Yali at Yale

A student on SJTU campus is wearing a Yale sweatshirt, and I’m surprised to see a reference to my alma mater. Then I look again and I realize it doesn’t say “Yale” at all but rather “Yali,” although the font is the famous Yale one. “Another pathetic Chinese attempt to rip off a Western brand,” I think to myself but then I remember that “yali” in Chinese means “pressure.” The shirt is surely a comment on the exam hell all Chinese students go through in order to make it into the Ivy League. How brilliant!

It reminds me of the time in the 1990s when Spike Lee’s film about Malcolm X was drawing big crowds. Black people, and some liberal whites, were wearing baseball caps with an “X” on the front as a way to associate themselves with the legacy. Except the black students at Yale who wore a cap with a “Y.”  The reference to black culture was obvious, yet so was their claim to exclusivity.

Deng Xiaoping is still killing people

Twenty-four years ago, during the “June 4th Incident” at Tiananmen Square, the Beijing leaders, led by Deng Xiaoping, ordered the killing of students who demonstrated on behalf of democracy and human rights. The number of people killed during those days is disputed but it was at least 200 people, possibly well over a thousand. Ever since Deng Xiaoping has continued to kill Chinese people, even after his own death.

It is, for example, common in China that smokers refer to Deng Xiaoping saying: “Look at Deng. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and yet he lived to be over 90. Surely smoking can’t be that bad.”

Or consider the reintroduction of capitalism into China that Deng initiated. According to yesterday’s New York Times 1.2 million people die prematurely in China every year as a result of air pollution.

These deaths are the result of leaders whose decisions can’t be crticized. This includes Deng’s tobacco habit. No one dared to ridicule the supreme leader for his vice and that’s why smokers can go on referring to him as a model.

Putting it all behind me

I went to the hospital today for the doctor to interpret my test results. Everything is OK. The higher values on the blood tests have nothing to do with cancer. It’s just a virus of some kind. No medicine needed. The doctor told me to drink more water! The best thing of all: he suggested I only come in once a year from now on. It’s been five years and one test a year is enough. I really did survive in the end. I really did make it. Now I can finally think it and say it without jinxing my future.

For the first time in five years I can breathe normally again and look forward to many more years, to growing older and then old like a regular person. The story of my cancer is something that happened to me once, but which now is behind me. I will start to forget what happened but thanks to this diary I will also always remember.

another checkup

I’m going in for another set of tests this morning. Nothing special, just the regular 6-months checkup, that regular reminder of my mortality. Is this the time when they finally will discover that the cancer has returned? Of course not. Think positive! (as though how I think has anything to do with it).

Living so close to the edge all the time gives me an insight that normal people don’t have. I would like to use that insight better in the years to come. I would like to make something out of the proximity of the abyss. Then again, isn’t “the proximity of the abyss” just another game I play with myself? An intellectual abstraction? A way to derive a cheap thrill from the predicament I’m in? The actual experience of having cancer, if I recall correctly, was not like this.

I’m taking Saga with me this morning since she is far better at understanding what Chinese doctors are saying. But none of this is anything to get worked up about. It’s just the regular every 6 months routine.

I wish we all could live for ever.

We are leaving China

Big decision in the Ringmar family: we are leaving China! When we came here two years ago, we really thought we would stay for the long haul. That I would work here, if not until the end of my career at least for some good 10 years. But this is not going to happen, and this is why:

  1. the air quality in China is hazardous to anyone and terrible for me. I had cancer five years ago and my mouth has never recovered. Breathing the Shanghai air makes me hurt. Most of the time I sit inside like a prisoner. Shanghai is wonderful but I can’t enjoy it. China is poisoning me. 
  2. the schools are no good for my kids.  Rima, my youngest, is being bullied by the “popular girls” in her class: “we don’t like foreigners,” they tell her and hits her during the breaks. I can’t stand it.
  3. In general, Chinese schools destroy any love of learning. There is constant math homework intended not to teach math, but to humiliate the students and to separate out the top 10 percent that will be able to go on to university. The teachers instil discipline by telling the students they are stupid.  My kids are not stupid, but they are not good at math.
  4. my university has tremendous problems. Lets simply say that teaching and research feature very low down on the agenda of big professors and deans.
  5. Diane isn’t happy with her job. She’s basically an English teacher and it’s not a job she enjoys. There are no proper jobs teaching sociology.
  6. Shanghai is too expensive! We have double income, the smallest of apartments, engage in next to no nightlife and rarely buy clothes, and we can still not scrape together enough money to go visit our families in the summer. My mother is 83 years old and she has Parkinson’s disease. She cannot wait to see her grandchildren and they cannot wait to see her.
  7. There is no future in China. This is not a place where you can make a life for yourself. When Saga turns 18 she will no longer be allowed to live here and the other kids will have to leave one after the other. I’m an “honored foreign expert,” but to be a foreign expert, even an honored one, is not to have a life. We need somewhere to call home.

So we are leaving. It’s scary returning to Sweden after close to 30 years abroad, but at least in Sweden we will be able to breathe. I like breathing. 

Diane’s book

Diane just finished the index of her book — and this is the cover. Congratulations to her! It only took 18 years — incidentally the same length of time that Gabriel Garcia-Marguez used to write A Hundred Years of Solitude.

“China is pretty democratic,” say researchers

China, it turns out, is pretty democratic after all. This, at least, is the conclusion reached by researchers at SJTU, the university where I work. OK, I haven’t seen the final results, but I know how the methodology works.  Foreign students on campus are given a questionaire on which they are asked to rank various countries in terms of their degree of democracy, with “1” as the lowest and “10” as the highest. China is included and so is the US and various European countries.

How would you rank these countries in terms of level of democracy? Clearly China is not “10,” but neither is it “1.” After all, Chinese people have quite a lot of freedom of speech in their daily lives, and pretty straightforward criticism can be leveled against the government even in public — at least on topics like corruption or the environment. If some measure of the outcome of the political process is included, China is doing even better. If, for example, we take economic development as part of a definition of what democracy means, China might deserve a “4” or even a “5.”

The United States, on the other hand, is quite clearly not a “10.” This is acknowledged by many Americans themselves, and certainly by the kinds of left-leaning young Europeans who ends up as students in our university. Perhaps the United States is a “7” or even a “6.”

These are of course sensational research results. Ripping the print-outs off their printers, the Chinese researchers triumphantly report that “China is quite democratic after all, a bit behind the United States, but not by that much. We are 5 and the Americans are 6, and we are only a developing country.”

What’s wrong with this research? Pretty much everything is. In fact, you could use it as a perfect example of how not to do social science research. First of all, who got the idea that democracy can be measured through opinion surveys? And why should assorted Italian, French and German exchange students be asked? Clearly nothing is measured here except a foreigner’s reluctance to insult his/her host (and the readiness to be skeptical regarding the United States). If foreign exchange students in Germany in the 1930s had been asked the same question, they would have said the same thing.

The greatest flaw, however, is the notion that democracy is a variable. That you simply can scale up from 1 to 10 as a matter of degrees. Clearly this is not the case. Democracy/non-democracy is a dichotomy, and which side you end up on depends on whether there are regular and fair and publically contested elections. China does not have elections and for that reason it is not a democracy.

what are public moods?

Somehow the key to the whole book will be the idea of a “public mood.” There was a certain public mood in the decades leading up to 1914. The mood explains the fascination with warfare, the boredom and the ideas of degeneration and decay. The public mood also, if less directly, explain the outbreak of the war in 1914. The problem is only that no one has any idea of what a “public mood” migh be. There are no theories of public moods and no one makes references to them in a proper explanatory account.

“To pollute is glorious”

BEIJING (China Daily Show) — Leaded water, an absence of wildlife and thick, syrupy air are all healthy signs of a flourishing economy, China’s Minister of Environmental Protection told an open-air audience at the Renmin University Center for Conservation and Sustainability on Monday.

“Heavy fog is a sign of strength,” Wang announced from inside a Bosch hermetic eco-chamber, considered standard issue for top-level urban cadres. “To paraphrase our late Supreme Leader: to pollute is indeed glorious.

“It doesn’t matter if the air if black or white – as long as you can breathe it,” he added to laughter.

The World Bank has estimated that, annually, some three-quarters of a million Chinese die prematurely due to pollution, while birth defects and surging cancer rates are common.

OK, to be fair, this isn’t journalistic reporting, it is political satire — see “To Pollute Is Glorious” —  yet it’s darn difficult to keep reporting and satire apart in this country.

April 2 update: according to today’s New York Times, 1.2 million people die every year in China because of pollution. We better get out of here before we become a statistic!

Why copyright is a crime

I’m reading about Aaron Swartz and how he was hounded to death for advocating that information be free. Aaron’s fortune/misfortune was to live in two separate worlds — the world of copyright and the world freedom from copyright. One day when information truly is free, no one will remember why Aaron’s actions were considered as crimes. No one will remember since Aaron’s actions — together with the “illegal actions” of millions of others — will be responsible for having created that new world. Aaron will be a hero of that new world, and still remembered when the likes of JStor and the prosecutor of Massachusetts are long forgotten.

This is why copyright on academic work is a crime: I spend my entire days writing things. Unbelievably there are people out there who want to read what I write. It’s a perfect case for a free exchange. In this process various “publishing companies” intervene, restricting access, making it more difficult for me to be read and for people to find my stuff. They are profiting from restricting access to knowledge.!! That governments and universities put up with this system is particularly surprising — they are the ones who pay my salary after all. Needless to say, I get nothing from the “publishers”  themselves.

The system must and it will change. Aaron’s contribution will have helped make that possible. See further my “Liberate and Disseminate,” from Times Higher Education Supplement, from back in 2008.