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Jeffrey Wasserstrom


  • Originally published 08/05/2013

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Old Stories from the New China

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom teaches at UC Irvine and is the author of "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know."In July, two stories out of China were big news. One focused on watermelon seller Deng Zhengjia, a poor urban migrant in Hunan province, who became newsworthy only when reports circulated that thuggish chengguan — members of para-police units — allegedly beat him to death. A week later, someone very different, Bo Xilai, was back in the news when he was formally charged with "abuses of power" and corruption. Bo — the former party boss of one of China's biggest cities, Chongqing, a Politburo member and once thought to be bound for elevation to the Communist Party's ruling Standing Committee — was anything but poor, powerless or unknown before cascading scandals brought him down in 2012. Putting the tales of Deng's death and Bo's indictment side by side illuminates a major challenge China's leaders face: How to keep the people believing the stories they tell to justify their rule.

  • Originally published 07/22/2013

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom: A Reformist Chinese Leader? Stop Fooling Yourself

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, an updated edition of which has just been published by Oxford University Press.For those of us who have tracked Chinese political trends since the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping came to power, reading the news about China these days can prove strangely disorienting. One week, we’ll be struck by a slew of stories, on everything from fast trains to record growth rates, which underscore how different China is than it was when Deng first launched his reforms. The next week, though, we’ll be struck just as powerfully by a sense of eerie familiarity. Headline after headline — about the intractability of corruption, the death of a watermelon vendor or a petitioner’s desperate attempt to draw attention to this plight by detonating an explosive device at a Beijing airport — seem just like those we came across a few years or even a couple of decades ago.

  • Originally published 07/11/2013

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Why Bad News Elsewhere Is Good News for China

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, an updated edition of which has just been published.China’s appearance in international headlines thus far in 2013 has often been because of quality of life issues. The year began with reports of unusually high smog levels in Beijing and images of massive numbers of dead pigs clogging Shanghai waterways. Next came stories of a run on milk-powder supplies in Hong Kong, triggered by ongoing fears over tainted baby formula on the mainland. And now comes a study suggesting that simply breathing the foul air of northern China can shorten your life expectancy by more than five years. Given the extent to which China’s leaders have based their legitimacy on the notion that they are making life better and better for ordinary Chinese people, it’s worth asking whether this rash of bad news could have an impact on a different sort of life-expectancy issue: that of China’s Communist Party.

  • Originally published 07/08/2013

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Hong Kong Versus Goliath

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.IRVINE, CALIFORNIA – We live in an era fascinated with David-versus-Goliath tales. The Biblical confrontation is invoked to describe everything from sporting contests to popular uprisings against dictators. Malcolm Gladwell’s forthcoming book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants promises to give the story the ultimate pop-culture treatment. And the parallel between the classic tale and the unfolding story of the former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s solitary battle against America’s massive security establishment is inescapable.But Snowden received help from an unexpected source, Hong Kong’s government, which disregarded a US request to hold him to face espionage charges and allowed him to leave for Moscow. In fact, Hong Kong’s siding with a “David” should not surprise us, given that its relationship with mainland China is the quintessential David-versus-Goliath story – and it is still in progress.

  • Originally published 06/26/2013

    Jeff Wasserstrom considers three tumultuous years in ever-changing China

    This month Asia Society Associate Fellow Jeffrey Wasserstrom, China expert and Professor of History at the University of California-Irvine, is coming out with an updated version of his book China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press), originally published in 2010. Since three years is a long time in rapidly changing China, we were curious to know what changes he made to the text to make it as relevant as possible for today's readers.Since the writing of your book China has gone through one of its ten-year leadership changes with the entrance of the Xi Jinping administration. What did you feel people needed to know about a new government that has declared its focus to be fulfilling the "Chinese Dream?"

  • Originally published 06/18/2013

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Exploring Peter Hessler's China From the Ground Up

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at UC Irvine, is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know and co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land. Like other Americans, I draw a sharp line, linguistically and symbolically, between mice and rats. But one thing I learned during my first trip to China a quarter of a century ago was that the distinction between these two kinds of rodents, both typically called laoshu in Chinese, is fuzzier there. When posters went up in Shanghai to accompany a campaign to purge that metropolis of vermin, they showed Mickey Mouse with a spike through his heart. These images shocked me but local residents seemed to find them unremarkable.

  • Originally published 06/07/2013

    Jeffrey Wasserstorm: Looking Back at the June 4 Massacre, Twenty-Four Years On

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine. He is co-editor (with Angilee Shah) of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (University of California Press, 2012) and also a short anthology, China Stories, published as an ebook by the Los Angeles Review of Books.Late last year and early this year, I worked with Maura Elizabeth Cunningham on creating the second edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, a short book with a question-and-answer format whose first edition came out in 2010. Given how quickly China has been changing, there were many things that needed updating, especially in chapters that come late in the book. Since work on the first edition was completed late in 2009, Liu Xiaobo and Mo Yan won Nobel prizes, the microblogging platform weibo took off, and there was a dramatic uptick in environmental protests—to name just a few recent developments that Maura and I needed to address in the 2.0 version. Today, though, I am thinking with sorrow of a section in a chapter titled “From Mao to Now” that I wish we needed to revise, but didn’t—the answer to the following question: “Why Hasn’t the Chinese Government Changed Its Line on Tiananmen?”...

  • Originally published 01/24/2013

    The China Blog: An Interview with Historian James H. Carter

    Historian James H. Carter recently wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books on a new “biography” of the “The Books of Changes,” an important Chinese classical text.  Asia Editor Jeffrey Wasserstrom caught up with Carter to ask him a few questions about, naturally enough, China and biography.JW: You began your review of Richard Smith’s new “biography” of the Yi Jing (Book of Changes) with some ruminations on the whole notion of biographies that don’t focus on individuals.  If there were one other book with a tie to China you think especially worthy of a “biography,” what would it be - and who would you like to see writeJHC: It’s hard to eschew “actual” biographies - ones about people - because there are so many lives in China’s past that are so rich and resonant.  Zhang Xueliang, who began life as the son of China’s most powerful warlord, and saw his homeland overrun by Japanese troops after his own commanders ordered him not to resist, played a key role in kidnapping Chiang Kai-shek and forcing him to cooperate with the Communists before living for decades under house arrest in Taiwan (eventually dying - at age 100! - in Hawaii), seems a more than deserving subject.

  • Originally published 01/17/2013

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Is China’s Communist Party Choking?

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine, the author of China in the 21stCentury: What Everyone Needs to Know and co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land.