Recent spats between the United States and China are focused on one particular venue: U.S. diplomatic compounds across China, a testimony to the fact that America's soft power is becoming increasingly more menacing to the autocratic communist regime.
In February, the flight of Chinese metropolitan police Chief Wang Lijun to the U.S. Consulate General in the southwestern city of Chengdu and this month's daring escape of blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing became defining examples of U.S. diplomatic outposts serving as beacons of freedom.
Besides those high-profile cases, there have been many instances in which U.S. diplomatic compounds have played important roles in changing China.
The latest example is the recent decision by the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai to report its own data on the air pollution index. The first report came out May 14 and caused a sensation in China's largest city because the U.S. data differed significantly from the official Chinese data: Pollution measurements by monitoring devices inside the U.S. consulate were three times higher than those issued by Chinese officials.
China's government routinely doctors data that it releases to the public, all in the name of avoiding social disturbances.
The Shanghai air pollution report followed a similar practice by U.S. diplomats in Beijing who installed their own air pollution monitoring devices on top of the diplomatic compounds. The Americans then published the data on U.S. websites for a Chinese public that is rapidly losing confidence in their government's doctored pollution data.
The credibility of Chinese government-sponsored air pollution data has declined so far that just 13 percent of residents in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou in a recent opinion poll said they think Chinese government data matches how they feel about the air quality.
Perhaps the most politically significant example of American diplomats' increasing "soft power" is the subtle yet powerful indictment of U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke.
A former Washington governor, former Commerce secretary and the first Chinese-American ambassador to China, Mr. Locke has rocked Chinese society since his arrival in Beijing in August.
His most powerful tool is simple - just being humble - in sharp contrast to the high-flying, often arrogant Chinese officials who are deeply disliked by the Chinese public.
By simply being himself, Mr. Locke is regarded by the Chinese government as one of the most dangerous weapons of the United States. Official Chinese media routinely call Mr. Locke a "double-faced showman" and a "tool of the American government's plot to change China through a peaceful evolution."
Dubbed "Comrade Locke," the ambassador has become a lightning rod for public attention on one issue - his total assets. The Chinese system breeds corruption, especially among high-ranking officials. As public demand for disclosure of Communist Party officials' personal assets becomes stronger, no Chinese leaders have dared to publicly support the idea, let alone practice it themselves.
On May 14, the official Beijing Daily, run by the Beijing municipal Communist Party committee, issued an open challenge to Mr. Locke to disclose all personal assets, hoping the request would be ignored or refused, thus embarrassing him.
Within a few hours, the Chinese public was stunned to see the full disclosure of Mr. Locke's worth of assets on the U.S. Embassy's own microblogging site.
Mr. Locke's financial disclosures forms went viral across China's cyberspace. Now the pressure is on Chinese leaders themselves to disclose their fortunes to the public, including an estimated $150 billion in banks overseas.
So far, none of the Chinese leadership team has taken up "Comrade Locke's" undeclared challenge.
HUGE REVENUES FROM SECOND-CHILD FINES
The Chinese government amassed an estimated $20 billion from "extra-birth fines" levied against parents of the estimated 13 million children whose births are considered illegal under China's draconian one-child policy, according to a rare report published last week in the latest edition of Chinese Economy Weekly.
According to a statement from the State Family Planning Commission that was obtained by the magazine, the state-mandated fine for having a second child is so severe that almost no one can afford it.
"Our government calculates the basic disposable income for an urban resident is 26,738 yuan [$4,244]. The fine for having a second child will be nine times of that, i.e. 240,642 yuan [$38,197]," the official statement says.
In other words, one person in violation of China's one-child policy would have to forfeit all of his disposable for nine years just to pay the fine.
• Miles Yu's columns appear Thursdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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