Monday, July 28, 2014

Chongqing Impressions: Two Years after Bo Xilai

When conducting interviews with local government officials in Chongqing last week, many of the times I felt like I were Jon Snow in Game of Thrones and my interviewee his wildling girl friend: “You know nothing” is what I constantly got. “You know,” I was told once, “generally we local governments do not accept interview requests from scholars, not to mention students. Because you don’t know anything.” On another occasion, when I tried to introduce myself as a Ph. D student of Political Science, my interviewee laughed: “What political science? Here we don’t have political science. All we have is politics.”
            Today is the eighth day since I landed in China to conduct field research for my dissertation. I wanted to gain some local perspective (versus that of the central government) on my topic, so I travelled to Chongqing, the city in China’s western hinterland that has been the country’s fourth municipality since 1997. It was also the epicenter of the political earthquake that shook China in 2012, when Bo Xilai, the then Party Chief of Chongqing and a “princeling” who had been expected by many to take a key leadership position in the 2012 leadership transition, was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party.
Securing interviews with local officials, however, turned out to be extremely difficult. Early this month, the state issued a new document that forbids Chinese journalists to provide information to foreign media or share news through personal social media accounts. Which, along with the intense anti-corruption and mass-line educational campaigns, reminded me again how the political climate had been tightened since President Xi Jinping took office. Fortunately, after digging really deep into my personal relations and promising anonymity, I finally was able to talk face-to-face with a couple of officials—not in their offices, but over the dinner table. And I had to drink “baijiu”—the Chinese “white liquor,”--every time I wanted to get some answers to my questions.
But except for the baijiu (I got really heavy-headed after one very small glass), I generally enjoyed the City of Chongqing. When I was not working, I would take a stroll around the neighborhood of my hotel or take a cab to the downtown area. China’s “mountain city” along the Yangtze River, Chongqing is built on hills and boasts splendid natural scenes along the riverbank. At Hongyadong, a recreation of old Chongqing that clings to the side of a mountain, you’ll find yourself coming out from the elevator to just another street. On the other hand, modern skyscrapers along the Yangtze would remind one of Hong Kong or New York.

Along the Yangtze

Hongyadong, a tourist spot that clings to the side of a mountain

Whenever possible, I would ask residents how satisfied they were with the local government now that Bo had been gone. To my surprise, most of them complained. A grocery store owner said succinctly: “It’s now a mess.” A taxi driver told me that many infrastructure projects had been halted since Bo was replaced, “I wish they could do it faster, so that the city would be in a better shape.” A primary school teacher said she wished the mobile patrol platforms were still there--when Bo was in office, he ordered 500 mobile patrol platforms be created to make the city safer, but they were nowhere to be found now.
It seemed that all things bearing Bo’s signature had been removed from Chongqing. In 2008, Bo Xilai launched the “Sing Red” campaign that organized people to sing the so-called “red songs,” popular patriotic and political songs from the Maoist era, including the Cultural Revolution. The campaign also included the study of “red classics” -- books and films about the Party’s revolutionary past. At the height of the campaign, red banners and posters could be seen everywhere in the city. Bo also ordered local TV channels to cut the number of dramas and stop airing commercials so as to make way for public service ads, news programs, and “red programs” that promoted “red culture.” But now no trace of the “Sing Red” campaign could be found. In my hotel,  I could watch as many commercials as I wanted on the Chongqing satellite channels.
A tea commercial on Chongqing TV
I was curious about the fate of the “Xilai trees”—the 20 million ginkgo trees that Bo spent billions of yuan to transplant to Chongqing primarily because they were his personal favorite—after Bo’s downfall. I was told that many of them did not survive the local climate anyway; but those that survived were still there. “The ginkgos don’t provide shade. We need shade here. Chongqing is too hot in the summer.” A popsicle vender told me. I did see some Ginkgo trees along my way back to the hotel—they were beautiful trees but it was true that they could not provide the much-needed shade for Chongqing’s seething summer. Local people’s favorite tree was still the banyan, which had historically been the City’s most common shade trees.  
Ginkgo trees on the left of the road
The Jiefangbei (People’s Liberation Monument) shopping plaza was a really interesting place to be at: to me, it was an epitome of many contradicting urges of the Chinese society today: market economy and communist ideologies, western lifestyle and national pride, a revolutionary past and a globalized future, and the Party's mass-line principles and the existing huge income gaps.

The Jiefangbei (People's Liberation Monument) shopping plaza

Time Square-style shopping plaza; the People's Liberation Monument at the Center. 

The 27-meter tall People’s Liberation Monument was built in 1945 to commemorate China’s victory over the Japanese in WWII, and was refurbished in 1997 when Chongqing became a municipality.

The 24,000 square meters shopping plaza was built in the same year, apparently modeled after Time Square in New York. Standing in front of the Monument, I was surrounded by shiny high-rises, huge LED signs, luxury stores, financial companies, and shopping centers. One of the high-rise buildings was named “New York, New York” and looked like a smaller version of the Empire State Building of NYC.
High-rise buildings at the Jiefangbei Shopping Plaza. The one on the left is "New York, New York."
Facing the Monument were a Gucci store and a Starbucks. The Starbucks reminded me of the Starbucks in Forbidden City in Beijing that was forced to close down after Rui Chenggang, a CCTV anchorman, led an online campaign to evict it from the Fobidden City in 2007, citing cultural sensitivities and national dignity. Rui had since been hailed as a national hero by many. Earlier this month, Rui was taken away for anti-corruption investigation.
Several hundred meters away from the center of the plaza was a construction site. One of the posters on the fences read: “There would not have been the new China without the Communist Party. [meiyou gongchandang jiu meiyou xinzhongguo]” It was the same message Bo tried to convey several years ago. But he probably went too far, and too fast.
Left: Communist Party Members are on the Road to a Dream Fulfilled; center: Without the Communist Party, there would not have been the New China; right: Morality Matters in China

(Chunhua Chen is a third year Ph.D student of Political Science at GWU. This summer, she is doing field research on her dissertation in China supported by a Sigur Center Grant for Asian Field Research for summer 2014.)

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