Monday, March 31, 2014

The Party and the Gun

Tiredness is an odd narcotic.  Once it’s gripped you and entered the blood stream, as it were, the pull horizontal remains for some time afterward.  So if you nod off and then jump up and walk across the room and talk to someone and pour a glass of juice, there is still that siren song grip, nursing you back to surrender.  Listening to the trombonist Bob Brookmyer yesterday on his 1957 track “Arrowhead” from the album “The Street Swingers”, the slow pulse of the valves sliding up and down, the sleepy embrace got its fingers sunk in deep.  Not long after, I turned to face the music and lay down for a quick nap.
And I stirred up about an hour later and I was refreshed.  I wasn’t feeling groggy or cheated but rather, topped-off.  And later that night when it was time for the evening ritual of reading to the girls before they headed to bed, I strode forth with confidence that I wouldn’t be a sleepy mess.  But as soon as I saw my daughter’s bed, I could feel the sleepy fingers reasserting control.  If I snuggle up next to her and read while in bed, I will be off to sleep after a page or so.  So I nearly always sit and read from a chair where I have more hope of remaining lucid.  I told my daughter; “move over, I’ll read next to you.”  “No Baba.  You’ll fall asleep.” Wise words from the nine-year old.  OK.  We’ll do it from the chair. 

And she, lying in bed, fell asleep before I did, barley.  And I moved over to her older sister’s room to read to her.  But by now the pull was much greater.  Sleep was mid-flush in my blood.  I felt robbed.  My whole nap investment had come to naught.  I was just as tired as any other night.  And it showed as I read more of “A Brave New World” set 500 years in the future with all its mis-guessed anachronisms like books that people read, that are already becoming irrelevant a mere 80 years after the book was written.  My reading was dispirited, dry, tired.  I guess I need to get further in, as the fictional modernity of odd irony on top of odd irony, largely mis-predicted thus far feels devoid of human narrative. 

A good old-fashioned rise and fall human narrative is underway here in the PRC.  Xi Jinping has been touted as a leader of a different sort, having taken control of both the military and the Party from the outset of his term, unlike his predecessors.  He has already made moves at the former Standing Committee ruler tarred with the Bo Xi Lai affair, Zhou Yongkang.  I mentioned last week that he was going after the former Premier Li Peng’s daughter as well.  This, as part of his brave pronouncement of going after both “tiger and flies.”  (One recalls the former Premier Zhu Rongji’s announcement to get 100 coffins ready, 99 for corrupt officials and one for himself).  And now we see that Xi is going after what is arguably the biggest tiger of them all, the P.L.A.

On Monday prosecutors formally charged the high-flying Chinese General Gu Junshan with “bribery, embezzlement, misuse of state funds and abuse of power.”  From his perch in charge of military procurement with he managed to amass a remarkable fortune, worth perhaps more than US1$B, and in the process some important enemies.  Now he is apparently naming names in a broad investigation that is assumed will involve             quite a few other military tigers.  But once the hunt is on, its hard to know how to stop, gracefully when effectively everyone is 虎作[1]. 

Rhetorically the CCP is in charge of the PLA.  As Mao’s dictate suggested: “revolution comes from the barrel of a gun, but the party controls the gun.”  That is a comforting thought.  But in the days of Jiang Zemin (the self described “northern Jiangsu pig”) or Hu Jintao who had no formal military ties, one could never be sure.   Party officials have arguably amassed more wealth over the last few decades than the military.  Xi Jinping is asserting his authority early by taking down a particular stem of relations within the army.  Can that be done without weakening the overall tree?  A line of investigation around corruption stemming from the procurement department could theoretically lead to any and every official in uniform.  So how do they decide where to cut and how effective will it be when they sew up the wound? 

The world’s second largest economy and the world’s largest military are still run with medieval organizational principles. As one academic once quipped “the religion of the Chinese people is being Chinese” and this has all the transparency and predictability of waiting for Papal smoke signals.  A small group of people still decide who will live, who will flourish and who will fall.  And for now, China remains a place where the Party still controls the gun.

[1] wèihǔzuòchāng:  to act as accomplice to the tiger / to help a villain do evil (idiom)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Breakfast Prep

A few guests over last night.  And as always the kids play “ghost in the graveyard” and we snack and drink and barbeque out in the back and the sun goes down and the candles come on at the table.  Sitting out there with the speakers pointed into the space and now our compound is filled with a confrontationally odd mix of twenties Alberta Hunter blues and sixties Rocksteady and then naught’s Board’s of Canada.   I don’t think I have ever heard anyone else play music audibly in this compound, other than some kid playing piano or flute behind closed doors. 

Then this morning, the invariable clean up.  Someone must have made some progress before I went to bed.  But not that much.  This plate with cheese.  The plate with chocolates I served that was never finished. Pieces of watermelon lying around and dishes and glasses and bowls and cutlery and so many dirty testimonials to last night’s festivities and everything moved in the evening light with a swift, careless cadence. 

It’s a school morning, so I clean off the table and get their cereal ready.  Pour  glasses of orange juice that are rarely finished, and cut a banana, some watermelon.  Get the coffee started and begin make sense of the pile of dishes.  My laptop is downstairs from last night.  I bring it up and do the obligatory check of emails and the front page of the New York Times.  Did the world blow up?  Nothing that can’t be returned to.  Put some female blues from the twenties which is a morning ritual I’ve tried to put in place, as if the firm, logic of blues melodies is a soil, that they will draw on for nearly all the other music they encounter in their lives. 

Ida Cox was born in Georgia back in 1896.  Coming up through vaudeville and blackface performances she rose to become the ‘uncrowned queen of the blues’ during those roaring years of blues output.  There are a series of albums that capture her songs of the twenties and thirties.  I set them up with a tune called “Hard Old Lawd” that must have been recorded in 1927.  The first line of the song sets it down:  “When I came into this world, I didn’t come to stay.”

Nearing seven I head up to get the ladies up.  My older one is going in late this week with her younger sister.  She’s used to getting up earlier and jumps up quickly.  Her younger sister needs some persuading.  Their mom seems to know her precious sleep is about to be compromised before I even put my hand on her shoulder.  Her brows knit as though her dream, anticipating disruption took a turn for the confusing.    One more pass at both the slow risers and I’m back down to Ida’s storytelling to get my sneakers on, so I can head to the gym.

Two interesting articles I read over the weekend about journalistic integrity under attack here in Greater China.  The former editor Hong Kong’s prestigious Ming Bao newspaper, Kevin Lau was stabbed.  The investigation continues but the damage may be done, to other reporters considering whether or not or precisely how best to self-censor.  The profession now requires local reporters to summon some 出生入死[1] bravery, just to do their job.

Meanwhile we’ve an interesting article in The Atlantic where in James Fallows interviews a former editor of Bloomberg in China, Ben Richardson.  Did Bloomberg compromise journalistic integrity to protect its core business interests of selling their proprietary terminals for investors here in China?  The story was pulled because the company claimed that it “was not ready.”  Richardson maintains that was nonsense.  He raises a good point that this is all beyond simply one company.  China’s rise is “too big” for nearly any company to miss out on.  Will the standards for journalistic integrity globally be pulled down for every news organization that like Bloomberg, has to make it in China.  I think Fallow’s is correct, perhaps it is time for the former Mayor himself, to weigh in on this.

[1] chūshēngrùsǐ:  from the cradle to the grave (idiom); to go through fire and water / brave / willing to risk life and limb

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Picture Yourself On

Odd dream.  I needed to get to the 16th floor.  I would meet someone there.  They would show me the town that was sprawled out below.  This, so I could get back to the car, where people were waiting for me.  You have to get back within a certain amount of time and therein lies the central tension that drives the narrative: you’re running late.  It’s 10:15 and you need to get back by 10:35.  And your mind offers up a picture of a clock, a wrist watch.

I’m in the elevator but the buttons for sixteenth floor won’t light up.  None of these floors light up.  Other people want to get in.  Other people get off.  I will need to go to the 6th floor where the staff will help me get to the 16th floor.  They point me on my way down to the place where a group of Turkish twenty-something’s are about to board a speed boat.  The building and the floors are no longer relevant.  They invite me to join for a ride and I can’t say “no.””  We’re off.

It’s a wonderful ride up the river that is really a boulevard, with traffic just like a highway.  And as soon as we’re off it dawns on me that this was a mistake.  I have no business taking this voyage.  I must ask the driver many people up ahead, if he can turn around.  Though I’m enjoying sitting next to this young Turk, talking about the buildings.  But someone is waiting for me in the car and the clock flashes again.  Then someone on board says we’re going to be read to, as we’re all on vacation and this is the time to make time for reading.  We’re relaxing as the captain cuts, 逆水行舟[1], throttling, turning and I don’t see how I can get back . . .

The morning light is pouring into my bedroom.  A gaggle of birds with different, determined songs are piping up, without any reason, outside.  The dull blow of fireworks shot from a tube into the air, like percussion, thud, thud, thud again, outside.  Is there a holiday?  This is the sound that can only invoke Chinese New Year.  Is someone getting married?  Is someone having fun?  Is there a symbolism, a high Chinese holiday I simply haven’t recalled.  Further out a plane is tearing through its jet fuel, making its ascent upwards and upwards.  How loud that must be to travel here over the birds.  How little heed I pay it when I am sitting beside it on take off. 

Tired early last night.  Slept, what was for me, late this morning.  This is the time when dreams linger about your bed longer than might otherwise happen with a strict, regular rise.  Sleeping late you’d like to imagine the body drinking up the rest.  Taking on a charge for all you put off with coffee and espresso.

Over in Taiwan, students have taken over the legislature.  They are frustrated with the way that Ma Ying-Jeou has fast-tracked free trade legislation with China through the legislature.  There is now an Occupy the Legislature movement and students are releasing a plethora of Youtube videos like this one to explain their position: 

I did a quick search for the words “occupy” and “Taiwan” in English on Youku and was prepared to glibly pen that it’s all blocked in China.  So I’m glad I invested the extra five minutes needed to search in Chinese: “反服貿國際聲援影片” It’s all over Youku, as well.  For now, China doesn’t mind showing a restive, ill-governed province, restive and ill-governed.

We have guests over.  Old friends with two young boys, my daughter’s age.  Last night I told them all to pile around the computer and watch. I told them that these kids were brave.  And of course I reminded them, that this protest, in the proud tradition of the May 4th movement that they learned about it school, would have lasted about eight minutes in this town.  It always feels different when it is kids than it does when its taxi drivers or angry workers of, say, the DPP protesting.  Kids feel naïve and pure.

I haven’t been to Taiwan in over a year, and from this view, things have been quiet during Ma Ying-jeou’s reign.  But reading up, I’ve come to learn that his approval rates are down around 9%.  That would appear to be lynch-mob territory.  We’ll have to learn but it sounds like the next election cycle will almost certainly send in a regime less accommodating to Beijing. 

Whoever was having fun, or sweeping their ancestors grave, or revving up for a marriage ceremony is going off in full force now, out there in the distance.  They’re unloading their entire hoard.  It’s enough to make someone want to write “thud” seventeen times.  Perhaps it is Independence Day for some nation?  Cat Power is singing about our “American Flag” from the 1998 release "Moon Pix."  But its too early for American Independence Day and no one out in the distance celebrates that here. 

[1] nìshuǐxíngzhōu:  lit. a boat going against the current (idiom); fig. you must work harder