A food safety factory shutdown has Americans hunting for baby formula. Readying themselves for a covid-19 lockdown, Chinese in Beijing emptied store shelves. Emerging from lockdown, some in Shanghai are visiting well-provisioned markets. U.S.-China agricultural trade is booming, but many are still being left hungry. Food security, sustainability and safety remain issues.
Talking Points, December 17 -31, 2008
December 17 - 31, 2008
The brutal economic downturn is the most important issue in both the United States and China today. It has been an incredible year in other realms as well. In this issue of Talking Points, we highlight key events and trends from 2008. Next week, we’ll offer a look forward to 2009.
In the spring pollsters found that virtually all Chinese considered inflation a huge problem. Food and housing prices, especially, were rising rapidly. China’s central bank was tightening credit and economic planners were looking for ways to cool the economy. The shrinking of export markets and the end of Olympics-related spending has led to factory closings and massive lay-offs. The country’s central bank joined others last month in cutting interest rates and more cuts are coming. On Tuesday, bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan said, prices are “going down, and sometimes even faster than we think.” Like the incoming Obama administration in the U.S., China’s government will fund “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects as part of its two-year US$586 billion economic stimulus plan. Some criticize the plan as doing little to bolster Chinese consumer spending, but others argue construction will put people to work right away and produce long-term results by addressing transportation and energy needs.
News coverage has focused on the flow of laid off workers back to sometimes distant villages. The snowstorms which stranded tens of millions of migrant workers at the start of the lunar new year reminded us of the fragility of China’s infrastructure and the vulnerability of these people. Remittances from relatives working in cities did much to improve rural household incomes. While 30 years of economic reforms have improved most people’s living standards, many still live in desperate poverty. In the spring, nine out of ten Chinese identified the gap between rich and poor as a pressing problem. That gap is likely to grow, but the just released annual report of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says the income of China’s richest 20% is already 17 times the income of the poorest 20%.
China’s leaders are acutely aware of the tensions these economic problems generate. Building a “harmonious society” was one of the themes at last year’s Communist Party national congress. Nonetheless discontent over rising prices, job losses, and other issues has driven demonstrations in many parts of China. College students have not been participating in most of these, but unemployment among college graduates is 12% and perhaps twice that for recent graduates.
College students and grads (as well as Chinese students abroad) were eager participants in the spring demonstrations to protest foreign criticism of Chinese government policies and in the mobilization of resources to aid those harmed by the May 12 earthquake in southwest China. They effectively used cell phones and the internet to organize parades, blood drives, and donation campaigns.
Civil unrest in Tibet yielded a stern government response and that produced considerable criticism abroad. Some critics sought the spotlight afforded by the Olympic Torch Relay to demonstrate their opposition to the policies and practices of the Chinese government. Beijing authorities and many in China took great offense at this, accusing critics of trying to “keep China down” and denying the country the chance to celebrate its hosting of the Olympics. Just a month later, though, the horror of the Sichuan earthquake caused Chinese netizens and others to rally to the aid of those affected.
The quake killed almost 90,000 people and left ten million homeless. Chinese did not wait for their government to act, though it soon did. Relief supplies were trucked in, money raised, and workers dispatched. An unprecedented national mourning period was declared. Much has been done by the government and by non-governmental organizations, but the recovery process has only begun. It will require years and sustained investment.
Some officials and citizens won acclaim for their speed and skill in responding to the crisis. But the quake also focused attention on the corruption and incompetence of others. The already mentioned survey (conducted before the quake) showed that eight out of ten Chinese considered official corruption to be a major problem. Here, though, the slow and inept responses of some officials may have cost lives and the corruption of others may have permitted contractors to get away with building shoddy schools whose walls collapsed and crushed thousands of children. Hundreds of millions of television viewers were reminded of those children and the millions more whose lives were disrupted by the quake when Lin Hao, a child who helped save his schoolmates, walked with basketball star Yao Ming in the Olympic Games opening ceremony.
No sporting contest was as rigorously prepared for or as highly anticipated as this year’s Summer Games. Some $43 billion was invested in beautiful venues, new transportation facilities, and more. Imaginative roadside landscaping was undertaken and unregistered residents herded out. Water and electricity was diverted from neighboring areas to ensure the capital had a secure supply. Factories were shuttered and car travel restricted in an effort to reduce air pollution. Soldiers and others trained for months to deliver music and dance performances of astonishing scale and precision. They and technicians designing the world’s largest LED screens labored under the direction of a creative team headed by film director Zhang Yimou. The ceremonies were stunning and the impression they conveyed was of a country on the move. Editors at Time Magazine were so taken that Zhang was a finalist for its annual “person of the year” designation. The athletic performances were no less amazing. Though there were eligibility and judging controversies, it’s the skill and determination of the competitors that most will remember.
By most measures, the Games were a great success. Visitors and viewers came away with an image of China as technologically sophisticated, disciplined, and united. Many, though, also noted that the Chinese government was vigilant in squelching dissenting voices. Protest zones were designated, but protests were forbidden. Restrictions did not end with the Games. Last week more than 300 Chinese signed an open letter posted on the internet calling for the government to protect human rights and implement far-reaching political reforms. At least one of the signatories, Liu Xiaobo, has been detained. International human rights organizations and others have called on the Chinese government to provide information on Liu and to observe its own laws regarding free speech.
The “08 Charter” drive was timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. China’s leaders also marked the anniversary, linking it to the 30th anniversary of the economic reforms Deng Xiaoping launched in 1978 (reforms that caused Time to name Deng the 1978 “person of the year”). China’s government prioritizes the right to subsistence over other rights. President Hu Jintao marked the anniversaries by stressing the government will continue to focus on improving living standards.
Those two December anniversaries and a third, the 30th anniversary of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, highlight the complex year it has been. China’s economic reforms and opening to the outside world have produced better living conditions for most of its people and have help tie its economic fortunes to our own. Leaders in both countries meet regularly to strengthen economic relations and coordinate our responses to economic and other challenges. And differences on human rights persist.
The next issue of US-China Today will be out soon. It includes a handy interactive population map and articles exploring the protection of intellectual property rights, the popularity of fast food, and China’s increasing presence in Africa.
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The USC U.S.-China Institute
12/10/2008 - 01/04/2009: Divine Performing Arts: Chinese New Year Spetacular
The Pasadena Civic
300 East Green St., Pasadena, CA 91101
Divine Performing Arts' Chinese New Year Spectacular 2009 is a grand live stage production inspired by the rich spirit of traditional Chinese culture.
09/10/2008 - 01/04/2009: Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection
2626 Bancroft Way, UC Berkeley campus
Cost $5- 12 General Admission
141 works by 96 artists, drawn from one of the world’s most important and comprehensive collections of contemporary Chinese art.
09/17/2008 - 01/11/2009: Confucius: Shaping Values Through Art
Pacific Asia Museum
Address: 46 North Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena , CA 91101
Cost: $7 for adults, $5 for students/seniors
Phone: (626) 449-2742
Confucius: Shaping Values Through Art explores how Confucian values have permeated East Asian culture. It utilizes the Museum’s own collection as a case study.
09/05/2008 - 01/11/2009: Art and China's Revolution
Asia Society and Museum
725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), New York City
General admission is $10, seniors $7, students $5 and free for members and persons under 16
Asia Society Presents First Comprehensive Exhibition Devoted to Revolutionary Chinese Art from the 1950s Through 1970s.
10/18/2008 - 01/11/2009: China Design Now
Cincinnati Art Museum
953 Eden Park Drive, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202
This exhibition captures an extraordinary moment as China opens up to global influences and responds to the hopes and dreams of its new urban middle class.
08/23/2008 - 02/22/2009: Guests of the Hills: Travelers and Recluses in Chinese Landscape Painting
Freer Gallery of Art/ Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Smithsonian Institution P.O. Box 37012, MRC 707, Washington DC 20013-7012
Freer Gallery of Art presents an exhibition on the depictions of recluses and recreational travelers in Chinese landscape painting.
11/03/2008 - 11/03/2009: Ancient Arts of China: A 5000 Year Legacy
2002 North Main Street, Santa Ana, California 92706
Bowers Museum presents a collection that portrays the evolution of Chinese technology, art and culture.
11/14/2008 - 11/14/2009: Chinese Art: A Seattle Perspective
Seatle Asian Art Museum
Address: 1400 East Prospect Street , Volunteer Park , Seattle, WA 98112–3303
The Seattle Asian Art Museum presents an opportunity to see a collection with representative works from each dynastic period.
11/15/2008 - 11/15/2009: Masters of Adornment: The Miao People of China
2002 North Main Street, Santa Ana, California 92706
The Bowers Museum presents a collection of exquisite textiles and silver jewelry that highlights the beauty and wealth of the Miao peoples of southwest China.
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Tensions evident in the recent European Union-China virtual summit reflect the increasing skepticism in Europe toward China and the worries over Ukraine and economic ties as well as human rights and environmental issues.