Sunday, June 26, 2022

Antisemitism with Chinese characteristics

Many bad ideas have made their way from the West to China since the two civilisations collided in the 19th century, but until recently antisemitism wasn't one of them. 

Unfortunately, it looks like this may be changing. The number of Chinese academics and media personalities recently espousing antisemitic rhetoric has become impossible to ignore. The latest example is professor Zhang Wenmu, from the prestigious Center for Strategic Studies of Beihang University, Beijing. He is a well-known political scientist and naval strategist, and also a "leftist" in the Chinese sense, in other words a conservative nationalist and statist.

In a weird bit of online commentary, translated by the excellent Israeli analyst Tuvia Gering, Prof. Zhang offered this astonishing take on events in Ukraine: "Why has Ukraine become Judaised, and why has Israel put up with it? It's because Wall Street wanted to plant a quasi-Israel in this problematic European region. Israel, like the US and UK, is a tool of Wall Street or, to put it another way, a moneymaking subsidiary of a corporation masquerading as a state. So what is the reason for Ukraine's Nazification? It was designed to sow the seeds of a world war in Europe. In the previous one, the Jews did not anticipate Hitler, whom they had helped to power, to turn on them. However Jews as people, as well as the great bulk of humanity, are merely tools for Wall Street's profits."

Zhang Wenmu is clearly no stranger to antisemitism: in August last year he wrote a rambling article which mixed conspiracies about George Soros, Covid-19 as an American biological weapon, and the Jews as a "people of usurers" who dominate the US. He even managed to throw in a few quotes from Marx's tract "on the Jewish Question", which many consider highly antisemitic.

If this sort of rhetoric were limited to Professor Zhang alone, it could be ignored as the work of a lone crank. Unfortunately, it is not. Examples abound. What is most concerning is that some of China's infamous nationalist influencers have decided to jump on the antisemitic bandwagon. The most striking example is Lu Kewen, a former factory worker whose rants have over the last few years amassed millions of followers across various Chinese social media platforms. 

In May last year, Lu Kewen published an article on his WeChat account entitled "What should we make of the Jews?". The "we" in question is of course the Chinese nation. The article is pretty much a rehashing of all the world's worst antisemitic conspiracy theories, but it also claims the Jews are "enemies of China". Predictably the Jews are charged with controlling the US and its "anti-China media", but they are also held responsible for the Opium Wars, with Kewen peddling the idea that most of the opium was actually sold by Jewish merchants. It is hard to imagine a more inflammatory charge in China, and misinformation like this could do real damage if it spreads. The article, which ends with an exhortation to guard against "Jewish infiltration" of Chinese media and finance, got dozens of thousands of likes, and at least a hundred thousand clicks, possibly far more (WeChat does not allow you to see figures over a hundred thousand).

Chinese vice-premier Wang Qishan on a visit to the Wailing Wall

Until very recently, this kind of anti-Jewish rhetoric was virtually unheard of in China. What seems to have marked a turning point is the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas, which took place in May last year. During previous rounds of fighting in the Middle East, Chinese diplomats and spokespeople stuck to bland and neutral-sounding statements, deploring the violence and urging restraint on both sides. This is hardly surprising when you consider that the Chinese leadership walks a fine line in the region, trying to remain friends with everyone, from Iran to Saudi Arabia, from Israel to Qatar, usually with remarkable success. In fact Israel and China enjoy blooming commercial ties, much to the annoyance of several US administrations.

Last year, however, China's "wolf-warrior" diplomats took Israel's bombing of Gaza as another opportunity to publicly blast the US. The main public faces of Chinese diplomacy turned to Twitter, now the world's primary arena for this sort of "undiplomatic" diplomacy, with Hua Chunying tweeting about how America "turns a blind eye to the suffering of the Palestinians" even though it "claims to care" about the "human rights of Muslims", while Zhao Lijian tweeted a picture of an American eagle dropping a bomb on Gaza.

This shift in tone seems to have little to do with Israel or the Palestinians themselves, and everything to do with a wish to get back at the US for daring to complain about China's treatment of its Muslim citizens in Xinjiang, with American criticism now painted as hypocrisy. Attacking the US for its one-sided support of Israel is an easy card to play, and will win you a lot of sympathy in much of the world. The temptation must have been too much to resist for the champions of China's new assertive diplomacy, in spite of the risk of throwing relations with Israel under a bus.

China's English-language state-media duly followed suit, with the Global Times publishing one of its infamous editorials on how the US held "undeniable responsibility" for the Israel-Hamas conflict. The rhetoric was mainly directed at America, rather than Israel, but at one point the editorial quotes a Chinese analyst as saying that US policy in the Middle East has "long been kidnapped by its Jewish community that serves the interests of Israel".

CGTN, China's main outward-facing propaganda channel, then published a short video entitled "Why does the US act as a diplomatic shield for Israel?" During the video, the presenter says "some believe that US pro-Israel policy is traceable to the influence of wealthy Jews and the Jewish lobby". He goes on to explain, in a pedagogical fashion, that there are, indeed, many rich Jews in the US, and that "Jews dominate finance, media and internet sectors". He adds "So do they have powerful lobbies like some say? Possible." But he then explains that the real reason for US support of Israel is not the power of American Jewry, but rather the fact that Israel serves the US's geopolitical interests as its main "beachhead" in the Middle East.

In spite of this conclusion, the video presents American Jews' control of the economy as a fact. It is likely that the people who made it simply did not realise how inflammatory it can be to talk about Jews "dominating finance". After the Israeli embassy in Beijing issued a strong complaint, the video was removed from CGTN's website.

The antisemitic tone of this sort of commentary may be unintentional, but it probably helped deliver the message to nationalist academics and bloggers like Lu and Zhang that the Jews are now fair game for their vitriol. It is no coincidence that Lu Kewen's rant came out in late May 2021, just after Israel's war with Hamas was over. 

What the synagogue in Kaifeng used to look like before it was destroyed in the 19th century.

All of this is all particularly unfortunate because China often used to seem strangely impervious to antisemitism, especially when compared to other forms of racist discourse from abroad. 

There is no native Chinese tradition of antisemitism, unsurprisingly for a culture so far removed from the monotheistic world-view. China's one and only "native" Jewish community, based in Kaifeng, was historically left alone until it assimilated of its own accord. European Jews who found refuge in Shanghai in the 1930s are said to have got along well with the locals, and Republic of China diplomat Ho Feng-Shan was later recognised for saving thousands of Austrian Jews from the Holocaust by issuing them humanitarian visas for Shanghai. Jews have never seen China as a hostile country, and with good reason.

In fact, over the past century China has developed an odd kind of "philosemitism". Many of the reformers and intellectuals of the early twentieth century, for instance Liang Qichao, admired the Jews as a resourceful people who had done well for themselves in spite of lacking a homeland and being persecuted. Many of them seemed to have believed exaggerated tales of Jewish wealth and influence that they heard from Europeans, but this did not cause them to resent the Jews. Instead, they wondered what the Chinese might learn from them. Sun Yatsen himself admired the Jews and sympathised with the Zionist movement.

This Chinese philosemitism is still alive today. On the (rare) occasions when I have brought up my Jewish roots in conversation with local people in China, I have often been told something along the lines that Jews are known to be "very intelligent". The Jews' presumed superior intelligence and education seems, in fact, to be the single most well-known "fact" about them in China. The stereotype of Jews being good at business also survives, but it is not seen as something negative, just as further proof of their smartness. These attitudes have given rise to an entire cottage industry of cheesy self-help books purporting to uncover the secrets of how Jews do business or how they educate their children to be so successful.

In spite of the Mao-era support for the Arabs, Israel has also sometimes attracted admiration in China. The Israelis are seen as a tough bunch who take no nonsense from anyone, look after their own and create first-rate technology, qualities highly prized by Chinese nationalists. There is no tradition of opposition to Zionism, a term that is not particularly well-known in China, either in English or in its Chinese translation (犹太复国主义, or "ideology of recreating the Jewish nation"). 

Of course, a philosemitism which is not based on any genuine understanding can easily turn into something darker, especially once you throw in the eternal stereotype of the Jew as a shrewd businessman. One only needs to see the CGTN video linked above, or the way that Fudan University historian Wen Yang, another egregious nationalist, responded to David P. Goldman's arguments on China's potential global economic hegemony: apparently Goldman (who is a secular American Jew) was "revealing his Jewish mindset that everything is commercial", and projecting the Jews' "parasitic business model" onto China.

The bottom line is that relations between China and the US are at their lowest ebb since the death of Mao, and the Chinese leadership has abandoned its long-held attitude of being guarded and non-confrontational in international affairs. Israel is obviously a strong US ally (although it manages to maintain decent ties with Russia and China), and sooner or later this was bound to be reflected in Chinese attitudes towards it and towards Jews in general, especially when it comes to the anti-Western nationalists who have the upper hand in public discourse. Unless there is a general improvement in China's relationship with the US and with the West, we may well see more of this "antisemitism with Chinese characteristics" in the future. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Shanghai's lockdown: the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?

Over the last couple of years, I have got used to a sense of the surreal permeating my daily life. All kind of things have happened which I would have dismissed as impossible back in 2019, and I have mostly adapted. 

I can now add another surreal experience to the collection: the feeling of living my normal life in Beijing, going to the office, eating out and taking yoga classes by the Liangma River, while people I know down in Shanghai are imprisoned in their flats and literally going hungry. 

A couple of weeks ago a German analyst I have worked with in the past, who resides in Shanghai with his wife and small child, wrote the following message in a WeChat group of which I am part: "People are seriously short of basic food, not having been able to order anything for days (same for us, my colleagues and friends). When asked what you do if you don't have basic food, he replied: "At this time it depends on your neighbourhood - and there are stories of people starving (already for weeks, as some districts have been on full lockdown for four weeks). There are stories of poisoning where people tried to eat old food, or even tried to eat non-food items. Water is another basic problem.

If I happened to be living in Shanghai, instead of Beijing, this could have been me. Never in a million years would I have imagined I would see China's most prosperous and orderly city suffer widespread hunger as a result of government policies to stamp out a virus, and yet here we are. 

Here in Beijing, life is still relatively normal. People have been hoarding food after seeing the events unfolding in Shanghai, but for now there seems to be no real need. Offices are open, cafés are full and streets are bustling. The odd new Covid case leads to a building or a neighbourhood getting locked down, but this has been happening on and off for two years, and everyone's used to it. As long as it isn't your own neighbourhood that's affected, you don't even think about it. I have not personally been required to do a PCR test since the last time I left Beijing in January (but this very much depends on your job and where you live).

Of course, travel into Beijing from other provinces has been seriously curtailed. If you leave the city, you run a serious risk of not being allowed back in for a while. Even people who commute every day from Yanjiao, just across the border in Hebei, have been forced to work from home. During the recent national holidays for Tomb Sweeping Day, the furthest you could go was basically the mountains north and west of the city that still fall within the municipal boundaries. Crossing into a different province spells trouble. No one knows when this will change.

But more than that, it is the events in Shanghai that seem to have shaken many people around me out of their complacency. It is looking more and more like China's Zero-Covid policy has no endgame. This could mean more years ahead of never knowing when you or your city might suddenly be placed in lockdown, not to mention travel within China being restricted and international travel almost impossible. These measures don't impact everyone equally, but in one way or another they affect most of society. 

For foreign residents like me, the big question is whether to remain in China or not. Many of the foreigners still here are definitely considering packing up and leaving. This may not matter much to Chinese society, but it certainly matters to me. In Shanghai some of the foreign residents have already left the country if they could, with no plans to return. I have heard stories of foreigners walking or cycling for hours through empty streets to get to Pudong airport and take a flight out, since taxis and public transport are suspended. There will probably be quite an exodus once the lockdown is lifted.

The mood amongst foreigners in Beijing is also rather sombre. In many ways the last two years have not been a bad time to be in China, since you were safe from the virus and daily life was mostly normal. But now there is a general feeling that a turning point has been reached, with China doubling down on its anti-Covid crusade while the rest of the world moves on.

Even more than the prospect of Shanghai-style lockdowns, it is the near-impossibility of going back home and seeing their families that is pushing foreigners here to call it quits, especially since there really seems to be no prospect of this situation changing. Foreigners still in China are probably the ones most committed to their lives and careers here, but even they are starting to falter. I have heard more than one person say they are now making exit plans. 

When the dust finally settles, the air of cosmopolitanism that parts of Shanghai and Beijing had acquired will be all but gone, with just a few diplomats, journalists, shills and people with Chinese family still hanging around. Probably just a side-show in a drama affecting 1.4 billion people, but still one worth commenting on, with ramifications that go beyond the disruption to individual lives.

Witnessing the mess going on in Shanghai has been particularly shocking to many, because it is a city that often feels like a bubble of internationalism and good governance, worlds apart from the rest of China. In fact, over the past year, Shanghai had often been upheld as an example of a more humane approach to achieving "Zero Covid": the city avoided the most extreme excesses of other regions, quarantining those infected and their close contacts but not entire neighbourhoods, and doing its best not to disrupt people's lives with unnecessary measures taken "just to be on the safe side". 

And yet, over the last month all the most inflexible and inhumane of China's "pandemic-control" measures have been on full display in China's showcase metropolis. Covid-infected toddlers have been quarantined without their parents in dubious conditions (after a huge public outcry, they announced this would change). More and more people with medical conditions other than Covid are finding they can't receive treatment, and in some cases are dying (it seems nothing has been learnt from January's sad events in Xi'an). The pets of the infected have been brutally killed, or left to starve in empty flats. Outsiders unlucky enough to get stuck in the city have had to sleep in the open.

Those infected have been carted off to empty factories and hangars re-purposed as quarantine centres, where they are given nothing but a bed with a thin mattress and a blanket in a room shared with hundreds of others. Showering is impossible, getting some sleep amid the noise is a challenge and the food is unappetising. In extreme cases, those quarantined have been filmed fighting over food.

The real shocker is the system's inability to deliver enough food to the population, especially since this was never an issue in Wuhan or anywhere else. Reports claim the problem is not a lack of food, just that many of the workers who would normally deliver it are in lockdown, and suppliers outside the city have trouble getting permits for drivers to enter and leave Shanghai. Things are now getting better, but securing enough food remains a struggle. I would have assumed that the authorities would rather end the lockdown than let people go hungry, but it seems that as long as actual mass starvation can be avoided, fighting the pandemic comes first. 

It is clear that in Shanghai there is real anger about what's going on. People placed in unsanitary and crowded quarantine centres have been on the verge of rioting. Plenty of videos show crowds protesting the lockdown of their neighbourhoods, breaking through quarantine barriers in mass and fighting with the police and health workers. Rappers stuck in their homes record songs where they rail against the system. The faceless "health workers" with their bodies covered in white are often on the receiving end of people's fury, although they may just be poor migrants going from city to city looking for jobs in this booming new sector.

People have been dragged kicking and screaming into quarantine, and arrested for refusing to get tested. Other videos show individuals going on rants against the government or flatly refusing to wear a mask and stay home. Such videos get censored quickly on WeChat and Weibo, but not before someone has uploaded them to Twitter, preserving them for posterity.

The most surreal video of all has to be the one of people chanting from their balconies to protest the lack of supplies. A drone then comes down from the sky, and intones in a robotic voice "Please comply with Covid restrictions. Control your soul's desire for freedom." The word "dystopian" gets used a lot in relation to China, not always fairly, but sometimes they really are asking for it.

The discontent isn't limited to Shanghai either. All over the country, cities and neighbourhoods in lockdown have been the scene of protests, unrest and arguments between ordinary people and the health workers in white suits. People like this guy are at the end of their tether. The poor can no longer stand the impact on their earnings: in this video of a protest last month in Langfang, Hebei Province, people can be heard yelling 解封!老百姓活不了!(End the lockdown! We laobaixing can't survive!) 

So what's the big picture? China's "Dynamic Zero Covid" policy has clearly reached a turning point. There are at least three cities (Shanghai, Changchun and Jilin) where the virus has spread widely in the community, leading to dozens of thousands of cases. This hadn't happened since February 2020 in Wuhan. The infectious nature of Omicron makes it far harder to nip every new outbreak in the bud and carry on as normal, as China has been doing for two years. 

When cases started sky-rocketing, many thought the authorities would finally have to abandon their commitment to a Covid-free China. I was sceptical they would, and I am being proven right. The reality is that, while there are Omicron outbreaks all over China, they have been or are being put down almost everywhere. Cases in Changchun and Jilin have already decreased sharply. It is only Shanghai that is still recording massive numbers, and even there we seem to be past the peak.  

We know that Omicron outbreaks spread fast and peak within a month or two, even without the sort of draconian measures China takes, and the authorities clearly intend to keep Shanghai insulated from the rest of China until the outbreak has died out or been stamped out. As long as they can deliver enough food to prevent actual starvation, I don't see a general anti-lockdown rebellion taking place, just isolated acts of disobedience and unrest. The fact that even respected scientists who advocate for a different approach get censored doesn't bode well for those hoping for change.

The real question is, why are the men who run China still so hell-bent on stopping Covid from spreading? The virus just isn't as dangerous as it used to be, and most of those infected have mild or no symptoms. Officially nearly a hundred people have died in the current outbreak in Shanghai (most were unvaccinated or had other serious conditions). There are good reasons to assume the true death toll is higher, given how deaths from Covid are recorded in China, but we are not talking about massive numbers. In Shanghai people seem to be more worried about getting stuck in a horrible quarantine facility than about the actual virus.

I happen to think that the "Zero Covid" approach was justified in 2020 and most of 2021, when the virus was more virulent and people weren't vaccinated. Implementation was unnecessarily draconian and could leave you feeling trapped in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic dystopia, but there's no denying that a few million lives were saved. This approach was also genuinely popular with the public, and in fact it provided China's authoritarian one-party system with added legitimacy in the eyes of its people. Now it feels like part of that legitimacy is being squandered, because the guys in charge just don't know when it's time to change course.

There is a popular take going around internationally, according to which China's real problem is that they vaccinated their population with "ineffective" Chinese vaccines, and that if they only used the Western MRNA vaccines they could then open up. The thing is, though, that it's just not true the local vaccines are no use. Data from Hong Kong suggests they are almost equally effective as Pfeizer after a booster, while a study from Singapore found a bigger gap, but it seems clear that they also offer decent protection against severe symptoms and death. The reality is that China would probably be following the same policies even if they had been using the Pfizer vaccine all along.

Behind the continuing lockdowns there seems to be a conviction that if the virus is allowed to spread there will be countless deaths and hospitals will be overwhelmed. It is interesting to read this article by "Chairman Rabbit", a well-known nationalist blogger who is also the grandson of an important Communist Party politician. He is not a government official himself, but his post is a good example of the kind of thinking that lies behind the continued support for Zero-Covid in China. 

The article engages in some questionable maths to claim that, based on Hong Kong's experience, hundreds of thousands, millions "or even more" deaths could occur throughout China if restrictions are lifted. It claims that "It is politically and culturally impossible for the Chinese government and civil society to allow lifting restrictions at the cost of massive human lives". 

In the end, it manages to wax lyrical about China's approach to the pandemic, claiming: "China's ultimate goal is to become the only country in human society that truly avoids massive loss of human lives due to COVID-19. The digital governance, grid-based grassroots governance, and a community-wide public health model that China is exploring, will not only be used to deal with COVID-19, but also with the more horrific viruses and superbugs that humanity may encounter in the future. If China can blaze such a path, it will be a success for the country as well as a contribution to human civilization".

I find the argument that it is "culturally" impossible for China to lift the restrictions to be quite disingenuous, in a culture that often takes pride in sacrificing the individual for the needs of the collective. At this point, it feels like the collective is being asked to make sacrifices for the sake of the minority of individuals who would die or be left disabled by Covid. The part that's probably true, however, is that lifting the restrictions is politically impossible. 

The simple truth is that the ruling party has staked too much credibility on its ability to stop China being overwhelmed by this virus, and it cannot easily change course. Especially after telling everyone who would listen about how much better China's response was than America's, and how this proves the superiority of the Chinese system, they can't allow ugly scenes of death and overwhelmed hospitals to play out all over the country. Also, they come from a political culture where sacrificing the comfort, dignity, and even life of individual citizens in pursuit of greater national goals is the right and proper thing to do.

It may well be true, of course, that China would see a lot of deaths if Covid were allowed to run rampant. After all, even major European countries are still seeing a few hundred deaths a day due to the pandemic, something which the public has become inured to. One of China's major issues is that the elderly have low vaccination rates. The authorities are now trying to push them to get their shots, but apparently don't feel comfortable mandating vaccinations (on the other hand, they do feel comfortable forcing 25 million people to stay at home for weeks without enough food). 

Ironically, and maddeningly, there is much less pressure on people to get vaccinated in China than in most of the world. Proof of vaccination is not required for most work or travel within the country, and getting inoculated remains a personal choice. Vaccines don't do the heavy lifting in China, lockdowns and PCR tests do. 

Personally, I see no justification for the continuation of the Zero-Covid approach. At this point, avoiding the potential deaths Covid might cause just cannot justify the disruption to millions of lives, or the damage to people's physical and mental health and, yes, to the economy (in the imperfect world we live in, real people suffer when the economy tanks). 

Of course, it's not surprising that I might feel this way. After all I come from a Western country, so I must be "overly attached to personal freedom", as I have sometimes been told here in China over the past two years. The real question is how many Chinese are starting to agree with me.

No doubt there is serious public discontent about what is going on in Shanghai. People in other cities are not thrilled at the idea that something similar might happen to them next. I personally know many Chinese, mostly young and well-educated, who understand that Covid is not the threat it used to be and think that it is time to move towards living with the virus. I often hear people around me express exasperation about the strictness of the anti-pandemic measures, in a way they didn't a year or six months ago. 

Yesterday's sudden wave of subversion on WeChat is a signal of the frustration and anger felt by parts of the population. The only other times I remember seeing such a lot of subversive sentiment openly expressed on my WeChat feed by normally apolitical people was in early February 2020, after Dr. Li Wenliang died in Wuhan, and in February 2018, after the presidential term limits were abolished.

All this doesn't alter the fact that there is still a large base of public support for keeping China Covid-free. There are plenty of people who are happy for extreme measures to be taken to keep Covid out, at least as long as they themselves don't get hit with the consequences. The idea that Covid is highly dangerous and should not be accepted as a normal part of life has been deeply implanted in people's minds. It is also not clear if older and less online members of the public realise how bad things have got in Shanghai, since the Chinese media don't really report on the food shortages, the horrible quarantine centres and the widespread anger. 

Conveniently and predictably, much of the blame for the problems in Shanghai is being placed on the local government, in the same way that much of the initial anger about the cover ups in Wuhan was directed at the local authorities. When it can't be denied that things have gone awry, blaming incompetence and corruption at the local level is always the easiest safety-valve. 

What's more, Shanghai's government is being blamed not only for mishandling the distribution of food, but also for being too lax about "pandemic-control" in the beginning, allowing the number of cases to spiral out of control. The only lesson the authorities may learn from all this is that Shanghai's more relaxed and less arbitrary measures (what they call "precise" prevention and control) were the problem, because they simply could not contain Omicron. From their point of view, they are right. If you want to contain a virus this infectious you have to use a sledgehammer, not a chisel. Quarantine entire neighbourhoods indefinitely for a single case, lock away anyone who's been anywhere near a positive case, don't even care if their pets are left to die, and then you might actually succeed.

Right now, it looks like what the future holds for China is ever stricter measures to make sure Omicron doesn't spread to begin with. Shanghai will be locked down for as long as it takes for the outbreak to end. A few lives will be lost, either to hunger or lack of medical care, but apparently this is considered a price worth paying. More cities will be locked down when new cases appear. Travel between provinces will become much harder than it was even in 2020-21. Most importantly to me personally, travelling to China from abroad will get even more difficult, or in any case no easier. It may not go back to normal for years.

There are those who predict things may loosen up after the big Party Congress to be held in the Autumn, when Xi will be reconfirmed for his third term in power. Now others are starting to say that they'll wait until the Two Sessions in March 2023. I've been hearing such predictions for a long time. A year ago, people were saying that China would have to open up before the Winter Olympics. Then it became after the Olympics. The reality is that this guessing game is futile, because no one knows. It is probably true that once Xi has been reconfirmed in power, the government will start to study a way out of this impasse, but even then it will not be a quick transition. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us can do nothing but sit back and watch the spectacle of the largest battle ever fought between human beings and a virus play out in real time. If nothing else we will find out what it really takes to contain this virus, and also what happens when a modern country seals its borders almost entirely for a number of years. There might be some lessons in there for the rest of us.  

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Hainan

This winter I visited Hainan, one of the few provinces of the PRC that I had yet to set foot in (the ones I still haven't been to are now Heilongjiang, Jilin, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hubei and the Tibetan Autonomous Region). 

As China's only tropical island, Hainan is known as the country's prime destination for sun-and-sand holidays. Before the pandemic I was never too interested in going there, preferring to fly to places like Malaysia or Thailand if I wanted a winter getaway in the tropics. But China's pandemic-era border policies have suddenly made Hainan seem like a much more attractive destination. As December rolled around and the mercury dipped below freezing in Beijing, with rumours of the Winter Olympics precipitating further city-wide lockdowns, I decided to buy a cheap ticket to Hainan (tickets from Beijing really are extremely cheap this winter, costing less than 1000 Yuan for a four-hour flight).

I spent most of my time in Hainan on the coast, near the cities of Wanning and Sanya, where most tourists go. In Wanning I stayed in Riyuewan (the "Sun and Moon Bay"), a little coastal town which has become a Mecca for China's surfing community. Surfing has exploded in China over the past few years, and Riyuewan has exploded with it. It used to be a quiet little fishing community, but the seafront now has a long strip of hotels, cafes and restaurants, most of which didn't exist a year ago. More are being built all the time. 

I arrived on December 23rd, and the town was bustling. Expats from Beijing and Shanghai who had flown down for their Christmas breaks mixed with young Chinese surfers and provincial Chinese sightseers. I was impressed, I have to say, by the sophistication of the food and dining options on offer. The town had a number of good-quality cafes and Western and Thai restaurants which would not have felt out of place in Shanghai (they also had Shanghai prices, unfortunately). Ten or even five years ago it was hard to find such places in Chinese tourist spots, but people's tastes are obviously getting more cosmopolitan.

While there is clearly a community of hard-core surfers in Wanning, many of them dressed in baggy trousers or sporting dreadlocks, they seemed to be outnumbered by visitors attempting to surf for the first time. As with many new fads in China, there's a lot of enthusiasm and willingness to try, but not many people with experience. The stretch of sea where the surfing instructors take their students was packed during the day, and it's a wonder that I didn't see any amateur surfers crash into each other. I actually tried a class myself, for the steep sum of 500 Yuan. It was fun to try, but water sports aren't really my thing, and I found it exceedingly hard to stand up on the surf board without immediately falling over again. 

Riyuewan's beach promenade

In Sanya I spent time in two places, Houhai and Yalong Bay, both of which are well-known tourist hotspots. Houhai is Hainan's party town, a little village on the sea which almost feels like Thailand. The village is small and you can walk everywhere, and once you are there you generally don't leave (the city of Sanya is at least an hour away by taxi). The atmosphere is as laid-back as it gets in China, with people walking around in swimwear and taking sips from coconuts on the pavements. A number of bars spill out onto the beach, where there are parties with DJs every night. 

Once again I was impressed by the quality of the restaurants and cafes, although less so by the hotels. I ended up staying for a couple of nights in a pretty awful budget hotel, as bad as any you might find near a bus station in a provincial Chinese city. Later I moved somewhere nicer, but prices were generally expensive for what was on offer. The constant noise from the streets and the bars made it hard to sleep, too.

I arrived in Houhai a few days before the New Year, and the town was packed with holidaymakers, including seemingly about half the foreigners still left in China. Unable to go to Thailand or fly home for Christmas, lots of expats decided to make their way to this town at the very southern tip of China's territory (it is at the same latitude as Central Vietnam) to celebrate the New Year. I am no longer used to seeing this many non-Chinese people in one place in China, and the effect was rather surreal. Between that and the laid-back atmosphere, it almost felt like I was no longer in the same country. The party on the beach on New Year's Eve went on way into the night, with plenty of fireworks, something that is no longer allowed in Beijing. 

The sea in Houhai was full of people surfing, mostly first-timers, just like in Riyuewan. The waters are actually rather dangerous, with plenty of treacherous undercurrents, and accidents do happen. The beach had a large notice on it clearly stating that swimming and surfing are forbidden, but it was widely ignored. I found this same easy-going attitude towards rules and regulations on display everywhere in Hainan, in contrast with much of China, which over the last decade has become a country of rules that actually have to be followed (by us common mortals, at least). I guess the famous "the mountains are high and the emperor is far away" saying still means something on this island province.

The local authorities also seem to be quite relaxed about anti-pandemic regulations, and much more welcoming towards foreigners than in many other provinces. Although a hotel in Baoting and one in Sanya did cancel my booking after they realised I was a foreign citizen, most hotels seem to have no restrictions on hosting foreigners. Most hotels didn't ask to see a Health Code, and no one ever asked me how long it is since I have last entered China. I also encountered no police checkpoints between cities even in the "autonomous" ethnic minority county I visited, in sharp contrast with many areas of China. 

Couple shooting wedding photo, Yalong Bay

Yoga class on the beach, Houhai


After Houhai I moved to Yalong Bay, a bit further down the coast, which had a completely different vibe. It felt more like Florida, an area of fancy resorts, shopping malls and boulevards lined with palm trees. The beach was full of families on vacation and Chinese couples taking their wedding photos. I also hopped over to Dadong Hai, the area of the city of Sanya closest to the sea, where people go for the bars and nightlife. The signs in Russian in the bar street attest to the fact that before the pandemic a lot of Russians used to visit Sanya. 

Although I went to Hainan mainly to relax and get away from the winter cold, I did want to leave the coast and do a little bit of exploring, so I went to up Baoting for a couple of nights. Baoting is a town in the interior, north of Sanya, which serves as the capital of the Baoting Li and Miao Autonomous County. Hainan, although known in the rest of China mainly as a resort island, is actually quite ethnically diverse. As large as Taiwan, and with ten million inhabitants, it has an interior mostly untouched by mass tourism. The original inhabitants are the Li people, who speak a language related to Thai and have lived on the island for thousands of years.

Although the Han Chinese have been residing in Hainan for over a thousand years, they only really started moving there en masse in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they took over all the areas capable of intense cultivation and the Li people were pushed into the mountains. To this day there are over a million Li in Hainan, living mostly in the mountains in the south of the island. A lot of them fought as communist guerrillas during the Second World War and were massacred by the Guomindang and the Japanese, something which has placed them in good stead with the Communist Party. There are also quite a few Miao people in the island, the descendants of soldiers who were brought over centuries ago to put down a rebellion by the Li and ended up staying and settling in the mountains beside them.

In Baoting I saw little obvious sign of this ethnic diversity, except for a a few elderly women in traditional clothing, but the provincial town did feel a world away from flashy Sanya. I had to take a long-distance bus to get there, since train lines in Hainan don't extend beyond the coast. I climbed the nearby Qixianling mountain, well known for the seven ridges at the top which give it its name (the seven-fairy mountain), while I took in the tropical vegetation. The area nearby is famed for its hot springs, and a number of resorts have been built for tourists.

I got a better taste of Hainan's diversity in Wanning, when I rented an electric scooter and took a day trip to the nearby "Bali village". The village is located inland, next to the town of Xinglong. The town was created by Chinese-Indonesians who "returned" to China in the 50s, escaping from anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia. The Party settled them in this corner of Hainan, where the tropical climate was similar to Indonesia and they would be able to plant the same crops. 

The "Bali village" was mostly a collection of exhibits and buildings built in a Balinese style in the middle of the rainforest. The place was staffed by local women dressed in traditional Balinese costumes, in a display of what would now be called "cultural appropriation" in the West. There were also some partisan but interesting explanations on the history of the Chinese-Indonesians in the area. While it was all slightly kitsch, the tropical forest all around gave me the illusion that I was actually in Bali. 

After visiting the Bali village, I got back on my scooter and drove to Xinglong. While it looks like any Southern Chinese town, I ate in a local restaurant where much of the food was clearly Indonesian-influenced, including the little cakes. Between the tropical scenery, the food and the fact that I was getting around by scooter, it almost felt like I was in fact back in Indonesia. You can find a surprisingly frank description of the area's history by China Daily here

The entrance to the Bali Village

Replica Balinese pavilion
Local women dressed in Balinese costume


The seven peaks of Qixianling

Hainan has many other interesting pockets of ethnic diversity, for instance a small community of Utsul who fled there from Vietnam centuries ago, and are classified as Hui by the state because they are Muslims (it seems they have not escaped the general crackdown on Islamic practice going on all over the country). There are also small communities of what used to be called "Sea Gypsies", a Chinese-speaking ethnic group who traditionally live on boats. It would be interesting, one day, to visit all of these areas. 

All in all, I was quite impressed with Hainan. I was, to be honest, expecting the resort towns to be garish and overcrowded, but they were, for the most part, nice places to relax. The mountainous interior of the island, at least in the less populous South, seemed lush and not too commercialised. The fact that public transport is rather underdeveloped by Chinese standards, with train lines only connecting the main cities on the coast, probably helps to keep things that way. The local people seemed remarkably friendly and easy-going, helping to make the island feel more like South-East Asia than China. 




The view behind my guesthouse, near Riyuewan

Sunday, January 9, 2022

China books of the year in review: Red Roulette and Invisible China

I read a lot of books in 2021, a handful of which were on China. There were two China-related books that really stood out for me: Red Roulette by Desmond Shum, and Invisible China by Scott Rozelle. 

If you take an interest in Chinese affairs, you've probably heard of the first book. It's a memoir by a man who reached the top echelons of China's business world thanks to his marriage to a woman, Whitney Duang, who had cultivated deep connections within the Communist Party's leadership. The couple were central to a number of important deals, including a project to expand Beijing's Capital Airport. Mr. Shum later fell out of favour and left China, while his former wife and business partner was disappeared by the Chinese state. 

The book is a very readable and revealing depiction of how things work at the top of the Chinese system. Shum is from Shanghai, but grew up mostly in colonial Hong Kong and studied in the US, so he possesses both an outsider's and an insider's perspective on China. Others have already analysed Shum's revelations concerning the country's top leaders and their shady deals, and the general conclusion is that he is telling the truth, if perhaps not all of it. 

What I found particularly interesting, though, is the insight the memoir provides regarding the political and psychological factors that motivated Shum and his wife. Billionaires like to think they are moved by more than just greed, and these two were no exception. Once the couple had made it to the top, they convinced themselves that they could use their position to push for broader positive change in China as a whole. 

Shum felt political change would be beneficial to him personally, and thinks other entrepreneurs shared his ideals: "those of us who identified as capitalists wanted a voice. We wanted protection for our property, our investments, and other rights. We wanted, if not an independent judiciary, at least a fair one where judgments were made on the basis of law, and not on the whims of the local party boss. We craved predictability in government policies, because only then could we invest with confidence."

He got involved in philanthropy, creating a scholarship for students from poor regions studying in Tsinghua. He also joined the Beijing branch of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), officially China's "second parliament", which as he says himself was more of a networking platform. "Membership was a sign that the Party saw you as a potentially useful agent of the party's influence." He noticed that bolder members of the body were starting to advocate for democracy within the Party, and he wondered if the CPPCC could become more relevant, like a real second chamber of parliament.

Shums' wife Whitney, who had grown up in anonymity in Shandong, was a Christian, and wished for more religious freedom, or at least a recognition that you could "love god and love China at the same time". Shum and Whitney worked with foreign think tanks to educate Chinese scholars about how democracies work, and around 2010 they funded a European delegation led by Romano Prodi to come to China and have a private chat on foreign policy with Chinese officials. As he puts it, "we tried not to cross any redlines. We truly believed in the promise of China. We were all in.

Around the turn of the decade, Shum noticed with concern that things had started to change. In 2013 he was summoned to a meeting of the Beijing CPPCC, where a senior official gave a hard-line speech that put to rest any fantasies of democratic reform. Then in 2014, Shum and other CPPCC members from the Hong Kong SARS (the place where he grew up and of which he is a citizen) were directed to go to Hong Kong and take part in an organised counter-protest against the Umbrella Movement. Shum made sure he was seen at the march, even though he didn't really believe in what he was marching for. Quite simply, he was deeply embedded in the system and could not afford to break ranks.

In the end the couple paid the price for having got to the top through the support of prime minister Wen Jiabao's wife. After Xi took office, and Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao's allies were purged one by one, this turned into a liability. Meanwhile the couple grew estranged and divorced, after which Shum had to threaten his wife in order to ensure that she gave him a fair amount of the funds from their joint business, since she controlled all their money and the local courts could not be relied upon to protect his interests. Disillusioned with China, he left and made a life for himself in Britain with his son, while his wife met the unfortunate fate of disappearing into detention.

In the end, it is hard to argue with Shum's conclusion that modern China is a harsh, unforgiving place. It must also be said, though, that he comes across as an opportunist who is now spilling the beans because he has nothing left to lose. It is true that it was easier to believe in democratic change back in the 2000s, and I have no doubt that he was genuinely convinced he was helping to steer the country in the right direction. At the same time, I would advance a guess that Shum would never have left China and rejected the system if he had been given a chance to hold on to his billions and his privileged position.


The other book, Invisible China: how the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China's Rise, focuses on a problem that tends to be overlooked: the dismal educational and cognitive level of a big chunk of China's population, particularly in the countryside, and how this affects the country's prospects. The book makes a very convincing case that much of the Chinese population is simply not skilled enough to take up the kind of jobs in services that will open up once the manufacturing jobs move to cheaper countries, and this could keep China stuck in the so-called "middle-income trap" that bedevils countries like Mexico, Brazil and South Africa.

The book is co-authored by Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell, two Stanford scholars. The most well known of the two is Rozelle, an American economist who has spent 30 years researching poverty and education in rural China. Over the years he has drawn some criticism for his positions, but he clearly knows what he is talking about. The book uncovers a reality that is not easy to see for those who only experience middle-class urban China. 

First of all, it may be a revelation for some to realise that China's masses are in fact under-educated relative to other countries that are similarly or less developed. In 2015, 70% of working-age adults in China had not completed high-school, compared to 58% in South Africa and 42% in the Philippines. Even among Chinese 25 to 34 year olds, the figure was 60%.

Rozelle and Hell place part of the blame for this on the fact that, during the first decades of the "reform and opening up", public education was not really made a priority by Chinese administrations. School attendance was not mandatory or free of charge, and tuition fees often kept poorer children from going past primary school. Things have changed since then, with the first nine years of schooling made mandatory and free in 2006, and attendance in junior high school becoming almost universal. Even attendance in senior high school is increasing, with 80% of 15 to 17 year olds in school in 2015, up from 53% in 2005.

But these gains are probably insufficient. Educational levels remain worrying low among rural youth. This is hardly a small issue, when you consider that in 2015, 75% of Chinese children under three had a rural hukou, meaning that regardless of where they actually lived, they can be counted as "rural" in terms of their access to education. 

Rozelle and Hell claim that rural schools in China have improved a lot over the last decades. They now have qualified teachers, good facilities, and the same curriculums as everywhere else in the country. Senior high school is still not free, however, and the cost remains considerable for rural families. But there is an even more basic problem: most rural youth in China suffer from cognitive deficiencies and learning difficulties because of problems that begin at home.

First of all, the health of rural children is dismal. Millions of them suffer from iron-deficiency anemia, which is strongly correlated with worse educational outcomes, and intestinal worms. Millions more are short-sighted and are not given the glasses they need, which obviously impacts their schooling. These problems could easily be solved with cheap medication, food supplements and glasses, but they are not addressed because no on understands their importance. Millions of "left-behind children" have parents who work in the cities, and are brought up by grandparents who are usually barely literate, and do not realise that these health issues exist, or believe destructive myths about them (you need intestinal worms to digest your food; if a child wears glasses, their vision will deteriorate further).

What's more, most of these children suffer from a lifelong cognitive deficiency compared to urban children because of they way they are brought up as toddlers. In rural areas caregivers, even if loving, do not talk to their babies and stimulate them in the way that parents naturally do in urban China and in richer countries. Babies may spend hours strapped to their grandmother's back, without any stimulation whatsoever. By the time they are three, they already score worse on cognitive tests compared to urban children, and they will probably carry this disadvantaged throughout their lives. These problems ensure that, no matter how good Chinese rural schools become, or how many children go to them, educational and cognitive levels will remain low. 

The book's arguments are compelling. The countries that made it out of the "middle-income trap" in recent decades, like South Korea and Ireland, all invested heavily in education, and a much higher proportion of the workforce had completed high school by that point compared to China today. If this issue gets so little attention, it may be because most foreign analysts, and the Chinese they talk with, spend so little time in rural China. It is very hard to remember, when you visit the campuses of globally competitive and well-funded universities like Tsinghua, that average educational levels across the country are so low. It is also hard to remember, when you only travel in high-speed trains and only stay in the nicer parts of China's huge and well-run cities, that there is another China, one of unheated rural homes, poverty and left-behind children.

What I find less convincing are the book's general predictions about China. It may well be that, due to the problems it describes and other factors, China will indeed remain stuck in a middle-income state. I find it hard to imagine, as Rozelle and Hell predict, that this could lead to a collapse in law and order, as unemployed and aimless young men turn to crime. Their point of comparison seem to be Mexico and Brazil, societies which have indeed been beset by gang violence and appalling crime rates for decades. This does not mean, however, that things would have to go the same way in China. Countries in Asia that some might describe as falling into the "middle-income trap", like Malaysia, hardly seem to be mired in criminality. China is also far better organised and more regimented than most countries, and it seems unlikely that a massive wave of crime could really take off under the Party's watch. 

It is also a fact that today's "middle-income" China is already an economic and military superpower simply as a function of its size, in spite of its poor rural interior. This was never true of Mexico, Brazil or South Africa. Even if it remains more or less stuck at its current level of development, I see no reason to believe that China cannot continue to be an internally stable and externally assertive power, or that its rulers will stop wanting to remodel the international order in a way that is more congenial to them.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Quarantined at home: how "Zero Covid" caught up with me.

Just over a year since my return to China, the country's strict "Zero Covid" policy finally caught up with me. 

It all started on a Friday morning about three weeks ago, when I got a call on my mobile from what turned out to be Beijing's CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention). The lady on the other end asked me if I had visited a specific five-star hotel in central Beijing over the previous few days. At first I didn't know what she was talking about, but then I realised that I had, indeed, been to that hotel on Tuesday afternoon. I had literally walked into the lobby, asked a question at the front desk, and then left. I was wearing a mask, as was everyone else. I wanted to attend a meeting which was originally scheduled to be held there, although, unbeknown to me, it had been moved elsewhere. 

I had spent no more than five minutes on the hotel's premises, but it didn't matter. Before going in I had scanned the QR code at the entrance with my Health Kit app, as directed by the security guards. This meant that my presence in the hotel had been recorded. The lady on the phone said that the hotel had recently hosted someone who later tested positive for Covid-19 (this much I had already guessed). I explained that I had only asked a question at the front desk, and hadn't stuck around. The lady was friendly, complimenting me on my good Chinese, and asked me another couple of questions before hanging up.

At this point I knew that I was potentially in trouble, because the CDC had identified me as a person of interest, and this could mean nothing good. This might be surprising to those who don't live in China, but my concern wasn't in the least bit about the possibility of being infected. I knew there was virtually no chance of that. What I was concerned about was the measures the authorities might decide to take before they convinced themselves I posed no threat to public health. There was a new outbreak going on in Beijing (meaning a few dozen new cases in total), and entire neighbourhoods had been locked down that week in the northern district of Changping and declared "high-risk areas". A colleague of mine had already been placed in centralised quarantine for two weeks, just because she went to visit her parents in what was later designated a high-risk area.

I tried to go about my day with nonchalance, convincing myself that all would be fine. Then a few hours later, when I was in the office, someone from my 社区 (usually translated as "community", but essentially a sort of para-governmental body that manages things at the neighbourhood level) added me on WeChat. He said that, since I had been somewhere risky, I was required to go to the community testing centre and take a PCR test within the next couple of hours, after which I should go to the community office and sign a declaration. I would then have to go home and self-isolate until the results were out the following morning.

All this didn't sound too bad. The big fear is always getting put into quarantine for 14 days, but a night at home seemed manageable. I went to the community centre and got tested, after waiting in a queue of other people who had similarly been sent there by their 社区. After getting the test (a very quick and non-invasive mouth swab), I went to the community office. The man who had added me on WeChat greeted me, and asked me to sign a declaration. The declaration stated that I had never been in close contact with a positive case. I was also asked to write some lines by hand, stating precisely what means of transport I had used to get to the hotel and go home. I asked him if he could write them for me, but he insisted I was supposed to do it myself. I don't often write by hand in Chinese, so I had to look up most of the characters and it took ages.

The man explained that on the previous weekend a photographer who later tested positive had attended a wedding reception at the hotel I had entered. He said that I should now go home and stay there until the results of the PCR test showed up in my app. If I needed to get 外卖 (deliveries) I should ask the delivery guy to leave the goods outside my door, and then only open after he had left. 

I agreed to do that, and left to go home. A few minutes later, as I was still walking home, I got a call. It was the same guy I had just spoken to. He said he was really sorry, but he had just checked the policy carefully, and it turned out that anyone who had been to that hotel from Saturday until Tuesday (the day I went) would have to be placed in centralised quarantine for 14 days. He said he would send me the address of the quarantine centre, after which I should pack a bag and go there on my own. 

I was horrified, and made this very clear. From what I had heard "centralised quarantine" (集中隔离, or literally "concentrated quarantine") could mean being stuck in a depressing little hotel room for two weeks, and forced to eat bad hotel food for every meal. I wasn't even sure if it would be at my own expense or not. The guy from the 社区 was sympathetic, especially since he could see perfectly well that I had only been in the danger spot for a few minutes, on a different day from the infected person, and the chances of me being infected were infinitesimal.

He said he would see what he could do for me, and that I should go home and wait for his call. As soon as I'd got home he called me back, and said that given that I live alone, he had successfully applied for me to quarantine at home. It would still have to be 14 days, but they would be counted from the day I went to the hotel, so it would actually be 11 days of quarantine. My health code would go yellow, and I would be strictly forbidden from leaving my flat. A sensor would be placed on my door that would warn them every time it was opened. He said they realised I had to get food delivered, so in practice they wouldn't bother me every time I opened my door. 

Within half an hour a lady came and installed the sensor on my door, as promised. I was greatly relieved that I would be able to stay in my own home, and this overcame my annoyance at being put under effective house arrest for two weeks. It was almost November, the air was polluted and cold outside, and I had not planned to go anywhere particular over the next two weeks, all of which made things seem more bearable. 

I was nervous that the next day they'd change their mind and put me in centralised quarantine after all, but Saturday morning came and went and nobody bothered me. Once I knew that I would definitely be allowed to stay in my own home, I developed a routine to help me use the time productively. I read, wrote, exercised, watched a few films and of course worked remotely, and 11 days flew by. As it happened, the air outside was badly polluted for much of the time I was in quarantine, which very much reduced any yearnings I might have had to go outside "for some fresh air". I would wake up in the morning, look out of the window, and think that another day at home with my air purifier didn't sound so bad after all. 

I survived on Meituan deliveries, and I always did make sure I avoided direct contact with the delivery guy, although in practice no one was checking. Every few days I would place my garbage bags in the hallway at a set time, inform my "minder" on WeChat, and someone from the 社区 would come and dispose of them. I was nervous about my elderly neighbours realising I was in quarantine, either because of the garbage bags in the hallway or because of the sensor on my door, and calling the 社区 to demand I be taken away because I was a danger to them, so I tried to take out the garbage as little as possible. I don't think my fear was completely unjustified, but in this case it was groundless. My neighbours gave me no trouble, and I don't think they even realised I was self-isolating.

Two times, on the third and on the last day of the quarantine, a couple of people in full PPE suits came to my house to give me a PCR test. They also took samples from my floor and walls, to test them for Covid-19. On the first visit I was given a rather long and unpleasant nose swab. On the second one I was given a much gentler nose and throat swab, after asking them not to be too rough. 

On the morning of the 15th day since I had paid that accursed visit to the hotel, the negative results of my last PCR test appeared on my health kit, and my code went from yellow to green. I was officially a free man again. Thankfully it had snowed over the weekend, washing away the pall of smog that had settled over Beijing, and I went out for a well-deserved walk in the (actual) fresh air. A few days later, someone came and took down the sensor from my door. For seven days after the end of the quarantine I was still under "health monitoring", meaning that I was required to report my temperature twice a day in a WeChat group set up for this purpose by the 社区.


And so it is that I became one of the millions of people to be locked-down during China's latest round of pandemic control. I always knew that I could get quarantined just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but of course I hoped it wouldn't happen to me. And compared to many others, I was lucky. I was able to avoid getting placed in a quarantine centre, and I could easily work online. For people like waiters and delivery drivers, getting put in quarantine can mean losing weeks of income.

I also had plenty of company. Another colleague of mine, who went to a conference at the same hotel where I had the misfortune of setting foot (they host a lot of conferences in my field), also ended up in quarantine. She was allowed to stay home too, but she was told it was because there were no beds left in the quarantine centres. This gives you an idea of how many people must have been quarantined in Beijing alone.

Looking back on the whole experience, a few points spring to my mind:

The 社区 never asked me whether I was vaccinated, and it would have made no difference anyway. China's strategy is to stamp out Covid, not just contain it, and being jabbed doesn't stop you from catching and spreading the virus, so in these situations it affords you no special privileges. That might be why the state actually puts very little pressure on people to get inoculated here.

It was only sheer luck that the guy in charge of my case sympathised with me, and applied for me to quarantine from home. He may have taken a liking to me because I was able to write my declaration in Chinese by hand, or because I gave him the impression of being someone reliable who would follow the rules and not cause him any trouble. It is quite possible that if I had been unable to speak Chinese, or been from a different country, he would not have wanted the trouble of dealing with me or would not have trusted me to stay home. 

It was also crucial that I was not identified as a "close contact" of an infected person, or I am sure I would have been dealt with far more strictly. Instead, I was identified as a person who had been to a "high-risk area", which is less serious. This is part of the reason I was allowed to self-isolate at home, which in China is a very lax measure, rather than being dragged off by people in hazmat suits. Even if I had been placed in a quarantine centre I would have been asked to get there on my own, supposedly by taxi, which would have rather defeated the point. If I had turned out to be infected, I'm sure the driver would have then been quarantined too. That other colleague of mine who really was put in a quarantine centre did in fact get there by taxi, so clearly this is common.

"High-risk areas" can be entire buildings, like the hotel I entered, or entire neighbourhoods. The rule is that anyone who has been to one has to be put in some sort of quarantine, regardless of the actual risk that they are infected. The neighbourhood bureaucrat in charge of my quarantine clearly knew there was no real risk of me being infected, or he wouldn't have stood near me and spoken to me in his office, armed only with a mask. At the same time he couldn't just let me go, because the rules are the rules, and those rules stated very clearly that I had to be quarantined. This is how the pandemic has been put down in China, with extremely strict rules applied across the board by local officials, themselves under huge pressure.

Could I have broken my quarantine and slipped out of my home? I think I probably could have done, but apart from any moral considerations, it would have been risky. There was the sensor on my door of course, but I was clearly expected to open my door a few times a day, and there is no camera in my corridor as far I know. If I had gone out for a walk, I don't think anyone would have stopped me. My compound usually doesn't have guards checking health codes at the gate.

Still, the state has plenty of high-tech and low-tech means of surveillance at its disposal, and getting caught could have meant being placed in a quarantine centre, at the very least. My health code was yellow, meaning that getting into any shop or restaurant would have been impossible. Security guards might be fooled by an old screenshot of a green code, but then again they might not be. Also, I am not sure if my movements were being tracked by GPS through my phone, but I wouldn't rule it out. 

Perhaps I could have just slipped out for an evening stroll without my phone, but I cannot exclude that the elderly "community officers" with red armbands who sit around outside my building might have been informed that I was supposed to stay home. My neighbours may also have known I was not supposed to leave, and could have reported me. Although I was pretty certain I was not infected or a danger to anyone, in the unlikely case I had broken quarantine and then actually tested positive, I could have ended up in jail. The risk of breaking the rules was simply not worth it, so I wisely stayed home.



It's now over a week since my quarantine ended, and the outbreak in Beijing seems to have been put down. No new cases have been found in days and people are relaxing a bit, although there are fewer public events than usual and everyone expects things to remain tense until the Olympics are done with. In the rest of the country the situation is also effectively under control. No matter how many misguided people who don't live here continue claiming that China is hiding large numbers of cases and deaths, there is no question that these crude methods of pandemic-control are effective. 

It seems to me that China has the capability to keep playing this game of whack-a-mole with Covid-19 for a long, long time, even as the rest of the world learns to "live with Covid". The question, I suppose, is when the game will become too costly, too unpopular, or too obviously unnecessary to keep up. That day will come, but it may not be too soon. For those of us who live in China, this is a reality that must be accepted. 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

A journey to Yushu, Qinghai

I recently spent a very interesting couple of weeks travelling in the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in China's Qinghai Province. I consider this to have been my first trip to Tibet. The area, known as Yushul in Tibetan and part of the traditional Tibetan province of Kham, lies deep inside the Tibetan plateau.

Tibet is one of those places whose reputation precedes it. Many people have strong opinions or romantic ideas about the place, but few have been there, and fewer still have any real understanding of what it's like to live there. The idea of seeing Tibet with my own eyes has long attracted me, but in spite of all the time I have spent in China, until last month I had never visited. On several occasions I travelled around the edges of the Tibetan world, visiting the East of Qinghai Province and the Aba region of Sichuan. But those are ethnically mixed borderlands on the very edges of the Tibetan plateau, where Tibetans live alongside other peoples, including Mongolians, Qiang, Hui Muslims and, of course, plenty of Han Chinese. It still cannot count as "Tibet proper". 

This year, making the most of the fact that the pandemic has me stuck in China, I decide to travel as far into the Tibetan heartland as I possibly could. The Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), which covers the historic core of Tibet, has long been closed to foreigners who do not take a highly controlled official tour. There are, however, other areas of the Tibetan plateau that are not in the TAR, and are still accessible to independent foreign travellers. 

I choose the Yushu prefecture because it is as far inside the Tibetan plateau as you can get without entering the TAR, and because it is one of the areas of China where Tibetan culture is most vital. Until this day, 97% of the prefecture's population is counted by the state as being ethnically Tibetan. The scarcely-populated region only contains around 300,000 people, even though it covers an area as large as Syria or Belarus. The sources of the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong rivers, three of Asia's great rivers, are all found in this remote area.



In spite of the fact that Yushu is theoretically open to foreigners, going there alone is still quite a gamble. The authorities view foreigners travelling independently in Tibetan areas as something suspicious and a potential source of trouble, and as most of you probably know, China is not exactly going through one of its most open and welcoming phases at the moment. I have heard several recent reports of foreign travellers in Tibetan areas of Sichuan who had the police station themselves outside their hotel or follow them around.

Then there is the pandemic, which in China has provoked an increased scrutiny of everyone's movements, and a heightened paranoia about foreigners in particular. Even fewer hotels now accept foreigners than used to be the case a couple of years ago, and one of my biggest concerns before going is whether I will find any hotels in the area that will take me in, especially outside of the prefectural capital. I decide to try going anyway and play it by ear. If it turns out to be impossible to go anywhere outside of the main town, either because of direct police intervention or because of a lack of places to stay, I will simply leave earlier than planned and find somewhere more accommodating for my holidays.

I set off in mid-July. The first stop in my journey is Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai, where I spend a couple of nights to acclimatise to its 2275 meter elevation before flying on to Yushu, which at a height of 3700 meters presents a real risk of altitude sickness. The lovely youth hostel where I stayed in my previous visit to Xining in 2013 no longer takes foreigners, so I stay in an overpriced and underwhelming hotel in a tower block. Xining is a big modern city where most of the population is Han, although there are significant Hui Muslim and Tibetan minorities. It has a relatively pleasant atmosphere, and the elevation means that in summer it is not as stiflingly hot as Beijing. On the other hand, it also feels somewhat ramshackle compared to the more prosperous Chinese cities further East. 

What I remember best from my previous visit is the impressive Great Mosque, and the atmospheric Muslim neighbourhood surrounding it. The mosque is still there, but it is under reconstruction. In the courtyard I find a picture of what the mosque is planned to look like in future, showing something more akin to a traditional Chinese temple, very far removed from its current Middle Eastern look with a dome and minarets. This is clearly part of the nationalistic campaign for the "Sinification of Islam" that is going on all over China, which has involved removing domes and minarets from mosques and replacing them with traditional Chinese motifs.

After spending a couple of nights in Xining, I fly on to Yushu. When I enter the arrivals hall in Yushu's tiny airport, the local police notice my foreign features and insist I come with them to their little office to register my details (this doesn't happen to anyone else on the plane). They are ethnic Tibetans, and very polite and friendly. This will happen to me a lot: getting stopped by local police who are friendly and curious, but still feel the need to register my details at every turn. As I leave the airport and get into a bus, one of the policemen sees me and waves, crying out "Welcome to Yushu, Jixiang", using my Chinese name. 

The bus carries me through a majestic Tibetan landscape of vast, green, empty mountains and valleys, until we reach the prefectural capital, called Jiegu in Chinese or Gyegu in Tibetan, but generally just referred to as Yushu. The town is not particularly big, but it is still the biggest and most developed in the region, and has many of the trappings of any Chinese provincial town, including the inevitable Dicos fast food joints (it's too small to have an actual McDonalds). The town was flattened in the dreadful earthquake of 2010, but it has been completely rebuilt with typical Chinese speed. Many of the new buildings have been given Tibetan architectural elements and are painted in the traditional colours of red and white, giving the town a distinct feel. 

Tibetan culture is celebrated everywhere in Yushu, at least on the surface. The huge main square has a large statue of Tibet's mythical king Gesar in its centre. On the sides of the mountains that overlook the town there are two large phrases written in huge white characters, clearly the work of the local government: one of them says "Long live the unity of the peoples (of China)" in Chinese and Tibetan. The phrase on the other mountain is only in Tibetan. I assume it to be more propaganda, but later on I am told it is actually the ancient Buddhist mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum", known throughout the Buddhist world. 

Statue of king Gesar, with "long live the unity of (China's) ethnic groups" written in the background

I have to walk five minutes from the bus stop to my hotel, some of it uphill. When I get there I am panting and out of breath, as if I had just ran all the way. I realise this is the effect of the altitude. I have in fact never experienced such a high elevation in my life. The hotel, run by a monastery, is one of the few that can take foreigners in town. The staff, all Tibetan, are a bit suspicious and ask me all sorts of questions. They will have to report my stay to the local police, and want to know all about my past and future itinerary and what I am doing in Yushu. They want evidence of a PCR test, and the one registered in my Beijing health code app is already a few months old, but between that and the Beijing and Qinghai green health codes, I manage to convince them to check me in. 

Once I am in my room, I get a phone call from reception with more questions: "Can you confirm you are only here on holiday?" "So what did you say your next destination would be?" Clearly the police have asked them to double-check. This is the kind of suspicion I was expecting to encounter. 

That evening I go out for a walk in town. Because of the altitude, the temperature is much cooler than Beijing, and it gets chilly after the sun sets. Most people look Tibetan, and many are wearing traditional clothing. Some are as curious about me as I am about them. I reach a square where 广场舞, or square dancing, is going on, as it does in every city in China. But while in most parts of China it is a pastime for elderly women alone, here it is engaged in by men and women of all ages, including children, and the style of dancing is Tibetan. I find myself thinking that in Beijing children of that age would be doing their homework at this time, not dancing in a square.

Out on the streets, the pandemic seems a world away. Few wear surgical masks, and nowhere requires you to scan a QR code to enter, in sharp contrast with Beijing. Qinghai barely had Covid-19 cases even at the start of the pandemic, and this remote corner of the province has probably not had a single case. That's how effective China's containment policies have been.

After having dinner in a Muslim restaurant, I agree to meet up with a young Tibetan woman who I had got to know on the bus from the airport, when she started chatting with me in fluent English. At the time she was travelling with her grandmother, an old lady dressed in traditional Tibetan attire. She is a local from Yushu, and is enrolled in a master's degree in a Western country, but returned home due to the pandemic and is now taking classes online. Both her features and her accent when she speaks English are distinctly different from those of the Han Chinese. 

My new friend (I will call her Amala from now on) takes me for a walk around the town centre, and then to see a night market where traditional Tibetan goods and clothing are sold. It's all very interesting, with shops selling Buddhist religious objects, ornamental daggers like those many Tibetans carry, and Tibetan carpets made in Nepal. Men from the countryside with the long hair and red tassels typical of Khampa nomads sell traditional clothing and headgear. 

Tibet is traditionally divided into three areas, U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo. Yushu belongs to the Kham area, which also covers what Chinese maps show as the Western part of Sichuan province. Kham means "frontier" in Tibetan, and in the past the area was long ruled by a patchwork of kingdoms independent from both Lhasa and Beijing. The men of Kham (known as the Khampa) have a reputation throughout the Tibetan world as fierce warriors, with imposing bulks, long flowing hair and red tassels known as "hero knots". This stereotype has even gained some notoriety among the Chinese public, with the expression 康巴汉子 (meaning something like the "Khampa stallion") entering Chinese and becoming a draw for Chinese tourists looking for exotic fantasies of dubious authenticity.  

Most of the conversations on the streets of Yushu seem to take place in Tibetan, although I have no trouble communicating in Chinese. The Tibetan language is divided into regional varieties, and the local Khampa variety is more or less intelligible with the U-Tsang variety spoken in Lhasa, but much less so with the Amdo Tibetan spoken in the rest of Qinghai. Amdo Tibetan is more conservative, and closer to classical Tibetan. What is interesting, and little known, is that Amdo Tibetan doesn't have a tonal system, while the other varieties of Tibetan are tonal, the result of a later evolution. 

A Khampa man selling ornaments

A lady at the market wearing Turquoise ornaments in her hair. Tibetans believe turquoise has spiritual properties.


As we sit down for a glass of tea on the banks of the river that runs through the town centre, Amala tells me more about herself. She is a native of the area, but after the earthquake struck in 2010, she was offered a place in a high school in Beijing as part of a program to help local youths. Since the eighties, there have been many government programs to send high-performing students from Tibetan areas to high schools in neidi, "inland", as people in Tibet often call China proper. The idea is to help foster "human talent" in Tibet, but also, sceptics say, to make these kids more culturally aligned to the rest of China. Families are often happy to get their offspring into these programs, as they promise better opportunities for the future.

In any case, Amala's time in neidi has only made her prouder of her Tibetan identity, and she is obviously delighted by my genuine interest in her culture. As we sit down for a glass of tea, she makes an unexpected proposal: would I like to join her and her family to visit a local monastery which is going to host a ceremony? They are leaving the next day, and plan to spend a few nights there.

I find the idea very appealing, but my immediate concern is what the local authorities will make of a foreigner attending a Tibetan religious ceremony and staying in a monastery on the strength of a private invitation; I don't want to cause myself or my new friend any trouble. But she insists it will be fine: the lama who runs the monastery is her cousin, and her family are from the area and have good local connections. Perhaps on the day of the ceremony itself I might need to keep a low profile, but essentially there should be no problems.

I am still slightly concerned, but I get the impression my new friend is smart and knows how things work, so I decide to take the risk. The following afternoon I check out of my hotel, one day early. I am worried they will ask me detailed questions about my plans, but they just ask me where I am headed, and I get away with a vague answer. After I leave my hotel, I am picked up by a car driven by Amala's father, with Amala in the back. We drive out of the town, and into the vast emptiness of Tibet. I feel a bit like an undercover agent, even though there is no law that forbids me from driving off with a Tibetan family. Then again, no law explicitly allows it either, and it feels almost subversive. As we drive through Yushu's suburbs I keep my mask on, hoping to conceal my foreign features as much as possible. 

As we drive out into the countryside, we see families from Yushu camping by the side of the road, enjoying the summer sunshine in a land that is freezing cold for most of the year. After about an hour we park by the side of the road and go and sit in the grassland ourselves, basking in the sunlight. My friend's father can't stop offering me cigarettes, as small-town men of a certain age tend to do in China. He is a local government official, which is nothing surprising, since most officials in areas like this are ethnically Tibetan (However the CCP secretary for the Yushu Prefecture, the real power-holder, is a Han Chinese outsider who has been assigned there. This is a typical arrangement). A jovial man with a round, weather-beaten face, Amala's dad talks to me about how much life has improved since he was young, and how well China has done at controlling the pandemic. He also tells me that I can count on Tibetans to be hospitable and friendly, and I agree that people here are indeed very hospitable.

After the break we drive on. We pass through a few villages, but the landscape generally has far more yaks in it than people. At some point I see a big river snaking through the valley below, and I am told it is the Yangtze river. Then I see a large phrase engraved on the side of the mountain above the river, saying in typical Chinese style 万里长江第一湾 ("This is the first bend in the Yangtze River"). Clearly we must be close to the source of the great river, but it already looks very large.

On occasion I see bundles of Tibetan prayer flags strung together around a pole. Prayer flags are pieces of colourful rectangular cloth inscribed with mantras in Tibetan, a common sight on mountains across Western China. Obviously influenced by Chinese religious practices, I had supposed the prayer flags might be a way of asking for wealth and good health from the gods, but my friend tells me that their real purpose is to protect the mountain. Tibetans believe the flags' prayers and mantras are spread by the wind, bringing compassion and good will to the surrounding space.

After about four hours of driving we reach the county town of Qumarleb, where we stop to eat in a good Sichuanese restaurant. More of Amala's relatives join us, including her sister, who works in the local government in Yushu and is very friendly too. To my total lack of surprise, the county town is an unimpressive collection of one-storey buildings perched incongruously in the middle of the Tibetan plateau. Local culture is still celebrated, however, in the form of a statue of a yak and another one of the four harmonious animals, a common theme in Bhutanese and Tibetan Buddhist art.



   


A statue of the "four harmonious animals", Qumarleb

By the time we finish eating the sky is dark, and we leave the town and drive on into the wilderness. The road has no lights, and outside the window everything is pitch black. We drive for around two hours in unbroken darkness, until suddenly I see a light flickering in the distance. It's the monastery. After another half hour driving up winding paths, we reach it. It feels like we've reached the end of the world. I can make out little in the dark, but I get out of the car and am shown into the monastery's guesthouse. Conditions are not exactly luxurious. There are two large rooms, one for men and one for women, and beds with thin mattresses of the kind you still find in rural China. There is no chance to shower, and the only running water is provided by an outdoor tap. The toilets are also outside, quite a distance away and very spartan. 

That night I find it hard to sleep because of the altitude, which is over 4000 metres in this region. As soon as I start falling asleep, I have the uncomfortable feeling of not being able to breath and I wake up. This goes on for a while until exhaustion takes over and I finally sleep. The following morning I wake up early and go outside to take a look around. The monastery is perched on the side of a hill, overlooking a valley. The sky is a lovely blue you don't often see in Beijing, and the air is thin and clear. 

The monastery guesthouse where I stayed




A view of the whole area, with the monastery up above and the temporary campsite in the valley below


The area is so high up and remote that mobile phones often have no signal (a rare event in China). There is a building where the monks and the lama live, a row of white chorten, and a new ceremonial hall whose official opening will be marked by the upcoming ceremony. There are also some Han Chinese labourers doing some building work for the monastery, and their living quarters. Down in the valley below, a few hundred metres away, is a big flat area where Tibetans who have come to attend the ceremony are sleeping in tents. Amala and her family have their own tent down in this area. 

I go back to the guesthouse and a monk gives me a glass of butter tea (made from yak butter) and a bowl of tsampa mixed with more butter tea for breakfast. This is the staple Tibetan breakfast, and at first the tsampa seems so alien that I have no idea how to eat it, but a Tibetan man shows me how it's done. I have to drink the liquid first, and then use my hands to knead the tsampa powder into a dumpling-like form that's ready to eat. It doesn't taste bad, and it certainly fills me up and makes me feel good, as if it were made to be consumed at these altitudes.

After having breakfast, Amala takes me to meet the lama who heads the monastery. He is a man of around thirty who wears glasses, and projects an air of calm and intelligence which sets him apart from the somewhat rougher men around him. As far as I am given to understand, this man was identified as the reincarnation of a previous lama as a child, and trained in the Buddhist scriptures. 

The lama takes me to see the inside of the new hall, which looks impressive, with statues of the Buddha. I am told that this monastery belongs to the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. There are four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, with different lineages and doctrinal focuses, but the Gelug school is the largest and the one the Dalai Lama belongs to. The different schools have a history of mutual suspicion and animosity, but nowadays this has mostly subsided, and all the different schools worship the current Dalai Lama and are acknowledged by him.

The monastery's new hall, about to be inaugurated

The biggest statue of the Buddha inside the hall

After leaving the lama, I walk down a little path on the side of the mountain and go down to the area where the Tibetan visitors have pitched their tents. There are nomads and villagers from the surrounding areas in traditional clothes, as well as townsfolk in modern clothing. Many of them have driven to the area in SUVs, which are common in Tibet due to the difficult terrain. The atmosphere is like a village fair. There is even a basketball pitch where a bunch of youngsters, including apprentice monks in red robes, are honing their skills. I am taken into a large tent where a group of women are cooking lunch for everyone. The tent is made of handwoven yak wool, and the meal includes plenty of yak meat. Every part of the yak is made use of in Tibet, including yak dung, which is used as fuel.

The consumption of yak meat may appear to be contradictory, since Tibetan Buddhists are generally loathe to take the life of any sentient being. This principle is still followed by ordinary Tibetans to a surprising extent. Fishing is unheard of, and many Tibetans will even refrain from swatting mosquitoes. I had always assumed that the scene in "Seven Years in Tibet" where the Tibetans drive the Austrian protagonist crazy by insisting that they cannot kill a single worm in the process of building a movie theatre was exaggerated, but Amala assures me that it is realistic.

This is one Tibetan attitude that is nice to witness when you come from the monotheistic traditions of the West, which have never given much importance to the rights and feelings of other species. In Tibetan Buddhism, a sentient being is a sentient being. And yet Tibetans are mostly not vegetarian, and yak meat has always been a fundamental part of their diet, alongside yak butter and milk. The historical justification for this is that growing vegetables in the Tibetan Plateau is extremely difficult. Tibetans will also point out that slaughtering one yak can feed a family for weeks, while if you eat smaller animals like fish you may have to take several lives just to have a single meal. 

Something else I find striking, probably because I live in China, is that everything is free. The meals are cooked by volunteers, and the hundreds of people who have come for the ceremony are offered free meals and a place to plant their tent for as many days as they wish. My friend explains that many of these people support the monastery through donations, and that even today poor rural families may donate 20-30% of their earnings to the monks. She talks of this admiringly, as evidence of Tibetans' lack of materialism and of their giving and spiritual tendencies. 

I am well aware that this is exactly the sort of thing that led Marxists to describe religion as the "opium of the people", and Chinese Maoists to depict Tibet as a feudal society where the monks exploited the gullible serfs. Outsiders have long tended to either romanticise or demonise Tibetan religion and society, but it strikes me that in the past this phenomenon may have been little different from farmers paying taxes to their local lord, except with a spiritual dimension. In any case, today such practices cannot be separated from the larger scenario of Tibetans being a small minority within a much larger country and struggling to retain their cultural identity, which like it or not is inseparable from their Buddhist faith.

In the afternoon I have a lazy picnic with my host family, while the children play in a stream nearby. I spend too long in the unforgiving high-altitude sunlight, which leaves me quite sunburnt the next day, in spite of the sun lotion I smear on my skin in abundance. Among Amala's relatives is a boy of about ten who is studying to become a monk. He lives in the monastery and wears the red robes of a monk. There are also two teenage girls who go to school in Xining, the provincial capital, and look and speak just like any urban Chinese teenagers. They speak to each other in Chinese, and feel more comfortable speaking Chinese than Tibetan. Most of the family's children seem to talk to each other in a mixture of Chinese and Tibetan, and are clearly far more comfortable speaking Chinese than their parents' generation.  

My friend's family may not be typical, since they are clearly well-to-do and don't all live locally. Most of the chatter I hear throughout the campsite is in Tibetan. But it is clear that, just like everywhere in China where minorities reside, the Chinese language is gaining ground at the expense of the local tongue. People tell me that while there is still a choice between Tibetan-medium and Chinese-medium instruction for children at the primary level, it is made much more advantageous to learn in Chinese. Instruction at the higher levels of education has long been in Chinese.

Then again, Tibetans are a proud people, and their determination to make their culture survive has clearly never wavered. For instance, most young Tibetans in China use iPhones because they have a good function for writing in Tibetan, which Chinese-made phones generally lack. Tibetans also never adopt a separate Chinese name, as many people from ethnic minorities (and foreign residents) do in China. Their official Chinese name is almost always just a transliteration of their Tibetan one. 

It is also quite noticeable that the Han Chinese, as a people, remain unpopular among Tibetans. Relations between Tibetans and Han tend to be polite at a superficial level, but if you broach the subject with Tibetans in a private setting, they will often be quite open about their dislike of their "Han compatriots", who they see as overbearing, greedy, materialistic and unfriendly. These feelings feed into a resentment of the state that has never died. 

My experience is that the young are often most vocal about such "subversive" sentiments, and fluency in Chinese or time spent living in other parts of China does not change these perceptions. In fact, it often reinforces them. Experiences of casual discrimination, like arriving in a hotel or airbnb only to be denied a room because of having an ID that says "Tibetan" under ethnicity, serve to further alienate people. I will never forget sitting with a young Tibetan in her SUV under the driving rain, listening to her tell me how much she resents the government she works for, and how she is only telling me these things because so far up into the mountains our smartphones pick up no signal (so there is no chance we are being recorded). 

Apprentice monks taking part in a basketball game

That evening I am invited into a big tent, where alcohol is being offered to some important guests in the traditional Tibetan way. A woman presents three small glasses on a tray to the guest, while behind her some men play traditional Tibetan music. When the glass of liquor is offered, the guest must dip their third finger in the alcohol and flip it in the air three times, which indicates toasting towards heaven, earth and their ancestors, before emptying out the glass. To my embarrassment I am also offered alcohol in this way, but I only drink a sip with the handy excuse that I am suffering from high-altitude sickness.

Later in the evening it suddenly starts pouring with rain, and the temperature drops significantly. The lama himself gives me a lift back up to the monastery in his car. The following morning I wake up to find the monastery has become a hive of activity. This is the big day of the ceremony, and more people from all over the region have come to attend. Almost everyone is wearing their most impressive traditional clothes, including Amala and her sister, who normally dress in Western clothing. I am obviously conspicuous, and I think that it might be best to stay out of sight for the time being, since I'm still not entirely certain whether my presence may cause problems. 

I retreat to my dorm in the guesthouse, but soon enough a group of people come into the dorm and sit in a circle on the beds (there are no chairs), including some of the local potentates/officials. I sit on my bed trying to look inconspicuous, but of course my presence attracts attention. Men chat with me in heavily accented Chinese, and offer me butter tea. At some point a group of police officers in uniform enter the room to pay their respects, and I get nervous and depart. I am still not sure whether I should try and keep out of the police's way, but later I understand that there is really no issue. The local police are Tibetans too, and Amala and her family know some of them personally, which makes everything easier. No one shows any sign of being bothered about my presence. 

As the morning progresses, new lamas start to arrive at the monastery. I am told that over 30 lamas will be present for the event. This is a big deal. A lama is not simply equivalent to a monk, but is a revered figure, and you don't often get that many in one place. The genuine reverence that ordinary Tibetans feel for the lamas is in full display. Some people bow deep whenever a lama passes and remain bowing until they depart, while others rush to receive their blessing. There is one elderly lama dressed in civilian clothes who survived persecution during the Cultural Revolution, and is particularly respected in the area. Another lama, with sunglasses and a ponytail, is also known to be a yoga teacher.

It is clear that Amala and her family are in their element here. They are originally from this county, and they seem to know pretty much everyone. Her father, the official who speaks so glowingly of government policy, is also wearing traditional clothing on this day and is busy getting blessed by one lama after another. 









Between the lamas and the crowds in traditional clothing, the feeling of being in a different culture is strong. While I am the only foreigner present, I am not the only outsider. There is a handful of Han Chinese who have come for the ceremony, including a lady from Xining and her teenage daughter who were invited by one of Amala's relatives because they were classmates at university, and another small group who must have been invited by someone else. They are dressed like typical Chinese backpackers and are busy taking photos with professional cameras. There is little doubt that, in this setting, these urban Chinese feel as much like outsiders as I do.

The ceremony for the opening of the new hall turns out to be more bureaucratic than religious in nature, and rather Chinese in style. There is a stage with two long tables where the lamas and local officials sit, with a large red banner behind it proclaiming the opening of the hall in Chinese and Tibetan. The crowd is all seated on little plastic stools of the kind you find at public events in rural China. A couple of the lamas take the stand and make speeches. As the elderly lama who survived the Cultural Revolution speaks, I catch a couple of Chinese words that he repeats several times during his speech in Tibetan: zhongguo gongchandang, or Chinese Communist Party, and Deng Xiaoping. At first I assume he is just repeating platitudes about the Party, but then I wonder why he would mention Deng rather than the current supreme leader. Later on, I learn that the lama was actually telling his people that they should thank Deng Xiaoping's reforms that they are now able to hold such ceremonies at all.

As the lamas speak a handful of policemen stand around and look on, while the crowd ignores them. I am told that in the Tibetan Autonomous Region it would not be possible to hold a ceremony of this nature with so little interference and supervision. Here in Yushu, however, the authorities are ready to keep one eye closed about many things. It is not strictly legal, in fact, for the children in red robes that I see running around to live in the monastery and study as monks, and yet they do. The laissez-faire attitude with which the Chinese state dealt with minorities 20 or 30 years ago still seems to be alive here.

This is not to say that the practice of Buddhism is conducted without interference. The impression I receive is one of monks and laypeople following their spiritual tradition in relative freedom, and this may well be true (although not every aspect of the situation is visible to an outsider), but there is an elephant in the room, and that is the old lama residing across the border in India. His name and image are banned. On the occasion when the topic comes up, Tibetans whisper the words "Dalai Lama" to me, since saying them out loud in public is best avoided. He is still the unquestioned leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and yet you will not see his photo in monasteries next to those of other important lamas. 

All the same, people assure me that Tibetans continue to revere him in private, and many would like nothing more than to take a trip across the border to see him speak. This is a matter of great chagrin for the authorities, and it is why going to India has long been forbidden in practice for Chinese citizens of Tibetan ethnicity. A few years ago Nepal also became forbidden, as the authorities realised many Tibetans were getting into India illegally from there. Those who manage to make their way to India via a third country have to be very careful that this is not discovered, or they will be in for trouble when they return, including, in one case I have heard of, having their passport ripped up in front of them.

After about an hour of speeches, the ceremony ends. As the crowd disbands, a long line of people forms in front of the building where the monks and the lama live, carrying scriptures wrapped in red as a gift for the monastery's head lama. Amala takes me inside the building, into the lama's living quarters, where people are lining up to give him the gift and receive his blessing. There is no way I could intrude in this way without a respected member of the local community by my side. I can't help noticing that the building includes a modern bathroom, something that does not seem to exist anywhere else in the area.

Slowly everyone makes their way down to the campsite, where lunch is being served under a large tent. At some point a man who is clearly a powerful local official swaggers in. He is Tibetan, but looks just like such officials do all over China, with a large belly and a sense of self-importance about him. He makes his way to a table where a group of men are seated, and the men immediately stand up and toast him with great fanfare, offering him three cups of alcohol in the traditional way described earlier. The official then starts singing in Tibetan, and goes on for quite a long time. He sings ok, but he's no great tenor. The men all remain standing, and awkwardly clap along. I get the strong feeling that they are giving the man face because he is important, and that this is someone who no one dares to interrupt.

After lunch all the lamas gather together one last time to chant scriptures, under the eyes of the crowd. I am napping in the shade, but I hear their hypnotic chants. I wake up to excited cries, as a bunch of men in traditional Khampa costume ride on horseback around a stone altar spewing out smoke, one of them carrying the multi-coloured flag of Buddhism that dates back to the 19th century. 

A rather more secular celebration takes place later in the afternoon. There is a show of traditional Tibetan dances, followed by local singers crooning in Tibetan. The show has two presenters, one speaking in Tibetan, and the other one repeating everything in Chinese. Three of the lamas are in the audience, and they are given the place of honour under a large umbrella, while everyone else stands or squats under the strong rays of the midday sun. The show goes on for hours. Just after it ends it starts pouring with rain again, and everyone repairs to their tents. I think how lucky it is that it didn't rain during the day, or the ceremony would have been ruined. Perhaps the gods were smiling on us. That evening we all drive back up to the monastery and sleep in the guesthouse, since the temperature has dropped and the tents don't offer as much warmth.



The next day, after breakfast, we leave the monastery. Just before we drive off, we see a monk blowing on a conch shell, a holy symbol in Tibetan Buddhism. Amala and her relatives all crowd round the monk and bow down deeply while the sound lasts. After he finishes blowing on the shell, the monk taps each one of us on the head with it, giving us his blessing. After witnessing this last bit of religious tradition, I get into the car as we set off on the six hour drive back to Yushu. The prefectural capital seemed like a sleepy two-street town when I flew in from Xining. Coming back from rural Tibet it seems like a metropolis, with lights, restaurants, consumer goods and, most importantly, showers. 

The hotel I stayed in last time is full, so I book a room at another hotel that takes foreigners. This one is run by Han Chinese from outside the area, and when I check in they are suspicious. They want to know if I'm vaccinated against Covid-19, the first time I am asked this. Being vaccinated is not supposed to be a requirement to stay in hotels or travel. I tell them I am not, and after lecturing me about how I should get vaccinated the guy in charge lets me check in. This is a hotel that clearly tries to be fancy, and the room seems nice. I am really looking forward to my first hot shower in days, but am mightily disappointed when I find that the water in the shower is only lukewarm, not hot. For a 400 Yuan-a-night room this is not what I expected. 

Over the rest of my time in Yushu I encounter exactly the same thing in all the other hotels I stay in: the showers don't really have hot water. In a cold climate like the Tibetan plateau this seems amazing, and these aren't cheap places either. Apparently the hot shower I had on my first night in town was a fluke. I have to say that I found the hotels in Yushu to be one of the worst aspects of travelling there. Usually in remote areas of China hotels are at least cheap if nothing else, but out here they are both overpriced and mediocre.

The next day I remain in Yushu, and Amala's sister is kind enough to drive me around town and show me all the local sites. Most interestingly, she takes me to the site where the locals conduct the ancient Tibetan tradition of the sky burial. It is located on a patch of flat ground next to a temple. There are a couple of stone platforms where the bodies are disposed of. We arrive a few hours after a funeral has been conducted. The remains have mostly been disposed of, but there are still crows chipping away at small bits of bone and flesh, and streaks of blood on the stone. The hammers used to break up the bones are also visible. 

It's all rather gory, but Amala's sister assures me that Tibetans do not see it that way. In fact they do not fear death, precisely because they witness such ceremonies. Next to the burial ground is a small red building, with little statues connected to Tibetan astrology. Tibetans believe in the same progression of years as the Chinese, with years of the rat, ox, tiger etc... Amala's sister ask a monk where she can find the statue connected with my astrological sign, and he tells her. As we leave the monk says something in Tibetan in a strange tone. She translates it into Chinese for me. It turns out he said "Good job your friend is a foreigner. If he were Han, I wouldn't show him these things". 

Later on I am taken to see the Song-ze Gyanak Mani wall, the biggest collection of mani stones in the world. Mani stones are rocks or stones of varying sizes with mantras inscribed or carved on their side in Tibetan. The most common mantra is always om mani padme hum, but there are other ones too. Creating and carving mani stones is a spiritual exercise, and they are placed along the roadside or rivers or stacked together to form mounds or walls. 

The mani wall outside Yushu is said to have been founded in 1715. It was destroyed in the earthquake of 2010, but it has now been completely rebuilt. I did not feel that the fact the site was rebuilt took anything away from the experience of going there, since the age of the mani stones themselves is clearly not the point; the point is rather the meaning behind the whole thing and the devotion of the pilgrims.

The complex consists of two to three million mani stones, piled on top of each other across a square kilometre. There are always plenty of pilgrims, circumambulating the complex in a clockwise direction, as you should do in Tibetan Buddhism, because that is the direction in which the earth and the universe are believed to revolve. There is also an area where it is possible to buy a mani stone from a series of vendors, and then have it deposited onto the mound. This is what pilgrims generally do, and it is how the site keeps growing. The smaller stones sell for just a few dozen Yuan, while the larger ones can be quite expensive.

The stone platforms where dead corpses are broken up and fed to the birds.




Pictures of the Song-ze Gyanak Mani Wall


Pile of Mani stones on the side of the street in Nangchen

That afternoon, we drive to see a memorial to the Yushu earthquake on the outskirts of town. Next to the memorial, a collapsed building has been kept in the state it was in immediately after the quake, with metal beams holding it up. It's terrifying to think of people being trapped in there. This is very literally the only building still in this state that I see anywhere in the entire prefecture. Both Amala and her sister have terrible tales of the quake's aftermath, of walking through streets reduced to rubble and seeing death and destruction. They both insist the official death toll of 2698 people is vastly underestimated.

A building preserved the way it was after 2010 earthquake

The next day I set off for Nangchen (Nangqian in Chinese), Yushu's last county to the south before you reach the "forbidden" lands of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Nangchen's main draw is the scenic Gar temple, located on the side of a mountain, that earns it a trickle of visitors. I go to Yushu's bus station to take a minibus to Nangchen, and there is drama when I try and board the bus. The guy at the ticket counter used his own name and ID number to buy me my ticket, because he did not know how to enter a foreign passport number into the system (nowadays you need ID just to buy inter-city bus tickets in China). When the minibus's driver sees a Chinese name on my ticket, he gets upset and says he will not take me, because that's clearly not my name and he doesn't want trouble with the police. He looks concerned, and adds "I don't dare take foreigners".

I have to go back out of the station to the ticket office, find the ticket seller, and ask him to re-print my ticket with my own name and passport number, and then come and speak to the driver and assure him it's all ok. The driver is still dubious, but after asking me whether I have been abroad recently (this would mark me out as a potential Covid-19 carrier), he relents. He is a Tibetan man, and not unfriendly, but he just doesn't want trouble. 

In the minivan there is another tourist, an older Chinese man who turns out to be from Beijing too. He tells me that he comes to the Tibetan plateau every year and loves it. He sympathizes with me regarding the trouble foreigners have to go through to travel in the area. He seems like a genuinely nice guy, with a sincere passion for Tibet and its culture. He says that Amdo and U-Tsang have even better views than Kham, and snow all the year round.

We drive for about four hours, through more Tibetan scenery. I kill the time by listening to ANU, a Tibetan pop band to which I have just been introduced in Yushu. They come from Nangchen, the place I am going to, and their songs have become hits throughout the Tibetan-speaking world. Since they live in China they have to avoid political topics, but I find their music quite refreshing.

As our van approaches Nangchen's county capital, Sharda, we are stopped at a police checkpoint. The police ask everyone to get off, and unsurprisingly get very concerned when they notice me. They ask me all sorts of questions, and rummage through my backpack quite thoroughly. At first they say that after checking in to my hotel I should go to the local police station to register. This would be huge trouble, and invite further problems. It's especially unnecessary when you consider that my hotel will automatically register me with the PSB in any case. While remaining friendly, I give them a look that says "are you kidding me", and they relent. We agree they will call my hotel if they need any further information.  

I take a taxi to my hotel, and the driver immediately starts haggling with me: I plan to go to Gar temple, don't I? He'll take me there and back for 500 yuan. He leaves me his number and dumps me at my hotel, which may well be the only one in the whole county currently accepting foreigners. It turns out to be a new, imposing building incongruously located in the middle of a wasteland in the town's unimpressive outskirts. As ever, the staff are suspicious and ask all sorts of questions. After I check in and go up to my room, a few members of staff come and knock on my door with yet more questions: where will I visit in Nangchen? When am I leaving? Where will I be heading?

 

That evening I take a stroll into town to find something to eat. The town is a similar size to Yushu, but it looks far less developed and prosperous. The dusty streets, unfinished buildings and numerous cows meandering about remind me strongly of India. The town centre is a little more lively, but still looks quite impoverished, and unsurprisingly everyone stares at me. Yushu may get the odd foreigner, but here you get none, especially nowadays. I find what looks like a reasonably big and reputable restaurant with the sort of menu you might find anywhere in China, and I have a large dinner. On the way back, the driver offers to take me to Gar Temple for less than what the other guy offered. We agree on 400 Yuan.


Flats in Nangchen, with the open-air balconies favoured by Tibetans

The main square of Nangchen

Village outside Nangchen

 

The next morning, the same driver comes to pick me up and take me to the temple. Gar temple is a two hour drive south of the town, and the only way to visit it is to rent a taxi for the day. The driver and I try and chat, but he is Tibetan and his Chinese is so bad that going beyond the basics proves impossible. Half way to the temple, we stop at a checkpoint. As expected, I have to get out of the car and go inside the police station, where I have to register by filling in a form. I begin to realise how lucky I was that there were no police checkpoints when I went to the monastery with Amala's family. I have no idea how we would have explained what I was doing and where I was going to stay. I suppose checkpoints are more common when you travel towards Tibet proper, and here we are almost at the border.

 

After another hour we reach the temple. It is indeed very scenic, perched on the side of a mountain that reminds me of the Alps. There are blue sheep milling about and Tibetan monks walking back and forth, and also a smattering of Han Chinese tourists taking photos. I walk up a staircase to the top of the temple for a better view, and my altitude sickness almost gets the better of me. Walking up 20 metres of stairs causes me to gasp for breath for a full minute. I wonder if my body could ever get used to living at these altitudes.

 

Gar monastery, with two flags of Buddhism fluttering at the front

The whole monastery seen from a distance


On the way back down to the valley below, we see three men sitting in a field picnicking. My driver stops and beckons me to get out. It turns out the men are his relatives, and we are going to join the picnic. They kindly offer me some of their food, and start chatting with me. One of the men speaks Chinese well enough to have a proper conversation. He asks me if I'm married, and when I say I am not, he says "You should marry one of our Tibetan girls. You'd have a great life. She would cook and wash your clothes for you, you could take things easy." 


I make an attempt to explain that where I come from we believe in equality of the genders. He says "oh, there's nothing unequal about it, because in Tibet the men go out to 干活 (work, make a living), while the women do the housework, so it's fair". Amala had complained to me that Tibetan men tend to be sexist in this way, expecting their wives to do all of the housework for them. Later she tells me that men from Nangchen are well-known in the region for being particularly patriarchal.

 

The next day, I return to Yushu. This time I take a private taxi, because the driver offers me a great rate. Once again, his Chinese is bad enough that we have trouble communicating (it may not just be because his mother tongue is Tibetan, but also because of the influence of the local dialect of Chinese, which fails to distinguish between H and F among other things). We drive a few hours, and as we approach Yushu, we are stopped at the inevitable checkpoint. 

This time the experience is especially drawn out. I am kept inside the police station at the side of the road for half an hour, and I begin to wonder if they are going to let me through at all. They ask me several times if I registered with the police when I was in Nangchen, and insist on calling the hotel I booked in Yushu to make sure it can take foreigners. To their credit, they are friendly and offer me tea. My driver has to wait inside with me, and he is understandably not pleased about wasting all this time. I wonder if he will be as ready to give a foreigner a lift in the future. 

After we are finally allowed to proceed, my driver drops me off at the hotel I have booked. The staff at this hotel are the most suspicious yet, and after checking in I am asked to go to a store across the street to take a passport-style photo. Once I am in my room, I get a phone call from the local Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, asking where I have been over the past 14 days, and when I entered China. The friendly woman on the other side of the line seems to realise I'm not a threat, but she says that I may have to take a PCR test. Great, I think. Within half an hour I get a knock at the door. A woman is standing there with the full PPE suit, ready to swab me. She has a nice manner, but the nasal swab is like the ones you are given in quarantine after entering the country, long and thorough. Luckily my nose doesn't seem to be too sensitive to swabs, but it's still unpleasant.

The woman tells me that there is soon going to be a festival in town, and there are plenty of outsiders coming in, so they are requiring a negative PCR test from all arrivals. It is true that there is a horse-riding festival coming up in Yushu, and there is a new outbreak of the Delta variant in Nanjing which seems to be spreading to other parts of China, partly explaining the paranoia. I still think it is likely, however, that my foreignness is what caused them to spring into action so readily. In spite of the fact that no one can enter China without going through 14, and in most provinces 21, days of quarantine, and in spite of the fact that the vast majority of people entering the country from abroad (and in some cases bringing the virus with them) are themselves Chinese, the presence of a foreigner continues to inspire irrational fear in local authorities across China.

In any case, now that I am done with the PCR test, I still have a couple of full days left in Yushu. The town definitely has more going for it than meets the eye. I spend much time on my laptop in a large Western-style cafe' (or rather, Chinese-style Western cafe') overlooking the main square, which attracts all the local hipsters. My local friends take me to Yushu's bar street and to the town's weekly English corner, which is run by a Tibetan man who spent years in India. At the English corner I meet what seems to be the only other foreigner passing through Yushu, a Serbian man who works as an English teacher in Beijing and is travelling in Qinghai. When I meet him, he is supposed to fly back to Beijing the following morning. He is staying in my same hotel, and the staff have been calling him all day to ask him to go to the hospital and get a PCR test. He already has gone to the hospital, but perhaps due to a miscommunication (his Chinese is only basic), he was unable to get tested. The hotel is still calling him, but he has decided not to answer.

That evening, I later learn, the Serbian goes back to the hotel and finds that his room card has been deactivated. He goes to the reception, and is immediately dragged to the hospital. When he gets there, his temperature is taken and it is found to be over 37. He is promptly put in quarantine in an isolation unit until his PCR test's result comes out the following morning. He spends the night in pretty awful conditions, misses his flight and ends up extending his stay for another day and buying a new ticket. While this story is indicative of the authorities' unjustified paranoia, I think another lesson to draw from it is that not picking up the phone will not make a problem of this nature go away, and that travelling in such a remote area without speaking much Chinese is a foolhardy thing to do.

I am lucky to be in Yushu at this time, because it coincides with the annual horse-riding festival mentioned above. The festival has existed for centuries, and it attracts Tibetans from all over Kham. But this year celebrations are especially big, because it is also the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in other words of Yushu's incorporation into the PRC, and a large show has been organized by the local government. A stage has been set up in the main square outside my hotel, and every evening Tibetan dancers rehearse until late. I will not be able to see the show itself, because tickets cannot be bought, only obtained through government channels; but I will be able to catch the full dress rehearsals, which will be open to the public and should be just as impressive.

On my last day in Yushu I go and see the rehearsals, which are being held in an impromptu outdoor stadium in the grasslands outside the town. This being China, the stadium is huge and the show is impressively choreographed. It consists of an interesting mix of Tibetan culture and communist iconography. There is plenty of horse riding, with long-haired nomads rushing around the stadium on their stallions waving swords. There are yaks, mountain goats and Tibetan dances. But there is also a parade of local students dressed like soldiers, with a large picture of Chairman Mao, and a huge hammer and sickle on the inner face of the stadium. There is a massive re-enactment of the Yushu earthquake, with hundreds of actors falling to the ground in a spasm, and then hundreds more rushing in dressed like soldiers and firemen to save them, many waving Chinese flags. Amala, who is there with me, comments that those who did the best job of rescuing people after the earthquake were Buddhist monks, but they get no mention. Indeed, at no point in the show do I see any reference to Tibetan religion, although it is at the core of local identity.










To be clear, the atmosphere is by no means one of coercion and fear. Half the town is here, and they are clearly excited and happy. People who are unable to enter the stands crowd around the entrance to catch a glimpse of the parade. The riders and dancers give every impression of being genuinely happy to show off their cherished culture. At the same time, I doubt all of them would accept that the events of 70 years ago are something to celebrate. From the 13th century, Yushu was the seat of a tribal confederation known as the Kingdom of Nangchen, essentially independent from both the Ming and Qing dinasties and the Tibetan government in Lhasa. In the 18th century the area nominally accepted the sovereignty of the Qing dynasty, as did most of Tibet, but this was only on paper. In 1951 the last king of Nangchen, Trashi Tsewang Dorje, accepted his kingdom's incorporation into the PRC. This is the anniversary that the parade is commemorating, although any open suggestion that Yushu was "not part of China" before 1951 would, of course, be completely taboo.

After a while I go back into town, and take a look at the local museum. It contains some pretty good quality material on the local flora, fauna, history and culture, religion included, but when it comes to modern history it unsurprisingly delves into some dubious propaganda. A portrait of Xi surrounded by adoring crowds in Tibetan costume also cannot help but catch my eye. 

That evening I go to the night market for a bite to eat, and I am overwhelmed by the hospitality of the vendors. I buy some dumplings from a lady at one stall, and while I sit and wait for my food two other women working at different stalls separately bring me a glass of tea and some more dumplings for free, while they ask me where I am from and what brings me to their hometown. Tibetans really are a very hospitable people, no question about that. I don't normally get people throwing free food and drink at me like this when I travel. 

The following morning I go to the airport, and fly back to Beijing via Xining and Xi'an. I am a bit sorry to leave the quiet of the Tibetan plateau, but the real world beckons me back. China is busy stamping out the new Delta variant outbreak that began in Nanjing, and I am vaguely worried about transferring in a city with Covid-19 cases, lest the authorities give me trouble when I get home. In the end the new outbreak will be contained, as always, but in the airports the change in mood is palpable. Fortunately I fly to Beijing and return to my apartment without incident. My first journey to Tibet is over. I hope one day, if things change, it will become easier to explore the whole of this fascinating land.