Beautiful night over Beijing, with rain clouds in the last light:

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Apologies for the shameless self-promotion, but I have been in Auckland for a couple of days and then Beijing. Let me begin with the Beijing events, the main one of which was the preliminary ‘conference of experts’ for a funded project called ‘Chinese Marxism: On the Sinification of Marxism in Chinese Academia’. I had to front up before some senior and well-known Chinese scholars, each of whom gave a detailed response to the project. This is something of a ritual in Chinese projects, after which everyone goes to dinner and raises a toast to the project. Apart from the news item, a few photos:

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The lecture at the University of Auckland was organised by Robert Myles and Caroline Blyth and was called ‘What Has Marxism to Do with Religion?’ They even made a youtube video, which is here in all its glory:

I have today signed the contract on a new and rather exciting grant. The project is called ‘Chinese Marxism: Concerning the Sinification of Marxism in Chinese Academia’. The project and its grant are significant on a number of counts. First, it is my first completely Chinese grant, in my capacity as being on the staff of Renmin (People’s) University of China – the university first established under Mao Zedong’s influence in Yan’an in 1937. Second, I am learning much about the way Chinese grants and research operate. Granting bodies take an idea and work with you on it, providing advice and guidance on the way. Third, it involved some personal meetings over breakfast to find out if I am a ‘friend’ (Zhongguo pengyou). Fourth, this is their first international grant.

Let me elaborate on the final point. Uniquely for China, they have about 200 city and provincial research institutes. These institutes mediate between government sectors and the research undertaken at universities and elsewhere. I see it as one of the many feedback mechanisms that operate here, in which the movement of ideas between government and researchers is encouraged. In Beijing, the institute in question is the Federation of Social Sciences, which has a number of branches. The branch with which I am engaged is the Centre for Studies on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. They have their own director, staff, book series, journals and so on. Obviously, at a city level, they tend to receive applications for grants from Chinese researchers. My application was the first one from a foreigner and they are excited to be moving into an international arena. One of my main points is that the project will also enable Chinese scholars to engage more regularly in international conferences related to Marxism – apart from international scholars engaging more fruitfully with the unique developments in China. In short, this is the first step in a longer project called ‘Socialism with “National” Characteristics’. I think I’ll be working with these and other people (such as the Academy of Marxism, within the Academy of Social Sciences) for quite some time.

Finally, alongside the obligatory conferences and publications, I am also expected to write a couple of articles for the flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily. The topics: the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics (from the perspective of a foreigner), and the decline of bourgeois democracy in the United States. I am busting to get into these pieces.

A few photos from the ceremony for signing the contract. The other scholar is the director of the Centre for Studies on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics – an absolutely lovely and helpful woman.

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I usually don’t mention news stories, but this one intrigued me. It is tucked away in a small corner of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) webpage and is entitled: ‘China pollution: Beijing’s improved air quality a result of good policy, city officials say’. The article mentions the notable improvement in air quality over the last few years, especially in the last year. I have noticed this myself and mentioned it here on a number of occasions. When I first began coming to Beijing some years ago, it was a rare day that you could see blue sky. Now, we have days on end with blue skies. It can still get bad, but those periods are becoming fewer. Often, I go for a run outside. The reason for improvements? By 2016 there will be no coal-fired power stations in Beijing (Australian coal industry take note); old cars are being pulled off the roads (half a million last year and more this year); and polluting factories are being closed down or moved. The last item is not quite a solution, but the general trend is one that I have experienced first hand.

I must admit that I have given in to buying an air cleaner for my apartment in Beijing. In general, the air is improving here, with weeks at a time having clear skies. On these days I go for a run outside, and use some outdoor exercise equipment. But the air can also become quite thick, although the particles you can’t see are the ones that can do the most damage. Hence the air cleaner.

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It is basically a strong fan with a good filter. It helpfully indicates when the air is clean, with a friendly blue light illuminating to tell you it is so. However, when the air is less beneficial, it displays an array of red lights: two means mildly polluted, four more so, and six … However, at some points the machine has a habit of suddenly switching from the blue light to six red lights, with no apparent reason.

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After a number of such occurences, I began to suspect that the light system was merely a gimick, to make one feel as though it was doing it’s job. However, then I hit upon the reason: whenever I break wind in its vicinity, it let’s me know it’s displeasure and sets about cleaning up the burst of air pollution.

Strange how “Blue Skies in Beijing” is not a headline. If you believe international reports, Beijing is constantly shrouded in impenetrable smog, like being inside a cigarette. To be sure, it can get pretty bad on some occasions, but it can also be clear, crisp and sunny. Like now. I’ve been outside running each day, sucking in the air with pleasure.

Every now and then you come across a real shocker of a book. I refer to Jasper Becker’s book on Beijing, called City of Heavenly Tranquility. While it attempts to provide a potted history of Beijing, the underlying thesis is that Beijing’s reconstruction is aimed at obliterating any memory of the Tiananmen ‘massacre’. Of course, he has to construct the fiction of the massacre in the first place to justify such an intriguing argument. Or, to be more polite, the whole book is an extraordinary piece of rubbish. But then what you expect from Jasper Becker, who is as about as rabidly anti-communist as one can get? For instance, his book, Hungry Ghosts, undertakes a comparable task to Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow. Conquest constructs the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 as a deliberate act of ‘mass murder’ – genocide in other words, now dubbed the ‘Holodomor’. In a similar effort to construct a Goebbels-like big lie, Becker suggests largely the same for Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1958-62.

This stuff is to be expected, especially from a journalistic and scholarly machine that has a default anti-communist position. But I must admit to being a trifle disappointed that the works come from Oxford University Press. In fact, of all the books on China, and indeed the USSR, from Oxford, only half a dozen are of any real use. Actually, I am not surprised at all. It’s Oxford, after all.