A Powerful Commentary on Air Pollution in Chinese Cities

Mulan in the Smog


Inspired by this story from Newsweek, I decided to post the image of Disney’s Mulan in smoggy, hazy Tiananmen Square on the blog today.

If you’re interested in learning about the scientific details of the air quality in Beijing, you can check out this Real Time Air Quality Index.

Given the very real impact that air pollution has on human health and the environment, this is pretty frightening stuff. There is, however, reason to be optimistic about China’s prospects; China is investing in renewable energy, and in November of 2014, President Xi Jinping and President Obama signed an agreement to curb carbon emissions. It seems that China is becoming aware that high emissions and poor air quality could end up costing a great deal of money, which is a brilliant incentive for creating effective policy change.


Sino-US Relations in House of Cards Season Two

I am a big fan of the Netflix original series House of Cards, based on the British show of the same name. It’s about power-hungry US Congressman Frank Underwood (aka Kevin Spacey) who will stop at nothing in his race to the top. I loved the first series, but was really excited to see a plot-twist involving Sino-US relations in season two. Most contemporary American TV shows and movies deal with the Middle East as the center of foreign politics, so I was delighted to see China appear as a central issue.

House of Cards

The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos had a great article on China in House of Cards which you can read here. He writes: “When the “House of Cards” plot turns to China, the themes are contemporary and plausible: cyber espionage, rare earths, territorial disputes, and a cunning, meditative, libertine Communist Party plutocrat who plays on his connections at the highest ranks in Beijing. By the low standards of cinematic history, the depiction of China rings true enough—the show is a hit, with subtitles, in China—and it does a fine job of capturing a moment in time when it can be difficult to know if a man like the character Xander Feng, the emissary from Beijing, speaks for the leaders whom he purports to represent. Retiring the image of a monolithic Chinese government is one of the show’s innovations.”

As a student of China and International Politics, I was impressed at the breadth and accuracy of the issues presented in the show. Of course, House of Cards is ultimately a fictional program, and many of the specific tensions depicted in the show are invented, like the case of laundering Chinese money through casinos in the US to influence American politics. Nevertheless, the other issues addressed in the show, such as cyberwar, Chinese currency manipulation, and the Senkaku/Diaoyutai dispute, are indeed sources of tension in contemporary Sino-US relations. Furthermore, as Osnos said, House of Cards is extremely popular in China. After decades of blatantly orientalist depictions of Chinese people in American cinema and television, the tables have turned… House of Cards offers such a bleak and cynical (and maybe more realistic?) view of US politics that no one, neither the US nor China, emerges as a hero or a villain. Maybe this new portrayal of Asian and American characters is responsible for the show’s popularity in China?

According to Osnos: “It’s refreshing to watch a production in which it is the Americans, not the Chinese, who are expected to be beguiling, reflective—and fundamentally dangerous.”

Just to give you a taste of exactly how beguiling and dangerous Frank Underwood can be, here is one of his sinister quotes that I particularly enjoyed: “The Chinese are right about one thing: sometimes you have to sacrifice the one for the many.” 

House of Cards Kevin Spacey 

恭喜发财!Happy Chinese New Year!

2014 Happy Chinese New Year

In honor of Chinese New Year, which is today, I’m dedicating this post entirely to a discussion of Chinese New Year traditions, culture, and most importantly, FOOD! That being said, here are the most important things you need to know about Chinese New Year:

1) When is Chinese New Year?

This year, Chinese New Year falls on January 31. Because this holiday is always celebrated on the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar, its date in the Western calendar changes every year. It is quite early this year; usually, it is celebrated in the early spring and is often called the “Spring Festival” (春节 - Chun jie).

2) How do you wish someone Happy New Year in Chinese?

Happy New Year! = 新年快乐 (Xin nian kuai le)

Happy Spring Festival! = 春节快乐 (Chun jie kuai le)

…and, if you want to be really authentic, you can say…

May you have a prosperous New Year! = 恭喜发财 (Gong xi fa cai)

In case any of the non-Chinese speakers are wondering about pronunciation, click here.

3) What do Chinese people do to celebrate Lunar New Year?

Lunar New Year is China’s most important holiday. People get time off from work and school and return home to spend the holiday with their families (equivalent in that sense to Christmas in the West). Check out CNN’s article about a really cool moving map depicting travel in China during the holiday.

Fireworks are a really huge part of celebrating Chinese New Year. I have never actually been in China during the holiday, but I once heard someone say that if you’re in Beijing during the Spring Festival, it sounds like a war-zone due to the constant explosions of firecrackers!

During the New Year Festival, elder or married Chinese people give red envelopes of money to younger, unmarried people and children. These are called 红包 (hong bao), and they can contain anything from a few dollars to a couple hundred (depending on the income level of your social circle). Since the numbers eight and six are considered very lucky in China, it is very common to see these amounts in the envelopes. These envelopes come in many varieties, but they are always red. Here’s what they look like:

Hong bao

I am partial to the Hello Kitty one 🙂

Chinese people also celebrate the New Year by preparing special dumplings (饺子 – jiao zi). Although this is a special Spring Festival tradition, dumplings are available throughout the year as well. When I was in China, I would eat them for lunch at my school’s cafeteria for about $1.50! I’m a vegetarian, so I’ve never had the really special ones filled with pork or seafood, but I can attest that the boiled or steamed cilantro filled ones are absolutely delicious. I used to dip them in a vinegary soy sauce with chili and extra cilantro on top. YUM!


4) How is the Chinese Zodiac related to the holiday?

As you may or may not know, 2014 is the Year of the Horse or, in Chinese: 马 (ma). There are twelve Chinese zodiac animals, each one is associated with different years, so all babies born this year will be associated with the horse zodiac. Each zodiac has different personality traits and characteristics, and you can determine what zodiac you are by clicking here. For example, horses are very outgoing, animated, and optimistic.

Horse zodiac

If you’re a snake (like me), then you’re intelligent, materialistic, cunning, and analytical! (Hmm…. sounds good to me except the “materialistic” part)! You can find out more about each of the zodiac signs here. Just remember, Chinese culture does put a lot of stock into these, so even if you think that your zodiac doesn’t suit you at all, it is good to know which animal you are!

On that note, I hope you all enjoy 2014, Year of the Horse! 恭喜发财!

Lecture Notes: John Garnaut on The Rise of Xi Jinping and the Destruction of Bo Xilai

Bo Xilai on Time

A few weeks ago, I attended a fascinating lecture at my school on recent power politics in China. The talk was given by John Garnaut, a China media correspondent and author of The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo. (You can read more about him and see the details of the program I attended here.) Basically, he talked about the Bo Xilai scandal and trial that took place in summer 2013. It’s quite complicated, so if you want some more details, you can read about it on the Wikipedia article on Bo here, or check out this useful timeline from BBC of the most important events. If you’re a fan of political drama and intrigue, look no further than the Bo Xilai case: truly, the best writer in Hollywood could not have cooked up a more deliciously twisted storyline!

Even though my understanding of this very complex scandal is quite limited, I thought that Garnaut managed to make the topic pretty accessible and also talked about some very interesting and more general aspects of Chinese politics which I will discuss here.

As Garnaut pointed out, Chinese politics are often viewed by outsiders as an inaccessible and impenetrable “Black Box”. Generally speaking, the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP and other government officials are selected in a highly secretive process, and, in fact, most of Chinese politics operate within this very opaque system. Garnaut argues that the Bo Xilai scandal was a game-changer in Chinese politics because it was carried out mostly in the public eye with a higher degree of transparency; not because the policies of the CCP have changed, but because the landscape of China’s politics itself has evolved and transformed. China has a huge and active community of netizens who, despite the efforts of Chinese censors, are accessing twitter and Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform. By doing so, these netizens are exposing and engaging with political scandals (and creating a total PR nightmare for the Propaganda Ministry!) Even five years ago, this level of citizen engagement would have been unfathomable in Chinese politics. Garnaut even pointed out that in some cases, netizens were more aware and knowledgeable of the details of the Bo Xilai case than former President Hu Jintao! Garnaut insisted that social media has really widened the bandwidth of information gathering in China, and it would be impossible to put the Bo Xilai scandal back into the “Black Box” of Chinese politics.

Garnaut also discussed the factional divisions within Chinese politics, which, although fascinating, are highly complex and intricate. Given the transparency issues, it is hard to get a sense of the web of connections, or 关系 (guanxi) that determines one’s fate in the political arena in China. I’m not really going to delve into the issue of factionalism too deeply here, except to say that Garnaut referred to former President Jian Zemin as “The Godfather” of Chinese Politics, which I though was a humorous and accurate characterization!

The latter portion of Garnaut’s lecture focused on current President Xi Jinping, who assumed office in March of 2013. He is quickly emerging as a departure from previous Chinese politicians with an increased attention to the PLA. As Garnaut said: “If Bo Xilai’s fall redefined Chinese society, Xi Jinping’s rise redefined it yet again”.

I found Garnaut’s talk quite insightful and enlightening especially given the complexities of the issues he dealt with. I haven’t read his book yet, but it is definitely on my list!