About Jeffrey N Wasserstrom

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. He writes for a wide range of academic and other periodicals.

Articles by Jeffrey N Wasserstrom

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Adam Ramsay is co-editor of OurKingdom.

China's anniversary tempest

What happens in the People's Republic of China (PRC) often seems on the surface to confirm just what students of the country have been expecting - yet with a twist thrown in that catches them off-guard. It looks as if 2009 will require getting used to this sense of predictability tinged with surprise.

China’s long march to modernisation

When commentators contrast the current situation of the People's Republic of China (PRC) with that of earlier periods in its history, they typically use a straightforward "then and now" schema that takes the Mao Zedong era (1949-76) as the key reference-point. They note, for example, that:

* Mao denounced capitalists and consumerism, but the Communist Party he led now lets entrepreneurs join and China's cities have mega-malls

* Mao reviled Confucian thought, but Hu Jintao and company have founded Confucius Institutes around the world and regularly quote the sage with approval

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is the author of Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (Routledge, December 2008), and co-editor (with Kate Merkel-Hess & Kenneth Pomeranz) of China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming 2009). He is a professor of history at the University of California - Irvine, the editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, and a regular contributor to The China Beat: Blogging How the East Is Read

Also by Jeffrey N Wasserstrom in openDemocracy:

"One, two or many Chinas?" (15 February 2008)

"The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

"China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

"Tiananmen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008)

* Mao was convinced that China could stand apart from the international order - so much so that when a massive earthquake hit Tangshan six weeks before his death, his immediate successors (already effectively in charge) kept foreign observers out and insisted that "Mao Zedong thought" rather than international aid would help the country recover; but after the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, foreign journalists were allowed to report live from the scene and aid from abroad was welcomed

* Mao aspired to national greatness and technological achievement, but it is a later generation of Chinese leaders who have succeeded in organising technologically sophisticated operations such as the Olympic games and the manned Shenzhou-7 space-flight.

All of these contrasts are real and important - as are less often noted ones, such as that promoting male-female equality was often touted as a key revolutionary goal under Mao but gets little attention now. However, it is not necessary to go back to the cultural-revolution decade (1966-76) to highlight China's transformations. In fact, equally stark contrasts with the era that marks the second half of the PRC's existence - the one that began when Deng Xiaoping launched his economic reforms in December 1978 - can be found.

A thirty-year frame

The approaching thirtieth anniversary of the start of the reform era underscores the fact that this era has now exceeded in length the years of revolutionary zeal, strenuous effort and isolation that preceded it. It is now itself, in other words, a historical as well as ongoing contemporary reality. The distance China has travelled in these years is reflected in the big "China question" on many minds three decades ago: "would the PRC be able to modernise?"

The answer was far from clear at the time. Deng Xiaoping, architect of the new direction, presented himself as a pragmatic problem-solver; made achievement of the "four modernisations" his priority; insisted that to "get rich" was "glorious"; and called for China to quadruple its GDP by 2000, partly by increasing foreign trade and making use of western ideas. Many foreign observers admired him for all this and wished him well. Yet there were many doubts and fears - some of which, such as that Deng might end up changing his country's economy and place in the global order too little, look strange today.

It is hard too to recall the scale and breadth of Deng's impact in the west, particularly in the United States. Time magazine - which in the 1930s and 1940s ran multiple cover-stories praising an authoritarian moderniser of that period, Chiang Kai-shek - did the same for Deng early in the reform era, and twice named him "man of the year". Many prominent western individuals wished him success; just one curious example, the then-famous musician John Denver greeted the visiting Chinese leader thus at a 1979 Kennedy Center gala in his honour: "Mr. Vice-Premier, it is with great joy that we welcome you to our country, and it is with true love that we extend our very best wishes to you and your people, on your ‘New Long March Toward Modernization In This Century.'"

At home, even some of Deng's critics - among them, leaders of the "Democracy Wall Movement" (1978-79) - accepted the notion that China's ability to modernise was vital to its future. Wei Jingsheng, for example, wrote in a famous manifesto in 1978 that China needed a "fifth modernisation" to add to Deng's four: democracy. What is often forgotten is that Wei presented political reform not just as an abstract good but as a pragmatic necessity. Without such reform, he claimed, "economic growth [would] confront insurmountable obstacles."

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)

Li Datong, "The Weng'an model: China's fix-it governance" (30 July 2008)

Li Datong, "Death in Shanghai, law in China" (15 September 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China's nervous transition" (22 September 2008)
The Tiananmen upheaval that broke out soon after the tenth anniversary of the reform era differed from the democracy-wall movement in many ways, including the fact that it involved massive marches by students and workers. But the protest leaders of 1989 did echo Wei Jingsheng's claim that one reason the regime's corruption and lack of transparency was so troubling was that it was holding China back.

But in fast-forwarding to 2008, the association between economic and political reform seems frayed as well as buried. Deng is remembered in the west as much for his role in brutally crushing the Tiananmen protests as for his economic reforms; Wei Jingsheng and 1989 leaders such as Wang Dan live in exile; the Dalai Lama is more likely than any Beijing leader to be lionised in Time; and at least some of John Denver's celebrity (and political) successors have less interest in wishing China luck on its new "long march" than in ruminating on the old adage, "be careful what you wish for".

It's true that domestic and international critics of China's government continue to express concern about corruption and lack of transparency. But even here, the ground has shifted. After years of record-breaking growth-rates, few claim now that these flaws are "insurmountable obstacles" to material development.

It's certainly true that China still has impoverished areas that the modernisation drives of these three decades have left almost untouched. It is also a place where cultural and social practices either persist or arise anew that may strike western observers as pre-modern (the increase in women offering their services as wet nurses in the wake of the tainted milk-formula scandal is but one example). But China's supercharged growth in the reform years remains an impressive achievement, to the extent that many inside and outside the country agree that it will soon outgrow the "developing country" category. After all, "developing countries" don't have a state-of-the-art space lab and space station of the kind Beijing plans to build by 2020.

One effect of such enormous changes, visible in the skyline and the streetscape of every major Chinese city, is that international criticism and concern about China have been reframed. These now tend to focus not (as before) on China's isolation and inwardness, but on the environmental, social and diplomatic costs of its bursting forward onto the global stage and becoming an active global player.

A new reality

Three events in China in 2008 illustrate this change, and show how different are the perspectives brought to bear on the country today compared to the beginning of the reform era. The first is the Beijing Olympics itself (at several levels - the lead-up, the high-tech opening ceremony, and the everyday organisation). The approach of the games, for example, heard voices raised against the destruction of homes or neighbourhoods that accompanied some of the vast building projects.

This was a concern with modernisation moving too swiftly and going too far, rather than being held back. (And Thomas Friedman, reflecting after the Olympics, even mused that China's most modern cities can make their American counterparts seem "third world" by comparison, bringing up the notion that China could now be seen as ahead of rather than behind the west in certain ways - something Americans of previous generations would have found it hard to imagine ever happening.)

The second event is the protests that broke out in Shanghai in January 2008, when local residents organised non-violent "strolls" to show their displeasure over a planned extension of the city's super-fast but also noisy "Maglev" (magnetic levitation) train-line (see "One, two or many Chinas?", 19 Februsry 2008).

Many of Shanghai's anti-Maglev protestors were members of the middle class who had benefited from the city's economic take-off. When interviewed by reporters, they sometimes expressed general satisfaction with recent changes in Shanghai's cityscape, taking pride in the degree to which their metropolis had reclaimed its former status as one of the world's great modern urban centres.

But they had a quite specific concern, namely the lack of any opportunity to voice their doubts about modernisation plans that might be detrimental to their health and would decrease the value of their homes. As people who had recently been given many more choices about what products to buy and begun to take pride in owning property, they felt they should have been consulted about a project that could radically alter their quality of life.

The third event is the problems in Tibet, which erupted in the protests of March 2008. These go deep, and involve a complex combination of grievances that include a desire for greater religious freedom and fear that local cultural traditions are under threat. A further relevant factor, though, is anger at the impact that projects designed to "modernise" the region have on the local population. Here, as in Shanghai, a train became an important symbol. Tibetans insisted that the economic benefits brought by the high-altitude rail-line linking Beijing to Lhasa that opened in 2007 were primarily flowing not to them but to members of other ethnic groups, including very recent Han immigrants.

These three events are different in character as well as location. But they do have a connecting thread that reminds us of something important: the discontent that efforts to modernise a locale can provoke when groups directly affected by it feel they have no say in the process. They are thus both a measure of the distance China has travelled in the years since 1978 and of a challenge still to be met.

A reconnection

The images of the new Beijing in architectural magazines and broadcast media, of the packed Bird's Nest stadium on 8 August 2008, of the engineering marvel that is the Beijing-to-Lhasa railway, and of Shanghai's Maglev - all confirm that the big "China question" of 1978 has been answered. Yes, China was able to modernise - and become a global player into the bargain.

Now, as the extraordinary year of 2008 moves into its last phase - passing the reform era's thirtieth anniversary as it does so - the concern over China is what kind of local and global impact this even-newer "new China" will have. The tests for Hu Jintao and his colleagues in the coming period may be as great as those faced by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. But none surely will be as great as reconnecting the themes of economic and political reform. The crucial step on their "long march" will be to give China's people a bigger say in how the country will move forward.

Tiananmen’s shifting legacy

It is three weeks since the nineteenth anniversary of the massacre of 4 June 1989 in Beijing, forty-nine until the symbolically potent twentieth. The routine in advance of the event, by now well established, was again witnessed in full this year: security around Tiananmen Square is tightened, a candlelight vigil for martyrs is held in Hong Kong (still the only part of the People's Republic of China [PRC] where open discussion of 4 June is allowed); Ding Zilin of the "Tiananmen Mothers" organisation submits an open letter to the Chinese authorities, calling on them to abandon their "big lie" about 1989 and admit that those, like her son, who were slain by soldiers were not "counter-revolutionaries" or rioters but ordinary urbanites; and human-rights activists, former student leaders, and China specialists issue statements or write commentaries assessing the legacy of 1989 or proposing a new way to honour the dead.

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is China's Brave New World-And Other Tales for Global Times (Indiana University Press, 2007), and his next will be Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (Routledge, forthcoming). He writes for a wide range of academic and general interest periodicals and is a founding member of a group blog on Chinese issues, The China Beat: Blogging How the East Is Read

Also by Jeffrey N Wasserstrom in openDemocracy:

"One, two or many Chinas?" (15 February 2008)

"The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

"China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)
The lead-up to the latest anniversary followed this familiar pattern, but there were some novel twists - "novel" rather than "surprising", given how unusual a year 2008 had already proved to be and promises to remain.

This time, for example, some activists included a call for an "Olympic pardon" in their 4 June commentaries, suggesting that a moment just weeks before the start of the games would be a particularly appropriate one for the authorities to release political prisoners. The Hong Kong vigil was given a distinctive 2008 cast via efforts to combine honouring the martyrs of 1989 and mourning the victims of the Sichuan earthquake. In a similar vein, when local police asked Ding Zilin a week or so before the anniversary if her annual letter was ready, she said (according to reporter Mary-Anne Toy) that she had submitted it early but had a postscript to add, presumably inspired by how earthquake victims were mourned: "When will the national flag be lowered for our children?"

These are only some of the ways that ties between 1989 and 2008 have been and can be established for political reasons. They also suggest that it might be worth pondering how the events of the two years can be connected in historical terms too. Does a look back to Tiananmen help us make sense of what young Chinese have been doing in 2008? Can the recent behaviour of China's leaders be understood as reflecting lessons they learned from the events of 1989? What, for example, should we make of the role of Wen Jiabao in each of these critical periods: as the inspirational prime minister who comforted victims and impressed millions of citizens in the earthquake's aftermath, and as the man who went into Tiananmen Square to meet with protesters in 1989 in the company of his then-boss Zhao Ziyang (who would be purged and placed under long-term house-arrest for taking a softer line on the student-led movement than paramount leader Deng Xiaoping)?

At first glance, these questions may seem odd ones. It might appear, for example, that there are only contrasts and no parallels between the nationalistic young Chinese of today and their 1989 counterparts; or that the Chinese government's refusal to allow open discussion of the 4 June events must mean that it has no interest in learning any lessons from the upheaval. In fact, however, it is possible to see ties between the two generations of youths and to appreciate just how much, even in defeat, 1989's protesters altered Chinese political patterns.

History's bridge

In order to do this, it is necessary to clear away some common western misunderstandings of Tiananmen. Here are five of the most important points:

* All protesters and all martyrs were not students; a great many of both were workers

* Chinese protesters' ideological outlook was not identical to their counterparts in east-central Europe in 1989. In Beijing - in contrast to, say, Budapest or Bucharest - many people did not call for an end to communist rule but rather for party leaders to do a better job living up to their own professed ideals. This helps explain why there was division at the top over how to respond to the protests. The demonstrations began in mid-April, but it was not until mid-May that it became clear that Zhao Ziyang and others favoring a soft line had lost the fight within the upper echelons of power

* It is misleading to think that China's 1989 had everything to do with democracy and nothing to do with patriotism or nationalism. The western media of the time were fascinated with symbols such as the Statue of Liberty-like "Goddess of Democracy"; but in fact anger at nepotism and corruption was a more central theme in Chinese wall-posters and manifestos of the time than demands for elections, and criticism of these failings was framed in terms of official selfishness endangering the nation.Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Li Datong, "China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008)

Li Datong, "After the quake, the debate" (17 June 2008)


The most powerful tactic adopted by the students, which brought them an enormous outpouring of support from members of other social groups, was launching a hunger-strike - an act with special meaning at a time when lavish banquets were a potent symbol of corrupt behavior. Students insisted that for China to become great again, it required leaders willing to engage more fully with the outside world and pay more attention to the needs of the people. It is revealing in this respect that a main anthem of the movement, Hou Dejian's Children of the Dragon, had strong nationalistic overtones.

* The economic background to the protests is often forgotten. Chinese protestors in 1989 did share with their east-central European counterparts a keen awareness that people living in capitalist lands were enjoying a much higher standard of living. To look from East Berlin to West Berlin or from Canton to Hong Kong was to become aware of the contrast between drab, backward cities and glittering, modern ones

* There was a significant generational aspect in the demonstrations. China's young people (and again this is a point of similarity with those in other communist societies) had a sense of being unable to take part fully in attractive and increasingly global forms of popular culture. Many also felt that the state's interference in their private lives hindered their ability to express their individualism and do the things that would help define themselves as members of a distinctive generation.

These last two sides of the 1989 movement are summed up in comments that Chinese student leader Wu'er Kaixi made in The Gate of Heavenly Peace, the award-winning documentary film by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon. He first lists ways that his generation's beliefs and desires differ from those of their parents and even their older siblings, and then poses a rhetorical question: "So what do we want?" His answer: "Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone."

When Tiananmen is reconsidered with these factors taken into account, it becomes easier to trace links between the young people who took to the streets in 1989 and those who flock to internet chatrooms, earthquake-relief campaigns and shopping-malls in 2008. Behind the surface differences there are connecting threads: an intense love of country, and a desire to make their mark as a generation, for example. True, the outbursts of anger in 2008 directed against foreigners who are chastised for being disrespectful toward China in one way or another marks a great contrast (even if it has precedents in China's history); but there have been signs that this sense of moral outrage could easily turn, as it did in 1989, toward corruption and selfishness closer to home.

History's threads

The contrasts between then and now can also be seen as due, in part, to the Chinese Communist Party taking stock of lessons it learned from 1989 - both as that year unfolded in China and as it unfolded in other regions. Three are notable. First, the party has understood the importance of material goods. In a China that has enjoyed high growth rates and embraced consumer culture, the contrast between Shanghai and Hong Kong lifestyles is now much less stark than those between East Berlin and West Berlin before the wall came tumbling down.

When it comes to educated youths in particular, the government has done more than just give them the chance to buy the "Nike shoes" that Wu'er Kaixi mentioned. It has also made it possible for them to partake in global youth culture. And it has backed off from micro-managing campus daily life, and that of the educated classes generally, thus allowing more latitude for discussion of ideas and travel abroad. In short, if Tiananmen was fuelled by a frustration over the limited choices that Chinese urbanites had, the post-1989 period has been characterised by a dramatic expansion of the choices open to educated city-dwellers - apart from certain closed-off realms, such as picking who governs their metropolis and their nation.

A second lesson that the Chinese regime has learned is that the biggest threat to its longevity comes from movements capable of drawing together members of disparate social classes, as Solidarity did in Poland and Tiananmen did in China. This helps to explain, at least partially, the severity of the crackdown against Falun Gong, in a country where the authorities are increasingly willing to make concessions to protesters whose struggles are very localised and affect only a single class.

A third, more indirect lesson from Tiananmen is visible in the series of efforts by the regime to position itself as capable of steering rather than becoming the target of patriotic and nationalistic emotions. It has done this by ramping up patriotic education drives, and by leaping ahead of and trying to channel youthful outbursts (such as the one in May 1999 when Nato bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three citizens of the PRC).

The love of country continues to be a difficult thing to control completely. There is always a chance that this double-edged sword will turn against officials. In a milieu where corruption is still (as in 1989) seen as a great national blight, the authorities must show repeatedly that they are concerned with more than simply maintaining their positions of power at all costs and furthering selfish agendas. They also have to show that they care about the whole nation, not just one part of it.

This "purity test" presents an ever-present danger, reflected in a couple of tense moments the Chinese authorities faced after the Sichuan earthquake, even amid the general goodwill their impressive response secured. The first tremor came right after the disaster, when angry bloggers chastised China's leaders for continuing to show celebratory images of the Olympic torch-relay on state television at the very time when people in Sichuan were suffering so deeply. The second came soon after when talk began to circulate about the disproportionately large number of school buildings that had collapsed, due in many cases to shoddy construction linked to official corruption.

Beijing defused the first moment when it introduced a minute's silence for earthquake victims to the relay, and then called a short moratorium in the ritual. The government also showed its sensitivity to earthquake victims and their families by lowering flags to half-mast, an unprecedented move in China for a case like this. The second danger was deflected in a different way, as Beijing's effective response to the disaster meant that most of the anger at corruption was directed at local officials.

With the people

If the Chinese regime's road from 1989 to 2008 is interesting to ponder, so too is that of man-of-the-hour, China's prime minister Wen Jiabao. It remains a mystery to many how the reputation of Wen continued to rise despite his association with the disgraced (in official terms) Zhao Ziyang after the latter's role in the Tiananmen events of 1989. In this context, however, the question of what lesson he has drawn from his trip to the square is moot.

Here's one thought: when Zhao met with students on the square in 1989, one thing he reportedly said to them was: "I came too late". The confession of bad timing carries a possible implication that he and perhaps the movement would have been better served if he had taken the initiative earlier on, made a bold gesture in support of the protests, or simply met with demonstrators sooner. Perhaps it is appropriate then that one thing that Wen has consistently done in other circumstances is to show an acute sense of timing, exemplified in the fact that his words and deeds after the earthquake were not just evidently heartfelt but were made quickly and spoke immediately to popular concerns. Here, perhaps, is a third connective thread with 1989, one that links leadership and people in a way that is full of political symbolism.

China’s political colours: from monochrome to palette

A dramatic but largely unacknowledged shift has recently taken place in how the past is understood in China. One way to think about this Chinese transformation is to see it as a sort of "colour revolution" - albeit one very different from the associations this term has with the popular upheavals in Georgia or Ukraine.

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is China's Brave New World-And Other Tales for Global Times (Indiana University Press, 2007), and his next will be Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (Routledge, forthcoming).

He writes for a wide range of academic and general interest periodicals and is a founding member of a new group blog on Chinese issues, The China Beat: Blogging How the East Is Read

Also by Jeffrey N Wasserstrom in openDemocracy:

"One, two or many Chinas?"
(15 February 2008)

"The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq"
(27 March 2008)
Within a few years of Mao Zedong taking power after the communist victory of October 1949, a colour-scheme took shape in which the only parts of the past which could be celebrated were those considered to be completely “red” - that is, tied to the revolution and useful in adding to its lustre. But more than three decades after Mao’s death, China is making room for parts of its past that fall into two other colour-coded categories. It is no longer off-limits to praise things associated with the colour “blue” - which in China has sometimes been linked to the sea, and by extension objects and fashions coming from the west. The fall of another taboo is reflected in favourable comment about historical artefacts or figures regarded as “yellow” - which, in addition to certain sexual and pornographic connotations, conjures up traditional modes of thought and imperial rule.

The crowds that have attended this very Chinese “colour revolution” are gazing at tourist sites, not protesting in city-centre squares. True, even in the newest of new China, it remains acceptable to visit and take pride in the classic “red” locales, such as places where Mao himself fought battles or held meetings. Indeed, 2005 was even declared a year of “red tourism”, marked by the publication of books about specific cities and provinces where sites with sacred revolutionary significance could be found.

But it has also become acceptable to revel in aspects of China’s past that are “blue”, in the sense of symbolising the country’s ties to international currents that have more to do with consumption and capitalism than to radical action. The refurbished neo-classical structures that line Shanghai’s waterfront Bund are an example. In a sign of just how far things have moved on from the days when these buildings were disparaged as symbols of “bourgeois decadent” lifestyles, some Shanghai residents clamour to see them become China’s latest addition to the United Nations list of world heritage sites.

The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq

The Chinese government's plans for the Olympic games did not include a revolt in Tibet. The immediate aftermath of the widespread protests in Tibetan- inhabited areas in mid-March 2008 - from Lhasa in the Tibetan Autonomous Region to Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces to the east - has seen intense efforts by the authorities to restore control and manage access to information. The disruption by monks at the Jokhang temple in Lhasa of a choreographed visit of foreign journalists on 27 March indicates that the strategy is not working.

One, two or many Chinas?

China is continually part of the global news agenda, a tendency that is certain to accelerate in 2008 as its supercharged economy develops and as Beijing hosts the Olympic games on 8-24 August. This media coverage of China in the west is often dominated by emotionally charged stories, of which the reports of the film director Steven Spielberg's about-face on 12 February - from considering playing an advisory role in planning the spectacles that will accompany the Olympics to criticising the Chinese Communist Party for its policy in Africa - is but one example. In such times, it is important if not always easy to avoid the tendency to oversimplify contemporary China. But how can outside observers escape this trap?

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