25 January 2012

Soft Power Blowback

The NYT recently published an essay by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. The odd timing of its appearance is a bit curious. Nye did a round of media appearances to promote his most recent book, The Future of Power, early in 2011. For the man who is given credit for inventing the term, soft power, it seems that the NYT editors are behind the curve. None of this is to suggest that there are any faults with Nye's essay. He is spot on in his interpretation of soft power in today's socio-political discourse and he aptly applies it to China. He doesn't, however, suggest why China is so incompetent with its soft power appeal. I want to suggest that the PRC sabotages its best efforts by its top down approach and by, seemingly, patterning its campaign on Chinese pedagogy.

The modern mandarins are under the impression that they can package and launch an attack of soft power; 'shock and awe' rendered as 'cool and wow'. Nye cites the 2008 Olympic summer games, and the Shanghai expo, but as much as even the central planners want to convince themselves as to how effective the Expo was in promoting brand China, it was much more of a domestic affair. The Chinese attendees learned far more about urban living in the many national pavilions than foreign nationals learned about Chinese methods of crowd control or mascot selection. And yet in spite of spending more money on the 2008 summer games than any other nation has spent, the number of foreign tourists went down during in August, 2008 because of Beijing's desire to predeport all potential troublemakers, even those who had purchased tickets. Nye argues that any gains from hosting the games were undone by the subsequent crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang. Events in those regions might have been juxtaposed in the media at the time, but the situations in these two regions had been longstanding black marks on China's international reputation. Internally what deflated even the proudest of jingoists was the melamine milk contamination and the subsequent revelations that the health warnings and the prosecution of the perpetrators were delayed until after the end of the games. So there was a lot of buck with very little bang and hardly an echo. Other publicity fiascoes can be mentioned, but the pattern is apparent and shows little sign of improvement.

Soft power comes in many forms, the least effective of which is when a nation tries so blatantly to promote its agenda, using soft power. Today the most effective modes are the forms that a national government has the least control over such as in the fields of athletics and entertainment. By contrast, Voice of America was once an effective tool of statecraft in many parts of the globe when it was the only form of information that countered state propaganda. Not only has the internet decreased its influence, so too have, to a much greater degree, pirated DVDs of feature Hollywood films, AV porn, and HBO blockbusters. Postings with Chinese subtitles done by volunteers within 24 hours of domestic broadcast can be watched by millions of viewers. HBO's Boardwalk Empire is but one example.
It's possible to cite contrary examples to this premise such as the Apollo program (NASA is one of the most visited websites in the world, ranked 778 according to google statistics.) and the Marshall Plan and certainly those who were effected directly by such efforts will never forget them. In spite of those government directed activities, I think it is fair to say that Kobe Bryant and Lady Gaga are far better for US soft power than Neil Armstrong, or George Marshall ever were. Walt Disney has undoubtedly done more to promote the USA as a force of goodness than any State Department program.
Another example of the Chinese soft power push is through the spread of Confucius Institutes. Their effectiveness is difficult as yet to measure and they are not without their share of controversy. India has refused to allow them. But for every little gain brought about by the Confucius Institutes' good will and ample cashflow, the heavy handed control from Beijing undoes it. A far more effective means of spreading its soft power is Hanban's placement of subsidized Chinese language teachers in diffuse institutes of secondary education.This is still a rather new program with equally difficult to measure results, but that is why, in part, it is called soft power. According to the law of unintended consequences, I can equally foresee it as a vehicle for promulgating the soft power messages of other nations as a result of the many Chinese language teachers who reenter their homeland and reacclimate to their classrooms with firsthand experiences abroad.
Plush toys at the vanguard of soft power offensives

Chinese soft power launches an awkward fashion moment on the diplomatic front!

Getting back to the premise of this posting, I feel that the best way to understand why the soft power push by China fails miserably is to consider the source of their methods, Chinese schools. The role of a teacher in a Mainland Chinese classroom is to enter the students' space, stand at the front of the classroom on an elevated platform, and to speak at the students, who do their best to remain attentive and to be passive vessels of knowledge. The students are expected to study all the information in preparation for regularly scheduled tests. The teachers are explicit as to what information will appear on their tests. Contradictions, inconsistencies, and even the purpose for having to study the material are dutifully ignored by the students who hope to succeed in this system. Chinese educators teach to the test for in China that is the only purpose of teaching. Some voices have questioned this method and yet theirs is the exception that defines the rules. Teachers who fail at getting their students to pass their tests are regarded as failures, themselves, which is why many are not above teaching their students how to cheat on their tests. If enough teachers can turn the process into a profit by selling cheating hardware, then are they to be blamed or the system's emphasis on results over procedures? The money to pay for such devices certainly did not come from the students' working part-time jobs.

The CPC fashions itself as the teachers in this campaign and consequently wants the rest of the globe to behave like good students according to their definition by accepting Chinese culture as strictly defined by the authorities in Beijing. The official curriculum, the setting, and what gets ignored are determined from above. This is a one-way approach with only one acceptable answer to any topic. Continuing this analogy, one can easily enough comprehend its shortcomings. The whole system survives and perpetuates itself only because the colleges entrance exam, gaokao, has such an important role in determining one's success in Chinese society. And if the students don't recognize this fact, the parents anxiously normalize the next generation to the system. But the rest of the world's students and sinophiles are not bound by fear of failing on a test; they do not feel compelled to remain silent in the classroom; nor have they certainly any hesitation to criticize the prescribed curriculum's shortcomings. Progressively as more about China becomes better understood outside China, the students will demand to know even more. Will the teachers lose these students or adjust their pedagogy? As Nye sums up his piece:
The development of soft power need not be a zero sum game. All countries can gain from finding attraction in one anothers’ cultures.
The most positive conclusion that can be drawn from this development is that in the end, the soft power assaults and counterstrikes will benefit all parties, from the front line troops to the civilian populations. For the longer that China engages in its efforts, the more the CPC will be forced to recognize the counterproductivity of its present strategies. It will become more evident to even the most intransigent residents of Zhongnanhai that more can be gained by undoing bad acts than by overspending political capital on soft power with Chinese characteristics. Simply freeing a few well known political prisoners will generate more good will than hosting yet another international sports event. Multiple battles to restore the environment will conquer more than constructing another maglev line. As unthinkable as this idea seems today given the extreme nature of Han Chinese conservatism, geo-political expediency will inevitably prevail. On another front, as more thought is invested in how to effectively teach the Chinese language to foreigners, the improved approaches can have crossover benefits within China's school system. In the past neither the Chinese people nor the rest of the world gained in the slightest whenever the leaders of China closed off the country in both directions. Soft power, on the other hand, breaks down barriers and facilitates communication. It is mutually beneficial for all combatants. And as long as China has the drive and resources for this kind of combat, I cannot complain about the increased fallout of peace, love, and understanding.   

11 January 2012


Tyrell Corporation, Shanghai, Nanjing Lu, Replicant Research Division

Shimato-Dominguez Corporate Headquarters
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe...

01 January 2012

Timberframing in China

Yangzhou is a tourist destination within a day's journey from Nanjing. I had an opportunity to spend a few days in the city last October, 2010. I had wanted to travel there for several reasons, yet it was only by happenstance that I was able to come across some examples of modern Chinese timberframing and am now finally able to post the images that I was able to collect.
There are many very old buildings in Yangzhou, and remnants of old buildings. The difficulty as with much of China is distinguishing the old from the made to look old upgrades. There are to be sure some impressive, extant examples of Yangzhou's past. Ge Yuan is one notable site. This streetscene typifies much of what charm Yangzhou offers.
The paved streets and walls of grey brick give some indication as to the amount of wealth that flowed into Yangzhou at one times. The salt trade, rather the collection of taxes, on the salt trade accounts for most of the wealth that flowed into this once worldly city. From what I saw there is no reminder of this commodity's importance.

The city even had its own perimeter defensive wall yet only this one remaining gate is a testament to that.  Further developments make it impossible to see the extent of the original defenses. The gate has been beautified and rebuilt so much that it is a pale representation of Chinese military architecture.

And because even the oldest parts of Yangzhou are still a very much inhabited, it is possible to walk down its many narrow alleyways and find sights such as this, modern construction pressed up against the old with a mixture of modern amenities and destructive alterations. In all cases of historical relics, it is happenstance in what determines what is preserved and what is lost.

One is just as likely a beautiful gem of detail as a modern metal door as its replacement. This motif does not appear to be Chinese, but I have no experience is such matters and it is doubtful that the present residents can offer much accurate interpretation either.

Within close proximity of the above, one can find examples of much lower quality and preservation. And yet I argue that this architectural example reveals as much history of the place even though its interpretation is equally problematic. It's a mystery that it even remain standing. There is something almost intentionally sloppy with the mortar repairs and even though some attempt was made to afford a decorative elements to the upper corners of the entryway, the mason used a segmented lintel against all sense of utility.
I cannot say for certain whether these two doorways are contemporary, but they exemplify how appearances and methods can vary across time and between craftsmen.

Here is an exposed example of the timberwork of an older building near where much new construction is underway. The roof structure is simple yet elegant. The bottom chord rests on the posts in open mortises, tying the opposing walls together. Two queen posts support a straining beam with a mortice that accepts a king post, which is in turn morticed in a ridge beam. Purlins carry closely spaced splitsawn timbers as rafters. The whole assembly carries interlocking fired tiles set in mortar.
Not far from this original historic building is this structure that attempts to recreate, at least in appearance, what was probably demolished to make room for it construction. It will be used to extend the amount of retail space for the sale of trinkets and travel souvenirs, which line most of the pedestrian venues in old Yangzhou.

Here is a closeup of the modern interpretation of Chinese timberframing. It features the use of rounded timbers and some of the same joinery. There are, however, some changes. While the purlins are carried on the king and queen posts, they do not appear to involve any joinery. As can be seen, the purlins are simply cut flush at the ends and butted together atop the posts. I can only guess that they are toenailed or will be connected with some sort of other metal fasteners.

In this image, it is possible to see a wider gap between the purlins. It is difficult to ascertain what is happening at the ridge line.  The kingpost does not seem to be engaged into the ridgebeam, but instead it is attached to sawn lumber pieces upon which a round ridgebeam rests. This kind of connection seems to not rely on traditional joinery, perhaps as a concession to modern building codes or simple expediency. It is rather high up and out of eyesight.

As another example of expediency, there is this shim where a mortise was cut too deeply into the top of a post for accepting a tiebeam. Every good craftsman knows how to correct his mistakes and this might be evidence of a relearning curve. The timberyard is just a stonesthrow away.

In another concession to modernity these men use an electric chainsaw to cut a raw log flush at one end. Behind them is a stack of partially worked and unfinished timbers.

In the next step, a workman lays out the dimensions of the timber, using a template and ink. Afterwards he uses a single beveled hatchet and planes to smooth the timbers to their final rounded dimensions.

A pile of finished timbers await assembly. A few are marked with a general description of where they are to be placed. 中栋东 means nothing more than "Middle Support East" The bases show the centers marked in ink where an anchor pin will be used to secure them to pedestals. It is possible to see the two interlocking mortises properly cut on the tops of the posts, the deeper one accepting the lower chord onto which the tie beams are placed.
These are the handmade tools used by the man above doing the layout, lying on some raw logs. The horizontal handles seem to be a feature of Chinese planes. Cheaply made planes of bamboo and Vanadium alloy blades of similar design can be bought in retail stores. This plane body was built of a dense tropical wood and had the heft of bronze.
A workman uses a similarly handled plane with one hand holding the near end of his stock and the other end against a backstop. I cannot say whether this awkward stance is considered best practices by the other timber framers. I can say that on most construction sites that I have visited, the workbenches are flimsy pieces fabricated from scrap lumber and constructed to last no longer than the present job. Unsurprisingly, I, therefore, saw no benches on this worksite other than some crudely built brakes and horses.

Back at the new construction site posts rest on their pedestals, not of stone but brick piers with a cement overcoating. This seems like an odd manner of cutting costs since the piers are so close to eye level and the fact that stone is widely used in China and so is readily available and with many workmen who can fabricate it into more traditional pedestals. A stainless steel pin is anchored into the concrete upon which the posts is dropped down.
This historic structure managed to survive demolition.  It is hard to ascertain its original function with many of its surrounding buildings removed and the clear evidence of many alterations. It does though stand as a remarkable survivor, an example of the refinement and craftsmanship of Yangzhou traditional architecture.