Episode 16: 21st Century Chinese Characteristics

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

In some of our previous episodes, we have talked about the truly terrifying death toll of Chinese Communism since Mao first took over the country in 1949.   Tens of millions were killed by the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and similar events.   But in the last few decades, China has enacted a number of reforms, making it a much freer nation than it had been, and ushering in an impressive level of economic growth.    Some in the West have started acting as if we should treat China as just another foreign economic partner, with similar standing to the Western European democracies and other American allies.   Yet the Communist Party is still firmly in control of the country.   Does this really make a difference in people’s daily lives?Are Chinese citizens still subject to the whims of government officials, or are their lives closer to those of  ours in the modern West?  Is Chinese Communism still something to be feared, or have the fabled Chinese Characteristics rendered it harmless?

It’s hard to come up with clear answers to these questions, but we can get a number of clues from recent visitors to the country.   Today we’ll be talking about a book called “Kosher Chinese:  Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion” by Michael Levy.   It’s especially interesting in that it’s less than a decade old— published in 2011— so gives a picture of relatively modern times.    It takes place in Guizhou Province, a rural area far removed from the Westernized coastal cities, where Michael Levy came to teach English as a Peace Corps volunteer.    Levy’s memoir doesn’t really focus on politics— it’s mostly a fish-out-of-water story of Levy’s attempts to adapt to the local culture— but as we’ll see, their totalitarian system of government still affects every area of Levy’s life there, and has a lot to tell us about how we should regard the “reformed” Chinese Communism.

Levy’s memoir is quite enjoyable to read, largely due to the many anecdotes about clashing cultures as he attempts to adapt to the Chinese way of life.   For example, the title, “Kosher Chinese” is inspired by an incident near the beginning of his stay, where he is served a local delicacy— a plate of fried millipedes.   It’s clear that his hosts will be insulted if he doesn’t try it.   Grasping for an excuse, he finally points out that he is Jewish, and millipedes aren’t Kosher, so he’s not allowed to eat them.   (We should point out that he wasn’t really religious enough to care about kosher dining before.)    From that point forward, his Jewishness, which seems to fascinate his hosts, becomes a central focus of his time in China.    We’ll skip over a lot of these humorous incidents, and side details like Levy’s amusing exploration of Chinese pop culture and Chinese relationships and marriage, as we explore the more political aspects of the book.

One running plotline throughout the memoir is Levy’s attempts to get his students to think for themselves, rather than blindly trusting anything they read.   There seems to be a philosophy that if something is written in a book, especially a government-approved one, it must be true.     As you might guess, many local government-approved books embody silly and outdated stereotypes of America, as Levy learns when one of his students, Yvette, tries to flatter him with a report on the “Great Jew”:

They have done so many great things for people in the world. They good at jokes, doing business and managing money so that there are a large number of Jewish tycoon in the world.… In the Wall Street which is the controlling financial interests of the United States, it is the world of Jews who dominate the “street.” Jews deserve careful study though their history is pitiful.”…
“Listen,” I finally said, having failed to find a sensitive way to correct her work. “This is absurd. It’s totally unusable.” Yvette, like all Chinese students, was used to harsh criticism. She smiled and blinked at me. “But,” she told me, “we have learned it.” “What does that mean?” I said, slightly exasperated. “You’ve learned it, but it’s wrong.” Yvette’s smile remained sweet and patient. “It is in a book,” she told me.

Levy, Michael. Kosher Chinese (p. 56-57). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition. 

On the positive side, at least some of the locals seem to recognize that this emphasis on blind memorization and absolute faith in the written word is something that needs to change.   While drunk one night, the local university president confides in Levy that he’s hoping he will teach his students not just to memorize, but to think.    When he is put in charge of a graduate literature seminar, he puts these ideas into action, leading the students to read and discuss the various works of literature.  It’s an uphill battle though, as this isn’t quite the teaching style expected:

“Your methods are interesting, but it’s not the Chinese way. We believe before you are qualified to offer your opinion, you should know what all of the experts believe. You should copy them again and again until you know their thinking. Only then can you build on it.”


On some level, I think we can agree that there is a good point here— many of today’s problems in the West result from ill-informed people, totally ignorant of the past, trying to impose “new” ideas that replicate well-known failures.   Yet these Chinese schools seem to have hit the opposite extreme, with the contents of any government-approved book being treated as unassailable.  

One of the most entertaining subplots of the memoir is Levy’s participation in the university basketball team.   It seems that the college-level league rules are not as strict as those in the U.S., with teachers as well as students being allowed to participate.   After he becomes a regular at informal pick-up games, Ivan, the coach, invites Levy to dinner, to develop some “guanxi”.    

We should pause here a moment to describe “Guanxi”, which appears as a common theme in this book.  It can mean a social obligation, as in having to reciprocate when someone gives you a gift.   But it also refers to one’s social reputation with the government and its officials— in which case it can have critical effects on one’s life.   In various parts of the book, we see that guanxi is important for being allowed to buy a home, getting a job you want, or avoiding a forcible transfer to an undesirable location.

In this case, Ivan is trying to recruit Levy for the university basketball team.    He makes the transparent gesture of treating him to a session at a local fortune teller as well; it just happens that his future demands that he joins the University basketball team.   But Levy is happy to accept.     However, when he arrives at his first game, he is surprised to learn of a rule they don’t have in the U.S.:

“Take a look at the other team,” Coach told us. “We will not be covering number 11.” Coach Qin looked at me to be sure I understood, and he spelled it out clearly for me: “He is high up in the Communist Youth Party, so he must be allowed to score.” “I got it,” I said. “Be friendly with number 11.” Coach nodded at this and gave me a thumbs-up. Number 11 would have clear paths to the hoop as a consequence of playing basketball in a place where guanxi ruled. Relationships took precedence over winning.

However, even with this consideration, the other coach appears to dislike the fact that his team has to play against a tall, athletic American, so claims Levy needs to be disqualified completely as a foreigner.   Levy starts to argue, but soon realizes that he is endangering his coach’s guanxi by creating a potential incident, so decides to give up and sit out the game.    

Since this is a military school, the coach is a bit more anti-American than most.  Levy later confirms that there was no legitimate rule used to keep him out of the game, but everyone was afraid of the military coach’s official power.   In any case, Levy is allowed to play in other games, and becomes quite a valuable player, despite having to learn to relax his competitive instincts when facing politically connected opponents.   He soon earns the team’s affectionate nickname “Friendship Jew”.

In another major running plot line of the memoir, Levy wants to spend time with some of the average local residents that aren’t involved with the university.  He goes for a walk one day to a small minority Bouyei village, where he stops to talk with some young teenage girls, the Wang family, who are playing with Pokemon cards.   They are fascinated to meet an American, and after a few games of hopscotch, Pokemon, and tree climbing, he and the kids become good friends.  He is surprised to see that despite their poverty, living with a large family on a subsistence farm, they are aware of American pop culture, and even have favorite American athletes.   One of the girls, Big Twin, is a huge basketball fan, and starts attending Levy’s games.  

But then comes a heartbreaking development: Levy finds that Big Twin and one of her other sisters have been taken out of school and sent to work.   The money they earn (and save in unspent school fees) is needed to pay tuition for the oldest sister.    Looking for a way to help her, Levy sees an opportunity when he is asked to judge a local singing contest, with a cash prize that would be enough to pay for  several years of school.     Knowing from their time together that Big Twin has a beautiful singing voice, Levy gets her added to the list of contestants. 

Getting Big Twin into the contest was as simple as asking President Bill to put her on the list of finalists. He didn’t even ask me who she was or why I wanted her to perform; he simply took her name, and that was that. All of the contestants were selected because of guanxi they had with judges or city leaders, so there was nothing particularly untoward about my lobbying efforts. Relationships were, as always, the only currency that really mattered in Guiyang.

The contest begins, and Levy is impressed with several of the contestants, though as he predicted, Big Twin steals the show.    Later, Levy looks at all the scorecards, and is overjoyed to see that Big Twin has been given the highest score by all the judges.    As he daydreams about how happy she will be that she can now go back to school and still help her sister, the winners are announced:   

“The winner,” said President Bill, “is Festival, for his performance of the ‘Unchained Melody.’” The crowd cheered madly. … “This is wrong,” I said, interrupting his conversation. “Festival did not have the top score.” I pointed to the sheet we had used to tabulate the totals. “He finished second.” Carl shrugged. The other two judges were equally disinterested. Festival was given a bouquet of flowers, the cash prize, and received a standing ovation. He was led off the stage, weeping with joy. I later learned why my scorecard did not match reality: Festival was President Bill’s nephew. His guanxi assured his victory.

Levy goes through some mental convolutions figuring out why this result might be justifiable— is it comparable to WWF Wrestling, where the whole contest is scripted anyway?    But it still bothers him in a fundamental way.

The singing contest was another rough lesson in life with Chinese Characteristics. Big Twin had gotten into the contest due to guanxi and lost due to guanxi. Perhaps this was somehow fair, or at least cosmically just….  I couldn’t tell if the Guiyang way made sense and I was just out of my element, or if my fresh eyes were the only ones that could see the gangrenous corruption of the Guizhou system.

Getting back to the core themes of this podcast, there are also a few explicitly political incidents and anecdotes in the book.   Levy points out the various levels of faith in socialism and Communism among the people, with older retirees grateful for their guaranteed but meager living from the government, and younger people anxious about the future.    The fact that people are willing to discuss this topic at all is perhaps a sign of progress, as it’s hard to imagine having these conversations under Mao’s rule.  But it is also clear that the government has unlimited power over private property— one local restaurant is torn down with only a day’s notice for use by the government.    Most likely the owner had not cultivated sufficient guanxi to convince officials to choose another site.   

Government propaganda is still a potent force during Levy’s stay, though the people do not seem to have much faith in it:

There was also a brand-new poster listing President Hu Jintao’s Ba Rong Ba Chi, or “eight Honors and eight Dishonors,” a vague and often-mocked list of political platitudes: LOVE THE COUNTRY; DO IT NO HARM. SERVE THE PEOPLE; [etcetera]…
Hu Jintao promoted these propaganda couplets in a huge national blitz….posters eventually went up at railroad stations, schools, and village entrances across China. My students memorized them and chanted them when Gui Da was inspected by provincial officials. In private, however, they called the campaign the “eight borings, and eight sillies.” I hadn’t met anyone who took them very seriously.

But the funniest incident occurs on election day.   Levy goes looking for his students, who seem to be missing from class, and finds some in an odd place:

I peeked inside and found two students hiding under a desk. They were sharing a bag of soy milk, squatting next to each other and holding hands. I entered the room and saw who they were. “…what are you doing under the desk?” The girls were shocked to hear my voice and jumped up. “Shhh,” they implored me in unison…. “Mike, be quiet. We are hiding because we do not want to vote. But if they catch us avoiding it, we will be punished!” “Why don’t you want to vote?” I asked. Kitten shook her head. “It is better to hide and avoid the problem.”


When Levy follows up, he gets a clearer answer from another student:

“We are told who to vote for. If we don’t listen, our votes are thrown out. The winner has already been chosen.” “Oh,” I grunted. Perhaps singing contests and national elections were both carried out in the WWF tradition. “In that case, why do you bother voting?” “We have to,” said the tall girl as she and the gaggle moved away from me with a surge in the crowd. She yelled a final line before disappearing: “Our class monitors demand it!”

A good quote for us to close on comes from one of Levy’s fellow teachers,who summarizes the prevailing attitude among educated Chinese to recent economic reforms and growing freedom:

“All of this is thanks to the leadership of the Communist Party and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” Teacher Qing continued. “We will get rich now and develop and catch the West.  Then we can develop true Communism later.”

Does this mean that in a few years, some new Chinese leader will conclude that there has been enough economic development, and drive another Cultural Revolution to repeal the last few decades of reforms, reclaim the freedom that has been ceded to individuals, and lead the way to “true” Communism”?   I hope not—  but I’m not sure I find Levy’s various observations very reassuring.   If you’ve read about the “social credit system” in recent news articles, it sounds like the guanxi whose abuse Levy observed is now being computerized and expanded throughout the country, truly an ominous development.

[Closing conversation with Manuel].

If you enjoyed these anecdotes, and want to learn more about recent developments in China, be sure to read Levy’s full book, “Kosher Chinese”, available at Amazon through the link in the show notes.   By the way, if you’re enjoying these stories, we would really appreciate some more ratings and reviews at Apple Podcasts or similar sites.   Thanks!

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.