Three more China observations

Back in Shanghai, Steve Kelman reflects on hostility to Japan, a pipeline disaster and how linguistics can shape politics.

steve kelman

I am back in China for a few days to teach executive education, and, as always, there are interesting things to observe:

1) One of my former students, Eugene Wang, now a dear friend and a property developer in Shanghai, hosted a dinner for me with Kennedy School alumni in Shanghai. The conversation in general was fascinating, but one discussion towards the end of the evening made a really big impression on me.

Most of those around the dinner table were extremely distrustful of and even hostile towards Japan, and one thought that war between the two countries was very possible. The issue goes back 70 years to Japan's behavior during World War II, when it brutally invaded China and massacred many civilians. The more nationalistic Japanese government under Prime Minister Abe has re-ignited old hostilities (also between Japan and Korea), centering around Japan's insufficient apologies for its behavior many decades ago.

As an American, my reaction tended to be that this was a long time ago and that the nations should just try to get along, but the Chinese would have none of this. "What if somebody killed your mother and raped your sister, and never apologized for what they had done," one of the Chinese said to me. Everyone around the table compared the behavior of Japan with the apologies and memorials the Germans have done over the years.

I will say that the vehemence of the views around the table took me aback, not the least considering that these are Westernized and very well educated Chinese. This does not bode well for a peaceful situation in the area, with historic tensions re-fueled by the old territorial dispute between the two countries around some uninhabited islands.

2) Over the weekend there was an oil pipeline explosion in the northern Chinese rust-belt city of Qingdao (home of Qingdao beer), with at least 52 dead and hundreds injured. I had originally thought that there was an explosion at a petrochemical factory that killed plant workers, but it turns out that a pipeline placed underground in a residential neighborhood leaked and then exploded under houses and roads.

What is noteworthy is the huge coverage of this event on official television and the media. Twenty years ago publishing news of such an accident would have been illegal -- the accidents were state secrets. This time, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the hospital to comfort victims, like an American politician.

Equally interesting, a headline in China Daily described the area as a "ticking time bomb" because of the pipeline in the middle of a residential area. Officials noted that when the pipeline was built, the area above was empty fields. But that was not a satisfactory explanation for the China Daily editorialist, which argued that officials must have known about the pipeline when housing was later built in the area. The editorial also questioned the local government's failure to warn people to evacuate despite several hours of warning about the leak. Soon after, in Chinese tradition, several factory officials were arrested.

3) I learned an interesting linguistic fact I had not known before -- the Chinese words for "country" and "state" (as in "the national state") are the same: guojia, which literally means "national family." As an American China expert I asked about this noted, this linguistic confluence suggests a lack of conceptual gap between nation and state/government. It is hard for a Chinese to say they are opposed to the state without in effect saying they are against the country, that they are not patriotic. Interesting....

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