Tonghua Protests Part of Larger Systemic Issue — The Smashing of the Iron Rice Bowl

A private CONCERN

China Daily
26 Aug 2009

Jonah M. Kessel After following one family tradition by joining the military in 1990, Fu Linxue did it again three years later when he started work at the Linzhou Iron and Steel plant in Henan province. For the 39-year-old, it was the logical choice….read more…

Unrest in Tonghua

Not so long ago there was a gigantic brawl at a (huge) steel factory in Tonghua, Jilin province, that left one dead and the news media all aflutter.   Another sign emerges that China could come apart at the seams at any moment!

Tonghuas location in the PRC, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Tonghua's location in the PRC, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I spent a couple of days in Tonghua last month, as it is a major gateway city to the North Korean border.  While aspects of the city were somewhat miserable (no public library, in contrast to equally scrappy Baishan, an hour up the road), pollution was typically bad for a northeastern manufacturing city, and development is not nearly as fast as it ought to be, there was no sense whatsoever that the city was about to break into flames.

This points to a problem with the implicit interpretation of Western media reports — the assumption is that unemployment at one factory or unrest by a group of workers could trigger the whole house of cards to collapse.

I simply don’t think this is true.

While Tonghua is relatively poor in comparison to Shenyang and Dalian, the economy is nevertheless expanding, the government is getting people into new houses.  Cab drivers — for me usually the best barometer of societal mood — were unequivocal about the state of Tonghua’s economy: neither really great nor really bad.  Corruption is certainly a problem, but not to the point where people are out in the streets.  Rather, the danger here for the CCP is that the government “iron rice bowl” mentality cannot be delivered on.   In this sense, and in its manufacturing output, Tonghua is important for the Communist Party.

But an incident at Tonghua Steel, no matter how immense, and though it will be certainly remarked upon by the locals,  is not about to send the entire city reeling into anger at the Party.  The situation reminds me of Liaoyang, where I spent a great deal of time the summer after major labor protests reported by the New York Times (I believe in 2003).  The lack of local consciousness about the protests in their aftermath, the unwillingness to engage in anything resembling a subversive conversation about the events or the fate of the labor leaders, was truly remarkable then, and it is again today.

Yet, between strikes in Heilongjiang, the action in Liaoyang (and the potential for more in Shenyang’s burly suburbs and poor/dirty offshoot cities like Fushun, where I also travelled recently), and Tonghua, you have had enough material to study that fertile nexus between labor unrest, official corruption, and public responses in the last five or six years.

Just wait until North Korea cracks open!  Then we will truly have something to talk about with regard to the labor market and social changes in these borderland regions.

North Korean factory in Musan, about an hour from Tonghua; photo by Adam Cathcart

North Korean factory in Musan, about an hour from Tonghua; photo by Adam Cathcart

New Winter: Sino-North Korean Relations Today

Of China’s many bilateral relationships, few are as pregnant with doom as the relationship with the DPRK. That is to say, the relationship is significant to China not primarily for the good it can bring, but for the potential harm it represents. Thus the quest for China in dealing with the DPRK is how to play a bad hand: minimize the harm it can do, and possibly get something good out of it. In this essay, I’d like to run down a number of North Korea themes which I have been tracking since I got to China this past August:

1. The Wikileaks Impact

The Guardian carries a very helpful (and extended) analysis of the Wikileaks document drop as it impacts the Sino-North Korean relationship, asserting that China is no longer opposed to a South Korea-led reunification of the Korean peninsula. (Hat tip to Kuroda Chiaki.)

It is worth noting that the Wikileaks story has hit the headlines in the PRC, but that only, so far as I have seen, the Huanqiu Shibao, mentions the North Korea connection. In a back-cover article of December 1, 2010, the publication quotes the Wikileaks documents as having a Chinese diplomat stating that “the Pyongyang government acts like a spoiled child,” and that two unnamed Chinese diplomats said that China “agreed that South Korea can unify the peninsula.” There is certainly more in this article to be excavated, as the North Korean Embassy is one of its more significant intended recipients. However, I just dug it out of my treasure trove and have yet to do an in-depth translation.

For more general readers, it’s important to note that the Wikileaks story is available for Anglophone readers in China, as duplicates of the Wikileaks site, for instance at, are accessible from within the Great Firewall. For Chinese language readers, the Wikileaks story has mostly scrupulously separated from China’s foreign policy. In fact, the Huanqiu Shibao editorial of Dec. 1 compares American government reaction to the leak to bolster the PRC’s claim that Google needed to be better controlled for its loose attitude toward China’s “national secrets!” Julian Assange is indeed on the cover of this week’s Sanlian Shenghuo magazine, but the cover story only runs 22 pages long, which is about 25 to 50% shorter than most cover stories in this long magazine, and it does not touch upon China’s foreign policy impact.

Dai Bingguo, who is named in the documents, had the pleasure of going to Pyongyang recently to grab Kim Jong Il’s wrist and make it look like China is talking tough to the Kims. Maybe, just maybe, the Wikileaks story gets Chinese leaders to finally push through to North Korea to understand how tough it is in the international media environment, and why a communist state needs to put forth its own version of events.

Finally, an excerpt from Daniel Drezner in possibly the best essay I have read on the matter, courtesy Chronicle of Higher Education:

Scholars will need to exercise care in putting the WikiLeaks documents in proper perspective. Some researchers suffer from “document fetishism,” the belief that if something appears in an official, classified document, then it must be true. Sophisticated observers are well aware, however, that these cables offer only a partial picture of foreign-policy decision-making. Remember, with Cablegate, WikiLeaks has published cables and memos only from the State Department. Last I checked, other bureaucracies—the National Security Council, the Defense Department—also shape U.S. foreign policy. The WikiLeaks cables are a source—they should not be the sole source for anything.

For example, some cables from 2009 and 2010 suggest that Chinese officials were growing weary of their North Korean allies and even envisioned a reunified Korea run by Seoul and allied with the United States. The Guardian, in Britain, hyped those cables as a signal that China would rein in North Korea’s bellicose behavior. Those Chinese sentiments, however, usually came second or thirdhand, via South Korean diplomats. The Chinese officials, moreover, were talking primarily about the far future rather than the near term.

Most important, Chinese actions over the past six months do not match the views that appear in those cables. China’s muted responses to the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, to North Korea’s development of a light-water nuclear reactor, and to the latest exchange of artillery fire between North and South Korea hardly suggest that the leadership in Beijing will soon abandon its partners in Pyongyang.

2. Apprehension of American Naval Power

This is a long-standing theme in the PRC, but it is very interesting how in the past year, the Chinese public discourse on North Korea has become so tied to the need for China to become a more respected naval power, and rhetorical brush-backs against the U.S. Navy (and its associated allies, particularly the Japanese and ROK).

Why does this matter? Because no one in China, besides the rapidly depleting ranks of China’s Korean War veterans and possibly some old-timer higher-ups in the PLA, believes any of that nonsense about the “blood alliance” with North Korea. Today, as far as the literate public is concerned, the Korean peninsula is a dangerous place where outbreaks of violence can invite intervention by the United States (and Japan, whose participation in a post-collapse of North Korea occupation is taken for granted, and is not welcomed). China needs to take care of its own interests.

Last week’s Sanlian Shenghuo (Vol. 49, 2010), the closest Chinese equivalent to Time Magazine, carried a curious article by Song Xiaojun (宋晓军) on page 147: “Will the USS Jimmy Carter Submarine ‘Visit’ North Korea? [‘吉米卡特号’ ‘访问’ 朝鲜?]” The article concludes with a speculation that the US Navy is looking for a “second spring” in opposition to North Korea’s navy, and that, absent the DPRK, the US would begin to focus even more intently on matching and overcoming China’s naval capacities; there is also speculation on the moving of the Jimmy Carter into Asian waters as a signal of strength by whatever Republican might take the White House in 2012. Someone is planning ahead…

3. Chinese Depictions of Kim Jong Un

While KCNA has avoided hyping Kim Jong Un as more than a “comrade” with a suddenly great seat at the recent Party Congress as well as some important committees, the Chinese media hasn’t had too much of a problem identifying him as the “new emperor” in the wings.

None of this criticism shows up in China’s own English-language media, and it certainly isn’t expressed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The Chinese mode of analysis on Kim Jong Un is remarkably similar to, say, the Washington Post’s: speculation is the order of the day, with ample quotes provided from South Korean experts, the Chosun Ilbo and the Daily NK.

The difference is that the references to North Korean labor camps and totalitarian system are scrubbed clean. You also get professors in Jilin giving the man serious advice in op-ed format that he really needs to get busy with making some contributions to Marxist-Leninist-Kimist/Juche Theory. (Citing from the October 16 version of the magazine “环球人物/Global People,” which contains a few articles by 周之然/Zhou Zhiran, the magazine’s correspondent in Pyongyang.)

Then again, they might know something we don’t about the connection between the Kim Jong Un succession (which after a shockingly long period of public ambivalence about, the Chinese press has finally endorsed) and the Cheonan Incident. In other words, if the speculation is correct that North Korea is using the military provocations as a means of battle-testing the new heir and solidifying his power base, China seems willing to tacitly let that go on, if only after the fact.

Almost all of the gloves/restrictions have come off when it comes to describing the Kim family in China, so long as the governing system of North Korea does not itself come under scrutiny. A great example of this theme comes in a back-page long article in Southern Weekend of October 14, 2010, but a couple of weeks after the Party Congress came to an end. Qin Xuan (秦轩)’s piece entitled “The Successor’s Older Brother: Kim Jong Il’s Oldest Son Kim Jong Nam is a Wierdo (接班人的哥哥:金正日长子金正男其人)” is a great case in point, going so far as to provide a copy of Kim Jong Nam’s fake Dominican passport for which he was detained in Tokyo back in 2001.

Image via Japan Focus

4. China and Cheonan/The Sounds of Cannon

When Dai Bingguo visited Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong Il, presumably, Kim was told that it might be a good time to start negotiating again with the West, and Dai was told that South Korea (and of course the American military) provoked the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

While some American critics say that China should have “stopped” the DPRK from taking this action, it’s worth noting that North Korean field commanders have a great deal more latitude than their South Korean counterparts – no phone calls need be made to PLA regional HQ in Shenyang before shelling a South Korean island, for instance.

Critics of the PRC note that North Korean, having escaped from the Cheonan episode absent any lashing critique from China, have taken the positive logic of the Cheonan incident forward: “We can, after all,” the DPRK cabal might say to itself, “brush back the ROK with torpedoes without suffering undue consequences.” It seems that Chinese were hardly forceful in their rebukes (if indeed they rebuked anyone privately) of the North Koreans at that time. Perhaps the Chinese leadership is now regretting not having been more vigorous in exposing North Korea to opprobrium of consequence after the Cheonan Incident.

Is it axiomatic that China was upset about the artillery campaign? Was it upset about the Cheonan Incident?

Shen Dingli expresses it rather obviously: the open willingness among Chinese hawks/nationalists/Central Committee/PLA to use North Korea as not just a passive “buffer” versus the American military presence in East Asia but as an active aggravator of the U.S., thus keeping the focus off of Taiwan and adding a pressure point to the American perimeter in the Pacific.

Additionally, from the CCP point of view, a militarily potent and peripherally aggressive DPRK keeps the (commerce-worthy but still basically hated) Japanese on edge.

In other words, North Korea is truly unwieldy, but not without its uses.

How did this strategy work for the CCP in the case of the Cheonan? Here the role of public opinion and interest groups seems salient. Thanks to the American/ROK response to the Cheonan incident (e.g., announcing US intent to send aircraft carriers to the Yellow Sea for military drills) allowed the CCP to rally the public around the red flag and bluster about American naval overreach into the Yellow Sea.

The hawkish consensus in Washington, D.C., on the Cheonan Incident, as I recall, was focused on expressions of North Korean culpability (axiomatic, of course!), and the desire to see China turn the screws on North Korea. But in the Chinese media and in discussions among Chinese people, it is really important (I think) to note that the Cheonan Incident was but an entry point into what for the Chinese is the much bigger issue of American naval power in the Pacific.

This perception in China seems to be better understood by the politically literate public in Seoul than in D.C., if only because papers like the Dong-A Ilbo have steady and Chinese-fluent correspondents in Beijing. I recall sitting in Seoul this past July, slurping some cold barley noodles on a hot day, and spending a couple of hours marveling at the Dong-A Ilbo’s analysis of the past week’s Global Times/Huanqiu Shibao editorials. American writers (and bloggers/secondary layer analysis hacks) tend to assume that the Global Times English version represents the Chinese view and rarely if ever delve into the Chinese version itself.

This strategy worked in the spring and over the summer, but it isn’t likely to be the case with reference to the Island Artillery Incident.

Why would China be so ambivalent about the Cheonan Incident, about the artillery island incident? There is the structural matter of the 1961 treaty between the DPRK and the PRC. As I understand this document, it obligates the states to mutual defense in the event of a war. As others said rather clearly, the attack on the Cheonan amounted to an act of war. (None better or more directly than one German editorial writer whose work is read on my YouTube channel: ”ein Angriff an ein Kriegesschiff ist ein Kriegesakt!” China needed to shield itself from being pinned into a predictable pattern of response; to keep everyone guessing about its intentions is entirely the point, and there is still just enough residual Maoism in the PLA to have some respect for the North Korean brand of warfare.

There is also the matter of historical fact that China – in particular the PLA — has a very different view of Korean boundary issues, having spilled blood to push the “Main Line of Resistance” south in 1952. In other words, the MLR becomes the DMZ and the PRC tends toward sympathy of North Korean interpretations. The lack of recognition of the international boundaries in the West Sea is just yet another structural boundary issue with which East Asia is so tethered, and which keeps things so tense.

However, in spite of the alliance and the boundary sympathies, I think the notion that the PRC will support the North Koreans in any given situation, no matter the context, is simply incorrect, particularly if the North Koreans appear to be dancing on the edge of a broader conflict. In other words, it is fine to kill 46 South Korean sailors if it helps you stabilize your (distasteful but comprehensible) hereditary succession system, but it may not be fine to shell South Korean territory if it upsets the regional balance of power or invites a larger conflict. Of course, for all we know the North Korean leaders may be congratulating themselves for having had the self-discipline to respect the wishes of their Chinese brothers, waiting until the G-20 Summit was over first. Not all concessions are visible.

5. Assorted Themes

- Does China’s growing self-confidence impact the way it looks at North Korea? Absolutely. We have to recall that the new 5-Year Plan hooks Chinese prestige to a great leap in “Soft Power” funding, which is in a way, to say that China will be spending even more money in the near term on external propaganda than it currently is. This serves to extend Chinese prestige and viewpoints, but where is North Korea in this discourse? In the dark. In a long cover article in the relatively liberal/reformist magazine Phoenix Weekly by Duan Yurong entitled “Let the Whole World Hear Our Voice (段宇宏,让全世界都能听到我们的声音 March 5, 2009, pp. 26-31).” This kind of article tells us two salient things: 1. The P.R. China has worked steadily since the 1950s on the matter and is now used to having its media voice heard globally, and 2. China is increasingly sensitive to how it is depicted externally. North Korea gives China basically no face, no benefit, and no special access in these regards. South Korea, by contrast, for all the ink spilled in the PRC over South Korean naval maneuvers, was the first country to take on a Confucius Institute.

- Wen Jiabao has the front cover of November’s Kan Shijie (World Outlook) shaking hands with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Good luck getting a picture of any similar prominence between Dai Bingguo and Kim Jong Il. When Hu Jintao shook hands in an elegant photo with Kim Jong Il this past September, it was newspaper fare, but no magazine put it on the cover. These kind of small things add up over time: China’s membership in the world community trumps its need to hold up the North Koreans with any pride. (By the way, World Outlook is a tremendous publication, the same issue has a long look at China’s 65 year history with the UN, discussion of the Drug Wars in Mexico and Afghanistan, strikes in France, the obligatory articles on US air and navy capabilities from Japan, and a review of Walter Bowart’s “Operation Mind Control,” a 1970s classic on LSD, the CIA, and mind control/brainwashing. Unfortunately the last listed article has no reference to the American study of CCP “mind control” and torture tactics (and their subsequent verbatim incorporation into Guantanamo Bay interrogation instructions), but what the hell. Any Richard Condon “Manchurian Candidate” references I can get in the PRC, I’ll take. It is sometimes almost delightful to see stories like this in the PRC media, stories stemming from the 1960s and 1970s, as they consist of a kind of “catching up” symptom which at its heart is healthy.

- Differing views of the Korean War, part 215: Popular Digest (大众文摘, 2010, No. 11/119, pp. 53-55), carries a memoirs-based look at massacres carried out in July 1950 by ROK security forces (“Forgotten Massacre in the Korean War”), including analysis of data and photographs emerged from US archives on May 5, 2008. This kind of mass magazine is so pulpy and cheap, and tabloid-style, but the Korean War is consistently engaged in such outlets. Interestingly enough, the cover image of the magazine has the primary headline of “The First Chinese Air Force Member to Bomb Japan”, putting a picture of Mount Fuji just above the word for “Massacre” in the title of the Korea story.

- Artillery incidents lead nationalistic military periodicals to headlines like “After “The US-South Korea Plot to Contain China after the North-South Korea Artillery Incident,” or “Secret Alliance Between Japan and South Korea.”

- When it comes to the North Korea issue, there is very little light between Chinese “reformist-liberal” publications and the nationalistic tabloids. This very likely reflects the direction of the Propaganda Ministry, but it might also reflect that Chinese liberals aren’t particularly sympathetic to the American approach toward North Korea. It’s hard to say. In any event, I call your attention to Southern Weekend (南方周末)of December 2, 2010, where author Zhang Zhe writes a full page-story entitled “Revealing the US-ROK ‘Plan 5027’ to Make War on North Korea” (张哲,美韩对朝作战‘5027计划‘揭秘’, p. A7). The sidebar of this story notes “In 1973, the US and ROK agreed on a systemic plan to make war on North Korea, called ‘Plan 5027.’ Here, ‘50’ represented the American Pacific HQ, ‘2’ represented the Korean Peninsula, and ‘7’ was the number signifying the plan. But among the plans, there also numbers 5026, 5028, 5029, and 5030. Will the U.S. now implement these plans?”

- Before teenage Korean-American peace activist Jonathan Lee was arrested at Tiananmen Square for holding up a sign and trying to give a letter to Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping, he got some favorable press in China. The weekly magazine Southern People Weekly carried a nice picture of Jonathan with former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung and described his NGO in very favorable terms. (Nanfang Renwu Zhoukan , Sept. 6, 2010, p. 85). Chinese media, it appears, should support any American seeking to make peace with North Korea, at least until that person acts to “disturb social order.” Given the number of firebrands who are actively working in Seoul and around the world to call attention to the absence of a peace treaty on the Korean peninsula or on the issue of human rights in North Korea (think of the self-uncensored and mega-motivated Norbert Vollertsen), it would appear that China will probably return to its highly-guarded stance on media coverage of such people. Hopefully the magazine editors at Southern People Weekly didn’t catch too much flak for promoting Jonathan Lee’s contacts with Pyongyang.

6. A Few Questions

Did anyone figure out if the Chosen One (Kim Jong Un) ever took a trip to Manchuria with his suddenly zippy father figure? And have any really French sources emerged besides that original L’Hebdo article describing his years in Berne? Why does Dai Bingguo grab Kim Jong Il’s wrist when they shake hands?

Why did my favorite North Korean restaurant in Beijing disappear under a wrecking ball? What happened to all the waitresses? Could I please find someone in the Starbucks down the street to set down their intricate plans to sell Chilean wines to wealthy mistresses of Seoul businessmen in China to stop for a second and explain to me that the Wangjing district in Beijing in fact has a history, and that there are in fact North Koreans here, somewhere? What do we know from a statistical standpoint about North Korean restaurant operations in the PRC?

Why do North Korean capitalists in Dandong ask me for my card and then tell me their name is “Mr. Kim” and that they will give me their card “next time” they act like dicks by the Yalu? How did those “anti-terrorist” drills go in Dandong anyway?

What is the unemployment rate in Tonghua? Given a totally open border and the prospect of dirt cheap North Korean labor in Manchuria, what forms of “acceptable” and “unharmonious” counteractions would be taken by Chinese workers against the result? Does China have such solid control over its own frontier industrial population that it can afford to absorb, say, 60-100,000 North Korean refugees in Tonghua? What is the fastest way to the loving arms of Lee Myung-Bak in Mongolia from Ji’an, anyway?

Why did the Chinese media stop citing “Good Friends” reports about how bad life is in North Korea? How bone-shatteringly cold is it in North Hamgyong right now, and how does the low temperature give China and would-be aid givers more leverage when it comes to talking to the North?

Did anyone ever publish a rebuttal to B.R. Myers’ for his The Cleanest Race, or does absolutely no one have the appropriate expertise? (It serves to reason that some Korean-language reviews have emerged in Seoul, but I have failed to find them. It’s a great book, but it really healthy for a scholar to have no counterspin whatsoever?)

Manchurian Base Camp, Part III: The DPRK’s Northeastern Strategy

Manchurian Base Camp, Part I: In the 1930s Kim Il Song regarded Manchuria, or Northeast China, as an immense area into which to project anti-Japanese struggle and wherein he could hammer out the personal foundations for what would become the North Korean state.  

Manchurian Base Camp, Part II: During the Korean War, North Korean elites moved back into Manchuria to escape from the horrific bombing of Pyongyang (and virtually every other major and minor city in the DPRK), populating special schools in cities like Tonghua, Jilin, and Changchun.  In his recent visit to Jilin, Kim Jong Il admitted that he had spent nearly three years in Jilin province as an elementary school student, safe from American air raids.  (While this put the lie to the many stories North Korean propagandists had already spun about the Young General accompanying his (rather young) father at the front, braving bombs and giving on-the-spot-guidance at the tender age of eight or nine, his comments were meant for a Chinese audience anyway, and have been widely reported in the PRC without a great deal of editorializing. 

Manchurian Base Camp, Part II.5 is the unacknowledged symmetry that began with what Andrew Nastios calls “The Great North Korean Famine” in the 1990s; the symmetry involves hungry North Koreans who saw the Chinese northeast as their lifeline much as Kim Il Song’s arduous marches in the 1930s acknowledged that the difficult survival in Manchuria was survival nevertheless.  

And finally to today:  

Manchurian Base Camp, Part III: Today the North Korean leadership is pushing again towards Northeast China, but in a different fashion, opening the gates in obvious fashion to reinterpret the meaning of Manchuria in the North Korean propaganda topos.  Take, for instance, the summary of a new North Korean editorial, published in the Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Daily) in Pyongyang and relayed to us via the Chinese news bureau in that city (translation by Adam Cathcart):


文章介绍了东北三省在地理、经济、文化等各方面的发展情况,称赞在中国共产党的关怀和该地区人民具有献身精神的奋斗与努力下,东北三省在政治、经济、文化等许多领域的发展都取得了巨大成果。文章说,东北工业和农业得到壮大,科技飞速发展,人民福利大幅提高。东北人民为有中国特色的和谐社会主义建设作出了巨大贡献。 文章最后对东北的明天抱以美好的展望,称东北地区将在社会主义现代化建设的道路上不断向前发展。

An article published in the September 16 “Workers’ Daily’ in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea states that, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese Northeast has taken on a whole new appearance.  The article, entitled “Daily Renewal and Change in the Chinese Northeastern Region,” states that Northeast China was the area of former national Chairman Kim Il Song’s revolutionary activities, was where he lived and struggled, and is the important and significant site of historical Korean-Chinese friendship.  The DPRK’s highest leader Kim Jong Il went twice to the Northeast [this past year], in May and in August, pursuing (追寻) Kim Il Song’s footsteps and historical relics from his revolutionary activities.  [Translator's note: There were precious few of these relics available for DPRK scholars who went in pursuit of Marshal Kim's footsteps in 1953; some of my archival work on this issue will be coming out in the next year in Harvard's Journal of Cold War Studies.  But here the important point is the pursuing of the "footsteps," an important succession theme, and Kim Jong Il was never really all that interested in historical veracity in the first place.]    

The article introduces the geography, economy, culture and other aspects of Northeast China’s situation of development, stating that under the solicitous care of the Chinese Communist Party, the people of the region have taken a collective spirit of effort and struggle, making huge achievements in all spheres in the three Northeastern provinces, including politics, economics, and culture.  The article goes on to state that industry and agriculture in the Northeast are expanding and strengthening, that science is helping to speed development and substantially raise the welfare of the people.  The Northeastern people are producing huge contributions to the establishment of harmonious socialism with Chinese characteristics.   The article ends by stating that the Northeast holds great hopes for a beautiful tomorrow, moving continuously forward on the road of modern, socialist construction and development. 

 In another sense, the North Korean state is finally stating something which has become completely obvious to residents of the border areas, and no doubt by word of mouth to residents in the population centers closer to the southern border like Hamhung and Pyongyang: Northeast China is developing rapidly.  In and of itself, such a statement does not consist of “news” to a deadened North Korean population, but its bullish statement by KCNA, the North Korean propaganda agency, is of course “newsworthy.”

Kim Jong Il’s recent visits to North Korean border regions, replacing of top party officials in border provinces, and the primacy assigned to North Pyong’an and Ryanggang (northwestern border) provinces in the rhetoric and speculation about Kim Jong Un would all seem to further indicate the northward focus of the DPRK leadership at the moment.   

In English, the DPRK makes its Northeastern strategy further apparent in this KCNA piece describing Kim Il Song’s [mostly real] contributions to the Chinese revolution in the era of China’s “War of Liberation”/Civil War.  A second, much more extensive piece, moves the argument ahead even further, placing China in the position of being in a kind of moral debt to the Kim family due to aid rendered during the civil war.  One might want to note, however, that describing these so prominently in DPRK media isn’t so much as a new move as a return to the ethos of 1949, when the North Korean media was rather outspoken in its support for Mao and the Chinese communist war effort, something which can be further explored in an article I published a couple of years back with Chuck Kraus entitled “North Korean Internationalism, 1945-1950″ in the Review of Korean Studies. 

In another post, I’ll endeavor to describe how North Korea began telegraphing the “Northeastern strategy” with great clarity before Kim Jong Il went on his impulse-tour of the Northeast, via slogans long in preparation for an Arirang for Chinese tourists in August, 2010.  I got an eyeful of these, fresh from the cameras of Chinese tourists returning into Dandong when I was at the border there on August 21.  Lots and lots of references to Kim Il Song’s footsteps in Manchuria…

"Construct a Harmonious Socialist Society" -- Arirang caption for PRC Premier Wen Jiabao in Pyongyang, October 2009; click image for photo gallery

Hiatus//Documentary Smorgasbord//Steven Chu for President in 2016

I’m on the two-day cusp of departing from Taipei for the beautiful work that awaits in Seattle, and am thus taking my annual last-week-of-July blogging vacation.  I would, in the meantime, like to recommend several fascinating sources for your delectation, enjoyment, and edification.

Don’t miss:

* C-Span’s panel discussions on the origins of the Korean War (particularly the remarks by the guest from London, and the percussive readings at 43:30, followed by discussion of tattoos in POW camps) and Truman’s postwar Japan policy, both of which have something broadly to do with the topic tackled in my dissertation “Chinese Nationalism in the Shadow of Japan, 1945-1950,” a revised version of which has been the object of my present academic “protracted warfare” campaign here in Taiwan.

* Discussions with major Soviet historian Robert Service about his monumental biographies of Trotsky, Stalin, and Lenin, which include excerpts from this rather interesting video below and pictures of the immense icepick which killed Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940, an incident which I’m sure we all remember very well:

* Following up on previous discussion on this blog about testimony about North Korea by the old hand Selig Harrison to the U.S. House Committee on International Affairs in June 2009.  We were waiting on the transcripts to arrive, and now they have.

* Discussion of the role played by Energy Secretary Steven Chu in the BP oil disaster management.  I may as well tell you right now that I believe that Steven Chu should be the next President of the United States.  Yes, that’s right, America!  You need to get on the Steven Chu bus for 2016!  I’m quite sure he doesn’t want the job and would rather return to doing scientific research with international collaborators, and possibly working up his latent Chinese fluency, which is precisely why he deserves to be President.  Imagine a President who can talk smack to the CCP in the putonghua about the number of coal particles per cubic meter of air in Shaanxi!

The SUCCESSOR (with no need to have Jang Song Taek intervene, none whatsoever!), Steven Chu in DC; courtesy Arizona State University Dept. of Physics

Steven Chu in Beijing; courtesy Bloomberg

* Speaking of people in new jobs, basketball fans and observers of my old hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, will enjoy this forward-looking discussion about coach Byron Scott’s plans for progress in the post-LeBron James era.  This blog has discussed LeBron James’ previous campaigns in Shenyang, Liaoning province; an interesting look by a sports writer describes how the city of Beijing was central to recent axis-turning moves in the National Basketball Association.

* And, in keeping with this blog’s title (and my own proclivities and pedagogical influences from Janos Starker, and, more recently, my unlikely clashes with victims of the war in Berlin), I hope you enjoy this short excerpt of cellist Karim Wasfi, is also music director of the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra:

It also goes without saying that I very much want to meet this person and am determined to play some of his music in the next three-year period.  However, apart from the tremendous work by the soloist/composer, the orchestra is young and its string sound is really rather anemic, with the exception of the guest concertmaster, E. Marc Thayer of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.  I was fortunate to have dinner with Marc in St. Louis a few weeks after his return from Iraq, and learned a great deal from him about the nuts and bolts of musical diplomacy in Kurdistan.    He is continuing cooperation with two violin students he met there.

Why do I care about musical exchanges with Iraq?  Because people interested in cultural diplomacy with China are connected, and because I’m interested in this as a possible future model for musical diplomacy with a more open DPRK (or integrated northern Korea).  I do think that it’s important that, in the event of a German-style reunification/absorption/annihilation of)  North Korea, that the old DPRK’s musical culture is not completely jettisoned.  And contrary to what Christopher Hitchens rather drunkenly asserts (among a host of other errors) in his otherwise interesting “Axis of Evil” speech, not everything in the DPRK  is about the Kim family, particularly when it comes to musical training and performance.  I don’t mind admitting that I’ve read more than a few sentences about education and music in Kim Il Song’s Works with which I can wholly agree.  (At this point I might remind readers of the potential for anti-Chinese sentiment in the Works and assert that any successor to Kim Jong Il had better be damned adroit in reinterpreting the 88 volumes of those Works in order to justify new reforms, but then again that would be gratuitous).

* More discussion of the Dalian oil spill in China, along with a review of Chinese-language news stories focusing on US-ROK naval exercises and Sino-German relations, is available on my Twitter feed.

I should be back on or around August 1, hopefully with some news about new publications and/or submitted manuscripts, since some people, after all, are keeping track of their scholarly statistics.

Ste-ven CHU! Ste-ven CHU! STEVEN CHU in 2016...You heard it here first. Hell, the man might even have some new ideas for how to save the city of DETROIT. See you in ten days.

Crumbling North America

The Rust Belt continues to crumble.  This past week, my old hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, got some bad news: 18 schools, mainly on the African-American east side, would be closing for good, including East High School.  (East High had been the academic origin of some of my most ardent students at Hiram College, the old Western Reserve Eclectic Institute where I was a professor from 2004-2007).   The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports the school closing story, and we learn elsewhere that foreclosure rates on the East Side are approaching 20% in some areas.

Cleveland, St. Clair neighborhood, East Side

I spent a couple of years as an undergraduate wandering around in these parts when I wasn’t slaving away at the conservatory/university…One could find stranded American flags in abandoned church sanctuaries, whole wooden altars, CIA maps in destroyed libraries, pigeons living in crack houses — and this was in the boom years of the late 1990s!

courtesy CPD

The only thing that is propping up housing rates on Cleveland’s East Side, in the Hough neighborhood which had been the epicenter of the 1968 race riots, is Chinese immigration.  The Cleveland Chinatown is really a gem, and there is life that thrums along in Hough (pronounced “huff”).   Like Tacoma in 1885, the Clevelanders tried to run out their Chinese population in 1926 during the Tong Wars, but unlike Tacoma, they failed.  And the persistence of the Chinese is now Cleveland’s gain in more ways than one.  If LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers are purchased by a Chinese CEO, Cleveland’s Chinatown might expand further still.

At this point I could note that in its major problems, Cleveland is far from alone; Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati are dealing with similar issues, not to mention smaller cities like Erie, Pa., that one only hears about during Presidential campaigns, when the politicians arrive with bunting and temporary lies about bringing jobs back.  But such conversations typically circle back around Detroit, that symbol used to signify all that is wrong with the Rust Belt, less often as a symbol for the possibility of regeneration.  Harpers carries a gorgeous peroration of a story about Detroit’s urban decline:

The transformation of the residential neighborhoods is more dramatic. On so many streets in so many neighborhoods, you see a house, a little shabby but well built and beautiful. Then another house. Then a few houses are missing, so thoroughly missing that no trace of foundation remains. Grass grows lushly, as though nothing had ever disturbed the pastoral verdure. Then there’s a house that’s charred and shattered, then a beautiful house, with gables and dormers and a porch, the kind of house a lot of Americans fantasize about owning. Then more green. This irregular pattern occurs mile after mile, through much of Detroit. You could be traveling down Wa bash Street on the west side of town or Pennsylvania or Fairview on the east side of town or around just about any part of the State Fair neighborhood on the city’s northern border. Between the half-erased neighborhoods are ruined factories, boarded-up warehouses, rows of storefronts bearing the traces of failed enterprise, and occasional solid blocks of new town houses that look as though they had been dropped in by helicopter. In the bereft zones, solitary figures wander slowly, as though in no hurry to get from one abandoned zone to the next. Some areas have been stripped entirely, and a weedy version of nature is returning. Just about a third of Detroit, some forty square miles, has evolved past decrepitude into vacancy and prairie—an urban void nearly the size of San Francisco.

Reading this, I recalled a certain galvanizing photo gallery a friend alerted me to last year: images of Detroit, broken, tattooed, slashed with paint, but with strong and massive foundations:

Detroit Train Station -- click image for gallery -- thanks to Li Yu for the link

Isn’t this precisely the kind of space used by artists in 798 in Beijing, or by avant garde curators in Berlin?  Why can’t we converge to empower artists of whatever nationality with such refurbished spaces?  It seems to me, knowing what I do about Cleveland, that the arts community is one of the few remaining growth industries, an area where there is a massive base of potential and actual innovation.

Perhaps the answer is to turn over massive swaths of Detroit to Chinese real estate developers, Chinese architects, Chinese urban planners, and the Chinese avant garde.  The reformist zeal, the utopian vision, the futurist impulse, and the life-giving funds and energies brought to North America could succeed in themselves in revitalizing whole salients of Rust Belt cities.  And sure, swaths of Shenyang still need saving, and Fushun is dirty and depressed, and the workers are restive in Tonghua: so workers of the world unite, and demand that you get some futurist architects in your midst.

and by the way,

Dear Mr. Obama: American cities are in serious need of repair and revitalization, and it isn’t the job solely of the data-hungry Department of Education to fix.  I know you’re busy with your aerial drones over the Pakistani border areas, and those nifty plans for attacking Yemen, not to mention the insufferable egos of your former chamber colleagues, but spending some time on Detroit and Ohio would behoove us all.  And when you’re in Cleveland on January 22nd talking about jobs on the relatively well-to-do West Side, consider taking a hop over the Cuyahoga, stop in Chinatown for some dim sum, and then pound the pavement East 99th and St. Clair.  I think you’ll find it to be instructive.

Lake Erie, Cleveland, Martin Luther King Park, looking north to Ontario, Canada

I’ll close with some Bone Thugs ‘n Harmony extolling the virtues of the east side, while strolling through much of the infrastructure that made Cleveland great…If you’re not into it, blame Bruce Cumings at the University of Chicago for the hip-hop medium showing up on this blog — apparently his latest book delves into some Snoop Dogg analysis, and as early as 1992 he asserted that “rap beats Beethoven in the war for public opinion” (War and Television). Cleveland East Side fo[r] life.

Reformist Flirtations and Successor Politics: KCNA Tropes

While Chinese left-wingers insist upon the courage and worthiness of North Korea’s wealth-equalizing currency reforms, Kim Jong Il is out talking up profitability in the northern frontier province of Jagang.

via Wikimedia

In a visit to a the Kanggye Wine Factory reported on December 10, the Dear Leader spake:

He went round the newly-built beer shop…greatly satisfied to learn that the factory has not only steadily boosted the production by updating the production processes and increasing its capacity but successfully set up new production processes including those for the production of beer and raw rice wine.

The factory has steadily lifted the production and strictly abided by the principle of profitability in its management by waging a widespread mass technical innovation movement and establishing a production system relying on its locally available raw materials, he said, adding that the experience gained by the factory goes to prove that the introduction of science and technology precisely means production and vice versa.

He said it is important for the factory to preserve the taste of its special product wine peculiar to it as it has a long history.

Underlining the need to realize specializing in production in order to improve the quality of the product, he called for independently developing beer, raw rice wine and other production processes as its branches.

Kim Jong Il then turned in a kind of arc to praise Jagang province.  Is this a reward for tamping down rebellion, or some kind of a signal that the successor will be finding some historical roots in the province, as has been reported regarding North Pyong’an?

The people of Jagang Province turned its cities and villages into fairylands by their own efforts in the hard days of “the Arduous March”, the forced march and are now dashing ahead in sky-high spirit as frontrankers in the drive for building a great prosperous and powerful nation, he noted, extending a warm salute to all the officials, party members and other working people of the province. [Whassup!!!!!]

Noting that Jagang Province is witnessing miracles and feats marveling the world people day by day, he said that this stirring reality is a brilliant fruition of the great Kanggye spirit and revelation of the inexhaustible mental power of the Korean people who inherited the spirit of Mt. Paektu.

He expressed expectation and conviction that the working people of the province including those in Kanggye City would continue creditably playing a vanguard role in the gigantic drive for building a thriving nation.

In the same dispatch, discussing Kim’s inspection of the Jangjagang Machine Tool Factory, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on IT development, marking a kind of high-tech theme that would be sure to be picked up upon by a successor.

Ever since Xinhua recommended them (as a kind of slap in the face to North Korea), I have been spending more time with the Open Radio North Korea stories, and found this dispatch of December 7 quite apropos on the high-tech aspects of the successor question:

Kim Jong-Eun’s administration team started its activities in 2007

- Kim Jong-Eun’s team for 7.7 Cyber terrorism was established in September 2007

- Kim Jong-Il favored Kim Jong-Eun and designated him as his successor upon his graduation from college.

Kim Jong-Eun was designated as successor in January 2007.

This means that Kim Jong-Eun has been groomed and trained for three years, and that he must be a mature politician, and not a novice.

Additionally, this means the succession process hasn’t been rushed, but has been systematically prepared. Kim Jong-Il’s stroke only accelerated the process. This means the official transition may come sooner than expected.

Open News for North Korea found four supporting facts- the timing of formation of Kim Jong-Eun’s administration team, establishment of revolutionary history sites, formation of a cyber terrorism team, as well as the timing of the weakening of the Department of Organization and Education.

First, it seems that the administration team for Kim Jong-Eun was formed in 2007. The team is composed of experts in various areas, in their 40s and 50s.

Secondly, in 2007, construction of Kim Jong-Eun’s revolutionary history site started. According to a source in April, the construction started in Changsung, North PyongAn Province. The construction was completed in January 2009, and was not open to public until May. Such site for Kim Il-Sung is in Mankyung Dae, for Kim Jong Il is in Baekdu Mountain, and they are used for public eductaion.

hirdly, the Cyber terrorism team that Kim Jong-Eun is in charge of was established in September 2007. Kim Jong Il has been involved from the inception in 2007, as Kim Jong-Eun’s close personnel recommended that North Korea should start utilizing cyber battles in order to get ahead.

Fourthly, the authority of the Department of Organization and Education weakened in 2007. After designating Kim Jong-Eun as successor, the power of Department of Organization and Education weakened, as the power of the Politburo where Kim Jong-Eun belongs grew.

These circumstances support that Kim Jong-Eun was designated as successor in 2007.

2007 was also when Kim Jong-Eun graduated from college.  This means Kim Jong-Eun was active as a successor upon his graduation despite his young age… Kim Jong-Il chose Kim Jong-Eun as a successor as his favored son. In 2007, he made an announcement to a few personnel.

Perhaps Kim Jong-Eun has some ties, then, with high-tech firms in Jagang province?  There’s always the Huichon University of Telecommunications, or the Simjiyeon Information Technology Center,  and then we have this curiosity:

DPRK propaganda for the "Korea Computer Center" -- note the purposeful multitasking on the left -- click image for link

Perhaps the Kanggye praise and the successor politics of recent days can all be fused together in the light of recent instability.  Recall that the city of Kanggye has always been the last holdout for a Kim regime on the run.  This was true in 1950, as Bruce Cumings instructs us, and, since so many weapons are manufactured there today, probably true again.  In the event of a regime implosion, absent flight of the elites to Switzerland, put your money on Kanggye for a destination to regroup and consolidate control of at least one province.

Of course, maybe Joshua Stanton will already be there with his refugee army and ten thousand Chinese cell phones purchased in Tonghua!

More likely is that Kim Jong Il, having been lurking in Pyongyang to monitor the Bosworth situation and handle communications with the Chinese, needed to make a pit stop in the army heartland province of Jagang to shore up support and make sure the tunnels were clean.

Xinjiang in Le Figaro

Le Figaro publishes a solid dispatch from Turkey; translation below:

Laure Marchand, “Istanbul, capitale des refugies ouigours [Istanbul, capital of Uighur refugees],” Le Figaro, 20 July 2009, p. 6.

More than 300,000 members strong, the Uighur diaspora is able to count on the sympathy of Turkish public opinion, but Ankara spares its critiques against Peking for economic reasons.


Installed in a stampeded bazaar, Abulresit, a Uighur shopkeeper, does not address a single word to his neighbor, the Chinese grocer, whom he openly detests…[Of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, he states:] “We are the same blood, we are brothers.  This gave me the courage to speak on the telephone with my family, now staying in Kashgar.  This morning, I finally succeeded in connecting, but they immediately hung up, as they were to afraid to speak.”

This person who fled Xinjiang in 1997 and his whole circle were not lacking an outlet for demonstrations in Istanbul.  In the past week, there were burning of Chinese toys outside of the Chinese consulate and the hanging of banners in favor of “East Turkestan independence” on the esplanade of the great mosque of Beyazit.   In these days, thousands of Turks and representatives of the Uighur diaspora — more than 300,000 are members of their associations — filed through dozens of Turkish cities, responding to the appeal of Islamic and nationalist organizations.  Since the 5 July, the uproar provoked a wave of sympathy within Turkish public opinion for their distant cousins in Xinjiang, muslims who speak a Turkic language.  They are also reviving the ardor of nostalgia for pan-turkism, an ideology which promotes the unification of all the Turkic people.

But after seeing this surrender to emotionalism, fed by the photos in various publications, Ankara, confronted by the wrath [courroux, n.m.] of the Chinese authorities, will henceforth moderate its critiques.

“]PIC_3529“A sort of genocide”

As is his habit, it is the the prime minister who has had an especially harsh summer.    Upon his return from the G8 summit in Italy, Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Bejing was culpable for “a sort of genocide” in its opposition to the Uighurs.  The Minister of Industry and Commerce called for a boycott of Chinese goods, though afterwards he had to backpedal [faire machine arriere] and affirm that he was only expressing a personal opinion.  Embarrassed, the Foreign Ministry multiplied its declarations in an effort to reduce the tensions.  Its spokesperson borrowed the attitude of the Chinese authorities who “try to do their best to approach these events calmly [avec sang-froid]” and discarded [balaye] the possibility of bringing the repression of the Uighurs before the Security Council, where Turkey has a non-permanent seat.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan had evoked this possibility.  The chief diplomat, Ahmet Davutoglu, similarly picked up his telephone to assure his Chinese counterpart that Turkey respects the territorial integrity of China and had no intention to meddle in its internal affairs.  Yang Jiechi explained to him that the uproar in Xinjiang was orchestrated by the “three evil forces.”  That is to say, according to the Chinese news agency, “extremism, separatism, and terrorism.”  Ankara uses a similar terminology of qualification for Turkish Kurds who sympathize with the rebels of the PKK (Workers’ Party of Kurdistan).

Diplomatic Cacophony

In total, this diplomatic cacophony intervenes at the moment when various Turks are trying to reinforce their position in the Chinese market.  In the month of June, the President of the Republic, Abdullah Gul, went to China; this was the first visit of a Turkish head of state in fifteen years.  In visiting Urumuqi, he stopped in a traditional Uighur home.  In Beijing, he signed commercial contracts of a value of 1.5 billion dollars.

“Turkey has been dead for a very long time, and appears to be unable to face its own problems,” moans Hidayet Oguzhan, president of the Association for East Turkestan Solidarity and Education, situated in an askew [guingois] apartment above a beauty institute in Istanbul.  “This time, raised our voices, but damn [helas], I think that they [the Turkish government] will forget us rather rapidly under the pressure from Beijing.”  In the 1990s, the Uighur diaspora lost the right to use the phrase “East Turkestan” in its official activities.  In 2006, Ankara decided to no longer provide a visa to Rebia Kadeer, chief in the line of Uighur resistance, and now exiled in the United States.  The Prime Minister assures that a new visa will be granted in the event that she makes a new request.

translation by Adam Cathcart

7/25 Update: The New Dominion blog provides some further interesting analysis on the responses of Chinese bloggers to the various statements of Turkish leaders in support of the Uighurs.