Saturday, January 20, 2018

Where is Beijing headed?

As I write these words, Beijing is blanketed by a layer of thick air pollution. The concentration of PM 2.5 per square meter is currently 212, way above any recommended limit, visibility is reduced and the unmistakable smell of Beijing smog lingers in the air. Fortunately my air purifier keeps the air in my living room relatively clean, but if I go outside I'll be forced to wear a mask.

All the same, China's Ministry of Environmental Protection has informed us that the capital's air quality has been far better this winter compared to previous years, and for once the improvement they talk about has actually been fairly obvious. It is a simple fact: the air pollution in Beijing over the last couple of months has been much lower than normal. Oh, there have still been days like today, but they have been the exception rather than the norm. Waking up to a clear blue sky has been a more common experience than waking up to the view of a grey post-apocalyptic nightmare outside the window. While winter is usually the worst season for air pollution in Beijing, this year November and December have actually been less polluted than the summer and autumn months were.

The authorities have hailed this relatively smog-free winter as a great success in their drive against air pollution, but it has not come cost-free. One of the main reasons for the improvement is a policy that the government has been implementing all over Northern China this winter: 煤改气 or "coal-change-gas", as the Chinese media has named it with typical conciseness. The aim of the policy is to switch coal with natural gas as a source of heating for people's homes. Coal-powered heating is the main reason that pollution in Northern China gets so bad every winter.

The policy has been implemented with great strictness. Slogans have popped up in Northern Chinese villages warning that those who burn coal will be arrested, and in Shaanxi some construction workers were detained for five days for starting a fire with coal to keep warm while working over night. The problem is that not all houses are yet fitted with gas-powered heating systems, and a lot of areas have also seen shortages of natural gas as everyone switched to gas heating at once. The result is that millions of people have been left without heating in the rigid winter, with temperatures dropping well below freezing at night time.

The coal bricks used for cooking and heating in Chinese homes

Although figures are disputed, it is clear that quite a lot of people have been suffering from the lack of heat. About a month ago, photos of children from a primary school in Hebei province having class outdoors in their coats, because the feeble winter sunshine was still warmer than their unheated classrooms, were shared on the internet and provoked an uproar. I have also come across a folk rhyme shared in different version across the internet, describing the inconvenience and hardship faced by ordinary families with no heating in their homes. It contains some pretty subversive lines. One version ends with the angry words 官下令,民买单。乡亲们,别喊冤,咬紧牙,熬东关,敢苑哪个王八蛋?, translated more or less as "the officials deliver an order, the people pick up the tab. Fellow villagers, don't complain about injustice, endure the winter, which bastards are you going to dare blame for this?"

While this policy has been tough on peasants who would certainly rather have warm homes than clean air, it has obviously delivered benefits to the better-off social classes in the cities who do not have to worry about their homes being heated, and whose concern over air pollution has grown enormously over the last few years.

Connected with all this, a large-scale operation to kick poor migrants out of Beijing started a couple of months ago. The campaign was sparked by a fire that broke out in a cheap building in the city's southern outskirts, killing 19 people. 17 of those killed were members of working families from other parts of China, living in cramped conditions in an unsafe building. The fire gave the authorities the pretext to start a wide-scale campaign of demolition of "illegal structures", which has led to the eviction of hundreds of thousands of migrants. Families were often only given a few days, and in extreme cases a few hours, to vacate their flats and either find a new place to live or go back to where they came from. This was in late November, during an early and especially rigid winter, with temperatures hovering around freezing in daytime.

The campaign has also affected people beyond the circles of poor migrants doing unskilled labour. Young graduates living in cheap housing blocks have been evicted, and the hip hutongs in the city centre have also been targeted. In the middle of November British writer James Palmer, who was living in a hutong next to Houhai lake, right in the middle of Beijing, tweeted that he had been given three days to move out by the police, because the "illegal structure" he lived in was going to be demolished. Still, the demographic most heavily affected is clearly the unskilled migrants and small-time traders living on the city's outskirts, who in many cases are finding themselves forced to leave the city.

All this is clearly related with the authorities' stated goal of capping Beijing's population at 23 million. What this campaign has in common with the one to ban the burning of coal is that it favours the interests of the comfortably-off and of the native Beijingers (many of whom have become prosperous simply by owning properties or selling their land in the expensive capital) at the expense of the working poor and those who live in small towns and the countryside. One campaign drives out, or in any case strongly inconveniences, unskilled workers from other parts of China living in Beijing, but in the long run it will create a less congested, cleaner and more gentrified city with less slums on its outskirts. The other one forces peasants across a large swathe of Northern China to go cold, but it pleases the well-off and the educated living in Beijing, Tianjin and other cities who don't have to choke on polluted air the whole winter, relying on air purifiers and flimsy face masks for some protection from the damage the smog does to your health.

One might almost say that the government is doubling down on championing the interests of the richest 20% of the Chinese population (often referred to as the "urban middle class" in the foreign media), while pushing policies that risk antagonizing the rest of the country more openly and aggressively than ever before. This is obviously a huge over-simplification, but it has its explanatory power.



The only thing is that the campaign to kick out the migrants from Beijing appears to have backfired. The sight of families getting thrown out into the cold with little or no notice has caused a wave of anger and indignation in the Chinese public, even in the more privileged sectors who run no risk of getting kicked out themselves. As always in China, this anger is being expressed in the only place it can be, in other words on social media. But this doesn't make it any less real. In a country where people often don't seem to care about things that don't affect them personally, and may even support heavy-handed policies as long as they are not directed at their own group, this wave of solidarity with the downtrodden is really quite unusual.

Given how much importance the leadership attaches to making the public perceive them as benevolent, paternal, and only tough when they need to be, it seems like this time they may have miscalculated. Some might argue that it was just the local authorities that went too far, but I can only imagine that the central government must have set the tone. The decision to evict people in such a rush, with so little notice, may seem illogical, but I suppose that it was done to prevent the possibility of people getting organized and putting up resistance. There was actually at least one mass protest in a Northeastern suburb of Beijing, which was reported in the international media but not within China.

After a few days the government went into damage limitation mode, and Beijing's mayor was sent to visit some of the poor migrants in front of the cameras, while even the People's Daily timidly criticized the campaign. This suggests that the authorities realized that they had gone too far. A couple of months later the evictions seem to have ended, and the public's indignation has died down. Those who had to leave have left, and the plan to turn Beijing into a modern, orderly capital city with clean(-ish) air is going ahead. But one has to wonder what all the drama around the expulsions means for China's future. Are the leadership's technocratic plans going to start encountering more resistance? Is a new era of social conscience dawning? Only time will tell.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Travels in Indonesia: West Timor

The most memorable part of my journey to Indonesia was certainly my trip to West Timor.

Timor is an island located towards the Eastern side of the Indonesian archipelago, a whopping 2660 kilometres from Jakarta. The island is well known mostly because its Eastern half is the independent country of East Timor. Curiously, the word Timor itself actually means "East" in Malay. The roots of the island's division lie in European colonialism: Timor was divided between the Dutch and the Portuguese in the nineteenth century. While the Western side became part of Indonesia in 1949, along with the surrounding islands, the East remained a Portuguese colony until 1975, after which it declared independence and was promptly invaded by Suharto's Indonesian regime, fearful of the rule of the left-wing Freitlin party. Many East Timorese never accepted Indonesian rule, and the territory regained its independence in 1999 after the fall of Suharto, but only at the cost of massacres and bloodshed.

West Timor is the half of the island that belongs to Indonesia. It is home to about 1.8 million people (the whole island has 3.2 million). It is part of the wider province of East Nusa Tenggara, which includes 500 islands scattered through the ocean, north of Australia and West of Papua. The province has the lowest per capita income in Indonesia, with much of the population still living off the land. West Timor is no exception, with 30% of its people living below the poverty line. Outside of the main city, Kupang, society is still rural and ancient ways of life are changing only slowly. There are various ethnic groups, but the largest one is the Atoni people, also known as the Dawan.

My journey started in Kupang, the only real city in West Timor. I flew from Bali to Kupang on a small propeller plane. On the first leg of the flight I appeared to be the only foreigner. Most of the other passengers had the typical features of the peoples of Indonesia's eastern islands, with much darker complexions than the Javanese. Many of them would have easily passed for East Africans anywhere else in the world. Our plane stopped over in the small town of Maumere, on the island of Flores. As we were about to take off again, I was surprised to suddenly hear what sounded like Italian spoken a few seats behind me. At first I thought it might be a local Austronesian language which happened to sound remarkably like Italian, but after hearing a few more phrases I concluded that it really was Italian. I turned round, craning my neck, and managed to catch a glimpse of a girl who was obviously an Italian backpacker. She was chatting in Italian with a nun, who looked Indonesian.

After arriving at the tiny airport in Kupang, I got out of the plane and walked the 20 meters to the terminal building where the luggage was. While we waited for our luggage I got chatting with the Italian girl. She turned out to be a professional tour guide who lives in London, and was backpacking across South-East Asia for a few months. She had already travelled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and most of the islands of Nusa Tenggara. The nun she was chatting to was a local who she had met on the plane, who spoke good Italian thanks to the years she had spent studying in the seat of Roman Catholicism.

Unsurprisingly, the Italian girl (named Anna) turned out to have booked the same guesthouse I had, the Lavalon, which appears to be the main gathering point for the foreign backpackers and adventurers who wash up on these shores. The guesthouse had sent a driver to come and pick us up, so I hopped in with Anna and we shared the cost of the ride.

The guesthouse turned out to be underwhelming. Lonely Planet describes it as the "best value in town, with clean rooms and Western-style bathrooms. Excellent meals and cold beer are served in the open air common area, which has fine views". There was indeed a common area with nice views of the ocean, but the accommodation turned out to consist of two single rooms and a dorm with bunk beds, all of which were dingy, dark and uninviting, and not even terribly cheap compared to what was on offer. The showers did not have hot water. Anna and I were the only people staying at the guesthouse, and also quite possibly the only foreign tourists in West Timor while we were there.

An even bigger disappointment was the guesthouse's owner, "much-loved living Nusa Tengara Timur encyclopedia and former Indonesian film star Edwin Lerrick". The Lonely Planet website goes even further: "the irrepressible owner of Kupang's Lavalon Bar & Hostel is also a sensational guide, with deep regional knowledge and connections throughout West Timor, especially in the traditional villages". When we met him in person, there appeared to be little irrepressible or glamorous about him. He looked like an old retainer, slumped in a chair wearing shorts and a shirt open on his bare chest. He acted quite indifferent to us, just giving us our keys and a form to fill in, and asking us no questions. After a while he just disappeared. The remaining staff were quite unresponsive, and we had to ask a few times before finally being given such luxuries as pillows, blankets and towels. Oh, and there were no meals and cold beers in sight. This obviously was low season, but still...

The only person who was friendly and chatty was the man who had picked us up from the airport, who was a professional tour guide and wanted to sell us his tour of West Timor. If you want to visit the island's interior it is advisable to hire a professional guide who speaks the local languages, and so after some thought and bargaining we decided to take up his offer. Anna had actually come to Timor because her one month visa-free travel in Indonesia was almost up, and so she planned to cross over into East Timor for a visa run and then re-enter Indonesia. She still had a few days left in the country though, and she was also keen on seeing the interior of Timor, so we naturally decided to go on the tour together and split the cost.

That evening we went for a walk around Kupang's harbour. Lonely Planet describes the city as "East Nusa Tenggara's top metropolis, which buzzes to a frenetic Indonesian beat", as opposed to the rural interior. Coming from outside, it was rather hard to detect the frenetic beat. It gave the impression of a quiet provincial town, and seemed to lack much in the way of amenities. The main shopping street was busy but scruffy, and the humid heat and the lack of proper pavements made it rather uncomfortable to walk around. We attracted attention and cries of "mister", although just like elsewhere in Indonesia the people seemed friendly and polite. After failing to locate a waterfront bar that showed on Google Maps, we decided to make our way back to the hostel, and enjoy a couple of beers while looking at the ocean.

Next morning at 7 (it was supposed to be 6, but I had insisted on 7), we got up and left in our guide's car. After a five hour drive through the island's beautiful hills and forests, we reached the market town of Oinlasi. We were in luck, because the weekly market takes place every Tuesday, and this happened to be a Tuesday. The market was full of villagers from rural communities selling their produce, many of them dressed in traditional clothing and ikat cloths. Some women were also selling their handmade ikat, which is apparently some of the most beautiful in Indonesia and costs about a tenth of what it would in a boutique in Bali. A lot of the local people displayed bright red lips and teeth, due to the widespread habit of chewing betel nut. Many of them wore absurd amounts of clothing given the heat, something that you notice all over Indonesia. Me and Anna were the only obvious foreigners, and we attracted many giggles, stares and greetings. Foreigners do sometimes end up in these places, taken there by one of the handful of professional guides in West Timor, but it is certainly not an everyday occurrence.

Lady selling garlic and chili in a market, West Timor

Weekly market, West Timor

As well as villagers selling their own simple produce, there were also people selling cheap mass-produced plastic ware, of the same kind you could probably find anywhere in the country. Although I was quite unaware of this at the time, I later chanced upon this article claiming that many of those selling the mass-produced goods are actually not Timorese but Muslim Bugi people originally from Sulawesi, and that the Timorese are getting marginalised in their own markets by these industrious outsiders. I have no idea whether this is true, but it is certainly the case that most Indonesian islands do experience both religious clashes and tension between the locals and immigrants from other parts of the country. Most people in West Timor are Catholic, and Kupang has seen clashes between Muslims and Christians in the past. While short-term visitors will be unaware of such things, it is good to remember that these islands that appear so idyllic, with their lush greenery and friendly, relaxed people, do not lack such problems.

In any case, we ate lunch in a dingy local restaurant, where you had to pick the food from various trays, all of which had flies buzzing all over them. This seems to be a problem in all the cheap restaurants in Timor, and certainly all the ones we ate in. It definitely does not make the food more appetising, although the taste is not bad. After lunch we drove on to our next stop, the "kingdom" of Boti. Boti is a village near Timor's south coast, accessible only by a mountain road that often becomes completely impassable during the rainy season. This was the rainy season, but the local gods must have smiled upon our trip, since it barely rained at all during our tour, while it had rained heavily prior to our arrival in Timor. Boti is noticeable because it is ruled by a chieftain, often referred to as the "king" by outsiders, and strictly adheres to local adat (an Arabic term that has come to refer to traditional customs and rules throughout the region).

Boti has become something of an obligatory stop for the few tourists who take organized tours of West Timor, and the two or three guides who operate in the region have all developed a relationship with the king. As much as I would like to say that I was the first outsider to end up in Boti in 200 years, this obviously isn't the case, but still the village is far from becoming a tourist destination. When we arrived at the village, it seemed to be deserted. We were told that the men and also most of the women were out working in the fields, including the king himself. We were however taken to the king's house, which was just a simple concrete dwelling with a few rooms. We hung out on the verandah, and the king's young wife and small son soon joined us. We were served some tea and fried cassava, while our guide conversed with them in the local dialect, supposedly a variant of the Uab Meto language of the Dawan people, although I did detect some words of Indonesian thrown in.

We then went for a walk around the village. It was almost empty, but we did see a couple of women weaving ikat by hand the traditional way. There were some simple thatched dwellings, and some small pigs lying in an enclosure. We were shown a stone platform with a thatched roof above it to protect it from the sun, where the people apparently gather in the evenings. We were also admonished not to take photos of a specific area, just behind the king's house. The houses seemed quite simple, and the whole place lacked electricity, although there are a few battery-powered lamps in the houses. The village wasn't totally lacking in modern goods, but the lifestyle certainly appeared to be very simple and old-fashioned. Let's just say that if all contact with the modern world were cut off tomorrow, local life would probably not be too affected. The guide told us that the locals do go to the weekly markets to sell their produce, and use what money they earn to buy some outside goods they need, for instance rice, which isn't grown locally.

Hut in Boti

The jungle just outside our front door, Boti

Boti steadfastly refuses to accept any kind of government assistance, and government offers to bring in electricity or modern housing have apparently met with refusals. The few hundred villagers still follow a local animist belief-system, although they are classed as Catholics on their IDs. According to what our guide told us, in every family at least one boy is supposed to stay in the village and keep local custom. This involves not going to school, and letting their hair grow long, part of local adat. The other boys can go to school and marry out. According to another source I have read, only one in two children are sent to school, and they can only come back to the village after finishing school if they are ready to relinquish any outside influences. According to Lonely Planet, local children are allowed to attend primary school but not high school, considered to be a source of unhappiness.

Whatever the true arrangement, the Boti people clearly view modern schools with suspicion as something that will endanger their culture, and don't necessarily let their children go to one. Although denying children a modern education is morally questionable, I can see their point. Especially in a context where going to school may well mean going to a boarding school, with children from different communities, in a different language, schooling might well sound the death knell for this ancient way of life.

Woman spinning wool, Boti
Woman weaving ikat, Boti

After looking around we retired to our living quarters, in the house where guests to the village stay. We were given two small rooms with no lighting or windows that remained dark even in the middle of the day. Our beds had mosquito nets, which turned out to be very useful. Our toilet was a squat toilet in an outhouse, of the kind I am used to from my stays in Chinese villages. We both lay down to nap, and once we got up the village was still quite deserted. Even our guide had disappeared somewhere to sleep. We sat outside chatting for a while, and then went for a walk around the area. The lush green forest and the valleys that could be seen from just outside the village made for some spectacular views.

Around seven o'clock we saw men starting to come back from the fields. Soon after our guide appeared and called us to go and meet the king. With some trepidation we walked back to the king's house, and there he was sitting outside. He looked like a very simple middle aged man, wearing a traditional sarong and an old and torn t-shirt. He shook our hands and greeted us politely. He seemed humble and unassuming, as did his family. We were then shown inside his house, where there was an assortment of four or five dishes we could choose from, all very tasty. We filled our bowls and went outside to eat on the verandah. The king, his wife and his children didn't eat with us, but just sat on the other side of the verandah. Our guide told us that it is not local custom to eat with guests. I would later discover that this seems to be widespread in Indonesia.

While we ate, we asked the king a few questions which our guide translated. I asked him whether his family had always been kings, and he replied that he only knows that his father and grandfather were kings too, but beyond that he doesn't know. Local history is not written down or recorded, apparently. After chatting with the guide for a while we left the king's house, so that he and his family could finally eat themselves, and we went back to our hut. It was only 8 pm, but in a village with no electricity there is obviously little to do after dark, so we just sat outside and chatted, while looking at the Southern Hemisphere's starry sky. Anna commented that the lack of a written history and of clear seasons must mean that the locals' sense of the passing of time is rather different from ours (although there is a rainy and a dry season, they are not really as distinctive as the four seasons of temperate lands).

A local man nears our guide's jeep just outside of Boti

Next morning we went back to the king's house for some breakfast, bid farewell to him and his family and then left Boti. After driving a bit down the winding mountain roads, we stopped at a home by the side of the road. Our guide obviously knew the family. Just like most families in the area, they possessed both a small modern house made of concrete, and an ume bubu or traditional conical hut just behind it. We went inside the traditional hut, which although only a couple of meters high was divided into two floors. The first floor is only about a meter high, meaning that standing up is impossible, and it is where the family sleeps. The ceiling was black from smoke. The top floor is used for storing food. The hut had no windows, so it was dark inside.

A modern house next to a traditional ume bubu dwelling belonging to the same family
The inside of an ume bubu



According to the guide book, the authorities have deemed the cramped and smoky ume bubu a health hazard, and are replacing them with cold concrete boxes. The local people have in turn deemed those to be a health hazard, and still live in the old huts behind the new houses. This would explain why most families seemed to have both a modern house and a traditional one. At the same time, my guide said that the new houses are built by the families themselves when they have enough money. I don't know which version is the true one, although this family definitely seemed to still use the traditional dwelling. It certainly didn't seem like a nice place to spend your days, but in a tropical country where it never gets cold, people don't need a warm, cozy home to hide away in. All they need is a dwelling to sleep in, while waking hours are spent outdoors.

Have taking our leave we drove on to Kefamenanu. Although it is just a small town, Kefa as it's know locally is still bigger and more urbane than most other places in the region. Our guide is from there and lives there. We briefly stopped at his home and met his wife and a couple of his seven children. The simple living room had a large picture of the Virgin Mary on the wall. The whole area is strongly Catholic, as was made obvious by the churches and the invocations to Jesus and Mary written in Indonesian on the side of the bemo. Although it is in West Timor, the town was a former Portuguese stronghold.

The guide took us to the local high school, where we met a few of the brightest local students who wanted to practice their English with us, including one of the guide's own daughters. They spoke pretty good English. The school was made up of classrooms facing open-air corridors. We arrived at around noon, and the whole school seemed to be having one big party, with students listening to hip hop in the corridors and playing football outside. It was explained to us that the kids had finished their final exams before the Christmas break, and were now relaxing.

A local English teacher who was a friend of our guide, and two of the guide's daughters joined our afternoon excursion. After having lunch in another local restaurant with the same old food and the same old flies buzzing around, we drove to Temkessi, another very well-preserved traditional Timorese village. We had to park the car and walk up a path for about ten minutes, until we reached an opening with a group of huts of the kind that seem to be used for social gatherings, with just a thatched roof held up by a few wooden columns, and an open space underneath. We then climbed up another little path up the rocks, until we got to an area with some wooden houses. This village also seemed quite empty, with just some local children hanging around. We were told that the adults were in the fields, once again. The guide explained that this village is where several different communities gather for their religious rituals, but most of them actually live elsewhere. Only the heads of each community and their families live there. The place did have the feel of a bit of a museum, or of somewhere that was left running more as a symbol than anything else. Still, the children hanging around obviously lived there. They certainly weren't just waiting for our arrival.

The approach to Temkessi

Cactus in Temkessi

Local children staring at us in Temkessi

Our guide told us not to let anything drop on the ground, and that if we did we should tell him and not pick it up ourselves. Apparently it is a bad omen, and a fine would have to be paid to the village before the object could be picked up. Exactly who would enforce this I don't know, since there only seemed to be children around, but tradition is tradition. None of us dropped anything to the best of my knowledge. Just as in the other village, there was one area that we were told we must absolutely not take photos of, as it is taboo. Overlooking the village there was a strange rock formation, which every seven years is the focus of a local religious ceremony, in which young warriors climb the rock with a goat strapped to their back, and then slaughter it.

After leaving Temkessi, we headed back to Kefamenanu. On the way back our guide noticed a funeral ceremony going on in a village, and stopped the car. He was clearly vaguely familiar with this community as well. There was a whole bunch of local people gathered under another conical hut, and a hearse lying nearby. A local 70- year old man had apparently died the night before. His body was still inside the house, waiting to be put in the hearse. The atmosphere seemed quite cheerful, with women laughing and joking. The older women were dressed in traditional clothing. We sat under the hut with everyone else, and stayed there for a while as our guide chatted with the locals. At some point a living chicken was taken, and its throat was slit right next to the hearse. This was a sacrifice made to the deceased, whose body was about to be taken out and put into the hearse. At this point we left however, before we got to see the actual deceased.

We then drove back to Kefamenanu, where we were going to spend the night. We were taken to a local hotel, where we were shown two not especially nice rooms for the price of 180.000 rupiah each. Anna was not having it, declaring that she had been travelling in Indonesia for a month, and she felt the price wasn't worth the quality. The rooms had no air conditioning, but what bothered her even more was that the window could not be completely closed, which meant that mosquitoes would inevitably come in, and there were no mosquito nets. Although we were both exhausted and looking forward to a shower, she insisted that we go and see some other hotels. The guide took us to two other hotels, both of which were even worse and a bit cheaper. One was old and dirty, and the other had no showers at all. At this point I insisted we go back to the first one, and Anna reluctantly agreed. It may be that in remote parts of Indonesia you just don't find good hotels by an outsider's standards, the same as in remote parts of China.

In any case we checked in and enjoyed the showers and wifi. That evening we were invited to have dinner at the home of the local English teacher who knew our guide. He and his wife turned up on motorbikes to pick us up and take us back to their home. Thankfully we were both given helmets. The teacher's house was simple but pleasant, and his large family were all there, including his parents and various offspring. Once again, the family did not eat with us. Me and Anna eat the food, and the family sat with us in the living room but didn't eat. The teacher's relatives asked questions that he translated. The room had a large image of Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus on the wall. The family got very excited when I said that I had lived in Rome, and asked me if I had met the Pope. Timor's fervent Catholicism is something I am not especially used to encountering in Asia. Of course Islam is historically an equally foreign religion to Indonesia, although at least it isn't the religion of recent invaders as Christianity basically is. After eating we were offered some strong local liquor, of which I managed to drink a glass.

We went back to the hotel and I collapsed into bed, although mosquitoes disturbed my sleep somewhat. Next morning the guide came to pick us up, and we started driving back to Kupang. We had time for a couple more weekly markets, and to stop at None, another traditional village whose people practiced headhunting until 1945. I suppose the government of independent Indonesia must have put an end to the practice. It seems amazing now to think that such any idyllic place was engaged in headhunting so recently. Once again, needless to say, the village was almost deserted, with a few old women and children hanging around between the conical huts. We took photos of a 200 year old banyan tree, under which there is a totem pole where warriors used to meet before going off on headhunting expeditions.

A valley in West Timor

After a few more hours' driving, we got back to Kupang, and settled back into the Lavalon Guesthouse, whose rooms now seemed a lot nicer compared to where we had slept for the previous two nights. Although exhausted, that night we went out to a little bar near our guesthouse, and ate some rather indifferent sandwiches while a small local band played. Kupang felt a lot more like a city now that we had seen the island's interior. The next morning Anna got up at 5 to catch the bus to East Timor, and I was left on my own until the afternoon, when my plane for Jakarta was leaving. I posted a few photos of Timor on Facebook, and it was then that I made a discovery: there is an Esperanto speaker in Kupang. He was already my friend on Facebook although we had never actually spoken, and when he saw my photos he immediately wrote to me. After finding out that I only had a few hours left in Kupang, he rushed over to my guesthouse on his motorbike to meet me. I don't suppose foreign Esperanto speakers must end up in Kupang very often, if ever.

He turned out to be a young Timorese man who had learnt Esperanto from a Spanish professor while going to university in Yogjakarta. He was now back in Kupang and had opened a language school. I suggested we get some lunch, and he took me to a little restaurant on the waterfront. It was just like all restaurants in Timor seemed to be, with a few dishes in trays you could pick from, and of course flies everywhere. I ate some very nice fish's head, a local delicacy. He then drove me to the old Dutch cemetery, where the graves of various Dutch colonists who died in the 19th and early 20th centuries were preserved, as well the graves of many locals. The cemetery was overgrown, but you could walk around. We then walked along the beach nearby.

After that he drove me back to my hostel, and we bid each other farewell. I then took a cab to the airport, and boarded my plane for Jakarta. A couple of days later I would be boarding another plane back to China. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Travels in Indonesia: Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Bali




I have just got back from a two-week trip to Indonesia.

Indonesia is probably the most important country in the world that I had yet to visit. This enormous archipelago stretches 5120 kilometers from East to West, longer than the already astonishing distance from Beijing to China's Westernmost point, and longer than the distance from London to Tehran. And while it's population may only be a fifth of China's or India's, that's still an awful lot of people. In fact, Indonesia happens to have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. And not even all Indonesians are Muslim, far from it.

The fact that the country is spread across a vast number of rugged islands means that it is culturally and linguistically very diverse. Of course, a big chunk of the population is concentrated in crowded Java. But some of the other islands, especially further East, hide small cultures that have developed in almost complete isolation. The most extreme case is West Papua, where much of the population was literally living in the stone age until a few decades ago. But even in other islands across the archipelago, small pockets of hunter-gatherers still survive, and ancient animist rituals still persist in villages whose inhabitants might be classified as Catholics or Protestants on their IDs (Indonesia's citizens have to choose between one of six official faiths for their ID. Well, they are allowed to leave that section blank in theory, but not always in practice).

I started my journey off in Jakarta, Indonesia's sprawling, vibrant capital. Only after going there did I find out that Jakarta's wider metropolitan area is the second largest urban agglomeration in the world after Tokyo-Yokohama, with an incredible 30 million people. Just like many other things about Indonesia, this fact should probably be more widely known than it is. The city is exciting, but also congested and polluted. It is the biggest city in the world that doesn't yet have a subway (although it is now being built), and as you might imagine there is some terrible traffic. On my first day I learnt to get around with the local bus system, which consists of air conditioned buses that travel on special lanes that are physically separated by a barrier from the rest of the traffic, as a result of which they run nice and fast. It was hard to navigate the system without speaking much Indonesian, but the attendants always went out of their way to help me buy tickets and find my stop. This was something I kept coming across in Indonesia: while the country is still quite poor and, just like in much of the tropics, things are not always on time or efficient, the vast majority of the people are extremely friendly and helpful with outsiders.

I visited Kota, the city's old colonial centre built by the Dutch, full of crumbling old buildings that now host museums and cafes. I entered the Museum Wayang, dedicated to the traditional wayang puppets of Java, and then the history museum housed in the building that used to be the Dutch colonial headquarters, the epicentre of the whole colony. The stately building includes a prison in its basement. I then walked on to Glodok, the Chinese quarter further to the South. On the way there I walked down pavements where everything seemed to be going on, from people playing chess and napping to little sweatshops and restaurants doing their business. The street market in Glodok was quite memorable, fulfilling anyone's stereotype of an old Chinese market, with bustling lanes and little shops with red lanterns selling traditional Chinese medicine and other assorted Chinese items. The neighbourhood was the centre of the dreadful anti-Chinese riots that rocked Jakarta in 1998, after Suharto's regime lost power and all of Indonesia's ethnic grievances suddenly exploded into the open, including the resentment against the Chinese-Indonesian minority.

Taman Fatahillah, the square that was the hub of Dutch Indonesia
The street outside my hotel

My own hotel was in Grogol, another area further to the south. It was located next to a huge multi-lane highway, on the other side of which there was a fancy shopping complex and a luxury hotel. Once you walked over the pedestrian bridge that ran over the highway to the side my hotel was on, however, you found yourself in a maze of little alleys where people live in one storey houses with little porches and front yards, and where children play on the streets as their parents chat to each other. The area had the feel of a village in which everyone knows each other. It seemed poor, but not desperately so.

After a couple of days in Jakarta getting my bearings, I decided to take the train to Yogyakarta. 425 kilometres east of the capital, Yogjakarta is located right in the middle of Java. Although it is far smaller than Jakarta, with only 400,000 people in the city proper and about 4 million in the metropolitan area, it is an important cultural and educational centre, and the heart of traditional Javanese culture, arts and language. It is also located close to the ancient Buddhist temple complexes of Borobudur and Prambanan, so tourists use the city as a base to visit these.

The train ride from Jakarta to Yogyakarta took 8 hours. When I got to the station the only tickets left were for the economy class, so the whole trip only cost the equivalent of about 5 euros. The attendant was doubtful that as a foreigner I really wanted to travel in the economy class, but it turned out not to be too bad. Everyone had a seat, and there were no people sitting on the floor or standing as you would find in the cheapest class of a Chinese train. Attendants regularly came round selling drinks and snacks. The biggest problem was that there was not much space between the seats, and I was stuck competing for leg space with a local family.

The long train ride afforded me a good look at Java's landscape. For the first few hours of the ride, the scenery was an endless sprawl of houses and buildings. With 140 million people, Java is the world's most populous island by quite a long shot. The next most populous one would be Honshu, Japan's main island, which only manages 104 million, followed by Britain with 60 million. When you realize that Java only has 2/3 of Britain's size and more than double its population, you appreciate how crowded it actually is. Later into the train ride, as we reached central Java, I did see some pretty spectacular tropical rainforests from the train's window.


After getting to Yogyakarta I checked into my guesthouse, which had its own pool. My room only cost about 13 euros a night, and while not amazing it was decent. Prices in Indonesia are considerably lower than they are in China. I was the only guest in the whole place for two of the three nights I spent there, meaning that I had the whole courtyard with a pool to myself. Not bad at all. I was staying in one of Yogyakarta's two tourist enclaves, and yet there appeared to be relatively few foreign tourists in the area, at least compared to the number of hotels and restaurants obviously catering to them. I was there in the rainy season, which is low season. But I suspect that the recent volcano eruption in Bali might well have affected a lot of people's plans to go to Indonesia, and tourist numbers were down as a result. Staying in hotels with almost no one in them was going to become a constant of my journey through Indonesia.

The next day I visited the Kraton of Yogyakarta. Kraton is the Javanese word for a royal palace. The palace is the seat of the sultanate of Yogyakarta. The unexpected thing is that the sultanate is still active, and the current sultan is the official governor of the city. Yogyakarta is the only place in Indonesia to still be governed by a pre-colonial monarchy. This is the historical result of the strong support that the sultan gave the War of Independence against the Dutch. When the Dutch re-invaded Indonesia after the Second World War and took Jakarta, Yogyakarta became the capital of the Indonesian Republic from 1946 to 1948. After independence, Sukarno thanked the sultan for his support by allowing Yogyakarta to become a special administrative region with the sultan at its head. The current royal family, the Hamengkubuwono, have been in power since 1755, and the current sultan is the tenth in line. He has managed to stay in power even after Indonesia became a democracy in the late nineties, and all other provincial governors started to be elected by popular vote. In 2010, a suggestion by the central government that the sultan should be elected by the people provoked riots by angry Yogyakartans, ready to fight for their right to remain disenfranchised. In 2012 the proposal was shelved for good.

The palace complex was built in 1755, when the current family came to power. The large complex, right in the middle of the city, was meticulously built to reflect the Javanese view of the cosmos, and its every feature is shrouded in symbolic meaning. The palace contains a museum that displays the sultan's artefacts, with unfortunately little in the way of explanations. What I found more interesting than the artefacts themselves was the army of dignified elderly retainers walking around the palace grounds, all barefoot, dressed in traditional garb and carrying daggers for good measure. The palace was also dotted with writing in the traditional Javanese script, that has now been replaced by the Latin alphabet for practical purposes. The Javanese language is spoken or understood by almost 100 million people, making it the world's biggest language to have no official status, since Indonesia's only official language is Indonesian.

Staff at the sultan's palace with traditional garb and daggers, Yogyakarta 


A lot of Indonesian visitors stopped me and asked if they could take a photo with me. This used to happen a lot in Chinese tourist sites: visitors from remote parts of the country asking foreign tourists if they could take a photo together, as if the foreigners were a bigger attraction than the actual attraction. In China this has diminished a lot in the last few years, but in Indonesia it's still commonplace. I always oblige to such requests in China, and I did the same in Indonesia.

Outside of the innermost group of buildings, for which a (cheap) ticket is necessary, there is an area that is still within the outer walls of the palace where about 25000 people live and work. About 1000 are in the pay of the sultan. It is quite interesting to walk around. Unfortunately the whole area is also infested with touts, who will try and strike up a conversation with tourists and then take them to a workshop where they can buy examples of batik, the traditional Javanese dyeing technique. I was accosted by one such tout who took me to a workshop where I ended up buying a traditional Javanese wooden mask, very authentic but no doubt overpriced. To their credit, Indonesian touts tend to be gentle, polite and charming in a way that their counterparts in other countries could really learn from. There is none of the irritating pushiness you could find in countries like India or Egypt, or the brusqueness you might find in China. The country's generally relaxed and gentle behaviour clearly washes off on everyone.

The next day I visited Borobudur, Indonesia's answer to Angkor Wat. Borobudur is a huge stone structure built in the 9th century, considered to be the world's largest Buddhist temple. The temple was abandoned in the 14th century, when Java turned Muslim, and it lay forgotten into 1812, when the British ruler of Java Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles rediscovered the monument. Hotels in Yogyakarta all offer tours to Borobudur (and the other nearby complex of Prambanan, which I did not visit). These tours are all quite expensive, and what's more they all seem to leave at ungodly hours like 4 or 5 in the morning. This is both because watching the sunrise from the top of the temple is supposed to be a magical experience, and because in the middle of the day it can be scorchingly hot and/or pour with rain, so it is advised to get there early. I didn't fancy the idea of waking up so early, I'm not a huge fan of sunrises, and I didn't want to pay that much money, so I resolved to go by public transport. I took a public bus to Borobudur at the much more reasonable time of 9 in the morning, only to discover that the bus stop where I was advised to get off was actually quite a distance from the temple complex itself. I asked a man sitting by the side of the road in my very limited Indonesian how far the temple was, and discovered it was another seven kilometres. I ended up taking a taxi, and was charged an extortionate price which made me wish I had taken the tour after all.

The temple itself was spectacular. It is built in ziggurat fashion, with nine different platforms, the first six square and the last three circular, topped by a central platform with dozens of stone statues of the Buddha in the lotus position. When seen from above, it looks like a gigantic Buddhist mandala. The building is built to represent the three different realms of existence: the base of the building represents Kamadhatu, the world of desires where ordinary sentient beings live. The next five square platforms represent Rupadhatu, the world of forms, where beings go once they have abandoned their earthly desires: they see forms, but are not drawn to them. The top three circular platforms represent Arupadhatu, the formless world, where full Buddhas go beyond all form and perceive world as the formless ocean of Nirvana. Every platform is surrounded by stone reliefs representing that particular level of existence. Sitting on the top platform looking at the surrounding hills was a special experience.

The top platform of the Borobudur temple

Thankfully there were relatively few visitors around, and most of them were Indonesian. More strangers asked to take photos with me. While visiting the museum I got caught in a tropical downpour, and had to take shelter under a tent for about an hour. Once I was out of the temple I managed to identify a bus back to Yogyakarta and get back without mishap. That evening I went out in the Sosrowijayan area, a part of the city that gets lively at night. I ate in a very authentic little restaurant, where the food cost almost nothing and the diners sat on carpets on the floor. Sitting on the floor comes extremely natural to Indonesians, and a lot of street food stalls arrange carpets on the pavement for the customers to sit on while they eat. As a Westerner eating in such a place I drew some attention, and a tourist from the Indonesian Moluccas (the "Spice Islands") sitting at the table next to mine got up to greet me, shake my hand and ask where I was from in passable English. I ordered duck with rice, which turned out to be pretty tasty.

Later that night, back in my guesthouse, I tried to decide where to go next in Indonesia. The country is so huge, with a myriad different islands with different cultures and natural environments, that once you leave Java choices are almost endless. I also had to factor in the time and expense getting to some of the more far flung places would involve. The classical tourist thing to do would have been to fly to Bali, only a short hop further East. But I am not the kind of traveller who wants to stick to the beaten path. In the end I decided to visit one of the islands in Nusa Tenggara, the area consisting of the dozens of islands scattered across the ocean east of Bali and south of Sulawesi. After reading up on the different islands, Timor caught my attention. West Timor, the Indonesian side of the island, sounded fascinating, and was clearly not very often visited. I looked up flights and discovered that getting from Yogyakarta to Timor would invariably involve flying through Bali in any case. I decided that I might as well take a couple of days in Bali to rest and see what the place was like, before heading on to Timor.

Next afternoon I took a flight to Denpasar, the Balinese capital. Once in Bali I caught a cab to Kuta, the town on Bali's southern tip where most of the tourists are concentrated. The ride only took about twenty minutes. Kuta's streets looked like Ibiza, or any seaside tourist resort around the world. It was extremely overdeveloped, just hotel and restaurant after hotel and restaurant. Tourists from all over the world crowded the streets. I saw lots of Westerners of course, but also quite a lot of honeymooning Indian couples, which apparently represent a big new market for Bali. What seemed to be totally lacking were Chinese visitors. This was apparently because the Chinese government had warned Chinese tourists not to visit Bali due to the volcano eruption. Flights had been grounded in the previous weeks because of the dust from the volcano, but by the time I got there flights were running as usual, and there was no risk at all to being on the island (the volcano is in the north, quite far from the southern strip were most tourists reside).

I had dinner at a stall by the beach where it was possible to pay for the food with WeChat, and the owner spoke a bit of Chinese he had picked up from tourists. He lamented how there had been no Chinese for the past weeks, and how tourist numbers in general were down due to the volcano. I don't know what Bali is normally like, but apart from the lack of Chinese there still seemed to be plenty of tourists, certainly much more than I had seen or would see in the whole rest of Indonesia put together.

Before going to Indonesia, I had heard rave reviews of Bali from people of all kinds. "Simply magical" and "fascinating" were among some of the descriptions. Both Beijing hipsters and taxi drivers in Jakarta had told me that I just had to go there. Bali has had a special hold on the world's imagination for almost a century. Western tourists had already started to travel there in the twenties and thirties, and a number of Western anthropologists and artists who spent time on the island in those days contributed to mythicise it as a mystical land with a unique religious and artistic culture in a pristine setting. The island's culture certainly is unique within Indonesia, as it is the only place in the country where Hinduism is still followed, although what is called Hinduism in Bali has diverged considerably from the beliefs found in India itself. The island now serves as a getaway for people from the East and West alike, all attracted by the promise of a tropical paradise that offers both beaches and culture. Still, I saw no glimpses of the local culture in Kuta. There are certainly many Indonesians there, but I suspect many of them are not Balinese, and all of them work in the tourist industry. Walking down the back streets, I was treated to a constant chorus of "mister, transport" and "mister, massage" ("mister" is how Indonesians normally address foreign men). At night people would call out to me with more raunchy, illegal propositions.

After spending the first night in a dingy backstreet guesthouse, I decided to splurge and relax in a nice hotel on the waterfront for my second night. In the evening I went to drink a beer on the beach and watch the sunset, like all the tourists do. Kuta Beach is where tourism to Bali began. Although the atmosphere was nice, I was amazed to see a trail of plastic rubbish stretching across the beach, at exactly the highest point which the tides had reached. I hadn't seen this on any beach in South East Asia. I got chatting to a Belgian young man who lives in Jakarta. He told me that the trail of rubbish stretched all around the island. He also told me that it is particularly bad during the rainy season (which we were in), when the rivers overflow and carry the rubbish from all over the island out to sea, after which the tides wash it up onto the beaches. He commented that the local government should organize someone to clean it up, or tourist numbers will be affected in the long run. That night I walked along Kuta's bar street (the one where the 2002 bombings occurred), and found it to be more wild and frenetic than any bar street in Soho or Sanlitun.

The trail of rubbish strewn across Kuta beach, Bali

Kuta's bar street

Although staying in Kuta did allow me to relax and recharge for the next leg of the journey, what I saw of Bali certainly didn't seem to justify the hype. I suppose I was just in the wrong place. If I'd had more time, I would have taken a week to travel around Bali and get a better picture of what it is really like. Still, I was not unduly bothered. My next destination was Timor, which promised a lot more excitement.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Shanghai

Last week I finally visited Shanghai.

Although this may seem surprising for an old China hand like me, I actually hadn't been to Shanghai for years, and was quite unfamiliar with the city. The high-speed trains which travel from Beijing to Shanghai in around five hours at a whopping 300 km/h make the journey relatively convenient and hassle-free, but I still hadn't had the incentive to go down there. This year a friend's relocation to Shanghai finally gave me the excuse I needed to go and take a better look at Mainland China's other metropolis.

This particular friend had been gushing to me for ages about how Shanghai beats Beijing as a place to live in every respect, not just because of the better air, but also in terms of the general quality of life. In his view the city is easier to get around, less congested, more sophisticated and international, has a more law-abiding and civilized society and feels less like a police state.

This is a view of life in Shanghai that I have heard repeated by a lot of other expats in China. People from Shanghai and the surroundings often tell me pretty much the same thing, complaining about the haphazard way in which things are done in Beijing, and the lack of sophistication of the Northern Chinese. Chinese from other parts of China, on the other hand, will often tell you that the Shanghainese look down upon Chinese from other areas and are unfriendly towards them. This is one of those "facts" that everyone in China thinks they know: the Shanghainese despise 外地人 (Chinese from other provinces) and "worship" foreigners and foreign culture. Beijingers do not stand accused of being unfriendly towards other Chinese nearly as much as the Shanghainese do.

After having stayed in Shanghai for four days, I can see where my friend's enthusiasm for the city is coming from. Shanghai is indeed a considerably easier place to live than Beijing, that much is obvious. Part of it is just to do with better urban planning: while the city is also enormous (in fact it has slightly more people than Beijing), the center is less spread out and objectively easier to get around. Traffic is not nearly as bad as it is in Beijing, and if you live somewhere in Pudong (the more residential district on the East side of the river) you can expect to ride a taxi to the French concession, where most of the action takes place at night, in a reasonable amount of time, like 20 or 30 minutes, without encountering dreadful congestion of the kind that makes getting around Beijing such a nightmare at times.

While Shanghai essentially looks like other Chinese cities, everything feels a little cleaner, neater and better organized than it does in Beijing. The difference would probably not be noticeable to a foreign tourist, but to those who live in China it is quite obvious. Even the touristy shopping district of Tianzifang manages to be far nicer and have a better atmosphere than Beijing's equivalent, Nanluoguxiang.

What is also striking is that Shanghai has a much higher proportion of foreign residents than Beijing. You simply see more of them on the streets, and in the French Concession especially the proportion of non-Chinese faces is far higher than what you find in Sanlitun or Gulou. I think the difference would not have been that noticeable say 5 or 10 years ago, but in the meantime there has been quite an exodus of foreigners from Beijing. The pollution has driven a lot of them out, and the increasing hostility towards foreigners on the part of the authorities has worked to drive out a few more.

Not that these problems don't exist in Shanghai. Air pollution is still bad enough, as I could see when I went up to the 92nd floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center and looked out at the horizon across the river like all the tourists do. While the view was impressive, visibility was not clear enough for me to see all the way to the edge of the city. And while the police may not be making a point of raiding expat bars, visa regulations are obviously just as tight as they are elsewhere in the country, and the general system you are dealing with remains the same. As a matter of fact, statistics show that the number of foreigners is dropping in Shanghai too, but it still remains a lot higher than in Beijing (about 250,000, compared to 100,000 for Beijing).

If there is one area where Beijing beats Shanghai, it is probably in the variety and number of interesting people one can meet there. Beijing is China's cultural and political center, and as such it has a lively intellectual scene, both within the Chinese and foreign communities. Foreigners who live in Beijing are more likely to speak Chinese and have a genuine interest in China, while more conventional types would probably not be able to put up with living there (or else work in an embassy). Writers, NGO staff, artists and people in similar lines of work abound. I have a feeling that the social scene in Shanghai would be a lot more shallow, although I have not really been there long enough to experience it for myself. On the other hand, with Beijing getting no easier to live in, and Shanghai remaining China's main window to the outside world, even Beijing's foreign intellectual circles might gradually start to relocate down south.

The view of Shanghai from the top of the World Financial Center

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Five books that will help you understand modern China

Reading books about China can become quite addictive once you get started. There are lots of them, and many are just run of the mill. There are some however that can really give you fresh insight into how this confusing country works. Below are five I would recommend to anyone interested in modern Chinese politics and society.


China Alone: the Emergence from and Potential Return to Isolation by Anne-Stevenson Yang

Anne-Stevenson Yang is an American lady who has spent most of her life in China since the mid-eighties, working as a journalist, executive and researcher. She writes about China perceptively and knowledgeably, giving an overview of the political-economy's current woes, from real estate to government debt. She also provides an insightful description of how the country is run, explaining for instance about the networks of "red princelings" that act as intermediaries between the different government departments, in spite of their lack of formal positions in the bureaucracy. Finally she takes a broader view to look at where China is headed. The old model of development has outlived its usefulness, she argues, and China may well be heading back into isolation and insularity. Only real systemic change can break the cycle of opening up to the outside world and then closing down again.




China's Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know by Arthur R. Kroeber

This book provides an excellent overview of all of the salient facts about the Chinese economy in every sector, from agriculture and industry to finance and real estate. Without getting excessively technical or falling into too much detail, it gives the reader a realistic picture of the economy's strengths and weakness, and how they link to the political system. It avoids being too catastrophic, for instance it gives little credit to the idea that China is set for some kind of terrible financial crash due to the real-estate bubble popping or a credit default. At the same time it also avoids the silly triumphalism of certain works about China, arguing that the talk about China becoming a hub of creative innovation is basically hot air, and will remain so as long as the political system doesn't loosen up.

Gao Village: Rural Life in Modern China by Gao Mobo

This book by Gao Mobo is an unusual one, but definitely deserves to be read by anyone interested in China's recent history. It is an account of the history of the author's birthplace, Gao Village in Jiangxi province, since the Communist Party took power in 1949. Gao Mobo was only the second person from this village to gain a higher education in its 200 year history, and ended up becoming a university professor in Australia. His views are controversial, as he is a "leftist" (in Chinese terms) with a tendency to minimise the impact of the disasters of the Mao Era, claiming that they mainly affected the elite, while the peasantry that constituted the overwhelming majority of the population actually benefitted from the era's radical policies, and even from the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, he is disparaging about most current Chinese policies, claiming that they do not really benefit the poor.

While his defence of Mao's rule, which he lays out in his other book "the Battle for China's Past", might seem to be based on a certain selective blindness, this book does a good job of explaining where he is coming from. Enriched with personal memories and anecdotes, but by no means a memoir, the book gives you a vivid picture of this little village and its recent history. He claims that the Great Leap Forward's craziest polices were mitigated by the common sense of the villagers, while the only local culture that was actually lost during the Cultural Revolution was the original copy of the local genealogical tree, which was burnt. He later describes the return of clan-based local struggles, the unjust taxation, the increase in general amorality and insecurity, and the continuing poverty of the villagers during the market reforms of the eighties. He claims that the first real material improvements for the villagers only came in the nineties when the young started to go out and work in the nearby cities, where they were often horribly exploited.

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics by Huang Yasheng

This book by Huang Yasheng, a Beijinger who teaches at Harvard, offers a different set of insights into how modern China works. Huang is also motivated by concern for the poor and underprivileged, but he sees things very differently from the aforementioned Mobo Gao. Huang is a great fan of the policies followed under Deng Xiaoping in the eighties, which in his view were able to free up the great reservoir of enterpreneurial potential of the Chinese countryside. Peasants were enabled and encouraged to start their own businesses, which they often did quite successfully. After the sad events of 89, however, China changed course. The new model of growth favoured the urban areas, the state-owned enterprises and foreign invested companies, while it was inimical to small indigenous entrepreneurs, and the countryside became nothing but a reserve of cheap labour. While the GDP continued to grow impressively, this form of growth was less beneficial for the well-being of the ordinary Chinese. He calls China's current system "crony capitalism", and calls for genuine protection of property rights to be ensured as a way of checking the system's inherent corruption and cronyism.

You Don't Know China: 22 Enduring Myths by John Ross

China is a country that lends itself uniquely well to myth-making and urban legends. This book is a really good take down of some of the most widespread myths about China, from the mundane (cats and dogs as an everyday dish) to the more consequential (the supposed Dickensian conditions in Chinese factories, China as the new "place to be"). The book does a great job of disposing of some of the new myths about China created by the international media, for instance the huge ghost cities sitting in the desert that on further inspection are not quite as deserted as they seem. Not everyone might agree with some of the authors' points, for instance his complete rubbishing of traditional Chinese medicine, or his contention that China was never really that isolated from foreign influences throughout its history. The inclusion of the Tiananmen Square massacre as a myth, purely because the killings didn't take place within the square itself, strikes me as rather unconvincing. But all in all the book is still a compelling read, and it finishes with a convincing take down of one of the most consequential modern myths about Chinese history, the occurrence of a "century of humiliation".

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Beijing's great bricking up: what lies behind it?

The "great bricking up" of 2017 would seem to be almost over, and the dust is settling again over the hutongs in the center of Beijing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small businesses have been forced to close by having their entrances bricked up (although many have valiantly tried to continue operating through a side entrance or a small window). Corner shops, hairdressers, restaurants and bars, no one has been spared. In the process, some of the city's greatest nightlife spots for foreign hipsters and alternative young locals have been mercilessly destroyed.

Workers brick up the entrance to a hutong restaurant

These are the facts. But what are the motivations behind all of this? The official explanations don't necessarily have much to do with reality. The authorities claim the point of the campaign is to close down illegal hole-in-the-wall businesses, address "architectural violations" and "restore the hutongs to their original look'. This all sounds very reasonable, but I would bet these are not the real motivations. Calling the hutongs' small businesses "illegal" means very little, in a context where property rights are unclear and everything is a grey area.

Most of those in the know seem to think that the point of the campaign is to push the migrants (or in some cases, the foreigners) who operate these businesses out of Beijing, thus reducing the city's population. This is what the Economist claimed in its May article "The Wider Meaning of Change in a Beijing Alleyway", and James Palmer in his Diplomat article, "How to Destroy the Heart of a Chinese City". Some of the smarter analysts who I have spoken to, both foreign and Chinese, make the same claim. In their minds the campaign is linked to the stated policy of capping the capital's population at 23 million by 2020, and moving some of the government functions and a few million people from Beijing to the soon-to-be-constructed city of Xiongan, out in Hebei.

Personally, the idea that the main motivation behind all this closing down of bars and shops in Beijing's central cluster of hutongs is reducing the city's population doesn't strike me as realistic. After all, the vast majority of Beijing's residents don't live or work in the one-storey hutong houses of the center, but in the vast 30-floor tower blocks further in the periphery. A single 小区 (a kind of gated community) in a suburb like Sihui probably contains more people then all of Dongcheng's hutongs put together.

What I suspect is a better explanation for the campaign is one that Palmer's article touches upon: social control. Essentially, the authorities aren't comfortable with the kind of unregulated, spontaneous and cosmopolitan street life that has grown in some of the hutongs in question. Their vision is one of a uniform city where entertainment is provided by air-conditioned shopping malls, and every street just has the same repeated McDonalds, Starbucks and Chinese fast food branches.

If there must be hutongs where people go to have fun, they should be along the model of Nanluoguxiang: essentially horizontal shopping malls, completely commercialized and standardized, replete with a bit of packaged "traditional culture" for out of town Chinese visitors. Incidentally, Nanluoguxiang was also closed down for a few months and renovated last autumn. It's now even more awful than it used to be. Hilariously, this article in the Chinese media claims that it "got a facelift to bring out traditional character". Sadly, touristy towns all over China, from Lijiang to Pingyao, now present shopping streets that look exactly like Nanluoguxiang.

Shops in Nanluoguxiang

It is no accident, I would bet, that some of the hutongs well known as nightlife haunts for young foreigners and Chinese alike, like Fangjia hutong, have been among the hardest hit by the closures. To me they represent the best of Beijing, a place where people from all walks of life (including foreigners and ordinary Chinese) rub shoulders in a genuine traditional setting, and neighbours still know each other. To the decision-makers, they are something that doesn't fit in with their vision of a society "governed by law" with Chinese characteristics. It is also no accident that Sanlitun's famous (or infamous) bar street, which is not in a hutong, has received the same treatment. The dirty, wild and unmanageable bar street is going to be turned into just another extension of the glitzy shopping malls that surround it on both sides. The final result of all this may be to irreparably damage some of the few areas of Beijing that still have some real character and uniqueness to them, in favour of a standardized and soulless entertainment culture that looks the same throughout China.

People eating in front of Moxi Moxi, the now forcibly closed Israeli street food joint in Fangjia hutong 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Why won't China abandon North Korea?

A few years ago I happened to read "Dear Leader" by Jang Jin Sung, one of the best books around about North Korea. Jang Jin Sung is probably the highest-ranking North Korean ever to have defected and told his story in detail. And his story is quite remarkable: he was an ordinary boy from a provincial town who became a writer and got coopted to work in the heart of the regime's propaganda department, creating propaganda aimed at South Koreans. He was lucky enough that one of his poems was praised by the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il himself, and he thus gained the class status of "Admitted" in North Korean parlance. He was then given the honour to meet Kim Jong Il in person, which is what first caused his faith in the system to start wavering. Brought up to believe that his country was governed by an almost god-like figure, when he discovered that Kim Jong Il was actually a very ordinary man who spoke in coarse language and used high heels to mask his short stature, the esteem in which he held his leader took a serious dent.

Although he lived a sheltered life in the capital, when Jang travelled back to his hometown of Sariwon and witnessed the effects of the last gasps of the famine that ravished North Korea in the late nineties, any remaining loyalty to the regime collapsed. While there he saw corpses lying unclaimed outside of the train station, and a farmer publicly executed in the town market for stealing some rice. It disgusted him when undernourished relatives and acquaintances asked him for information about the health and wellbeing of the "selfless Dear Leader" with genuine concern in their voices.

Jang made friends with a colleague who shared his distaste for the system he lived in, and when his friend accidentally mislaid "forbidden" reading material from the propaganda department in the Pyongyang subway, they were both forced to flee the country in 2004. After crossing the border into China and almost getting caught in the process, they were forced to lay low to avoid getting arrested by the police and sent back. Jiang managed to get in contact with South Korean agents who smuggled him into their embassy and give him a diplomatic passport, but his friend was unfortunately caught and committed suicide rather than being sent back.

The book is a compelling read, and its description of North Korea from the inside is fascinating, although by now rather dated. There is however one passage which is very relevant to the contemporary crisis in the Korean peninsula. Jiang Jin-sung recounts a private conversation he once had in Pyongyang with an ex-classmate from Kim-Il Sung University, a government cadre involved in establishing connections with ethnic Koreans in China. Apparently there was then a rule in North Korea that private conversations between cadres could not be used as a basis for prosecution unless there was independent evidence of them having taken place. This rule was made to prevent personal vendettas from spiralling out of control, and it allowed members of the elite to establish friendship and trust by sharing the dangerous truths behind the official narrative.

Jang's ex-classmate spilled his guts out regarding the true state of China-North Korea relations at the time. He told Jang about the background to Kim Jong Il's visit to China in 2001. In 2000 Kim Jong Il apparently came across an internal document of the Chinese government regarding the pact made between China and the DPRK after the Korean War. The document contained statements by some Chinese policy-makers suggesting that China should call off the mutual aid pact, or even ask North Korea for reparations for China's support during the war. Kim Jong Il was furious and went straight to the Chinese embassy to reprimand the ambassador, without any prior warning. North Korea's state news agency also announced the visit to the Chinese embassy without first telling the Chinese. The whole thing was seen as a diplomatic snub to China.

In response, China withdrew its ambassador and sent in a new one who was far less friendly to the North Koreans. A couple of months later, dozens of North Korean agents were arrested in North-East China for trying to groom local cadres within the government and police. Then for a while China even put a stop to aid to North Korea. After making their point, the Chinese authorities invited Kim Jong Il to visit China in January 2001, and he had no choice but to make the trip. The Korean delegation was even made to wait outside Beijing for days before being received. Then Kim was forced to go down to Shanghai and tour the skyscrapers of the Pudong special economic zone, and declare his praise for China's economic reform. This was reported in the international media as a sign that North Korea's leader wanted to emulate China's economic reforms. The reality is that he was forced to go to China as a kind of penance for daring to challenge his Chinese backers.

What is telling are the phrases that Jang's ex-classmate uses when talking about North Korea's relationship with China: "(...) I bet that's the first and last time our general tries to play with China the kind of games he plays with the US. We all know that if they squeeze us, we're dead.". And then later: "If they decide that our regime must go, it will go".

If this was true back in 2004, it is probably even truer now that cross-border trade between North Korea and China is much more large-scale. As others have recently pointed out, it is naive to think that the Chinese government couldn't bring North Korea to its knees if it wanted to. But it is also clear that they do not have any intention of pushing North Korea to the point where its regime may collapse. China's decision-makers may genuinely be frustrated at Kim Jong Un for his recklessness and threats (or they may be secretly pleased), but they appear to think that a reunification of the Korean peninsula would bring US troops all the way to their border. Although the reality is that in the long run the American army would have to pull out of a reunified Korea, the Chinese government probably doesn't believe this or see things that way. While it may not be a puppet, North Korea is essentially a buffer state, and for this reason it continues to exist.

Jang Jin Sung