Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Not being Chinese in your next life

I have just powered through a full-length book in Chinese. No, it wasn't the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but a polemic by Hong Kong journalist Joe Chung. Its title, 来生不做中国人, is officially translated into English as "I don't want to be Chinese again", but a more exact rendering would be along the lines of "I won't be Chinese in my next life" or "not being Chinese in your next life" (the subject of the sentence is unstated). It has yet to be translated into English or any other language.

The book is actually a collection of the author's essays and articles. It is basically a frontal attack on Chinese culture and everything it stands for, written from the point of view of a Chinese from Hong Kong. The book's title was inspired by an opinion poll which appeared on Netease, one of China's main web portals, in 2006. The poll asked people whether they would want to be reborn as Chinese in their next life. Over the next few days thousands of Chinese took the survey, with a whopping 65% of people answering "no", until the government noticed and demanded that the poll be taken down. A Netease editor lost his job as a result.

Drawing inspiration from this episode, the author engages in a full-blown polemic against his own culture. He attacks the Chinese mindset as selfish, irrational, antiquated, petty and incapable of changing, and criticizes the Chinese people for accepting injustice by their own leaders and blaming others for their misfortunes. Unlike many Hong Kongers would do, he doesn't limit his critique to the Mainland, but criticises his native Hong Kong's culture as well, seeing in it the same flaws that hold back the whole of China.

The author dismisses Chinese culture as a culture which has long outlived its usefulness and should have disappeared long ago, and compares its survival to the Roman Empire surviving until the present day. Although he doesn't make a very big thing about it, the author is in fact a Christian, and blames the lack of a strongly held religious faith for what he perceives to be his countrymen's flawed and underdeveloped sense of morality. He claims that Confucianism is an ideology which cannot act as a substitute for true religion.

Such total dismissals of their own culture by Chinese intellectuals are actually not entirely new. A famous example is Taiwanese author Bo Yang and his well known book that came out in 1985 with the English title "the Ugly Chinaman and the crisis of Chinese culture". Under the relatively liberal atmosphere of the time, the book was actually distributed in the Mainland as well. Going back even further, China's most famous modern writer Lu Xun had some very harsh things to say about the "Chinese national character" and his own people's 劣根性 or "deep-rooted flaws". What's more he felt that the defects of the Chinese mentality had not really been improved with the Xinhai Revolution and the end of the empire. There is in fact a vein of self-hatred that has run deep within Chinese culture since at least the nineteenth century. This self-hatred actually survives in Mainland China too, although it is buried under the veneer of state-sponsored nationalism and pride.

It is certainly true that China's particular version of a modern society leaves a lot to be desired. Sometimes China can seem like a country trapped in its own history, unable to find a way out, in spite of all the economic growth and material development of the last decades. But total rejections of Chinese culture aren't really convincing either. If China's problem is the Confucian tradition and the lack of a strong religious faith, then why have the Japanese and South Koreans, who come from a similar religious and ethical tradition, been so much more successful at creating decent modern societies then the Chinese have?

Traditions and cultures all have good and bad sides. Cultures based around monotheistic religions can lead to rigidity and fanaticism, while East Asian cultures sometimes appear to lack a concept of basic moral norms that have to be abided by at all times, and lead to extreme utilitarianism and only caring about your "in-group". But the reality is that until the enlightenment took off, European societies (and other Asian ones) never appeared to be any more successful than China at producing peaceful or civilized behaviour. In fact when Marco Polo travelled around China he remarked with wonder that the men did not need to carry weapons with them when they went out, unlike in Europe at the time.

It is certainly true that China has found it harder than most countries to reconcile itself with modernity, and many progressive values which much of the modern world takes for granted still struggle to take root in China (the value of life, equality, moral concern for strangers etc...). The country's size and its isolation from "global culture", part natural and part intentional, also contribute to keep things this way. But it can only be hoped that when China finds a system that can bring out the best in its culture and people, then things will no longer be so.

Lu Xun

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit and the failures of democracy

After the Brexit debacle, it was only to be expected that China's most nationalistic newspaper wouldn't miss the chance to jump on the bandwagon.

The Global Times has attracted international attention with an editorial in its English edition which gloats that Europe and Britain are in decline and are unable to solve their problems through their democratic systems. But less attention has been given to an editorial published by the paper's Chinese edition, according to which the EU referendum shows that "Western-style democracy" is no longer working.

The editorial is entitled "Western-style democracy's willfulness raises doubts". The term I translate as "wilfulness", 任性, could also be rendered as unruliness or doing things on a whim.

The article starts off with some pretty reasonable statements about how a European Union without Britain will be "more inward-looking, conservative and focused around the continent", and this will be "bad for Europe and bad for the world" (although this comes from the most inveterate supporters of policies which continue to make China inward-looking and conservative).

It then turns into an attack on democracy, or rather, "Western democracy". Why is it that this year's EU referendum and last year's Scottish referendum could take place, and what seemed unthinkable could become so possible, alarming everyone? According to the piece, the answer is the "wilfulness of democracy" (the word used in Chinese is 任性, same as in the headline).

The author of the editorial then relates a parliamentary sitting which he witnessed in Norway, in which there were only 13 MPs in attendance in a parliament with 169 seats, and uses this as an example of the flaws of democracies, where even members of parliament take their duties so light-heartedly. I have no idea whether the author realizes that Norway was held up as an ideal by the Leave camp during the Brexit debate.

The article then goes on to claim that democracy is "a conquest of human political civilization", but it is a pity that it has now become a game that anyone can tamper with. Europe's constant referendums show that democracy is also being kidnapped by nationalism and populism, and that the system is losing its resilience as it has to deal with the negative effects of globalization. After quoting from Han Feizi, in order to predictably cloack itself in the mantel of China's "5000 years of history", the editorial concludes that "in terms of productivity, China has already won. In terms of resilience, China will yet win."

It would be easy to dismiss the paper's nationalistic ramblings, or to think up possible counter-arguments and point out all the problems of Chinese authoritarianism. It is true, on the other hand, that in a country like China where the desirability of democracy is still a matter of serious doubt and debate, the EU referendum might seem to some like an excellent example of democracy's inherent flaws.

Those who voted for Britain to leave the EU were overwhelmingly the elderly, the less educated and the less well-off in England and Wales. A momentous decision, which will have consequences most of these people cannot even conceive of, was taken because of marginalized and frustrated people emotionally blaming the EU for complex phenomena they don't really understand, and using the referendum as an occasion to show their distaste of the metropolitan elite.

Frustration with immigration and the increasing multiculturalism of British society were also a clear motivation behind the leave vote, even though stepping out of the EU is going to do little to nothing to reduce immigration to Britain.

In the meantime, these people have quite possibly condemned their country to eventual break up, since a second referendum on Scotland's independence is now looming on the horizon. Even Northern Ireland's peace agreement is threatened. As a historian said the other day, Britain, the country which colonized half the world, has committed national suicide because of the fantasy that it is being colonized by others. And all this because of a 4% difference in the vote.

When you look at this scenario, it is easy to see how the Chinese elite's professed ideal of a group of wise, enlightened, forward-looking leaders governing their country according to a long-term plan, without having to constantly bend to the will of the ignorant, easily misled masses, might seem like a better alternative.

The concept of voting is indeed problematic on a theoretical level, and the concept of referendums even more so: giving every single person the same power to decide on an issue on which most people simply don't have similar levels of expertise and understanding may not lead to the best outcomes.

But in the end of the day, the problem with diatribes against democracy like the one in the Global Times is that they always stop at the issue of general elections, without looking at all of the other institutions and values that underpin democracy: separation of powers, the rule of law, independent institutions supervising each other, freedom of speech. Only focusing on elections and the unpatable results they can throw up due to the ignorance of the average voter is missing the point.

If China could find a way to implement a system which didn't include giving every last fool the possibility to vote and make decisions on crucial issues, but which protected all of the other rights which people in democratic countries take for granted, then I am sure most of the world would be ready to accept its system as legitimate. Unfortunately however, this is just not the case at the moment.

In any case, I do hope that Britain doesn't seriously decide to hold the referendum on the EU again, and that the British parliament doesn't refuse to implement the referendum's results (amazingly, according to British law they have the right to do this). If similar courses of action were followed, then Britain really would become the world's laughing stock, and its democracy would rightly be derided as a joke.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Travels in Ningxia

Last week I spent four days travelling in Ningxia province with my girlfriend. I managed this by carving a holiday out of the break for the Dragon Boat Festival, taking an extra day of vacation at the end.

Ningxia is the kind of place which only old China-hands will have even heard about it. Small, landlocked, arid, remote and little visited by anyone, it is China's proverbial middle of nowhere. The province's distinguishing feature is its large population of Chinese Muslims, thanks to which it has become one of China's five "autonomous regions". The autonomy granted to such places has little to do with the kind of autonomy enjoyed by places like Scotland and Catalonia, for instance: it certainly does not refer to the local people choosing a regional government free to make its own laws in particular areas. It does mean however that certain policies are put in place to protect the culture of the main local minority group, and especially its language. 

We arrived in the provincial capital of Yinchuan after a two-hour plane ride from Beijing. Yinchuan turned out to actually have a youth hostel, showing that youth hostels have now become well and truly established as a concept in China, and are no longer the preserve of places where foreign backpackers like to go. The youth hostel was quite pleasant, although the beds mimicked the traditional Kang beds of Northern China, and the mattress was far too thin for my liking. Outside of the hostel, however, the city did not give a particularly good impression: it seemed more like a county town than a provincial capital, and it lacked much in the way of charm and pleasantness. It did turn out to have a square with a replica of the Forbidden City's facade, replete with the picture of Mao and the two quotations on each side, although "Long Live the Unity of the World's Peoples" was replaced by "Long Live the Communist Party".  Perhaps internationalism is no longer expedient?

One interesting fact was that all the names of the roads were written in Arabic as well as Chinese, and this holds true throughout the province. In every one of China's Autonomous Regions the language of the local minority holds some kind of official status (although this is often symbolic). The Hui Muslims of Ningxia don't really have a language of their own, since their daily communication takes place entirely in Chinese, as it has done for centuries. However, in a decision which got some Chinese nationalists muttering, it was decided to give co-official status to Arabic, which in spite of being their holy language is not really spoken by any of the local Muslims. The result is that Arabic is found on all the street signs, and exactly nowhere else except for mosques. The translations of the street names into Arabic are often phonetic and meaningless. 

Before getting the hell out of Yinchuan, I decided to go and have a look at something I had read about in this report a few months previously: the huge "Hui Muslim Culture Park" built on the outskirts of the city, apparently in a bid to attract Arab and Muslim tourists. According to the report, the Park is supposed to showcase the culture and history of the Hui people, and direct flights have actually been established between Yinchuan and Dubai as part of the scheme. At the city's main square, we boarded a public bus which took us on the one hour ride to the park. I wasn't expecting anything much: a rather kitsch presentation of Chinese Islam with a lot of imposing new buildings and little substance was my best guess. Once we got there, it turned out that the Park looked decidedly unfinished. The huge main gate, built in a faux-Middle Eastern Style, was closed, and visitors had to enter through a side gate. Although there was a smattering of locals visitors around, there were certainly no hordes of Arab tourists anywhere in sight. The tickets cost 60 Yuan per person, and the inside didn't look promising. I made what I think was a good decision, saved myself 60 Yuan and went back to the city in order not to be stuck in Yinchuan another night. 

The (closed) entrance to the "Hui Muslim Culture Park"
Soon afterwards we boarded a bus to Guyuan, the main urban center in the South of Ningxia. Trains in Ningxia are still slow and old-fashioned, and long-distance buses remain the best way to get around. As the bus left the city, the landscape started getting more and more arid and desert-like, although never actually turning into full-blown desert. It reminded me strongly of certain landscapes in Israel. We slowly made our way down to Southern Ningxia, the remotest area of an already remote province. While Northern Ningxia is more fertile and prosperous and inhabited mostly by Han, the South is poorer and more strongly Muslim. Guyuan is the only city of any size in the area. Mostly newly built, it felt nicer than Yinchuan at any rate. We stayed in one of the city's fanciest hotels for relatively little money, one of the advantages of travelling in small and remote Chinese cities. 

The next day we woke up early and set out to visit the Xumishan Grottoes, the most famous site in the area. It is a collection of 130 Buddhist cave temples which were built between the fifth and tenth century, when the area was traversed by the Silk Road, and before Islam had arrived. The site is at the base of a mountain known as Xumi, the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word Sumeru, the name of a mythical sacred mountain in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Getting to the site itself proved to be problematic. Unable to find a public bus going in the right direction, we took a taxi whose driver initially agreed to take us to the mountain for 60 Yuan, but then changed his mind after driving us out of the city for about 20 minutes, asked for more and when we refused, dropped us off at a petrol station. Luckily we were able to board a bus from somewhere nearby, which took us to Sanying, the town nearest to the mountain. From Sanying we took another taxi after negotiating a price with the driver. 

The site itself was interesting, and thankfully completely lacking the crowds of the more famous sites in Eastern China. In spite of this being a public holiday, visitors where relatively few and far between, something which would be unthinkable anywhere near Beijing. Given how hard the place is to reach without a car, and that it is in a remote part of the country, it is not really surprising. The surrounding landscape is one of majestic, empty mountains and red earth. 

The most iconic element of the site is the 65 meter statues of the Maitreya, sometimes referred to as the "future Buddha", who according to tradition will be a successor to the present Buddha. According to Mahayana Buddhism, this enlightened being (known as 弥勒佛 in China) currently resides in the Tushita heaven, where he can be reached through meditation. One day he will appear on earth and teach the pure dharma, at a time when the Buddha's teachings have been all but forgotten by humanity. According to certain traditions, this will take place at a time when human beings will live to be 80 thousand years old. 

The entire site is apparently classified as endangered, due to erosion and improper conservation. At the very least the giant Buddha has not been subjected to the same fate as the ones in Afghanistan that the Taliban vandalised. After leaving the mountain we hitched a ride back to Sanying, the nearby town. The town is heavily Hui Muslim, with most of the women wearing veils and most of the men sporting little round hats. For the first time I notice the unusual purple veils worn by many Hui women, which look more like a baker's hat than a Muslim veil, at least to my eyes. We entered the courtyard of a local mosque (the town had several), where there was a crowd of local children playing. A local young man in Islamic dress explained to us that there would be a big feast after sunset in order to celebrate the breaking of the Ramadan fast. His Chinese had a strong enough local accent that I had trouble following him.

We then walked down the town's main street. As a foreigner I was subjected to a level of attention which I don't remember feeling since I first visited China in 2004, at least in towns of that size. The surprise and curiosity foreigners garner in Ningxia, and especially Southern Ningxia, has remained what it used to be. We bought a delicious local bun from a street vendor, after which a lady even took a photo of me eating on the street. 

Back in Guyuan, we had a nice meal of mutton. This is always the local speciality in Muslim areas of China, where pork is obviously avoided. This is something most Chinese find hard to understand and accept, perhaps more than they do women wearing veils. Pork is an absolutely core part of the diet in a nation where even the character for home (家) shows a pig under a roof. There is a myth among the Chinese, which I have heard repeated with my own ears, that the Hui won't eat pork because they believe they are descended from pigs. God knows how offensive they must find this misconception.

The next day we had lunch in a local restaurant which was almost empty, possibly due to Ramadan. After that we decided to make our way back north. Our first stop was Tongxin, a town which houses the only ancient mosque in Ningxia to have escaped the ravages of the Red Guards, China's equivalent of the Taliban. Tongxin is one of the main centers of Hui Muslim culture in China. It is also a small and remote place, and although its mosque is actually mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook, it is certainly not a common destination for visitors, either domestic or foreign. 

We went to the bus station in Guyuan and got on the bus for Tongxin. Once we were on the bus, two policemen suddenly got on and started checking people's IDs. A routine check. As soon as they saw me, the policemen forgot about all the other passengers and went straight up to where I was sitting in the back row. After determining that Ting Ting and I were travelling together, they asked us why we were going to Tongxin. We replied "tourism", at which they just repeated "tourism?" in a disbelieving tone. We mentioned Tongxin's ancient mosque, something they had probably never heard of, but they accepted our explanation. They then proceeded to check my passport and her Chinese ID, taking photos of the main page with their phones, and left. 

After a two-hour drive we got off at Tongxin's main bus station, and caught a cab to the Great Mosque. The Mosque started life as a Buddhist Temple built by the Mongols, but once the Mongols were thrown out, it was turned into a mosque. It was renovated a few times, most recently in 1907. Most importantly it wasn't destroyed during the anti-religious drive of the Cultural Revolution. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, this is because Mao Zedong himself visited the mosque during the Long March. According to Michael Dillon's book on Hui culture, the mosque was protected by the proud local people, but it was also spared because Tongxin was the seat of the first contacts between Hui Muslims and the CCP. Whatever the truth, the impressive building shows you what mosques used to look like in China: it is built in the style of other Chinese temples, and the only sign you are in a mosque is the ornate Arabic writing on the walls. Most of the other mosques in the area are newly built in a faux-Middle Eastern style, with minarets and bell tops. Typically for China, most of them look cheap and tacky, with none of the majesty of real Arab mosques. When we entered the inner courtyard of the old mosque, there were lots of local men and children chatting.

Tongxin's ancient mosque

 A newly built mosque
The town of Tongxin looked like a typical poor county town in China's interior, with the difference that the people were heavily Muslim. I even saw men wearing white dresses of the kind you might see in the Gulf countries or in Pakistan. As a foreigner, I provoked even more surprise and stares than anywhere else I had visited up to then. Unfortunately we had little time to explore the town, as the last northbound bus left at 4.30.

As the bus made its way northward through the countryside, you could feel the Muslim presence gradually dissipating, and the villages becoming more and more Han in their feel. Although I did not have enough time to really get to know local society and research the matter, I am left with more questions than answers about Hui Muslim society. It certainly has all the outward signs of being Muslim, with the women wearing veils and most people fasting during Ramadan. But up to what extent do these people living in the middle of China and speaking Chinese, so isolated from the rest of the Muslim world, really follow the religion? To what degree is the Islam taught in the local mosques a watered down promoted by the authorities? I have heard of complaints that Saudi Arabia now funds mosques and Islamic schools in the region, and spreads its extremist message. Given what I know about how suspicious the Chinese government is of foreign influence, especially in the area of religion, I find it hard to believe that this would be allowed. As much as Hui society appears Muslim, it certainly doesn't feel like one of those conservative Muslim countries where women and men go out separately or the women are segregated in the home. Behaviour in this area seems much closer to what you might find anywhere in China. Then again, some would argue that segregation of the sexes is a tribal Arab custom which has little to do with Islam anyway.

Local girl in a veil, Sanying
Whatever the case, while I was visiting the Hui areas I had the same refreshing feeling I have felt while visiting minority areas of China in the past. People always seem a bit friendlier, more relaxed and less materialistic than they do in areas where the Han live. When we got to Zhongwei, I had the strong feeling of being back in ordinary China, with all the consequent behaviour I have got accustomed to. On the other hand, Zhongwei turned out to be quite a nicely planned and well developed city, far nicer than either Yinchuan or Guyuan. We got to stay in another nice hotel for little money, and the next day we set off for the Shapotou, a small town that serves as a gateway to the Tengger Desert.

The Tengger desert is a patch of sandy desert which is located mostly in Inner Mongolia, but is reachable mainly from Ningxia. It has become a popular destination since an episode of the Chinese show 爸爸去哪儿 was filmed there. The town of Shapotou is now trying to reinvent itself as a tourist hotspot, and on the way to the desert we saw huge hotels and tourist developments still being built. Near the town there is an area where tourists can go and engage in activities like riding a camel and driving a dune buggy. The area was a bit like I expected it to be: expensive and touristy, but worth it for people who have never seen a real desert before. I had actually agreed to go there mostly for the sake of my companion, since I have already been lucky enough to visit deserts in the Middle East, and did not feel a great need to pay in order to ride a camel round a few sand dunes.

Camels waiting to give tourists a ride

By Beijing standards the place was far from crowded, owing to its remoteness. Most of the visitors seemed to be from places like Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi and Sichuan. After paying for an 85 Yuan ticket (to enter the desert!) and a 160 Yuan ticket for the activities, we went in. We got to ride on camels through the dunes for about ten minutes. There was a line of about a dozen camels tied to each other, each one ridden by a tourist. The camels didn't look terribly healthy or happy, although I don't really know what camels normally look like. We then got to drive a dune buggy for a while, and then sit in the back while a local guide drove over the sand dunes at incredible speed, making it feel like a roller coaster. 

Just outside this patch of desert there was an incredible view of the Yellow River snaking through the mountains, which provided for some really good photo shots. After taking a few good photos, we hitched a ride back to Yinchuan's airport and boarded our flight back to Beijing. In the airport I saw a group of foreign visitors, and it struck me that these were the first obvious foreigners I had seen since arriving in Ningxia province four days previously. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Goodwill suggestions and groundless accusations

The image below has been circulating on the Chinese internet. It hilariously paraphrases the Chinese foreign minister's angry outburst during a press conference in Canada, which followed a local journalist asking him a provocative question about his country's human rights.

Here is a translation of the text:

First policeman: Someone reported that you were beating your wife. We have come to check things out.

From behind the door: Do you understand my family? Have you ever visited my home?
Do you know the process by which we went from selling pancakes from a street stall to opening restaurants? If I were beating my wife, do you think we could have developed so well? Do you know that we have already made "wife protection" part of our own family law? I have to tell you that the ones who best understand our spousal relationship are ourselves, and not you. You have no right to express your views on this, only we do, so please don't ask such irresponsible questions again. 
Our family welcomes goodwill suggestions, but we reject groundless accusations.

Second policemen: Captain, we better get out of here. We are no match for this guy's wit.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Strawberry Music Festival: China's answer to Woodstock

Last weekend I went to the Strawberry Music Festival, China's answer to Woodstock (I make the comparison tongue-in-cheek, but it is a rock festival which lasts three days, and you can camp there). The Beijing edition takes place every year over the three-day holiday for the First of May.

This year's festival actually didn't take place in Beijing itself, but rather in Lanfang, a county of neighbouring Hebei province, which is however relatively close to the city (in the sense that it only takes an hour to drive there from the Eastern edge of Beijing). Last year's festival was abruptly cancelled by the Beijing police alongside all of the other music festivals planned over the holiday, for reasons unknown. That may be why this year the organisers decided to move out to Hebei, in search of friendlier police bureaus.

I went to the festival on the first of May, the day when Prodigy were slated to appear. The festival was held inside a golf course surrounded by a huge replica of Beijing's old city walls, the ones that were regrettably knocked down in the fifties. The air pollution was unfortunately really bad when we first arrived, prompting us to wear masks (luckily it got better later in the day). Hebei is after all China's most polluted province.

The tickets were expensive, costing 240 yuan for a single day (and 600 for the whole three days). The festival grounds were huge, with about seven different stages with different bands performing simultaneously. Most of the bands were Chinese, but there were a few foreign guests. Some people had brought tents and were camping there for the whole three days. There was a section with lots of stands selling food and drink, all reasonably priced. Fortunately alcohol was on sale, although there was only a meagre selection of beers at a couple of stands. This was still an improvement over a few years ago, when no alcohol was sold anywhere on the premises. All the same, you could see none of the heavy drinking you would find in a rock music festival in most countries. Obviously in China heavy drinking is the preserve of government officials and old men, not cool young rock fans.

The crowd was mostly composed of young Chinese, with quite a few Westerners thrown in. I seem to remember there being more foreign faces the last time I went. Perhaps the drop in the number of foreigners in China is beginning to show? Or perhaps the festival being so far out of the city put off a lot of people from going? Still it was nice to see a diverse crowd hanging out together listening to rock music.

One of the coolest acts I saw was the Taiwanese reggae group Matzka. The singer is a Taiwanese aboriginee from the Paiwan tribe who sports dreadlocks and completely gets the whole reggae attitude and look. Prodigy, the festival's biggest draw, performed last. They were good fun for a while, although I am really not a big fan of electronic music.

All in all, it was quite an enjoyable experience. The festival was large and well organised, with none of the outrageous rip offs I experienced at other such events. The acts were mostly good quality, although the state of Chinese rock music continues to be dire. The heyday of Mainland Chinese rock remains the late eighties/early nineties, when Chinese youth was in a rebellious mood, and their music reflected this. Nothing produces good rock music like dissatisfaction.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Raoul Pal: Beijing more impressive than Tokyo, newer than Shanghai.

I was recently skimming through the book "A Great Leap Forward?: Making Sense of China's Cooling Credit Boom, Technological Transformation, High Stakes Rebalancing, Geopolitical Rise, & Reserve Currency Dream".

The book is actually a collection of essays on the Chinese economy by different analysts. Some of it is pretty interesting. But then I came across the essay "There's Something Wrong in Paradise" by Raoul Pal. The author is an esteemed American financial analyst, and the founder of an elite global macro-strategy and consulting service. Clearly nobody's fool. His analysis of China's economy has its worth. The introduction to his essay, however, is based on his personal visit (or perhaps even multiple visits) to China. And that's where it becomes very clear that he has no real knowledge of the country and what it's like. 

First the author goes on about how China has the feel of a "liberated country", with domestic package tours everywhere full of "happy smiling faces" and "excited mannerisms". He adds that if you just go to a local bar on a Saturday night, you can apparently see that there is no turning back for the government, because the Chinese are "having way too much fun testing their newfound freedoms". I can understand people writing this stuff in the early nineties, but in 2015?  

Then comes a passage which made me cringe:

"Most of you will not have been to China and those that have will be stunned how quick its still changing. Beijing is a brand new City. Essentially give or take a few buildings it was built from scratch. It looks stunning. There are wide shopping streets with Starbucks, Esprit etc on every corner. Think Tokyo but more impressive, more technology, more mobile phones, more shops. Think new roads, new cars, new bridges, new flyovers, new skyscrapers, new houses, and new apartment blocks. Everything is made of the highest quality. In fact it's hardly an emerging country at all. It has arrived. 

Shanghai is a more traditional Asian city, older, more chaotic but it happens to be the size of Tokyo and looks sort of like KL or Bangkok. Again lots of technology, amazing buildings and busy, busy people."

To anyone familiar with China and Beijing, this description comes across as incredibly inaccurate. The passage is really just a testimony to Beijing's ability to impress visitors on business trips, and leave them with an overwhelmingly positive and completely inaccurate impression of the place.

"Beijing is a brand new city. Essentially give or take a few buildings it was built from scratch." First of all, Beijing's city centre is still full of Hutong dating back at least a hundred years. They are the one thing which gives the city colour and character. But even in the rest of the city, there are still lots and lots of decrepit apartment blocks built during the Mao era. They would hardly qualify as brand new. I would say that the fancy new housing blocks, although plentiful, are still in a minority. 

"It looks stunning. There are wide shopping streets with Starbucks, Esprit etc on every corner. Think Tokyo but more impressive, more technology, more mobile phones, more shops." This guy obviously never left the admittedly impressive Central Business District and the shopping malls in Chaoyang. Most of the city is hardly like that. Much of Beijing outside of the city centre consists of pretty ugly and uninspiring concrete jungles without any Starbucks or Esprit in sight, although I will admit that you can find a McDonalds literally on every corner. And let's not even talk about the more slummy areas where the poorest migrant workers collect. More impressive and technological then Tokyo? That's a huge stretch.

"Think new roads, new cars, new bridges, new flyovers, new skyscrapers, new houses, and new apartment blocks. Everything is made of the highest quality."  Everything is made of the highest quality? It's true that Beijing has some impressive new roads, subway lines and skyscrapers which are nice to use and work in. But just like everywhere in China, it is also full of shoddy, low-quality construction. Even some of what looks new and shiny turns out to be made to pretty low standards on further inspection. 

In fact it's hardly an emerging country at all. It has arrived. Suddenly Beijing represents the whole country, which is "hardly an emerging country at all". Perhaps he'd like to travel outside of the few major cities a little bit? 

"Shanghai is a more traditional Asian city, older, more chaotic but it happens to be the size of Tokyo and looks sort of like LK or Bangkok."  This is also highly inaccurate. Shanghai is a more traditional Asian city? Older, more chaotic? Anyone who knows the two places will tell you the exact opposite. Shanghai may have some old European buildings in the center, but it's not older then Beijing, and it's most certainly not more chaotic. In terms of traffic, transport and general urban planning, Shanghai is actually far less chaotic and more livable then the capital city. It also feels less traditionally Chinese, whatever that may mean. 

In fact, what really distinguishes Beijing from cities like Shanghai or Shenzhen is that it preserves some cultural and historical heritage, and a bit of genuine local character. But more modern and newer? No way.

Goes to show how unreliable even smart people's impressions of China can be.

Beijing's Central Business District skyline

A typical hutong street scene

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Why are foreigners leaving China?

It is a fact: over the last few years, there have been more foreigners moving out of China then moving in.

The exodus of foreigners has been especially pronounced in Beijing, and even the Chinese media has reported on this (here's an English translation, and here's the original). But the situation is essentially the same all over the country: foreigners are leaving in larger numbers then they are arriving. A new study by a company which helps relocate expats has confirmed this trend, claiming that twice as many expats left China than arrived in 2014.

Most of the articles covering this phenomenon, including the Wall Street Journal one linked above, note a few specific reasons behind the trend. First of all there is the dreadful air pollution, which has only worsened in the last few years, and is scaring people off. This factor looms especially big in the case of Beijing, where the air quality is way worse then it is in Southern cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen (where it's still pretty bad, by the way). Then there is the slowdown in China's economic growth and the rising productions costs, which may be pushing some multinational companies to relocate elsewhere in Asia. Finally there is the rising cost of living in China's big cities.

All of these factors seem perfectly plausible to me. Living in Beijing, I personally know people who have left due to the pollution. Costs of living have risen, especially if you want to maintain a decent lifestyle: you have to pay for expensive air purifiers to keep your flat breathable, you have to shop for imported food if you want to be certain of its safety, you have to take taxis rather than the subway in order to avoid being driven crazy by the crowds etc... Rents in the major cities are now almost as expensive as they would be in Western Europe, and healthcare at international standards costs a bomb.

I am surprised that none of the articles on the exodus of foreigners mention another obvious annoyance of life in China: the censorship of foreign websites, which has become more and more extensive over the last few years. Even though there are ways to get around the firewall (but it's getting harder), it still complicates the lives of foreign expats and serves as a constant reminder of the sort of system they are living under.

This leads me to another factor which looms big, although it isn't usually mentioned in a direct fashion: there is a distinct feeling that China is no longer as welcoming as it used to be for foreigners. This begins at the institutional level. It has become harder and harder for foreigners to receive Chinese work visas over the last few years. This is partly a matter of the rules themselves becoming tougher, and partly a result of the pre-existing rules being applied more strictly (in China one always has to look at how the rules are applied, and not just at what they say on paper).

Both international and Chinese companies are now more likely to try and recruit local talent for positions for which they previously recruited expatriates. This is partly due to the large numbers of Chinese who have returned from studying abroad and are assumed to have a good grasp of international business culture. But it is also due to how difficult it has been made to recruit foreigners. Chinese companies especially are only allowed to employ foreigners under very specific conditions which are hard to meet. And while in the past it was fairly tolerated for foreigners to work on a business or even a tourist visa, the authorities have now become stricter on this front too.

The truth is that those in power have never viewed a multicultural society or the integration of foreign immigrants as desirable goals. The presence of foreign nationals working in China is seen more as something to be tolerated if it helps the country develop. Foreigners are in China to the extent that they are needed, but they do not acquire any kind of stake in the society. If there are Chinese who are capable of doing the same jobs, then it is preferred that Chinese do them. Of course attracting talented immigrants would appear to be a hallmark of most successful modern countries, at least in the West, but as far as the current Chinese government is concerned, the benefits just do not outweigh the hassle of integrating all those un-harmonious foreigners.

Receiving a permanent residence permit is extremely arduous for a foreign national, and receiving Chinese citizenship practically impossible (and not too desirable, especially since you would have to give up your own citizenship in the process). No matter what you do in China, you will eventually be confronted with the fact that you have no permanent basis to reside in the country. Visas have to be renewed at least once a year, and if you want to change occupations you will have to consider what your chances are of getting a new visa in time. Constant "visa runs" to Hong Kong are obviously not a safe and long-term solution (then again, Shanghai has just announced new rules making it easier for foreigners to get permanent residence permits. What this will mean in practice remains to be seen).

I also think that the worsening political climate is playing its part. In the old days (say the first decade of the 21st century), there was a distinct feeling among foreign residents that China was on a path towards becoming a more open and liberal kind of country, slowly but surely. With this belief in mind, people could tolerate a lot. Nowadays that feeling has basically gone, at least among those who take an interest in Chinese affairs. The current atmosphere of repression (which has caught even the odd foreigner in its net) and the mounting populistic nationalism are not exactly encouraging people to remain in the country.

All of these factors, I am convinced, are pushing people to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In the long run, the loss will mostly be China's.