Tea Leaf Nation

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

China's Lunar New Year used to be special -- until people there got richer and more connected.

If Norman Rockwell had painted a picture of idyllic life in China, he might have depicted something like this: A Chinese family squeezed around a big wooden chopping board on the eve of the Lunar New Year (which fell this year on Jan. 31), making dumplings from scratch. Family members would be chatting and getting their hands dirty as they mixed the mince, pressed dumpling skins under a rolling pin, and then wrapped the dumplings up. But this year, at least in my Chinese family, situated just outside of Beijing, things were a bit different: My grandmother bought pre-made dumplings from the Wal-Mart up the road.

As the Spring Festival celebrations surrounding New Year wrap up and Chinese begin to head home -- celebrations officially cease Feb. 14, but the seven-day vacation period ended Feb. 6 -- the country's citizens have been asking each other where the holiday's spirit has gone. On Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, Internet users expressed disappointment at this dampened atmosphere, noting that with increasing prosperity, much of what used to be so exciting about the holiday, like indulgent food consumption and new clothes, has become commonplace throughout the year. A post on Weibo describes how as a child, outfits bought for New Year's were only worn on special occasions, but "today people are purchasing similar items every day."

Family gatherings over a sumptuous meal -- traditionally a wide array of dishes including fish, dumplings, and any other family favorites -- still lie at the heart of New Year celebrations, but they too are changing. These days, more families are opting for store-bought convenience over authenticity. The New Year's dinner, once prepared by family members and enjoyed in the intimacy of the home, has for many become a restaurant meal or even a home delivery. The age-old ritual of making dumplings on New Year's Eve is in danger of being displaced by frozen equivalents from the supermarket. (For the past three years, my grandmother has praised the ready-made varieties of dumplings from Wal-Mart, which she says taste better than her own.) With a similar appetite for expediency, online shopping giant Taobao now features a service that sells half-cooked New Year meals, some of which advertise themselves as requiring only a quick heat-up on the stove but tastes fresher than takeaway.

It's not just the flavors of New Year's that look likely to slip into nostalgia. So is the deafening blitz of firecrackers, once so ubiquitous that cities would sound like war zones as New Year's closed in. Families used to buy their own and light them throughout the evening on New Year's Eve, leaving behind the distinct smell of gunpowder for days. But with concerns about rocketing pollution levels, government campaigns to limit the purchase of fireworks mean this practice has declined in many large cities.

Even the once can't-miss Spring Festival Gala show, which still draws 700 million (often ambivalent) viewers, has lost its luster. When the show debuted on China Central Television in 1983, young and old viewers considered the gala, with its clutch of comedy sketches, singing, dancing, and special performances, the best entertainment China had to offer. Today, however, with young viewers enjoying an abundance of entertainment options on television and online, the gala's cultural influence has dwindled, as the state-produced (and state-censored) program increasingly fails to bridge the growing generation gap that has resulted from China's rapid development over the last decade.

The social aspect of New Year's has also diminished. Many of the close-knit communities from the old days of state-supplied housing have long disbanded, with their members moving to newer neighborhoods. With this, the tradition of chuanmen, or "paying a visit to neighbors" on New Year's Day, has withered too. Memories of being dragged out of bed to get ready for visiting neighbors have given way to quiet mornings of sleeping in. Over the past two celebrations, in-person chats among old family friends have been reduced to a series of quick phone calls -- or among the trendy, an emoticon message delivered via the superpopular messenger app WeChat.

On Weibo, users bemoaned that reunions with friends have become superficial openings to compare wealth and status and boast about their child's achievements. Money has become the primary social currency, with one Weibo user writing, "New Year is a time to spend money, and to get fat." While simple exchanges of gifts were once sufficient when no one was much better off than anyone else, nowadays people are more concerned with how their gifts -- with the price tag left on -- will reflect the giver's status. One report from news portal Sina quoted a 30-year-old woman saying, "People nowadays turn their noses up at anything priced under $33" -- she estimates that $50 is the minimum threshold for a gift, at least among her family and friends. (China's per capita gross national income was $6,091 in 2012, according to the World Bank.)

This year has also seen 4.7 million Chinese flee their homeland to spend the Chinese New Year abroad. Although that's still a tiny proportion of China's approximately 1.3 billion people, it's more than ever before. At least among some Chinese, international travel has become the latest buzz -- a quick scroll through my news feed on WeChat shows pictures of families celebrating New Year's Eve abroad. One family posted pictures of toddlers and grandparents swimming in the Club Med resort in Bali, while another posted pictures of food from London.

As much of the celebrations draw to an end this week and China's citizens return to work, many will remember the just-passed New Year as a quiet affair. There was a time when Lunar New Year offered something special to Chinese people -- new clothes, meals with lots of meat, carefully prepared entertainment, and contact with otherwise far-off friends. Now, thanks to rising incomes and a fast-spreading Internet, that's all available to many Chinese whenever they want. Such are the perils of becoming middle class.

Photo: Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Zero Dark Dirty

Beijing still considers a surprising amount of information secret.

Beijing may be whittling back its widely reviled state secrets laws -- but given their opacity, it's hard to say for sure. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang signed a regulation, announced Feb. 2, that would prohibit Chinese government organs from "using the law to classify those matters which should be made public," according to state-run Xinhua news service. In an English-language article, Xinhua added that the regulation will "boost government transparency." But China's state secrets law remains still broad enough -- and vague enough -- to deny the Chinese public access to a surprisingly wide range of information.

It's hard to criticize Li for pushing back against abuse of the law by wayward Chinese officials, who long ago discovered that they could bury incriminating material by classifying it as secret, or some variety thereof: top secret (where Chinese law says disclosure would cause "extremely serious harm"), highly secret, and secret. But the new language simply restates the flip side of the current law, which essentially says: Whatever should be secret shall be so labeled -- trust us. 

Even the current regulations issued by Chinese authorities about state secrets are opaque enough to keep the most conscientious rule-follower in the dark. In an August 2012 memorandum called "Traps for the Unwary in Disputes Involving China," respected international law firm Jones Day seemed to throw up its hands, calling the law "as vague as it is broad." If there is one thread running through this maze, it's the unifying principle that Beijing is determined to keep information that it believes would rile the public under wraps. That lack of clarity is enough to scare off some journalists and public advocates; the Jones Day memorandum notes that in practice, the secrecy laws essentially allow authorities "almost unlimited discretion" to define a state secret. There's no evidence that dynamic is about to change.

A report by NGO Human Rights in China, which translates some of the rules that classify information into different types of secrets, provides a glimpse into this confounding realm. (The report was authored in 2007, and it's not entirely clear whether the cited rules remain on the books -- Beijing does not appear to have publicly updated these classifications in recent years, although it revised the overall State Secrets Law in 2010 to expand its reach. That said, the report is an excellent exposition on the subject.) Among those pieces of information that Chinese law has labeled highly secret: 

  • Undisclosed information and data on the handling of child labor cases nation-wide.
  • Plans and strategies for participating in meetings of international labor organizations.
  • Statistics from family planning departments regarding the number of induced abortions.

Meanwhile, among the merely secret:

  • Analyses of important trends in speeches or writings by ethnic minorities.
  • Reactions to important issues concerning the implementation of religious policies.
  • Compiled information and statistics held by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a massive state-run union, concerning worker unemployment and the financial hardships of workers.

    Gathering, possessing, or disseminating these secrets can lead to criminal detention or imprisonment. Making matters worse, certain information not specifically labeled secret at the time it was disclosed can be retroactively classified as such. Anything that endangers the ability of the state to consolidate and defend its power is secret, for example -- and its disclosure can be punished, even if it wasn't considered dangerous at the time it was revealed. That means the law extends back in time, creating a dragnet with no discernable edges.

    The change to the secrets law announced on Feb. 2 reflects awareness that this vast discretion has been abused before. In one egregious example from August 2002, an AIDS activist was detained for sharing details of the spread of the disease in central Henan province; it turned out that as many as one million people in Henan had contracted the disease. And in February 2003, a health official in the southern province of Guangdong refused to share details about another headline-grabbing disease, the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, commonly known as SARS, under cover of the secrecy law. In February 2013, Chinese authorities withheld soil pollution data in the face of a citizen request by labeling it a state secret -- as of December 2013, the results were still under lock and key.

    Li's move is better than nothing, as it may make it harder for government officials to exploit state secret laws for their own ends. But that doesn't change the fundamental equation: The Chinese Communist Party remains prepared to invoke state secrets, and punish whistleblowers, in order to hide information it deems threatening to its rule.

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