No Regrets: My 20th Birthday in Toronto

AIDCI-50th-ann No Regrets:  My 20th Birthday in Toronto

So as some of you may have realized, I was not in Shanghai for the past week. As crazy (and exorbitantly expensive) as it may have been, I decided at the last minute to fly to Toronto to attend the 50th Anniversary commemoration ceremony of the 1962 Chinese-Indian internment. While my dad gladly paid for the plane tickets, I do feel compelled to give a special thanks to Fuji and Rebecca for helping me navigate through the paperwork and thanks to everyone else who was so supportive of the idea.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been mulling over the topic of the paper that Fuji and I plan on presenting at the conference in Meixian. A topic that I’ve hoped to address in the paper involves generational discontinuity between the ex-internee generation and ex-internees’ children. Here, I am referring to an issue that the ex-internee organization in Toronto has faced: getting young people to become involved in the organization’s effort to appeal to the Indian government for a formal apology to those interned as a result of the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict. As of now, I am the youngest member of AIDCI…and that’s by about 25 years. The majority of the members are about 60 years old or older. With a majority of them being senior citizens, this has posed two major problems within the organization: 1) keeping up with social media and 2) working fast enough to ensure that these elders feel some sense of justice before their lives end.

When I first began approaching the paper, I was leaning toward a pretty pessimistic conclusion about the organization’s sustainability. Over the past few months, I’ve been trying my best to tackle both problems…and admittedly, I felt like I was failing, especially after coming to Shanghai. I had been trying to keep up with the Facebook page, the website, the interviewee blog, and some correspondence/networking—but it was pretty difficult doing all of it on top of schoolwork and the experience of traveling. Additionally, I am terribly behind in terms of social media and, quite frankly, don’t completely know what I’m doing.

These past few months, a small part of me was frustrated that no other young people wanted to get involved in the organization and that the in-fighting within the organization would drive away the few people who wanted to help. A large part of me felt certain that things would stay that way. After all, Sheng, the second-youngest and by far most active member of the organization, had almost quit this summer after he got so frustrated with the organization’s in-fighting and lack of cooperation.

My father and I had initially decided that I wouldn’t go to the 50th anniversary. He saw it as an impractical expense and I had convinced myself that it wouldn’t be worth attending anyway. But a few weeks before the event, my dad asked me on Skype if I wanted to go. I was shocked that he had asked, but told him that I wanted to go. When I asked him what had changed his mind, he said, “I don’t want you to have any regrets in life.”

And that turned into a part of the brief speech that I gave at the 50th Anniversary. The speech was directed toward all the young people at the event, entreating them to honor and appreciate their families by taking up the organization’s cause (the speech will probably be in my next blog post).

AIDCI-50th-ann No Regrets:  My 20th Birthday in TorontoI was so happy to see how many ex-internees’ children showed up to the event. More importantly, I was inspired by their involvement and interest in the event. My cousins and uncles showed up to the event, assisting in taking pictures, video recording, catering food, greeting guests and decorating the hall. I found out that some of them had even been helping out with printing tickets and fliers long before the event was held. My sister surprised me and came, too. Before I left for Toronto this summer, she wasn’t even quite sure about the purpose of my interviews.
AIDCI-50th-ann No Regrets:  My 20th Birthday in TorontoAfter we finished our speeches and dispersed for the buffet line, two girls walked up to me with their mom and dad. Their mother told me in English, “We’re so proud of you! I told my girls they should be like you!” Their dad told them in Hakka, “Make sure you study hard, too. You could go study with Tchi-tchi (older sister) someday.” Years ago, I remember being a little girl in awe of Li Kwai-yun, a fellow Hakka Indian and a published author on the 1962 internment. I remember my Dad telling me similar things—to be like Li Kwai-yun and study hard and someday write something that would make a difference.


I don’t know if I’m living up to the expectations that everyone’s made for me so far, but I can definitely say that this was an amazing 20th birthday. I loved getting to be with my family in Toronto, but more than anything, the trip definitely provided the optimistic outcome that I was always hoping for.

Real name registration “not very effective?”

Around a year ago, Chinese authorities began instituting a new measure for online censorship and control: real name registration. Starting with the Beijing Internet Information Office, authorities around the country began establishing regulations forcing online social media sites, particularly microblogs, to require users to provide their real name, verified by the national ID number of the user. As a censorship method, this would seem to be highly effective. While an individual might be willing to complain about the government or post objectionable information online under cover of anonymity, the knowledge that the authorities could easily acquire their name and address could turn off even the most ardent online activist.

Screen-shot-2012-11-11-at-下午11.05.191-300x74 Real name registration "not very effective?"

The Sina Weibo account of popular blogger, writer, and race car driver Han Han

A similar policy was applied to the video game industry a few years ago in the hope that it would curb excessive gaming by Chinese youth. Video games must require users to submit their national ID number before playing. If the ID number is of a individual under the age of 18, they’re limited to less than three hours of gameplay per day.

The effectiveness of these policies is questionable, however. Discussing the issue with a Shanghainese friend (who happens to be a video game player under the age of 18) today, I learned that it’s common practice among Chinese youth gamers to simply supply a fake ID number in order to avoid the block on more than three hours of gaming. Adult ID numbers can be found through a quick Google search, I was told, which can then be submitted instead of a gamer’s actual ID number. Alternatively, it’s fairly easy to simply guess at a national ID number, as they are at least partially randomly generated.

It has also been claimed that similar regulations regarding real name registration of cell phones are not effective. In China, it often seems that there is a (well-intentioned) law or regulation for everything under the sun, but lack of enforcement makes these rules irrelevant. There’s a joke that China must have the best environment on the planet as it has more environmental regulations than any other nation on the planet.  I think it is certainly the case, as I’ve argued before in this blog. Perhaps my friend’s thoughts on video game real name registration regulations could very well apply to law in China in general: “Not very effective.”

Election Season

I believe it’s fair to say that the Presidential elections we undergo every four years in America have a significant impact on the daily life of the average American.

I’m talking the process of candidates campaigning and then participating in an election, not the results of the election. Clearly, who gets elected is going to have some impact on the lives of every American, as the initiatives they promote, ideology they push, and issues they proscribe can have long-felt and lasting effects. Our country’s leaders impact every American, no doubt, but the process of picking them impacts Americans as well.

Think about it: for the past year (or longer?! Mitt Romney announced his candidacy on June 2, 2011) you’ve been bombarded with campaign slogans, attack ads, and political arguments from almost every media source known to man. You can’t even step out on your own front lawn without seeing the campaign signs your neighbor stuck up. You find yourself turning against friends and family as they promote (or argue against) candidates and issues you disagree with, both online and in the real world. I have literally seen friendships fall apart because of political disagreements (and I’m sure other people have seen this as well).

So, yeah. The Presidential elections affect your life. We can all be glad it’s over now.

Meanwhile in China, the country is gearing up for an event of even greater magnitude than the US Presidential election: The 18th Party Congress, an event that happens once every five years and sets the tone for the policies the Party and government will adopt in the coming five years. And this Party Congress is particularly significant as it’s also the beginning of a leadership change, which happens about once a decade in the PRC. (For a really incredible overview of the political structure of the PRC and the upcoming leadership transition, check out this primer by Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University)

This is big, right? I mean, it only happens once ever ten years! That’s, like, two-point-five times as often as an American Presidential election!

IMG_1079-300x224 Election Season

“The success of Scientific Development is glorious – Welcome the Party’s 18th victorious convening – Happily welcome the 18th Party Congress!”

Well, not so much. Yes, it’s important, but my feeling is that it has very little impact on the daily life of the average Chinese. You can still see signs announcing and “welcoming” the upcoming Party Congress, just like the campaign signs in the United States. There are even ads on TV welcoming the Party Congress (although they’re all short, boring, and probably less common than political ads in America – and certainly less negative).

Apart from that, however, life goes on. No one talks about politics, or gets in political arguments, or loses friendships as a result. In fact, the only complaining about how annoying the leadership transition you’ll hear will likely come from we foreigners, who have more difficulty using the internet than usual. That’s about it, though.

I’m not saying that China’s system is better than America’s. Rather (as many others have pointed out much more eloquently before me), it emphasizes harmony over freedom. It’s possible that’s a reflection of the society the system is built around. It’s also possible that it’s merely a reflection of the desires of those who built the system. Most likely, however, it’s a bit of both.

Hukuo (户口) in China

Earlier this semester, my classmates and I learned about Hukou (户口), a household registration system in China. In her article “Foreign Marriage, ‘Tradition,’ and the Politics of Border Crossing,” Constance D. Clark introduces and describes Hukou:

Hukou was a system of social control created by the Communist Party, which segregated the entire Chinese population into a two-tiered rural-urban ranking of privilege. Statuses of “agricultural” or “nonagricultural” meant that a person born into an agricultural family had no opportunity to convert to nonagricultural status and was therefore denied benefits allocated to those in the cities such as housing, medical insurance, food allotments, and pensions (Cohen 1994; Potter and Potter 1990). In many ways, the package of urban welfare came to be understood as socioeconomic rights that were the property of urbanites. (Clark 1999: Kindle Locations 1394-1398).

From my understanding, Hukou is a government instrument for manipulating and controlling the movement of people in China. The word Hukou is comprised of two separate characters: 户 and 口. Independently, 户 carries the meaning of family, and 口 carries the meaning of entrance or gate. So, the combination of the two characters is a fitting description of the structure. Without approved official documentation, a person cannot legally enter and establish a life in another province or town. This barrier has been and continues to be problematic for Chinese citizens, particularly those living in rural towns wishing to move and work in exciting and economically thriving cities. Moreover, the difficulty of transferring Hukuo registration has made the city the “preferred place to live and… a steadfast destination of desire for rural dwellers and exiled urbanites” (Chen 1999: Kindle Locations 133-134). Thus, the increasingly high population densities in Chinese cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, should be expected.

china-population-map Hukuo (户口) in China

Before learning about Hukou, I took “the freedom of geographic mobility” for granted. In America, the government does not directly control the migration from countryside to city. In fact, the transition from small town to big city is a popular theme romanticized in novels and movies. During my childhood, my family moved every few years according to my father’s job and economic opportunities. Hukou would have restricted my father’s career and my family’s chance for economic prosperity. Chinese college students are facing this restriction of Hukou during their job hunts after graduation (Hoffman: Kindle Locations 757-758). If graduates do not get their Hukou registration transferred to an economic center, such as Shanghai, then they are forced to look for job opportunities in their hometown. This can be extremely disheartening for college graduates from small towns, since better, higher-paying jobs are located in larger cities.

The subject of Hukou surfaced during an interview with Ms. Li (李), a migrant farmer on Chongming Island. Recently, Ms. Li’s son returned to their hometown in Anhui Province to attend high school. When asked why he did not attend a high school on the island, she clarified that his registration was in their hometown. Therefore, he could only take his university placement exams in Anhui. Ms. Li hopes her son will find a job outside farming and recognizes the importance of an education for his future. Thus, staying on Chongming was not an option for her son. Additionally, Ms. Li mentioned her son’s desire to attend university in urban Shanghai instead of Chongming. As mentioned earlier, life in a larger city is economically and socially more attractive. Chongming Island is the least developed region of Shanghai. Ms. Li’s son is simply another illustration of the rural population’s longing for city life.

china-population-map Hukuo (户口) in China

(Ms. Li is pictured above; population density map provided by china travel guide)

Music Festivals and Rule of Law

To the best of my knowledge, a concert has never been cancelled in the United States due to a “sensitive political climate” (I may be wrong about this – post in the comments if you know otherwise!)

The idea seems ridiculous; the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly ensure that people can get together and enjoy some good music. In China, however (which has similar freedoms in name but not in practice), cancellation of music festivals and concerts is an all too common occurrence.

This October, Shanghai was to be host to to the Black Rabbit Music Festival, a multi-day gathering of musicians representing a variety of genres from all around the world. Last year, the Black Rabbit festival was the largest of its kind in Shanghai, and this year’s festival promised to be even bigger and better.

The festival was abruptly cancelled, however. Its organizers cited “doubts raised over what will happen during the politically sensitive September/October period” as a primary reason for their decision to call off the festival. Sadly, situations like this are all too common in China, where a local government can decide on a whim that a band’s music is politically insensitive, refuse to approve the necessary permits, and just like that, months of planning go up in smoke.

A similar fate was met by a festival that my favorite Chinese band, Omnipotent Youth Society, was to play at (check out their song “Non-Omnipotent Comedy” here, and if you like that, you can find a recording of them performing in Taiwan here). On September 27th, the organizers of the Play Stone Music Festival announced that “due to numerous factors outside of our control,” the festival would be postponed and moved to a different location, not yet determined.

Luckily for me, the organizers of the Black Rabbit Music Festival worked quickly to organize a new, smaller event, with a slightly less prominent line-up. The Rabbit’s Foot Mini-Festival was an attempt to bring together local Chinese bands and international musicians to provide a quality experience to Shanghai music lovers, in spite of the cancellation of Black Rabbit. Yet Rabbit’s Foot, too, was hindered by the “sensitive political climate,” and Norwegian post-rock group Caves of Steel had to be pulled from the roster. In their place, the alternative rock group Tree (树) of Hangzhou, China was brought on board.

The concert was great, when I went – Tree turned out to be quite a good band, and the other band playing that night, a band from the UK called Third Cortez, was solid as well. While I enjoyed the concert, however, I couldn’t help but think about the issue of musical performances being cancelled in China.

“Rule of law” is discussed a lot by China experts. Rule of law is the idea that there are certain laws on the books, and that they are consistently, fairly, and equally enforced; thus, by knowing the rules, individuals can follow them and expect to not be accused of breaking them. In today’s China, it often seems that rule of law is lacking: social status, economic background, connections to elites, country of origin, etc. can all influence how an individual or corporation is treated under the law. The expulsion of Al Jazeera reporter Melissa Chan and the Bo Xilai/Gu Kailai/Wang Lijun/Neil Heywood scandal highlighted the problems with rule of law in China today. With less and less rule of law, China becomes more and more unstable and unreliable for doing business (or holding a music festival). Eventually, it’s not going to be worth the effort; why put in hundreds (or thousands) of manhours of work only to have them all go to waste because a government official didn’t take a liking to you? Perhaps Confucius put it best when he said “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”1 (名不正,則言不順;言不順,則事不成 - Which, by the way, is the tagline of the excellent blog Rectified.Name, linked to earlier in this post – check it out!)

For some pictures of Tree performing at the Rabbit’s Foot Mini-Festival, click here.

1. James Legge (1971). Confucian analects: The great learning, and The doctrine of the meanDover Publications. pp. 263–264.