First Impressions – Flannery O’Connor – Episode 28

This summer, I’ve been getting to know Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor through a collection of her short stories. In this “First Impressions” episode, I chat about her life, her writing, and the themes in her stories which grabbed my attention.

Sources / Further Reading:
“This Lonesome Place: Flannery O’Connor on race and religion in the unreconstructed South.”The New Yorker article
Flannery O’Connor biography – New Georgia Encyclopedia
The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews by Flannery O’Connor (Google Books page)

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping – Thoughts & Review, Part 3

How does one become the President of China?

If the electoral college seems at times hard to fathom, an election in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is even more esoteric.  According to Kerry Brown, author of CEO, China and former diplomat, the rise of Xi Jinping to the supreme leadership role in China “belonged more to the realm of magic than political science” (p. 92).  The process by which Xi replaced Hu Jintao (2003–2013) was unlike a democratic election, in part because it required a consensus amongst the Party: a one-party state cannot be seen as divided.  This image of unity is one which brought Xi to power and which continues to challenge him as he seeks to maintain that power.

(Note: This is a multi-part review, though each part can be read on its own.  Please see Part I and Part II, if you’d like to read more.)

Defense.gov photo essay 110110-F-6655M-017
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, 2011 –
by Jerry Morrison

Coincidence and Conviction

Xi’s life has been filled with the unexpected – from privileges as the young son of a lauded communist fighter, to harassment in the hands of Red Guard youth, and finally a prestigious career as a provincial manager and globally wise leader.  Was it all luck, or was there something he did to further his appointment as the core leader of China?

From Brown (p. 75–76), we learn that during the mid-2000s there were three candidates with the most potential to replace Hu.  These men were Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao, and Xi Jinping, with Xi literally coming in third place at this point.  It was a tight “race,” to put it in Western terms, and what Brown suggests as having settled it were the downsides to the Lis, as opposed to a definite preference for Xi.  

  • Li Keqiang, who is now the premier (head of government), had displayed some inefficacy while dealing with crises in provinces under his care.  His current premiership puts him second-place in hierarchy, behind Xi who once trailed him.  
  • Li Yuanchao, also a former provincial leader, was “more open-minded and international in his outlook than his peers” (p.76) and was relegated to vice presidency, a somewhat nominal role.  In March 2018, his relatively brief term ended, even as Xi’s term was secured for life.  Li Yuanchao’s rapid transition from potential president to possible early retiree says as much about the Party as it does about him.

Was the Lis’ ill-fortune the only reason Xi rose to the top, or was there an additional factor?  While not understating the role of luck, Brown suggests the latter as well, and he goes back to the importance of the ideological, even spiritual, side of Xi.

He is a man who conveys the sense that he does actually believe and buy into a worldview that has arisen from his own experience rather than been handed to him or acquired through years of attending Party meetings. (p. 13)

Essentially, Xi – like every compelling leader, good or bad – presents his story as part of what he brings to the table.  He is the living evidence of his own ideological convictions and his faith in the Party (p. 96).  This is what the Party desires and one of the reasons he gained preeminence, while not obviously appearing to do so.

The Future According to President Xi

The second half of CEO, China is different from the first, but no less fascinating.  In three chapters, Brown covers with insight and detail some topics which take up the entirety of other books:

  • The Political Programme of Xi Jinping (Chapter 4)
  • How Does Xi Jinping See the Outside World? (Chapter 5)
  • What Does Xi Want in the Next Two Decades? (Chapter 6)

It would be inadequate for me to try to summarize these chapters.  What I can do is highlight some of the topics that caught my eye in these sections.

Money, Corruption, and – Democracy?

As China continues to grow, Xi has to address issues such as private enterprise, taxation, and the political implications of both.  For example, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) make up half of the government’s revenue, but they are also becoming increasingly less profitable, even compared to non-SOEs (p. 155)  SOEs are also entities that attract corrupt officials, who are interested in siphoning off profits for themselves.

Taxation is a requirement for maintaining Chinese socialism, but this, too, must be handled with care.  The Chinese taxpayer is not immune to their own interests, and even to allow provincials governments more power in this area is playing with political fire (p. 157, 159).  How can the Party maintain central power, while still meeting the local needs of the common man?  For a nation in which the state has exerted its primacy, this is a challenge that cannot be avoided.  It is not impossible China may give the provinces more fiscal leeway, even while keeping a tight hold on the one-party system.

Technology as Power

Just this month, a young woman named Dong Yaoqiong disappeared after protesting against Xi and the CCP; her Twitter account was deleted, and Radio Free Asia reports she is being detained in a psychiatric hospital.  Last fall, The Washington Post reported that Christian symbols were being forcibly replaced by images of Xi, as part of an anti-religion campaign announced through various media, including the internet.

While China maintains the “Great Firewall,” blocking such sites as YouTube and Twitter (with mixed success), Xi like most modern leaders has realized he can use social media to gain insights into Chinese citizens’ opinions and wants.  Xi can choose his own methods of reaching the people, in the same vein as Mao and Deng Xiaoping (p. 177).  Ironically, Xi can in this way circumvent Party censorship and spread the message he wishes to share.

Globalism and the Two Centenaries

China has one ruling Party, and it takes advantage of this fact by setting very longterm goals.  By 2021, the 100th anniversary of the CCP, it intends to have achieved a “moderately well-off” status in areas such as urbanization, wealth, technology, and energy.  By 2049, the 100th anniversary of the PRC, it expects to be the paradigm of a “modern socialist country.”  Together, these two goals will supply the concrete results of what Xi calls the “Chinese Dream.”

In relation to the world at large, China expects to play an important role.  It will continue to maintain a complicated relationship with the U.S. and the E.U., working together with us on issues such as the environment (p. 182) while competing in other areas such as world finance.  The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is poised to rival the D.C.-based IMF and World Bank, having (as of this year) 87 member nations, with the United States and Japan voluntarily among the excluded.

China’s interests in neighboring countries has grown to include Africa – see China’s Second Continent by journalist Howard French.  Additionally, Xi’s renaissance of the Silk Road, now called “The Belt and Road,” contains a vast plan to bolster the Chinese economy by investing in other countries’ infrastructures.  The end result would seem to be a new polarization of the globe, with Xi’s China as the new socialist leader (as opposed to Putin’s Russia) on the one hand and the U.S. on the other.

Xi may or may not live to see the second Centenary.  His legacy, however, is already inextricably connected with China’s future.

In Summary

CEO, China is not just a biography.  I enjoyed the broader scope of the book and thought Brown was overall a fair author, coming from a Western perspective and yet mostly objective in his analysis.  It’s one of my favorite books from this year, filling a hole in my knowledge and provoking me to learn more. Of Xi, I’ve gained a useful portrait; his life story is an impressive one.  That said, current events and China’s human rights violations leave me wary of his leadership and what the ultimate outcome will be.

My Sherlock Holmes Obsession – Episode 27

Today I take a nostalgia trip back to the time I first met Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective has impacted my life in many ways, from violin playing to overcoming social anxiety. I also share my thoughts on a number of adaptations, including the Jeremy Brett TV series and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.

Links:
Opening quote read by David Clarke (LibriVox)
Opening music – “Ambush in Rattlesnake Gulch” by Brian Boyko (Public domain, FreePD.com)

Elie Wiesel’s Open Heart, and Thoughts on Christian Suffering

In his memoir Open Heart, Elie Wiesel takes us through his experiences surrounding his 2011 open heart surgery.  Wiesel is famous for his Night trilogy, and here some of the same themes come back in short, fleeting chapters – the dark memories of life in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, as well as the perennial question: why does God allow His children to suffer evil?  What should a Jewish person’s response be in times of persecution or pain?  Question marks abound in this short work, underlining the great despair we may sometimes feel when evil touches our lives.

One reason I picked up this book was to understand something of what a patient experiences during this medical procedure.  My grandma has faced a myriad of health issues, including two heart surgeries; she endured them with grace even while she was in terrible pain.  What could she have been feeling?  I have never asked her, choosing instead (as with other personal questions) to seek another avenue of understanding in Wiesel’s book.

Of course, it is not an exact parallel.  For one thing, Wiesel’s perceptions or imaginings of the afterlife are not identical to Christian beliefs on the same.  He describes his picture of hell as “ruled by cruel, pitiless angels” and full of physical tortures.  In this book, he does not seek to systematically explain his beliefs, offer a treatise on death, or even describe the surgery in detail.  Instead, Wiesel presents his thoughts and reactions moving from one scene to the next – a surreal, metaphysical, and ultimately personal exploration.

I’ve mentioned before Shūsaku Endō’s book The Silence, one I’ve been actively avoiding (yet will ultimately read).  In Open Heart, Wiesel touches on the same theme – the apparent silence of God.

…Auschwitz is not only a human tragedy but also – and most of all – a theological scandal.  For me, it is as impossible to accept Auschwitz with God as without God.  But then how is one to understand His silence?

For Christians, too, this question is not irrelevant.  Many of my family members in Christ are enduring persecution as I write.  Barnabas Aid is a charity I support, and every day their prayer focus features a story of the horrifying, often government-sanctioned brutalization of Christians in other parts of the world.  The Armenian Genocide – which Wiesel worked to bring awareness to – is a historic example. On a personal level, each of us has suffered his or her own tragedy, be it a physical disease, a mental health struggle, the death or loss of a loved one, or something else which we may never tell another human being. 

Wiesel’s answer, in part, is as simple as the question: “Since God is, He is to be found in the questions as well as in the answers.”  There is certainly wisdom in acknowledging mystery.  Humanity itself involves mystery, from questions such as the Creation of the world and the beginning of a human’s soul, to those about the origin of evil and enduring hatred.

To add to this, it is no coincidence much of the New Testament covers the existence of persecution.  I’ve personally found comfort in the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks to His disciples directly on this subject, with empathy:

If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  (John 15:18–19, NKJV)

I wish there were words to adequately describe John 17 – epic or poetic seem trite.  But here, too, in His last prayers before death, Jesus speaks of His followers:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.  (John 17:20–23, NKJV)

Suffering remains something of a mystery to me.  Through my own experiences, though – which, while personally crushing, were minute compared to those of others – I can affirm God was never absent.  If even small struggles matter to Him, how much more so the greater ones.