Deng Xiaoping because, to put it bluntly, Jiang Zemin wanted to screw a political rival, Li Ruihuan, who happened to be 68 years old.

Xi Jinping will turn 68 on June 15, 2021—a year before his second term as party secretary ends—so it’s understandable his people have been debunking the seven up/eight down rule to the press for some time.


Folklore, I tell you!

More to the point, perhaps, for China every CCP general secretary before Xi Jinping had been selected or prepositioned by Deng Xiaoping.  That includes Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping’s predecessor, who finished up as general secretary in 2012—fifteen years after Deng Xiaoping died.

Given the historical context of CCP succession strategies and China’s new situation in the world, I would guess that Xi Jinping has had some success in selling the idea inside the Party that he’s tweaking the system to reflect current realities, not overturning an iron-clad norm.

The flurry of leaks and criticism of the PRC presidential term limits move is, I expect, a surrogate for dismay that Xi Jinping views his tenure as General Secretary as open-ended and that his view is apparently prevailing inside the CCP.

Carping about presidential term limits in the public sphere might reflect more of a “go for broke” attitude by opponents who feel that the intra-Party debate isn’t going their way.  What the heck? If Xi is going to lock in the job Party Secretary for the next decade, there’s nothing to be gained by staying silent and little lost by speaking up now.

So anti-Xi Jinping voices are now more willing to blab and turn Western journos largely shut out of news about CCP internal matters into instant experts on the precariousness of Xi’s rule.

If the domestic and international hubbub forces Xi to climb down on term limits revision, he will have certainly suffered a major setback.

But I think the odds are against it.

For what it’s worth, I regard critics of Xi Jinping’s ambitions for prolonging his stint as Party Secretary fall into a few categories:

People inside and outside the party who don’t like Xi’s plan to manage the PRC through an increasingly activist, pro-active, and intrusive CCP;

People inside the party who prefer the collectivist leadership model (and the ability of cadres to make political and financial hay by leveraging their loyalties without worrying overmuch about threats to their political power and economic interests) to a powerful, if not Mao-like General Secretary;

People who have no big problem with big-leader rule but prefer it wouldn’t be implemented by Xi Jinping.  I guess there are some dead enders who hope that Bo Xilai will get sprung from prison and lead the CCP to glory, but don’t know if there’s anybody else out there.

My thesis is that Xi Jinping’s case for a powerful CCP bossman unhampered by term limits may be self-serving but it also has enough merit for the party as a whole to acquiesce.
 
There’s a miasma of crisis, corruption, and drift surrounding the PRC and the CCP, and Xi Jinping’s long war to renovate the CCP as an instrument of effective technocratic rule in an era of significant national challenge might be seen to deserve another decade to succeed (or fail so utterly that the approach will be discredited).




Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Who Lost China? The Secret War Between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama



 A version of the piece posted below appeared at Asia Times in September 2012.  It is reproduced here with the permission of Asia Times.  Parties interested in reproducing the piece should contact Asia Times.


As a corrective to the current cataract of punditry concerning the rise of scary China under Xi Jinping, here's a piece I wrote in 2012 on the occasion of Xi apparently snubbing Hillary Clinton ("bad back!") during her farewell tour of Asia as Secretary of State.

Clinton's China strategy was, in my opinion, careless, opportunistic, rooted in impunity, tunnel vision, and moral hazard, and rich in unexpected consequences...like the PRC's urgent push to superpower status.

As far as China is concerned, the signature US rollback ploy under Clinton was encouraging the return to Japan to the regional stage as a power-projecting state.  Since Japan enjoys the protection of the US nuclear umbrella, this was an important and destabilizing shift in the Asian equation for the PRC.  And the PRC has been counter-programming actively and successfully ever since.

The anti-Clinton element in the PRC's worldview and geopolitical calculations is quite apparent in my 2012 piece.
 

In my opinion, the China hawk containment strategy failed because it was fundamentally flawed and incompetently formulated.  And that's the dead end America's trying to get out of today.

 China hawks prefer to think their policies are sound and, if executed with sufficient determination, sure to succeed.  The PRC's current advantages, by this view, are largely attributable to insufficient US focus and will and, if you scratch a little deeper, appeasement.

There's some  moonshine getting peddled that there was a "China fantasy": that the PRC would, through engagement, become "more like us".  After Tiananmen in 1989, nobody believed this.


The "China fantasy" legerdemain is, I think, meant to obscure the fact that the China hawks, Clintonites and others, are trying to escalate out of their own failures of the last decade, not  reverse course from previous appeasement by their rivals.

The largely unspoken subtext is the accusation that President Obama failed to deliver the China-containment goods.

Unspoken, because Clinton Dems are not quite ready to publicly criticize the China policies of  Barack Obama, one of the most successful and popular Democratic presidents of the post-war era, and take Democratic ownership for what is now seen as a major geopolitical fail.


The Obama administration, both with Clinton and afterwards, was committed to China rollback.  


US rollback efforts began under the Obama/Clinton administration in 2009.  Remember the "Pivot"?  "America's Pacific Century"?  "No G2"?

The real debate was whether it would be executed a la Clinton.

An interesting but unexplored angle to US China policy during the second Obama administration is that Obama and Clinton apparently weren't really that close and President Obama maybe wasn't super enthusiastic about Clinton's execution of the rollback policy. 

One of the most interesting/damning suspicions concerning the Obama/Clinton relationship is the implication that President Obama was ready to remove the Senkakus from coverage under the US-Japan defense pact, and Hillary Clinton and Seiji Maehara short-circuited that initiative by ginning up the Captain Zhan/rare earths brouhaha in 2010.

In fact, maybe President Obama took to heart the ostentatious display of PRC hostility to Clinton (and had limited enthusiasm for pursuing an alliance with Japan's conservative and historical-revisionist trending government), and tried to do things differently in his second term.  For a few months, anyway.

If so, President Obama's inclination to muddle through with a less confrontational PRC policy probably only survived through 2014, when Chuck Hagel was purged as Secretary of Defense and Admiral Harry Harris (who had served as Pentagon liaison to Hillary Clinton's State Department) and Team China Hawk seized the reins at PACOM.

The Clinton China policy, in other words, survived Clinton's term as Secretary of State, persisted! through the second Obama administration, and even, I argue, prevailed after Clinton's defeat as a presidential candidate.  In my opinion, the Clinton China policy is alive and well today, and is being implemented via PACOM and like-minded types in Australia and Japan despite whatever objections and ambitions Donald Trump...or Barack Obama...might hold.

Read all about it here: Chuck Hagel's Demise...and James Fanell's Rise...and Australia!

China Hand Feb. 2018

 Swan Song in Beijing

A version of this piece appeared at Asia Times in September 2012

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently paid what is expected to be her final official visit to Beijing.

She received a stern reception from Chinese officialdom, including the official media, and also suffered what appears to have been a personal rebuke.

Secretary Clinton’s press entourage was abuzz concerning the cancellation of a meeting with PRC president-in-waiting Xi Jinping.

Of course, it is possible that the excuses that circulated through the press corps—that Xi had a scheduling conflict and/or a bad back—were the truth.  Xi also cancelled a meeting with the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong.

However, the CCP may have decided that Secretary Clinton’s last visit was the final and most appropriate opportunity to administer a snub—and a message.

Per her position as Secretary of State, Secretary Clinton is entitled to meet with her opposite number in Beijing, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

Full stop.

However, because of a variety of circumstances both historical (the importance of the relationship between the US and China, Secretary Clinton’s special status as spouse of an ex-President) and immediate (the fraught current state of Sino-US relations, the fact that this is probably Secretary Clinton’s last official visit to China), she also met with PRC President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

From an official perspective, there are no grounds for Secretary Clinton to feel snubbed on this trip.
And also from an official perspective, there are no grounds for Secretary Clinton to meet with Xi Jinping.

After all, Secretary Clinton and her team are on the way out, regardless of whether President Obama wins election or is replaced in the White House by Mitt Romney.

Xi Jinping, on the other hand, is not yet in the office of President of the PRC.  That is still Hu Jintao’s job.  Perhaps Mr. Hu did not take pleasure in the idea that the United States was going around him to cultivate relations with Mr. Xi before Mr. Hu had vacated his presidential chair.

Possibly, the Chinese leadership also felt that Secretary Clinton wanted to meet with Mr. Xi to pad her Rolodex so she can claim that she has guanxi to burn with the new generation of China’s leaders as she embarks on her post-Secretary of State career as politician, pundit, think-tank leader, and/or corporate advisor.

If so, the CCP could have used cancellation of the meeting with Xi to send a message (to paraphrase the immortal smackdown of Dan Quayle by Lloyd Bentsen during a vice presidential debate many years ago):

I knew Henry Kissinger… And, Secretary Clinton, you are no Henry Kissinger. 

Actually, Xi Jinping does know Henry Kissinger (who is, by the way, still alive) and has met him more than once.

Xi met with Kissinger and a host of other retired US State Department worthies during his trip to the United States in February of 2012.

But he also met with Kissinger one-on-one in Beijing several weeks before his trip to send the message that China was ready to "seize the day, seize the hour," in order to promote bilateral ties.

The CCP leadership value Kissinger as the symbol, custodian, and advocate of a US-China relationship that is special.  

When relations between the Chinese leadership and President Obama teetered into the deep freeze following the disastrous Copenhagen climate summit (which featured China’s furious negotiator screaming and waving his finger at President Obama for what China perceived to be the cynical US decision to use the PRC as scapegoat for the collapse of the talks), the PRC publicized a meeting between then Vice President Li Keqiang (the title that Xi holds now, by the way) and Kissinger in Beijing to demonstrate that China wanted to continue relations in a spirit of positive engagement.

However, President Obama decided for political, economic, moral, and geostrategic reasons (and perhaps also because of his unsatisfying personal interactions with the Chinese leadership cadre) he had to deal with the PRC from a position of greater regional strength and eschew immediate accommodation.

The rest is history, specifically the strategic pivot to Asia, executed by Secretary Clinton. 

China’s relationship with the United States is now special only in the sense that it is especially awkward and difficult.  The closest Beijing probably has to a US champion of a special relationship with China today is Robert Zoellick, the ex-head of the World Bank who now serves as an advisor to Mitt Romney.

From the Chinese perspective, the pivot has done little other than make trouble for China, specifically by emboldening US allies in the region to make trouble over maritime issues.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines passed maritime laws to formalize their challenges to Chinese claims to rocks and shoals in the South China Sea.  The Japanese government, goaded by Tokyo governor and Sinophobic hothead Shintaro Ishihara, is taking steps to buy the Senkakus from their private owner.

The United States danced around the issue of whether or not it would back up security guarantees with the Philippines and Japan on island issues in a rather equivocal manner.  

And Washington further upped the ante by promoting the line that the South China Sea disputes should be addressed in negotiations between the PRC and the various claimants collectively through ASEAN, instead of through bilateral talks between the PRC and its smaller adversaries.

This situation pleases fans of interminable multilateral jaw-jaw, although a case can be made that the best way to actually settle claims is for the PRC to cut joint development deals with its neighbors one-by-one in order to unlock in a reasonably timely manner the immense riches we are told lurk below these miserable islands.

In the run-up to Secretary Clinton’s visit—and a spate of ugly demonstrations (not suppressed with notable vigor by the Chinese government) and incidents such as the snatching of the flag from the Japanese ambassador’s official vehicle on one of the Beijing ring roads(presumably a thuggish one-off by a Chinese citizen)—the Chinese government clearly took the tack that it was time to tell the United States that enough was enough and it was time for the US to back up its rhetoric as guarantor of security in China’s neighboring seas by reining in its overenthusiastic allies in Hanoi, Manila, and Tokyo.

Xinhua laid out the case in a story datelined from Washington:

Many of the U.S. actions so far have been counterproductive to promoting peace and stability in the Asia Pacific, as indicated by the fact that the security situation in the region has been worsening, rather than improving, mainly due to the recent escalation of the territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

Washington, which claims not to take sides in the disputes, is partly blamed for fueling the tensions because it has apparently emboldened certain relevant parties to make provocations against China in order to achieve undeserved territorial gains.
Washington owes Beijing a thorough, convincing explanation of the true intentions of its Pivot policy, especially on issues related to China's vital or core interests. And the United States also needs to take concrete steps to prove that it is returning to Asia as a peacemaker, instead of a troublemaker.

Secretary Clinton’s visit was marked by a blizzard of articles in the official media on this theme:


Washingtonneeds to take concrete steps to promote China-U.S. ties


U.S.owes China convincing explanation of true intentions of its Asia Pivot policy


Commentary:U.S. should refrain from sending wrong signals over South China Sea


That is all Xinhua, starting to sound a lot like nationalist headknocker Global Times.
Global Times, well, sounded just like Global Times:




The PRC has a right to wonder if US infatuation with the pivot—and poking China in the eye—is matched with a responsible stewardship of its real security responsibilities in East Asia.

For the PRC leadership, the true indicator of the sincerity and utility of the US security role in East Asia is probably the amount of influence that the United States can bring to bear on Japan on its military and security agenda in general and on the symbolic issue of the Senkakus.

There is one compelling reason for the PRC to acquiesce to the continued US military presence in East Asia: that is if the United States can forestall the emergence of Japan as an independent, nuclear-capable regional military and security actor.

Thanks to US support of its demands for a closed nuclear fuel cycle and an otherwise unnecessary space program, Japan has the reserves of weapon-grade plutonium and the ballistic missile delivery systems to become a major nuclear weapons power virtually overnight.  In an interesting analysis, AP reviewed the evidence that Iran has perhaps studied and copied the Japanese strategy of positioning itself as a nuclear weapons threshold state—one without nuclear weapons but with the resources to weaponize its nuclear capabilities rapidly if needed.

By forestalling a nuclear-tinged regional arms race and keeping the Japanese self-defense forces preoccupied with self defense instead of power projection, the United States delivers a real and significant security and economic benefit to China, and to East Asia in general.


But the elevation of the Senkakus to a political, cultural, and security fetish is helping change that.
So far, Japan’s national governments, thanks to US suasion, incentives, and the security provided by the presence of US forces, have kept the military genie in the bottle.

Currently, the Noda government in Japan has conducted its demeaning competition with Ishihara to purchase the Senkakus with a combination of restraint, frustration, and disgust that the Chinese leadership probably finds very gratifying--despite its public fulminations.

However, past results are no guarantee of future performance.

If Japan slips the leash or, even worse, decides that it can yank America’s chain in the style of the Israeli government by forcing the US to support Japan and Japan’s objectives in the region through deliberate escalation of tensions, the perceived utility and value of the US military role in East Asia will be significantly compromised in China’s eyes.

In May, The Wall Street Journal reported on the relatively extreme security views of Shintaro Ishihara, the Tokyo governor who began the whole Senkaku purchase brouhaha:

Japan must guard itself from China’s expansionary ambitions, which, Mr. Ishihara said, are now turned outward after conquering Mongolia and the Uighur people and decimating Tibet. …“China has declared it would break into someone else’s home. It’s time we make sure doors are properly locked on our islands,” he said.  “Before we know it, Japan could become the sixth star on China’s national flag. I really don’t want that to happen.”

Throughout  the speech, Mr. Ishihara referred to China as “Shina”,  the name normally associated with the era of Japanese occupation of China.


Ishihara also advocated beefed-up Japanese military spending justified in part because the US is “unreliable” at least on the issue of the Senkakus.

It would be comforting to dismiss Ishihara as an aging, racist crackpot.  However, as Japan’s wartime generation and mindset fade away, political pressure for Japan to assume the role of an armed world power with its own security policy—and stand up to China—is growing.

And Ishihara has gone the extra mile in passing on his xenophobic legacy to the next generation, via his son Nobuteru.

One theory is that Ishihara ginned up the Senkaku purchase in order advance the political fortunes of Nobuteru, who is Secretary General of the opposition LDP and has an extremely good chance of becoming Japan’s next prime minister if the requisite amount of intra-party and inter-party skullduggery can be brought to bear.

The prospect that the Japanese government and foreign and military policy may soon be in the hands of a group of China-bashing reactionaries—and the US government in the hands of China-bashing neoliberals or neoconservatives indifferent to Chinese anxieties—is not a recipe for Chinese restraint.

The harsh official Chinese rhetoric concerning the pivot is perhaps more than a farewell rebuke to Secretary Clinton.  

It should be regarded as an effort to cut through the China-bashing clutter of the US presidential campaign with a strident and unambiguous declaration of the PRC’s concern that infatuation with the pivot has caused the United States to lose its focus on the critical regional priority of encouraging restraint among all its allies, but most of all Japan.

Fans of the pivot—and advisors to whatever president takes the oath of office in Washington early next year—may wish to start thinking about the worst case if the PRC’s new leadership thinks it has to escalate to confrontation sooner rather than later so it can either force US Asian policy onto a track more favorable to China or start crowding US military power out of the region before it’s too late.

One piece of advice: if a crisis erupts—and the United States genuinely wants to resolve it—maybe it is better not to send Hillary Clinton to Beijing.