Archive for May, 2012

Everyone with an interest in China should watch this 90 minute film. It contains some very telling footage. Craig Hill, I’m sure you’ve probably seen this already, but if not it would be right up your alley.


An important note though; this film was made in 2006. The state of labour legislation has changed quite significantly principally since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. However, workers’ rights in China are still very limited and a good deal of illicit employment is likely to still occur, if the situation before 2008 is any clue.
Censorship, however, has not noticeably been relaxed except for occasional instances.


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This is a huge issue in Indochina.  Millions of land mines remain in Cambodia and Vietnam.  Every twenty minutes, somebody in the world steps on a land mine; every third person will die.  The others will likely lose more than one limb.  Please watch this campaign video by the UN.  It’s a bit disturbing, but will illustrate to you the reality of this issue that people around the world are living with every day.


Get involved in organisations that are working to get rid of these hideous weapons!


For the record, China and some other Asian states have not signed the Ottawa Treaty – they haven’t outlawed the use of land mines.  This isn’t a specifically Asian problem though.  Look it up!

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The following post is an essay written for class about the development of civil society organisations in China and Japan.  This is a really interesting topic because it’s changing before our eyes, and will tell us a lot in the future about whether or not there’s a specific Asian democratic development model.  On the other hand, if you don’t care about that, then don’t read the post!  🙂

Civil Society Organisations are gradually becoming more significant and influential around the world, and especially in the Asia Pacific, which is experiencing a general democratic transformation.  However, East Asia faces unique challenges regarding the growth of these organisations and the maintenance of transparency and effectiveness in the same.  These challenges are the result of specific cultural and political aspects that have shaped the societies of these nations throughout history.  The following essay is a comparative analysis of the development of CSOs in both Japan and China; the problems they face in these countries; and the likelihood of their influence increasing to a level on par with CSOs in the modern Western world.

Although Japan and China have experienced very different ideological influences throughout their histories, we can identify a similar period of democratic growth in both countries; although of course this a general global trend also.  Dr. Wang Yizhou, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, outlines three main stages of transition in modern China, which can be observed to correlate chronologically to Japan.[1] The first stage is the period from the 1940s to the end of the 1970s, under the rule of Mao Zedong.  In Japan, this approximate stage was a period of one-party dominance under the LDP (which did continue beyond the 1970s, but was influenced then by other factors).  The second stage in China outlined by Dr. Yizhou is the interim period after Mao’s death in 1976 until the beginning of the 1990s, during which the populous demonstrated the development of a political conscience.  This period in Japan was characterised by a similar economic boom and outside political influences causing legislative change.  The  third period in China is after 1992, following the incident at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, coupled with economic flourishing.  In Japan, this period comprised the first general election in which the LDP lost power, along with law changes allowing civil society a much greater autonomy.  In order to understand the development of CSOs in these countries, it is necessary to examine each of these periods in detail.

Prior to the late 1970s, CSOs on a national level were almost unheard of in both Japan and China.  Mao Zedong’s leadership of the Chinese Communist Party prohibited civil activity.  No interests were allowed to be embodied independently of the state.  This being said, as remains the case today, small village groups were not checked in gathering to pray together and maintain a local temple, or to identify with a common lineage.  Although village officials existed, they were not overly concerned with such inconspicuous gatherings, as their attention was focused on siphoning village funds or securing their own advancement in the CCP.  This laxity is likely a characteristic of a very large population with a centralised government; the power and concern of the CCP did not reach right to the rural outskirts in a particularly intimidating form.

In Japan during this period, little civil activity occurred; as Professor Robert Pekkanen argues, this period of one-party dominance was one of history’s strongest in terms of the state-encouraged, submissive Japanese psyche.[2]  In the 60s and 70s, some small CSOs and student movements did appear without any government backlash as would be expected inChina, but they were simply not paid attention to.  This small movement of disorganised – mainly environmental – groups was not paid particular heed by the public either, who did not like to be heard espousing a cause that the state did not support, due to this submissive mindset investigated by Professor Pekkanen.  Some CSOs persisted into the 1980s, but most had insignificant life-spans.

The second period in these countries’ democratic transition was one of great economic change.  China’s CCP was unofficially factionalised, and different members were competing for influence.  Mao Zedong died in 1976, along with some other prominent CCP members and supporters, and this was viewed according to the common Chinese political philosophy as the death of the “First Generation” of great leaders.  Hua Guofeng, successor of Mao, was less authoritarian and traditional.  During the 1980s, China’s economy was exposed to international influence and mobilised massively.  Conservative officials began to see democratic mobilisation as a threat, perhaps expecting it to occur as wealth and influence became more available to a growing middle class.  Deng Liqun, minister of the propaganda department, was one such official and was quoted in 1983 as labeling China’s derivation from Mao’s communist method as “a quagmire of decentralism, selfish departmentalism and individualism”.[3]  Deng Liqun promoted the idea that a holistic, communist approach must be taken towards conflicts of interest.  Increasingly paranoid, he also launched a campaign against jingshen wuran, or spiritual pollution.  “Things that look new,” he warned, “may not be the new-born things of socialism”.  This was an initiative to discourage the growth of independent civil society.  Many so-called civil society groups did exist in China, but were entirely state-funded and controlled, even down to membership.  In this way the state provided an illusion of civil society, changing its purpose to celebrating the civil freedoms already ‘allowed’ by the state rather than expressing dissatisfaction with them.  Still, despite the CCP’s effort, this era of political destabilisation did encourage civil activity; students in particular were the mobilising force.  Protests were generally broken up by the police with only moderate violence and no fatalities.  However, the death of Hu Yaobang in1989, a liberal CCP politburo member who sympathised with students, is regarded as the main catalyst for the June the Fourth incident at Tiananmen Square.  Protesters and bystanders were massacred in a government crackdown.  This, coupled with a new level of economic prosperity in the early 1990s, triggered a debate abut civil society and enabled slightly increased autonomy of CSOs.  A law passed  in 1987 aiming to prevent the corruption of village officials also allowed for far greater democratic administration at the local level.

In contrast, Japan during its ‘second stage’ was much more tolerant of civil activity, following a gradual trend from the previous decades.  The difference was that CSOs were not brutally disbanded, but rather ignored entirely, or used as publicity vehicles for bureaucrats.  The bureaucracy of Japan at this time was massively far-reaching (though not comparable with that of china), and to set up a CSO one had to apply for various permissions from a senior bureaucrat.  Even once established, the organisation was subject to any control imposed by that bureaucrat, and the bureaucrat would often use the CSO to his political advantage.  The practice of amakudari (senior officials ‘retiring’ into organizations or business in advisory roles) also served as a mechanism of control.  As such, it was very difficult to set up an autonomous civil organisation.  Many groups existed that were under the wing of various factions, such as farmers’ collectives and religious groups who made donations to politicians.  These were certainly not the unbiased civil organizations that Maruyama Masao, the prominent Japanese political theorist, had advocated in the 1940s; his ideal democratized society comprised “free assembly in diverse groups of varied structure, with competition between them”.[4]  While there was competition, it was not their own, but rather the embodiment of factional politics.  Change began to occur in the 1980s, when American investment exposed Japanese businesses and government to foreign CSOs that wanted donations.  In 1995, the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe was met with a relief effort seen by many as inadequate on the government’s part.  CSOs took advantage of this opportunity to contribute, and out-performed the government.  Subsequent public debate inspired much-increased participation.  CSOs in 1990s Japan enjoyed a growing autonomy.

The third period of democratic transition in Japan and China occurred from the late nineties onwards.  1997 was a key year for this development in China, although change had really started to occur in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union– the failure of that regime caused the CCP to reflect on its own governance.  Deng Xiaoping, a conservative politburo member who was suspected of having ordered the crackdown atTiananmen Square, died in 1997 along with several other notable “Second Generation” leaders.  As the death of Mao had done, this signaled a period of change in Chinese politics as Deng and his companions could no longer influence the party under the guise of retirement.  Proof of the significance of this is the massive growth in CSO registry that occurred in 1997.  The CCP passed a reactionary law in 1998, the Regulations on Management of Civil Charities, which sought to define civil society (though still very strictly) and provide for its legitimate existence.  Under the new regulations, CSOs still had to register with the relevant department, and could not undertake any activity that might be deemed offensive to social morality or contrary to party policy.  However, now at least they could avoid bureaucratic interference for the most part if they so chose.  As is explained below, although CSOs in China still grapple with institutionalisation, they have shown themselves to be nearly autonomous in recent years.

Japan’s ‘third stage’ occurred after 1999, when legislative change allowed CSOs to register under a new category which limited bureaucratic involvement in their establishment.  The reason for this is less clear than those that caused change in China; however, Robert Pekkanen cites a growing need to provide for an aging population in a nation with a limited welfare state.  The legislation was also passed only four years after the country’s CSOs proved their worth in the Hanshin quake relief effort.  Furthermore, the new non-LDP administration were more liberal and could be said to have encouraged civil activity for the reasons cited by Pekkanen; CSOs are valuable societal contributors and can work in partnership with governments, lightening their workload. CSOs inJapantoday have only to overcome the hurdle of government factionalism before they can be considered completely self-governing.

The current and future prospects of CSOs in China and Japan look to follow a democratic trend, growing away from state influence and taking a more active role in society.  Today, China’s CSOs are able to act sometimes in accordance with their own mandates; although, as Dr. Yizhou points out, there are still some points of view which are very sensitive with the CCP and might result in the organisation being audited or voided.  Larger CSOs in Chinaare still subject to government negotiations in order to avoid being seen as a threat.  This allows the CCP to maintain some control.  Moreover, the practice of chuan xiaoxie, literally “giving someone tight shoes to wear”, is still a bureaucratic tool in China; this implies bureaucrats making life difficult for those participating in undesirable civil activity, by restricting sick pay, withholding raises, et cetera.  Membership is still sometimes managed by government departments. China also refuses to take a role in international initiatives to develop CSO effectiveness.  However, a promising action of the CCP has been to offer tax incentives to CSOs who do not use any state funding.  This indicates a possible willingness to relinquish control.

In recent years, large CSOs have suddenly demanded greater concessions from the government.  Four of China’s most significant environmental organizations have had considerable influence on National Peoples’ Congress discussions, eliciting greater consideration of ecological issues in policy, and collectives of landlords in urban areas have rallied successfully against demolition that would destroy their livelihoods.  All things considered, it seems that although progress is slow, Chinese civil society is definitely developing autonomy.  Two opposing schools of thought dominate Chinese discourse about their own civil society; one group argues that China will follow a general democratic trend and CSOs will gain autonomy; the other argues that state-controlled civic activity is just a reality of China, and evidences itself throughout history.[5]  Yizhou claims that the consensus on the way forward forChina is to advance civil society but not in a “Western Way”, as this will cause “turmoil like Tiananmen”.  This seems too vague to be effective.  If China aims to retain its regime, it must openly and transparently define its goals regarding civil society, relinquish autonomy to it, but may maintain socialist propaganda.  In this way it can greatly reduce the likelihood of protest, but still espouse its ideologies.  Positive reinforcement will create a better attitude among the Chinese public towards the continuation of socialism; incentives are more effective than punishment. A totally authoritarian state will not survive in contemporary China; it can choose to ride the democratic wave to its advantage, or fail.

Japan has a less monumental challenge ahead, although not uncomplicated.  Today, Japanese CSOs still have trouble remaining independent due to two primary factors; the difficulty of engaging the public, and the factionalised politics of the country.  The public inJapanis taught from a young age to learn by rote and not question authority, an aspect of a Confucian social hierarchy; thus the public is difficult to mobilize in civil activity. However, this traditional problem is slowly becoming less significant with the increase of democratic civics inJapan.  The second problem is less likely to solve itself organically; Japanese politics has always been, and remains, very prone to factionalism.  Even with the one-party-dominant state under the LDP out of power, factions are rife among local and central party bodies.  Perhaps it has now become too ingrained a tradition to remove, or perhaps it will gradually devolve as transparent democracy takes hold.  The result of factionalism regarding CSOs, however, is that they are frequently used by the bureaucrats that approve them as a propaganda tool.  Factional leaders must gain the public’s favour by appearing socially conscious.  Pork-barrel politics also make use of CSOs, as a local MP backed by a faction, for example, can unite with an organisation to do relief work, in order to gain public support. Still, despite these roadblocks, CSOs in Japan now have significant influence. Japan takes an active role in discussing the international ‘Istanbul Principles’ (of effective CSO development and governance), having a council that convenes annually to discuss this progress.

Current trends in China and Japan indicate a shift in approaches towards CSOs; more tolerant policy in the former, and more inclusive and legitimising policy in the latter.  Over three identifiable stages of democratic transition in the latter half of the twentieth century, these countries both experienced a gradual tilt towards democratization and a free civil society.  It could be argued that they are simply following a broader global trend, as is embodied in movements like the Arab Spring; however, this is too simplistic an approach.  Indeed, although they both fit a broad pattern (as does the rest of Pacific Asia), they are not completely in line and arrived at their current status quo through very different circumstances.  The emphasis, in any case, should not be on the idea that both nations will eventually drift into a transparent democracy, but rather on the fact that each must respond in a fitting way to its own situation; and that China and Japan may need to maintain some level of state control over civil society, simply in order for it to function in an East Asian context.  The concept of civil society and CSO activity is growing momentum in East Asian universities, becoming increasingly popular (and tolerated) as a thesis topic.  The future will reveal what path these two countries will choose to take.

Word Count: 2,650.


Kersten, R. (1996) Democracy in Post-war Japan: Maruyama Masao and the Search for Autonomy. London: Routledge.

Pekkanen, R. (2004) After the Developmental State: Civil Society in Japan.  Journal of East Asian Studies, 4 p.363-388.

Shi, T. (1997) Political Participation in Beijing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Yizhou, W. (2005) Civil Society in China: Concept and Reality. Beijing: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Burton, C. (1990) Political and Social Change in China since 1978. Connecticut: Greenwood Press Inc.

Japan Association of Charitable Organisations (2008) Present state of CSOs sustaining Japanese civil society. [online] Available at: http://www.kohokyo.or.jp/english/images/200906civicus.pdf [Accessed:13/05/12].

[1] W. Yizhou, Civil Society in China: Concept and Reality, Chinese Academy ofSocial Sciences, Beijing, 2005.

[2] Pekkanen, R. (2004) After the Developmental State: Civil Society in Japan. Journal of East Asian Studies, 4 p.363-388.

[3] C. Burton, Political and Social Change in China since 1978, 1990, Greenwood Press Inc., Connecticut, US.

[4] R. Kersten, Democracy in Post-war Japan: Maruyama Masao and the Search for Autonomy, 1996, Routledge, London.

[5] W. Yizhou (as previously referenced).

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The other night after a particularly hard one, I was in a taxi home when I happened to ask the driver where he was from.  I couldn’t pick his accent or demeanour, and had originally guessed Thailand.  He told me he was Laotian, and then was absolutely blown away by the fact that I actually knew where Laos was, let alone that I had an interest in its politics.  He passionately told me of how he’d escaped from a detention camp during the Vietnam War with his wife, and now had had children here.  As I was getting out, he handed me a taxi company card with a URL scrawled on it; www.laoalliance.org.

Now I’ve had a chance to look at the site, I understand that that taxi driver is probably an active member of this organisation which is very far-reaching, and based in Canada.  The website itself is not the best reference, because it’s terribly designed (sorry, Alliance for Democracy in Laos), which seems to be a theme for Southeast Asian official or NGO websites; and it’s mostly in Lao too.  I did some extra research and was actually quite surprised to learn from insiders’ perspectives that Laos is certainly not yet as democratic as I had thought.

Check out the Alliance.  Movements of this kind seem to be a contemporary trend throughout ASEAN nations, e.g. Malaysia last month.  We should reassess our perception of the progressiveness of democratic institutions in Southeast Asia.

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China Daily Mail

Please check out this great site for articles about China submitted by bloggers and followers all over the web.  Heaps of news updates and opinions, etc.  And look out for yours truly, submitting there soon!


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Tiananmen is a word most of us are familiar with; we know about the huge square in Beijing, and that something important once happened there.  The incident tends to get lumped with the Berlin Wall demolition as a symbol of reactionary ‘people power’.  Popular culture presents that one photograph when it comes to Tiananmen – the man holding his shopping bags, standing defiantly in front of a convoy of Peoples’ Liberation Army tanks.

Actually, there’s also a video.  The tanks attempt to move around the demonstrator, this way and that, but he steps from side to side, continuing to block their path.  Eventually he climbs onto the tank  in front and lifts the hatch, before clambering back down and going on his way.  He melted into the crowd immediately afterwards, so to this day, nobody knows who the man in that video is.  But the harrowing thing about the image is that the man concerned didn’t win victory or even any concessions from his own government, nor was he revelling in any that had already been achieved.  His deed was done on June 5th, 1989, in the morning.  Blood still stained the tarmac of Beijing’s streets.  The night before, the PLA had initiated random fire at thousands of unarmed student protesters walking through the streets towards the square, intending to stage a non-violent protest against corruption and authoritarianism.

The reality was that anyone who happened to be on the streets at the time was also shot at; according to a BBC video filmed at the scene, people inside houses were hit by stray bullets.  The elderly, the innocent, and particularly the students of Beijing sustained casualties.  A nearby children’s hospital was littered with the mortally wounded who had been carried in on park benches, or rickshawed there, bleeding to death before they could be attended to by the hysterical staff.

Ambulances tried to break police lines to pick up the wounded, but police would not allow them through.  Some ambulance drivers were shot and wounded.  Nobody is certain how many people were actually killed on the night of June 4th, although conservative guesses put the number at around a thousand.

This incident was numbing and unbelievable even to the Chinese, because while the CCP had been in practice fairly authoritarian for some time, it had always made a concerted effort to portray itself as a friend and protector of the people.  The rest of the world was flabbergasted;  sanctions and embargoes took effect immediately.

Although the Chinese could not believe the action the CCP had taken to quell the protest, they could understand the causes.  Perhaps it was in fact quite a likely reaction, and those students who took part had probably considered the possibility that they may die that night.  But for the average Western student who doesn’t study Asian politics or history, it isn’t something you can understand with no background knowledge of Chinese politics; it seems a popular assumption of the general Western public that the Chinese government is openly dictatorial, violent, completely in control of its people.  But this is just that, an assumption, brought about by a lack of exposure and involvement with Chinese politics.  In line with my goal of promoting Pacific Asian politics as something we should all have a regional care for and interest in,  I want to make the reasons and history behind Tiananmen Square accessible to those who are interested, but not political science students.  Read on!

Mao Zedong and his Impressive Portfolio of Failure

Mao was a Marxist theorist long before the communist state was established, heading a regional branch of the CCP from the early 1920s. After WWII, Mao and the CCP won a civil war against the Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang (KMT), who were passionately anti-communist, led by Chiang-Kai Shek.  Upon defeat the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan – this is why Taiwan is sometimes referred to as “Nationalist China”.

Mao implemented immediate reforms based on the Soviet model.  Eventually the CCP’s agenda shifted to aspire to a uniquely Chinese form of communism, a concept that would also later be espoused by a CCP that no longer bothered with theory as a means to achieve domination.  This period in the late 50s was called the “Great Leap Forward”, and aimed for a huge increase in production; resulting, unfortunately for Mao, in exactly the opposite.  Millions starved, or were purged due to suspected unpatriotic sympathies.  The blunder was a splendid mix of economic insanity and heavy-handed embarassment at the same.

Roughly a decade later, Mao decided to try and reverse his reputation as a massively mean idiot.  In a numbingly predictable continuation of the status quo, the “Cultural Revolution” was more or less the same situation as the Great Leap Forward, but amplified greatly over a shorter period, and much meaner.  Nearly two million people died, and those who were found to be contributing to the ‘impure’ elements of Chinese society disappeared indefinitely.

The interesting thing abut this latter movement was the huge amount of student protest that took place.  Why students in particular?  Theories abound, unsurprisingly, but since this era students in China served as an important protest catalyst (cue Tiananmen).  One can argue that students are just like that. I have to ask my professor what he thinks.  But considering the absolute domination of Chinese civil society by the CCP, right down to the grassroots, village level, it’s hardly surprising that only the young who would tend to be less civilly involved at that stage would be free to openly defy the CCP.  And of course, I use that term ‘free’ quite, er, freely.  That’s my favourite theory, anyways.

The protests at any rate were crushed quite brutally, although officially, nobody was actually killed.  This was probably a fairly intense fright for Mao, who would by this stage be clawing at the CCP’s apron-strings,  trying not to be left behind indefinitely.  His death befell him in 1976, before he was able to clear his political conscience.

The Death of Hu Yaobang

Hua Guofeng was the successor of Mao, although not the original pick.  He isn’t really important to this story though; our next important leader is Hu Yaobang.  Hu Yaobang could most accurately be described as a crazy mother****er, in my opinion in a good way.  He certainly made some odd comments, and was the bee in the bonnet of the CCP bigwigs (feel free to imagine the CCP politburo in bonnets).  He was the CCP’s General Secretary from 1980 to 1987, and remained fairly influential in politics until a while afterwards.  He was intent on reform and greater freedom for the people, but his elders managed to stop him from picking up too big a paintbrush.  The student population was more inclined to feel warmly for him, and when he stood in the way of the quelling of student protests in 1986, he became more or less an icon. However, on April 15th, 1989, he died of a heart attack during a politburo meeting (which seems slightly strange to me, but I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so there you go…).  His death caused a reaction that wasn’t expected by anyone.  Thousands of mourners, particularly students, laid wreaths at the foot of images of him; the police force was quite disconcerted by the magnitude of the event and began to confiscate the wreaths, and more were immediately laid.  It is this event, primarily, that is regarded as the main catalyst for the Tiananmen Square incident.

The Sit-in and the Refusal

Student organisations all over Beijing were thriving on the mood, a kind of unjustified yet still warranted anger at the death of Hu Yaobang.  Blame started to turn on the CCP; his funeral was not organised quickly enough, not enough memorial ceremonies were arranged, et cetera.  A revolutionary spark crept onto university campuses.  Beginning in April, a united student union called a boycott of classes and a sit-in at Tiananmen Square, in front of the old imperial palace where the seat of government remains.  They drafted a petition on a huge roll of paper, and three brave students climbed the stairs to the entrance of the palace, kneeling and holding their petition aloft.  They requested that the politburo itself come out and take the petition.  They were refused.  This caused surprise and anger; they had come respectfully, bowed in supplication even, pleaded to be heard, and had been ignored.  The movement was now thoroughly fuelled.

For seven weeks they occupied the streets and the square, to no response other than a heavy police line.

June the Fourth

In the evening, students were yelling “Fascists!” at the palace.  They had been ignored for too long, and the refusal of such an utterly reasonable and polite request as the reading of a petition had cemented the drive for revolution.  Somebody overturned a police car.  It was far from a riot, but some climbed on top of vehicles or landmarks, the closest this demonstration ever came to disorderly behaviour.  What happened next was entirely unbelievable to everyone assembled.

A convoy of PLA trucks was seen crawling down the street towards the square.  Gunfire was sounding.  Slowly, the reality dawned and the screaming began.  People were trying to run, or hide, or get low, or just get away by any means possible from the terrifying vision of a government opening fire on an unarmed and non-violent public.

This is where the popular Western perception isn’t adequate.  Nobody on the streets that night expected it to happen; utter terror and disbelief was their reaction.  Though heavy-handed and certainly at times ruthless, the CCP had never been so openly hostile.  By all constitutional means and official statements, the Chinese government is and was democratic.  This would pretty much be the equivalent in the unexpected to a Republican-led United States army driving down the streets of Washington and shooting down Sunday shoppers.  It is therefore easy for us to say, Oh sure, terrible, China.  Poor People.  So oppressed.  And then go on thinking nothing of it, because there are terrible places all over the world where terrible governments do nasty things, but it’s expected.  When we hear about brutal suppression in Iran or Afghanistan, we aren’t surprised, so we don’t really care.  I’m trying to express to you how utterly and incredibly horrifying this experience was in a country where this was far from the norm, in the public eye anyway.

Nobody is sure who exactly sent the convoy. Suspicion is thrown left, right and centre.  Well, left anyway.  Or is it right??

My little joke there.  But seriously, many members of the politburo are/were suspected, and I doubt anyone is ever going to know for sure. Hopefully though, that’s a past chapter in the history of China now.  The path forward is uncertain.  And for that…read about the question of democratic feasibility in East Asia!

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