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the Chinese gov’t declared war on me

The Chinese government just made me into its personal enemy. Yesterday a spokesman for the Environment Minister, and then a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, insisted that the US government should stop disseminating data regarding the air quality in Shanghai. Apparently the data is too accurate and the information makes the government look bad.

I need this information. If the air pollution is high, I can’t go out or do physically exhausting activities. Last year I collapsed after a simple walk to the library. Denying me this information is a personal threat to my health.

Things like this is what give a totalitarian government a bad name. Really, I can’t live in a place like this.

Book club feed-back

There is a book club here in Shanghai which met to discuss Why Europe Was First. Very exciting. This is a report from their proceedings:

We had 11 people come to discuss your book yesterday, and most of them got through the whole thing.

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Confucius and the soul of China

We went to a truly remarkable art exhibition today — seven installations on the theme of Confucius by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan. I cannot remember the last time an exhibition left such an impression on me. It was an event, something happened in those three rooms, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

The first room had a gigantic statue of Confucius made in silicon which looked perfectly life-like. If Mr Kongzi had started talking I would not have been surprised.  Clearly he is alive and doing very well in today’s China. The second room had three large paintings made from ash showing the ocean, the disciples of Confucius and of Jesus. The gray colors looked desolate but clearly the old images still survive despite all the destruction China has endured. The final room had a large cage with a violent and erratically moving zombie Confucius. A large tree was trying to sprout again, but it was not planted properly and many of the branches were wilting. Monkey were jumping around in the cage, or they were jumping around before they were removed — presumably they didn’t much care for the life as museum exhibits.

I normally don’t like performance art which I find too jokey and too clever, but this is serious and moving stuff. Zhang Huan is surely one of the greatest artists alive today. He has that unique gift of seeing what others don’t see and of being able to present it to others to improve on their vision. Consider the below: Zhang Huan meditating in a public toilet in Beijing, smeared with honey, waiting for the flies to land. It is Buddha’s rejection of the world, and his deep concern for the world — all presented in a contemporary Chinese context.

I’m delighted China has artists like Zhang. There is nothing derivative about his work, it is an expression of a mature and self-confident person — a China mature and self-confident enough to question itself and its future. And he lives right here in Shanghai!

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Should have gone back to the LSE

I was supposed to have returned to London today and to my old job at the LSE.  I originally got a two years’ leave of absence to go off to the East.  Well, the return didn’t happen.  I resigned on February 1, 2007, and I’m still staying on in the Orient.  (My letter of resignation, btw, is here).  No regrets.

Was Yale worth it?

Of course it was. But not in the way most people would imagine. Top-Ivys too have their fair share of lousy, under-prepared teachers, and big-name professors who have no time for students are legio. As always, the main asset of a first-rate university is the student body. The professors may be middling, but the students are exceptional: very bright, hard-working, well-heeled, good-looking and left-leaning. It’s a very attractive combination.

And if you stay around long enough — I was there 8 years — you’ll eventually come across that quirky professor who does his/her own thinking for him/herself. The professor who will have a lasting impact on the way you view the world. Jim Scott — peasants in Southeast Asia — and Alex Wendt — theories of international relations — made a great difference to my intellectual trajectory.

Yale’s biggest problem is its location. New Haven was the fifth poorest city in the US when I got there and the third poorest when I left. Walking home to my grad student abode in the outskirts of the ghetto late at night was scary!!!

Much later — reading Michael Lewis, who was at Yale at the same time — I realized that 60% of Yale students applied for jobs at investment banks once they graduated. This option didn’t ever cross my mind. Clearly I misunderstood the whole point of a Yale degree.

Three years on

It is now three years since I flew over from London to Taipei for a job interview.  I left my LSE evening seminar a bit early and dashed for the airport, spent three days here, and then flew back and went straight to another LSE seminar.

It was very difficult, impossible, to make my mind up about whether a move to Taiwan would be a good or a bad idea.  I hadn’t seen very much and above all, Diane and the kids weren’t with me, and how can you make such a decision alone?  When I came back I tried my best to describe the place to them but of course I couldn’t convey anything much of what our life would be like.

In the end we decided to take a two year sabbatical from LSE.  I was supposed to have returned to London in the spring of 2009, but instead, as soon as we got here, I resigned.

Was it a good decision?  Yes, it was a good decision to leave London.  The whole London experience was over and it had been over for a few years already (mainly since our house was too small and our children too many).  Was it at good idea to come to Taiwan?  Yes, probably.  There are lots of great things about this country — the people above all — but there are also some problems — more than anything that we don’t have a place to live that feels like home.  And sometimes I wonder whether we shouldn’t have had more time to think it all through together …

Diane sometimes talks, wistfully, about how gorgeous small European university towns can be.  Hint, hint, nudge, nudge.

Apologies for killing small, black, people


The Saisiyat are one of Taiwan’s 12 tribes of Aboriginal peoples, comprising some 5,000 members who live in the mountains east of Hsinchu. This past weekend they put on three days of singing, dancing, drinking and ghostly seances.

According to Saisiyat lore, back in the olden days there was a tribe of small, black, people living next to them.  They had a reputation as being very lecherous and the Saisiyat grew increasingly impatient with them trying to conquer their women.  Once when the entire neighboring tribe was crossing a river, the Saisiyats seized the opportunity and destroyed the bridge, and all but two of the small, black, people were killed.  Feeling terrible about what they had done, the Sansiyats promised the two survivors that they would perform a ceremony of remembrance and expiation.  The ceremony has been going for 400 years by now, every second year (and every ten years the festivities are particularly rowdy).

This weekend the ceremony was held by a little lake up in the high mountains east of Hsinchu.  Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, most of the festivities had already concluded.  We mainly saw a lot of people who looked distinctly worse for wear.  We have to make up for it in two years’ time when they’ll have another go at apologizing.

Still, we enjoyed ourselves in the high mountains.  We found another aboriginal tribe on another mountain top, and a very good hostel where we are planning to stay some day.  We also bought persimons.  (This was my first day out, I drank soup from a thermos that Diane had pre-prepared).

“the true world”

This is a piece written by my oldest daughter, Saga. She came second in a national writing competition here in Taiwan with this article. At 12, she’s already an accomplished author, putting down some 2,000 words a day. It’s the family curse, poor thing. At least she writes fun stuff. Yes, I’m very proud.

the missing candidate

I know that Obama is more than a “black candidate” and that Clinton is more than a “woman candidate,” but they are both nevertheless carriers of the narratives of their race and their gender. Their presidential bids draw emotional power from stories of “honor restored,” “slights avenged,” “underdog bites back” and similar cultural stereotypes. Americans love stories like this. Even McCain, as a septuagenarian, has a story to tell about resisting old-age stereotyping.

What’s strange is that these identities all concern gender, race and age and that none of them concerns social class. None of the candidates left on the stage tries to take on the role of “an ordinary American worker.” And the only candidate who tried, John Edwards, was quickly booted out. Americans, clearly, don’t want to identify with a working-class guy. Least of all, it seems, American workers.

Is this a wonderful example of the power of positive thinking — of aspiring to become something more than “just an average Joe” — or is it a form of self-delusion? After all, even the Village People had a member who pretended to be a construction worker!