Friday, July 26, 2019


A few weeks ago I took my first ever trip to Singapore. I went there for work, but it was a nice opportunity to see the famous city-state for myself.

Singapore turned out to be a very comfortable place to spend a few days. Perhaps unfairly I found myself comparing it with Hong Kong, a place I am more familiar with. Both cities are self-enclosed entities that remain autonomous from the landmasses around them (although how much longer that will go on for Hong Kong is unclear). Both are ex-British colonies, both serve the Asian region as financial and cultural hubs, both are glamorous and wealthy, and both have ethnic majorities originating in Southern China.

I have to say that Singapore strikes me as the nicer of the two cities. It seemed less crowded and claustrophobic, with more one-storey colonial houses and less 50 floor high-rises. It is also far more diverse than Hong Kong, with large Malay and Indian minorities living alongside the Chinese majority, and a very large proportion of recent foreign immigrants. About 40% of the population is foreign-born, mostly coming from other Asian countries. My hotel was located in Little India, an area where most of the faces, shops and restaurants are indeed very Indian. All the cheap and authentic Indian food available at every street corner made me very happy. Curiously, while Singapore's hotels are expensive by the standards of cities in Mainland China, eating out is cheaper, with a better and more diverse selection available.

Singapore seemed compact and easy to get around, but then I live in Beijing, so my standards in this department are not very high. It also has some excellent museums, including the Asian Civilizations Museum which I visited. The display of artwork and relics belonging to Indian, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian and other Asian cultures is truly impressive, certainly the best I have seen anywhere in Asia. It is also all nicely labelled and presented in a way that cannot always be taken for granted in this part of the world.

Of course, in many ways Singapore is not a particularly progressive country. Its draconian laws make headlines worldwide. The judiciary still makes liberal use of punishments like caning and hanging, which were part of the legal code the British left behind. People from poor countries getting hanged for drug smuggling is a sadly common occurrence. The political system is quasi-authoritarian, and the People's Action Party has been in power non-stop since 1960, with its worst ever result in the national elections standing at 60%. The current prime minister is the son of Lee Kuan Yew, the man who founded Singapore and ran the country from 1959 until 1990. Freedom of the press and the right to protest are quite severely curtailed. Gay relationships are also illegal, at least in principle.

The ruling elite has sought to justify this system by pointing to their success in running the country and the necessity to maintain peace between the different ethnic groups, as well as fostering a siege mentality towards the larger and less stable neighbouring countries. Establishment intellectuals like Kishore Mahbubani defend the system by talking about Asian values and how they differ from Western ideas of democracy and human rights. In fact, when the concept of "Asian values" became common currency in the nineties, it was promoted most strongly by the governments of Singapore and Malaysia.

None of this authoritarianism is visible or of any bother to the casual foreign visitor, and probably not even to the pampered expats who spend a few years working in the city and then move on. While the system is strict, governance is mostly uncorrupt and the legal system is considered to be quite reliable, at least for non-political cases. This mix of authoritarian rule with clean governance and meritocracy is often called the "Singapore model", a model for which Deng Xiaoping once expressed admiration and which many Chinese officials talked openly about imitating. In today's more self-assured atmosphere one is less likely to hear such talk in China, however, and in any case what worked for Singapore won't for China, as I have argued elsewhere.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Chinese and Italian media: cooperation at what cost?

Much attention has been focused recently on the Italian government's endorsement of China's Belt and Road Initiative, which has irked the rest of the EU and the United States. A total of 29 agreements and MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding) were signed between the two sides during the Chinese president's visit this week.

It will probably go little noticed outside of Italy that one of the agreements signed was a memorandum of understanding between RAI, Italy's state broadcaster, and the China Media Group, China's new umbrella state media organization which includes CCTV, China National Radio and China Radio International. While not binding, the MOU points to cooperation between the two sides and the creation of joint content over the next few years. RAI's communique talks about "cooperation in the sectors of radio, cinema, television, training activities, co-production of programs and content destined for the two countries' markets and for the international market".

At the same time a small incident that took place last Friday, the same day the agreement was signed, should alert people to the fact that the Chinese government continues to see negative coverage as an affront, and that its representatives are becoming increasingly aggressive in trying to discourage reporters from criticizing their country even outside of its borders.

Giulia Pompili, a journalist from the Italian newspaper il Foglio, claims that she was walking through the Quirinale, the official residence of Italy's president, in the company of an Italian official, in order to go and cover the joint press conference of the Italian and Chinese presidents, when a high-ranking official from the Chinese embassy caught sight of her and told her "to stop saying bad things about China". The journalist says that she initially took it as a light-hearted comment and smiled, but the official (who is named in the article) said "don't smile. You have to stop saying bad things about China". She then tried to shake his hand and introduce herself formally, but he refused, saying "I know exactly who you are anyway". When she then tried to take her mobile phone out, the official went up to her with a hard look and warned her to put her phone away again.

Il Foglio published an article about the incident the next day, entitled "We are not in Beijing". Someone also posted an English translation on Reddit. The article ends with an invitation "to ask a few more questions about these new friends of ours". I have no particular sympathy for il Foglio, a conservative rag that acted as Berlusconi's mouthpiece for years, but it has been a vocal critic of the Italian government's new coziness with China, and it obviously must have the right to continue doing so.

This incident has echoes of other more serious cases of Chinese diplomats clashing with local journalists throughout the world, and particularly what happened at the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea last year, when Chinese officials literally prevented local and international journalists from entering various events. Other particularly egregious cases of Chinese diplomats trying to pressure local media recently occurred in Russia, Australia and Sweden. In itself this sort of behaviour is self-defeating and only damages China's image, at least in countries with freedom of the press, where it always ends up being reported. It is unlikely that attempts at intimidation will do anything to curb negative reporting, and in fact the opposite is probably true.

On the other hand, what cannot be achieved by open intimidation may be achieved more covertly. Some might legitimately wonder whether it is a good idea to engage in cooperation between Italian and Chinese state media of the kind implied by the MOU signed on Thursday, and what this agreement might mean for coverage of China in Italy. For a cash-strapped country like Italy, access to Chinese investment is obviously enticing. But lines clearly need to be drawn, and it would be most effective if the EU as a whole would draw them.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Travels in India: Varanasi, the Kumbh Mela and Goa

"If there is one place on the face of the earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India"
Romain Rolland 

I have recently returned from a trip to India. The main reason for my journey to the subcontinent was to see the Kumbh Mela, the mass Hindu pilgrimage that occurs every third year and is the world's greatest human gathering, eclipsing even the Hajj to the Mecca.

I had visited India once before, but that was over a decade ago, and in any case India is a country that one visit can never do justice to. Huge, diverse, and home to one of the world's oldest civilizations, it could keep a traveller busy for years. My journey begun in Mumbai, where many journeys to India begin. The great metropolis seemed noticeably more prosperous and modern than it did the last time I was there, although the traffic and pollution have become as bad as anywhere in China.


After a couple of days I flew up north to Varanasi, Hinduism's holiest city. From there I planned to travel onwards to the Kumbh Mela, which was being held in nearby Allahabad. Varanasi, or Benares as it was known in the past, is perched on the banks of the Ganges. It is the holiest of Hinduism's seven centres of pilgrimage, and many believe that dying here can deliver moksha, freedom from the cycle of reincarnation, or at the very least put you on a good path towards it. Pilgrims flock to Varanasi from all over India to bathe in the Ganges and to cremate their dead on the ghats by the river. The city also attracts its fair share of foreign travellers who come to see India at its most devout and exotic.

Unusually for a city on a river, Varanasi is built entirely upon one bank of the Ganges, the western one. The eastern bank of the great river is a barren sandbank devoid of habitation, and it is apparently considered to be an inauspicious place. According to some sources, tradition has it that if you die there you will be reincarnated as a donkey.

Varanasi seen from the Ganges

The Eastern bank of the Ganges, just across from Varanasi

After arriving at Varanasi's small airport I took an uber to my guesthouse in the old town, where most travellers stay. This maze of streets overlooking the Ganges has changed little since medieval times, with ascetics, pilgrims, traders, cows and stray dogs sharing the extremely narrow alleys with tourists. Prices in India are cheap by Chinese standards: my room (admittedly quite a modest one) only cost the equivalent of 100 Yuan for a night.

My guesthouse overlooked the Ganges, and just outside the entrance a maze of steps took you down to the riverbank. This is where most of the action happens. Every evening a large puja (prayer ritual) is held next to the river, attracting crowds of onlookers. At any time of day you will find pilgrims bathing in the Ganges, which is supposed to wash away your sins. The men quite often strip down to their underwear, while the women tend to dip in wearing a long dress that covers their forms. Some just wade in ankle deep, but most people bathe their entire bodies and even wash their hair in the river.

Puja ceremony next to the Ganges

The Ganges is actually quite polluted, and many have pointed out that bathing in it doesn't seem like a great idea from the health perspective. The dead are sometimes not cremated but simply left in the river, either because the families are too poor to afford a cremation or because of a belief that certain categories of deceased, like unmarried women and young children, should not be cremated. I never saw any dead bodies floating down the river myself, and while I did notice plastic bottles and other rubbish in the water, I must say that I have seen rivers in China that seemed far more polluted, with foul-smelling water that looked like it might kill you if you dived in. By comparison the water of the Ganges didn't look particularly off-putting. Still, studies show that India's holy river is indeed very polluted. But this doesn't discourage the numerous pilgrims who continue to flock from all over India to bathe in its waters.

Looking at the pilgrims bathing, it struck me that I have never seen or heard of a river being accorded this level of devotion. Chinese and Egyptian cultures also have a certain reverence for the rivers that gave birth to their civilizations, but India is the only place I know of where a river has become a centre of religious worship. The Nile certainly has a central place in Egypt's collective imagination, and if Egyptians didn't follow Islam or Christianity, religions which have no place for such things, they would probably worship the Nile with equal devotion.

While in Varanasi I spent many hours wandering along the Ganges, observing the fascinating collection of humanity on display. Most unusual are the sadhus, the Hindu ascetics, who can often be found in the city. Having given up on all worldly possessions they wander the country dressed in saffron robes, or if they belong to certain sects wearing almost nothing, and subsist on donations from the faithful. They are also known to smoke a lot of hashish as an aide to gaining enlightenment. Many Hindus (and Jainists) believe that the sadhus' ascetic lifestyle helps to release not just their own karma but that of the community at large, and so they are given donations of food and drink even in impoverished villages. There are said to be 4 or 5 million Sadhus in India today. Their drug consumption and occasional nakedness are tolerated as expressions of religiosity.

I saw quite a few of these ascetic figures sitting on the steps near the river, with long, matted hair and unkempt beards, wearing only a cloth to cover their groin. The rest of their bodies were often smeared in white ashes that come from the cremation fires. The chilly night air clearly didn't bother them. Some of them would just sit for hours in yoga position on the banks of the Ganges, meditating and apparently indifferent to those around them. On one occasion I saw a young lady donate some money to one of them, at which point he touched her head and blessed her. A couple of young men started filming with their phones and got really close, at which point the sadhu reached for his staff in anger, and the young men fled.

Sadhus on the banks of the Ganges

Another interesting experience was watching the cremation ceremonies. The corpses are carried through the streets by relatives chanting "Ram Naam Satya Hai", an ancient chant meaning "the name of the Lord Rama is truth". When they arrive at the riverbank, the cremation ceremony is handled by members of the dom, a low-caste community who have carried out the cremations since time immemorial. Finally, the ashes are sprinkled into the Ganges.

While I found Varanasi fascinating, being there was also an intense and exhausting experience. Come to think of it, this might actually be a good description of most travel in India. My memory of India was of a place that was hugely varied and interesting, but also constituted a constant assault on the senses that took some getting used to. My time in Varanasi only confirmed that perception. Touts kept hassling me throughout the city, especially along the Ganges. The streets remained noisy throughout the night, and getting a good night's sleep turned out to be tough. A couple of times bouts of rain led to blackouts lasting a few hours.

And if the alleys of the old city were cramped and hard to walk through, the streets of the "modern" city beyond them were far worse. I tried to walk northwards for a while to see what was out there, but I found the brief walk far more tiring than it should have been. There were no pavements, and I had to negotiate my way through constant throngs of people, while being mindful of rickshaws, animals and traffic. The streets were objectively filthy, and many of the people looked seriously impoverished. I saw pilgrims sleeping on mats on the roadside in impossibly small patches of space.

Street scene, Varanasi

Pilgrims resting

Varanasi is in Uttar Pradesh, a state in Northern India that has the distinction of having the biggest population of any sub-national division in the world, with 200 million people squeezed into an area slightly bigger than Great Britain. Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring Bihar are the areas where the Buddha lived and preached, and where many of Hinduism's founding myths are set. They are packed full of places that are holy to both Hindus and Buddhists. But this area is also known within India as a place of rampant poverty, conservatism and caste prejudice. Far away from the glittering IT hubs of Bangalore and Hyderabad and cosmopolitan Mumbai, this is India's underbelly. On my last trip to India I had travelled through Bihar on my way to Nepal, and had been shocked by the poverty on display. This time around the conditions shocked me again.

In spite of all the economic development of the last few decades, the poverty of part of India's population remains eye-catching to the outsider, especially in this part of the country. You can argue about the historical responsibilities of British colonialism in creating India's widespread poverty, but you cannot deny this fact. Even in my guesthouse the staff had nowhere to go back to after their shifts ended, or even a bed to call their own. At 10 pm they would simply lay down their mats in the lobby, next to the front desk, and sleep on the floor (on the other hand, the younger one did have a smartphone and added me on Facebook). This sort of arrangement is considered completely normal.

Another thing that struck me was the polluted air much of India seems to be smothered in. As a good Beijinger I brought along my "laser egg", a device which allows me to test the air quality wherever I am. The air in Mumbai was appalling when I was there, with AQI readings of over 300, which even in Beijing would make it really polluted. But Varanasi was little better, with readings consistently around 250. From my balcony I could see the Ganges, but I could never see the horizon due to the haze. Even when I got to Goa, India's "tropical paradise", where the air seemed nice and clear, the actual figure on the AQI index was around 150, way above international safe standards and comparable to the Beijing average. For a variety of reasons, but mainly due to the large-scale burning of firewood and biomass in an overcrowded country, the subcontinent is chocking on air pollution. The use of masks and air purifiers is also still more limited than it is in China.

In any case, while travel in India can be exhausting for an outsider, it certainly has its charms. The religious and linguistic variety on offer are endlessly fascinating, the food is wonderful, and the locals tend to be friendly and polite with foreign travellers. The director of my guesthouse was a delightful chap who spoke impeccable Indian English and did his utmost to fulfil all of my outlandish requests. People also display an admirable live-and-let-live attitude which is part of the reason India actually remains remarkably peaceful in spite of the huge pressure of population and resources. Even with all the inequality and the large number of indigent the cities feel pretty safe at night, at least if you are a man. And coming from China, it is remarkable to see another country of over a billion people holding things together and making economic progress without a state enforcing uniformity of thought and language.

I spent about a week in Varanasi. I ended up abstaining entirely from meat and alcohol during my time there. Both things can be found in the city, but only with some difficulty, and especially drinking alcohol anywhere too close to the Ganges is frowned upon. Not eating meat seemed like a good way to get into the spirit of the place, and I figured it wouldn't hurt me (or my karma) either. I ended up eating only vegetarian throughout my stay in India.

The city's wildlife was almost as exotic as the sites. As well as the inevitable cows and the stray dogs, there were plenty of macaque monkeys jumping freely from roof to roof, and one day I even saw a man riding a working elephant through the streets. On one occasion I left the door to my balcony open, and before I knew it a monkey had hopped in and stolen the oranges I had bought from the market. It sat peeling the oranges and eating them on my balcony with a mischievous look, and I decided not to challenge it, mindful that these animals can bite and scratch and may carry diseases.

I later read that the legions of wild monkeys in Indian cities have become a real problem, as they enter houses to steal food or even attack people. I had just witnessed the problem first hand. On the other hand the bulls on the streets are not considered a threat, and are treated with the same indulgence as the cows. This shows that the European view of bulls as highly dangerous animals is not entirely warranted (although every now and again a bull in India will go on a rampage and kill someone). The streets were however filled with cow dung, which you really had to be careful not to step into.

Elephant on the streets of Varanasi

Cows whiling away the hours, Varanasi

Kumbh Mela

My main purpose in coming to the region was to see the Kumbh Mela, but I had to figure out what the best way to go about this would be. The Kumbh is held for a two-month period every three years, and it alternates between four different cities spread across Northern India. No one knows when the tradition started, but legend has it that Lord Vishnu spilled four drops of amrita, the nectar of immortality, in the four different spots where the festival is now held. According to another version, it was spilt by demigods fleeing from demons who wanted to steal the nectar. Kumbh Mela actually means "the pot fair", referring to the gourd from which the nectar was spilled.

This greatest of Hindu festivals tends to be a truly crowded affair.  75 million people went to the last one in 2016. An amazing 120 million people visited the 2013 Kumbh, also held in Allahabad (tragically, 42 were killed in a stampede at the train station). That would be one Indian in ten, more or less. But that was the Maha or Great Kumbh Mela, which only occurs once every 144 years. Every 12 years there is a Purna Kumbh Mela, when 12 planets believed to affect the human race are alligned. The one I was going to was a more modest Ardha ("Half") Kumb Mela, which takes place halfway between two Purna Kumbh Melas. The city of Allahabad has actually been holding an annual fair along the Ganges during the holy month of Magh (corresponding to January/February) since ancient times. It was only in the 19th century, however, that locals brahmins decided to make it coincide with the Kumbh Mela once every 12 years.

I had been warned by many to expect unfathomably huge crowds, and that it would be best to proceed with caution. In my hostel in Mumbai I had met a Dutchman who visited the festival six years ago, and told me stories of having to wait for 17 hours for a bus back to Varanasi, and of being surrounded by crowds the likes of which he had never seen. Various Indians also warned me to expect a lot of people. In Mumbai I shared a taxi with an Indian Jew who had lived in the US for decades but was back for the holidays. When I mentioned that I was going to the Kumbh Mela he gave me a look of horror: "there will be far too many people. Don't go!"

In my guesthouse in Varanasi there was a middle-aged British woman who had just returned from the Mela herself. She looked like a bit of a hippie, and was clearly a follower of some guru or other. She had much experience of India, and was even able to speak some Hindi. This lady gave me some more realistic advice, explaining that the festival grounds would be divided into camps belonging to different gurus or denominations, and I should leave a donation every time I visited one. She also warned me against spending the night sleeping at the Mela, like many pilgrims do. She told me that she had slept there for five days, but the conditions were spartan and the nights were freezing. She also said that the authorities sprayed the area with DDT every night to kill off any mosquitoes, since they don't want outbreaks of malaria or other diseases on their hands. Unsurprisingly she had fallen ill, and was still recovering from the experience.

Other bits of advice she gave me were a bit harder for my rational mind to accept. She told me that some of the sadhus may be dangerous to get too close to, because they have an "expanded consciousness" and they are filled with so much psychic energy that if I touched them my body might not be able to handle the shock. In fact I might even die, she warned me. I nodded and said I would be careful, as if I found this advice perfectly normal and sensible.

Given my uncertainty about the conditions I would encounter, and the fact that I had been struggling with my health and especially my digestion since reaching Varanasi, I decided to play it safe and pay a driver to drive me to the Kumbh Mela and back. This turned out only to cost 3000 Rupees, or around 30 euros. The drive to Allahabad took about two hours. On the day itself I woke up feeling lousy with an upset stomach, but I decided to go through with the plan. I spent the first hour of the ride feeling pretty awful, but then we stopped at a shabby rest station, and a cup of milk tea revived me. Communication with my driver turned out to be hard, since he knew virtually no English at all, and I virtually no Hindi. Contrary to popular misconception the majority of Indians do not speak English, especially in the Hindi-speaking areas of the North.

For the rest of the drive I stared out of the window. The sides of the road were filled with houses and human activity along the entire route. There were plenty of people riding bicycles, more than you would ever see in China nowadays. The were also, to be fair, plenty of signs of economic development, for instance new overpasses and blocks of flats springing up everywhere. But the general impression was still one of dust and poverty.

Once we got to Allahabad, my driver parked just under the main bridge over the Ganges, near the area where the festival takes place. There were certainly plenty of people, but I failed to see the immense crowds I had been warned about. I slowly made my way towards the Triveni Sangam, the holiest location in the whole festival. Triveni Sangam means "the confluence of three rivers". In actual fact only two rivers meet there, the Ganges and the Yamuna, but according to Hindu tradition a third, mythical river called Saraswati also joins up with the other two, at least at the metaphysical level. Many believe that this river once really existed. The Vedic texts claim that it dried up in the desert as it turned into the goddess of wisdom Saraswati, its personification.

Be it as it may, I made my way through throngs of people to the Triveni Sangam, which as you might expect was full of pilgrims bathing in the water. Many of the pilgrims seemed to be simple and humble folk, who may well have travelled days on overcrowded trains and slept out in the open to get to the fair. But there were also plenty of more prosperous looking people bathing in the holy river. The general mood seemed joyful. While I didn't dare to actually jump in and bathe, I did sprinkle some of the river's water on my forehead for good luck.

Crowds bathing at the Triveni Sangam

Meditating sadhu and his assistant

The other side of the Ganges was where the different sects had their encampments. The river was traversed by plenty of makeshift bridges built for the festival, so I crossed one of them and got to the other bank. I walked around the area where most of the Sadhus were residing. Unfortunately I did not see any of them perform the feats of impossible strength which they sometimes show off at these gatherings. These can include pulling trucks and lifting rocks with their genitals!

I was invited into one of the camps by a guru, a kind-looking man with a moustache. He bade me sit and offered me tea and sweets, while some of his followers (all elderly men and women in saris) crowded around us. I was the centre of the attention and really wanted to chat with the guru, who was clearly eager to speak to me, but the language barrier got in the way. None of them knew much English. After chitchatting politely in very limited English, I got up and bade the man farewell, thanking him for the hospitality.

Most of the encampments offer pilgrims free food, and it is entirely possibly to go for days without spending any money (as long as you don't mind eating with your hands off a banana leaf, the most common dining arrangement). The lack of commercialism in the Kumbh Mela is refreshing. You can see simple people offer money to the ascetics, even when they have little themselves. After wandering around for a while I ended up at the ISKCON camp. ISKCON stands for International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known to Westerners as the Hare Krishna movement.

In the West they may have a reputation as New Age cranks, and they may espouse some seriously counterfactual beliefs, for instance that the Earth is closer to the Sun than it is to the Moon (no worse than many Christians refusing to accept that we evolved from apes, of course), but this movement is based upon an Indian tradition of chanting the names of Hare, Krishna and Rama which goes back to the 15th century, and it has plenty of Indian adherents as well as American and European drop-outs seeking enlightenment. The ISKCON camp looked far more prosperous and impressive than those around it, with a proper reception, a large prayer hall and a canteen. A friendly Bengalese adherent took me to the canteen and offered me some food, although it wasn't even a meal time.

Behind the prayer hall were the tents where the followers were staying for the duration of the Mela. This was the only place in the Mela where I saw other Westerners. An Australian young man I spoke to said his parents had converted before he was born, and he had been raised at the movement's headquarters in West Bengal. An older American dressed in saffron robes told me he had been an enthusiastic adherent for twenty years, and also lived and worked at the movement's headquarters. After telling me all about ISKCON's beliefs, he insisted on gifting me a beautiful hardback copy of the Baghavad Gita in the hope I would see the light. He told me about the amazing powers that chanting the Hare Krishna chant for hours could have on you. When I asked him what the faith's social views were he muttered something about society being divided into castes, which obviously left me less than convinced. All the same I thanked him and left a donation at the reception as a way of expressing my gratitude for the meal (100 rupees or about 1 Euro is considered acceptable), and then I left.

There was clearly much going on at the festival which I would have appreciated better if I had known more about Hinduism and been able to speak Hindi, but wandering around was still very interesting, and it wasn't nearly as uncomfortable and crowded as everyone had warned me. I did purposefully avoid going on one of the more propitious bathing dates, when the festival grounds are swarmed by much bigger crowds than normal.

Over my time at the Kumbh and in Varanasi I came into more contact with the ancient belief system known as Hinduism than I have ever done previously. A bit like Judaism, it is a religion that cannot be divorced from its cultural context and the country it was born in. The Yoga philosophy, with its methods to better oneself physically and mentally that have found so much following around the world, is one of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism. In this sense, it has clearly contributed something of value to humanity. There is also something poetic about Indian society's tolerance and support for the unclothed Sadhu who has renounced all material comforts and lives a life of spiritual discipline.

Having said that, I am not one to blindly romanticize “exotic” faiths, a human weakness almost as common as blindly fearing or despising them. There are practices associated with Hinduism which can only be seen as a burden, including India's rigid caste system and the discrimination towards the Dalit castes that continues to this day in rural areas, in spite of all attempts to ban it. It also good to keep in mind that just like most religions Hinduism can become a tool for those who want to sow ethnic division and intolerance, and under India's current right-wing government there has been a worrying revival of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, just as other forms of nationalism and extremism are gaining ground again all over the world.

Hindutva's main target is Indian Muslims, which it sees as interlopers left over from the Mughal era. Even the very city of Allahabad formally had its name changed back to Prayagraj last year, because the name Allahabad with its Muslim connotations was given to it by the Mughals in 1575 (most people still call it Allahabad, as I am doing here). Sadly, since Narendra Modi's election in 2014 there has been a worrying increase in cases of people being assaulted and even lynched by mobs of "cow vigilantes" because they are accused of slaughtering cows, which is a taboo in Hinduism and illegal in most of India. The victims of this violence are usually Muslims or from the Dalit castes.


After getting back to Varanasi from Allahabad, I realized that my health was not getting any better. In fact, in addition to the constant digestive upset I was also coming down with a cold. It struck me that now I had seen the Mela, I should perhaps look for a more amenable climate to spend the rest of my time in India, and I booked a cheap flight down to Goa. Before leaving the area I still had the chance to visit Sarnath, a place near Varanasi where Gautama Buddha is supposed to have given his first sermon after achieving enlightenment and laid out Buddhism's "four noble truths" for the first time. Emperor Ashoka had a massive Stupa built here to commemorate the Buddha's first sermon, and there is now an archeological site around it.

Ashoka, one of India's most formidable rulers, turned the Maurya Empire into the greatest empire to ever have existed in the Indian subcontinent, bigger even than the British Raj, spreading all the way to Afghanistan. He converted to Buddhism after feeling shame and disgust at the havoc and death reeked by his own war to conquer the kingdom of Kalinga, a kingdom which by the way is supposed to have had the world's first-ever system of parliamentary democracy before it fell to Ashoka. India's history is endlessly fascinating once you get into it. In any case, the Stupa still stands at 43 meters of height, although it was actually rebuilt in 500 CE to replace Ashoka's original structure, erected a few centuries earlier. The site had a fair share of tourists from Korea and other Buddhist nations.

A strange kind of price discrimination at the Deer Park in Sarnath where the Buddha gave his first sermon. I guess "Asian foreigners" are considered more likely to be Buddhist pilgrims.

That same evening I flew off to Goa. Goa could not have been any more different from Uttar Pradesh. It is India's smallest state and its prime holiday destination, and tourism has brought it the highest average income in the whole country. The vegetation is lush and tropical, and the towns feel quite prosperous and laid back. Since Goa is down in the South of India the weather was warm even at night, even though I was there in January.

Goa has a curious history. It was ruled by Portugal for over four centuries until India literally took it back by force in 1961. As a result one fourth of its people are now Catholics, and surnames like De Souza are not rare. Incidentally most of the population remains Hindu, which is astonishing when you consider that this small area underwent three centuries of brutal Catholic inquisition, in which any suggestion that you practiced Hinduism, Islam or Judaism could be met with gruesome punishments. The Konkani language was also violently suppressed in favour of Portuguese, with the failed intent to make the entire populace Portuguese-speaking. And yet Konkani is now most people's mother tongue as well as Goa's official language, and Portuguese is already all but forgotten. The resilience of India's native traditions in the face of invaders is clearly more than a myth. Or maybe the inquisition's brutality only made the natives more determined to resist it.

Some time around the sixties Goa was discovered by the hippies, who found a laid-back tropical backwater where pristine beaches lay untouched, life cost next to nothing and locals were tolerant of their hippy ways. A few decades later the package tours started arriving, and now Goa is going the way of Thailand. The place where I ended up staying, the seaside town of Arambol, is especially popular with groups of Russians escaping their dreary winter, and with young Israelis unwinding in Asia. Signs in Russian and Hebrew and restaurants offering hummus or pyrogi are everywhere. Bars with live music dot the beach. Curiously there seem to be absolutely no Chinese visitors anywhere in Goa, unlike what you would find in most of Asia's holiday destinations. There is still quite a hippy scene on the side, and while smoking hash may be illegal it is done fairly openly. Just like the Thai islands and Bali, Goa has developed a seedy side as well. The Nigerian drug dealers looking for customers at the entrance to the beach spoke volumes.

Cows in Arambol, Goa

Volleyball game, Goa

The Terekhol River dividing Goa from Maharashtra

Goan village in the interior

Although no longer unspoiled the tropical beaches remain lovely, and after the rigours of travelling in the North, Goa was a great place to unwind. I quickly recovered my full strength, and took the chance to enhance my yoga skills a bit. Arambol has numerous yoga schools offering classes which seemed ridiculously cheap coming from Beijing. Like most visitors I got around on a rented scooter. One day I drove north for an hour or so, until I got to the bridge over the Terekhol River that divides Goa from the state of Maharashtra. The landscape was green and beautiful, and I decided to drive on. Once I crossed the bridge I could immediately tell the difference. Signage in English disappeared, and houses and people became much scarcer. In the one village I did find, people stared at me and my scooter in surprise. After a while I turned around and drove back to touristy Goa.

My last night in Goa was spent in the state capital of Panaji, a quaint town with a center made up of colonial buildings and shops with names still in Portuguese, and a cathedral dominating its main square. The whole town is overshadowed by the huge new bridge that was just built across the Mandovi river. A 30 minute bus ride away lies Old Goa, the now abandoned city that used to serve as the capital for much of Portugal's Asian empire. At its heyday in the sixteenth century it must have been quite a sight, but it was eventually abandoned due to the prevalence of malaria. The area is filled with impressive Portuguese cathedrals and churches that once must have seemed like eternal repositories of power, while now they stand deserted and surrounded by the jungle. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Social Credit in China and the dangers of over-the-top reporting

Over the past year, one of the biggest China stories to strike the world's attention has been the "social credit" score which the Chinese government is supposedly getting ready to assign every citizen. I can no longer count the number of times that I have heard the words "Orwellian" and "Black Mirror" used in conjunction with this topic. Most gravely, this issue made its way into US vice-president Mike Pence's momentous and confrontational speech about China on the 4th of October, widely described as the portent of a new cold war. After making a very reasonable remark about China's Great Firewall restricting the free flow of information, Pence added that "by 2020, China's rulers aim to implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life - the so-called "social credit score".

There is only one problem: the narrative that claims the Chinese state is going to assign every single citizen a score that will determine their social standing and many or all aspects of their life is essentially one big myth. This misconception seems to have originated due to reporters, probably in good faith, conflating a pretty mundane government plan to extend a system of social credit scoring to all companies and organizations by 2020 with credit score systems set up by private companies like Alibaba, and perhaps some local government schemes. None of these initiatives come close to being some sort of all-encompassing system that catches every citizen in its net and determines their place in society.

Yesterday's article by Jamie Horsley, published in Foreign Policy, does an excellent job of putting the record straight. Entitled "China's Orwellian Social Credit Score isn't Real", the piece provides a realistic view of China's current "social credit" policies, and of what misunderstandings might have fuelled the over-the-top reporting on this topic. Jeremy Daum, who runs the excellent China Law Translate website, has also done a good job of taking on the inaccurate reports.

A still from the nightmarish Black Mirror episode where every person is given a social media score that updates in real time. 

I don't find it hard to see how this myth of a dystopian social credit system could have arisen. Chinese laws and government plans are confusing for anyone, and implementation differs very much from what's written on paper. Also, modern life in China certainly does have a dystopian feel to it: almost all of people's transactions and a good chunk of their social interactions pass through one single phone app, WeChat, or at most through two or three different apps, and an authoritarian government has full access to all the records when it wants to. The use of facial-recognition technology and electronic monitoring of all kinds is expanding, and the censorship of "unharmonious" content on the internet is truly unparalleled worldwide. 

Still, it is crucial that big media organizations in Western countries be especially cautious about maintaining accuracy in their reporting on China, and not give in to sensationalism and concocted stories. Apart from the simple moral duty to report in an honest fashion, this is important for another reason: protecting their reputation in the eyes of the Chinese public. 

This might seem like a strange consideration, given that much of the foreign media is inaccessible within China. But there is a class of Chinese who are able to read English, travel abroad, use VPNs and will come across reporting on China in the international media no matter how much their government tries to prevent it. For many of them however, the credibility of such reports is open to question. In their own country, they are told that the "Western media" does nothing but maliciously slander China for its own shadowy purposes. While they may not completely believe this, many Chinese will approach any foreign articles on their country, especially negative ones, with a degree of skepticism. At best, they may believe that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Churning out articles about social credit that are clearly over-the-top and inaccurate, in ways that anyone who lives in China can see, is a great way to make sure that the Western media loses points in the battle for hearts and minds. Most seriously, it may be causing Chinese with access to the international media to disbelieve the entirely true reports on the awful events going on in Xinjiang, which go completely unreported in their own country. Now is truly the time to produce accurate reporting on China, rather than giving in to sensationalist fantasies.

Monday, October 29, 2018

A visit to Kinmen, where the PRC meets the ROC

A few weeks ago I visited the island of Kinmen, off the coast of Fujian, in Southern China. For decades this unassuming little island was one of the front lines in the Cold War, and it still lies on the edge between two political entities that don't recognize each other's legitimacy.

The question of who governs Kinmen gives rise to one of the world's strangest cases of political semantics. The governments of the People's Republic of China and of the Republic of China agree on very little, but they both concur that this small island is part of Fujian province, China. The only thing is that both governments officially consider themselves to be the rightful representatives of the whole of China, Fujian included, so this doesn't tell you much about who actually governs the island.

In practice, Kinmen has been governed from Taipei since the KMT retreated to Taiwan in the late nineteen forties. The island is, however, far closer to the Mainland of China than it is to Taiwan. In fact, it is literally in swimming distance from the the city of Xiamen, whose high-rises are clearly visible from the island's Western shore. This sleepy place was at the centre of two "Taiwan straits crises" in the fifties, which almost led China and the US into open conflict with each other. Kinmen was fired upon regularly from the Mainland up until the seventies, and its inhabitants lived under martial law, unable even to go to Taiwan with any ease. Nowadays open hostilities have ended, and life on the island is more or less "normal" in spite of the ongoing military presence. The fact that Kinmen is still ruled by Taiwan seems almost surreal, given how incredibly close it is to a powerful and revanchist China.

I visited Kinmen during the week-long vacation for China's National Day. It is a nice place to spend a few days, with lots of sites related to its recent history, well preserved architecture and traditions, and some nature thrown in. The island is reachable by ferry from the cities of Xiamen and Quanzhou, on the Mainland. These ferry rides started up when the so-called "three small links" were introduced in 2001, allowing trade, postal and transportation links to be set up between Mainland China and the two little Taiwan-controlled islands of Kinmen and Matsu. For a while these were the only direct points of contact between the PRC and the ROC, until the same three links were established between the PRC and Taiwan proper in 2008.

I decided to get to Kinmen by first flying down to Xiamen from Beijing, and then taking the 20 minute ferry ride to island. Flights to Xiamen cost one thirds of flights to Taipei, in spite of the distance from Beijing being basically the same. This route gave me the opportunity to spend a day in Xiamen, which I had never been to before. If you mention Xiamen to people in China you will be told that it is a pleasant city, with a relaxed lifestyle, clement weather and nice views of the ocean, and I found this to be more or less true. As Chinese cities go, Xiamen is definitely one of the more pleasant ones. I spent the night in a nice hostel located in the city centre, which is made up of winding alleyways dotted with cafes and shops, rather than the straight, alienating boulevards that make up the centre of most Chinese cities. What's more, while the city feels relaxed and the sea brings a nice breeze and good views, Xiamen still maintains a certain big-city vibe and urban energy.

Xiamen's impressive Shimao Twin Towers as seen from my taxi window

I also visited Gulangyu, a little island of the coast of Xiamen which is the city's main tourist attraction. When Xiamen was turned into a "treaty port" after the fist opium war, Gulangyu became its "international settlement", peopled mostly by Europeans and policed by Sikh policemen brought over from British India. For this reason it is still filled with Victorian-era buildings. It also has a long association with Western classical music, and is known as the "piano island". It has a piano museum, and some of China's most famous classical musicians were born on the island, even though it has few residents.

The island is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and entirely car-free. It is reached by a five-minute ferry ride from Xiamen. When I got to the pier and asked for a ticket, I was amazed to be asked for my passport, which I had not thought to bring with me. Luckily my Chinese social insurance card was accepted as photo ID, and I was still able to buy a ticket. As I scanned my ticket to get on to the ferry, a photo of my face was taken by the scanning machine (which may well be equipped with facial recognition technology). Levels of monitoring of people's movement are getting more and more insane.

Not having arrived in China yesterday I kept my expectations low, knowing that on the evening before the National Day a site so famous would be completely packed with tourists from the provinces, and I was proven correct. I will admit that I did not explore the island too much, since it was already evening, but the roads I walked down reminded me of Beijing's Nanluoguxiang, the centre of Lijiang, and every other tourist trap in China: the same shops, the same souvenirs, the same kitsch, overcrowding and commercialisation. Unfortunately this seems to be the destiny of most tourist sites in the country, even the ones like Gulangyu that must have originally had much real charm.

The next day I took the ferry to Kinmen, which leaves from a special pier near the airport. I passed through PRC customs before getting on, and then ROC customs once on the island. All the other passengers on the ferry seemed to be Mainlanders taking a trip for the holidays. Although Kinmen is far from being famous throughout China, people from Fujian do go there on weekend trips. Mainland Chinese are in fact able to go to Kinmen much more easily than to Taiwan itself. They can go independently and buy a travel permit on arrival, whereas for Taiwan proper they have to apply for a permit in advance, and can only go in an organized group unless their hukou is based in one of China's main cities. The number of Mainlanders visiting Taiwan has dropped after the election of Tsai Ying-Wen and the deterioration in cross-straits relations, but apparently the number of visitors to Kinmen has continued growing, although fewer of them fly onwards to Taipei.

Kinmen is hardly huge, but it's not tiny either. It has about 130,000 people living on it, and it would take a couple of hours to drive around it. I stayed in an airbnb in a rural settlement a few bus stops away from the island's main town, Jincheng. That afternoon I took the bus into town, and found a shop where I could buy a Taiwanese SIM card (my Mainland Chinese SIM card worked on international roaming, but as well as being far more expensive the service also made it impossible to visit websites that the Chinese government blocks. So for instance I could not use Google maps). After that I strolled around Jincheng. The town is a pleasant, laid back place, with a network of little lanes full of shops and restaurants. Although Kinmen still isn't Taiwan, the atmosphere is unmistakably that of a place ruled by Taiwan rather than by Beijing, right down to the 7-11s on every corner and the scooters parked on every pavement. While I wouldn't say it exactly feels more prosperous than the Mainland, everything somehow seems a bit more humane and easy going.

What made it especially clear that I was not in the Mainland were the big campaign posters for the candidates in the local elections, and the little temples that dotted the streets. Not that temples don't exist in Mainland Chinese cities, but they are not integrated into local life in the same way, and you don't usually see locals going there regularly. Jincheng also has a few interesting historic sights, including the Wu River Academy, originally built in 1780 as an academy of classical Chinese learning, and the surviving Qing government headquarters, all of which I visited.

Xiamen, PRC as seen at night from Kinmen, ROC

The Guomindang headquarters in Jincheng

Kinmen (or Quemoy, as Westerners used to call it) has been populated since the Tang dynasty, and for most of history it was a sleepy place, although not a totally unimportant one. Famous Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhuxi (1130-1200) even founded an academy on the island. It suffered from pirate attacks throughout history, in fact the name Kinmen (金门) or "golden gates" refers to the gates that were raised to defend the island from pirates. Koxinga, the famous Ming loyalist who expelled the Dutch from Taiwan and turned it into a base from which to resist the Qing and restore the Ming, also expelled the Dutch from the Kinmen, as well as chopping down all of the island's trees to build his navy. Still, Kinmen would have remained pretty anonymous if it hadn't been for the Chinese civil war in the forties. In the battle of Guningtou, in 1949, roughly 20,000 Communist troops were unable to take the island from the hands of 40,000 Nationalist ones, meaning that it was fated to become the last little outpost of Nationalist China.

After the Second Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1958, the two sides agreed to a bizarre "odd-day ceasefire". For the next two decades, the island was only shelled on even days (in the beginning the shelling also went in the other direction, but eventually it became a one-way affair). As well as shells, a constant barrage of propaganda leaflets was shot both ways. Until the nineties, the island was treated by Taipei as a special military zone, and travel to and from it was restricted. This led to the tragic Lieyu Massacre in 1987, when a boatload of Vietnamese refugees arriving on Kinmen to ask asylum were shot in cold blood by ROC soldiers under orders to execute anyone who landed on the island without permission, after which the government unsuccessfully tried to cover things up. In 1992 martial law was finally lifted, five years after it was in Taiwan.

The islanders' sense of identity is an unusual one. They don't see themselves as Taiwanese and don't share much of Taiwan's history, including the 50 years of Japanese colonialism that did much to shape the bigger island's identity. They are culturally very much Fujianese, and their dialect is Hokkien spoken with a Quanzhou accent (although it is still intelligible with Taiwanese Hokkien). As such the recent surge in Taiwanese identity holds little interest to them, but they generally identify with the Republic of China, while fearing that if Taiwan gave up on that charade and became de-jure independent it might lose interest in them and abandon them to the PRC, a result which most islanders unsurprisingly do not want to see. Due to these circumstances, the Kinmense vote for the Guomindang in national elections almost to a man and woman, and steer clear of the DPP.

On my second day on the island I went back into town with the intention of renting a scooter, which is by far the best way of getting around. Renting one was hard, since Mainlanders who'd come over for the holidays had already rented almost everything available, but in the end I found a place with an electric scooter left. Once motorized I headed south, to a village called Shuitou. The island's rural scenery looked pretty and green, but not exactly untouched. Unlike Taiwan's other "outer islands", Kinmen is quite well populated and mostly flat, and there are houses and new developments almost everywhere, much of them pretty unsightly and utilitarian.

All the same, Kinmen also has some of the best preserved old buildings in the country, perhaps due to life being frozen under martial law for decades. The village of Shuitou is known to have the island's best traditional architecture, and it did not disappoint. At its centre stand some impressive villas built in the late 19th century by locals who came back from the Dutch Indies after making their fortunes. The villas mix Chinese and European colonial architecture, and have now become museums. The most famous one is the Deyue mansion, featuring an impressive watchtower that was used against pirates. Next to it are rows of authentic traditional Fujianese houses from the 19th century, with local families happily living inside them. Seeing people living in houses more than a century old might be the norm in parts of Europe, but not so much in the Chinese-speaking world. Many of the houses have the long swallowtail roofs that are a feature of Fujianese architecture. These are normally only found on temples and ancestral halls due to their showy nature, but this was once a wealthy place. Over the last few centuries the Fujianese have been those who emigrated abroad in the highest numbers out of all the Chinese, especially to South-East Asia, and some of the resulting wealth made its way to this island.

After leaving Shuitou, I drove across the island and reached Mt. Taiwu, the island's highest peak, which reaches 262 mts. above sea level. I was able to go halfway up the mountain on my scooter, at which point I reached a shrine dedicated to the ROC soldiers who died defending Kinmen from the PRC, and a military cemetery with rows upon rows of soldiers' graves. Next to the cemetery was a modern military base, and I saw young men in uniform jogging, probably Taiwanese youngsters doing their two-year military service. After that point you could only continue on foot, and I walked up the rest of the way to the top of the mountain. Although there were few people around, I met the odd visitors from both the Mainland and Taiwan. The nature was gorgeous and untouched. In the trees next to the path there were webs with huge yellow and black spiders sitting in the middle, with thin and elongated bodies and leg-spans about the size of a dinner plate.

Once I got to the peak of the mountain, I could see most of the island around me. I could also see the Mainland's coast extremely clearly across the sea, so close I could have made out the buildings if the weather had been clearer. I asked myself how China's government, with its vast territorial claims that it is aggressively pursuing elsewhere, can let this state of affairs persist. Then I reminded myself that Kinmen is crawling with Taiwanese soldiers, and not for nothing. Doubtless China could now take the island back in a fight if it wanted, but this would involve serious fighting and numerous casualties on both sides, and it would mean the beginning of a real war. As long as a war doesn't start, Kinmen will thus remain under Taiwanese rule. If one day hostilities do break out however, I can't see it standing much of a chance.

A large spider with black and yellow stripes in the middle of its web

The view from the top of Mt. Taiwu, with the mountains of Fujian visible across the sea.

After leaving the mountain, I drove my scooter to the August 23 Artillery War Museum, which documents the battle that started on that date in 1958, when the PRC launched a heavy artillery attack against Kinmen. The subsequent hostilities (known as the "second Taiwan straits crisis") lasted for weeks, and included air-to-air combat between the two sides. Hundreds of ROC soldiers and possibly a few thousand of the island's civilians were killed, as well as a few hundred soldiers and civilians on the other side. The PRC was eventually deterred by the direct intervention of the United States. The museum was small but informative enough. Outside it stood a Taiwanese tank and another big military vehicle from that era. What was most surprising was that the museum's cafe' sold "Mao Zedong milk tea", and the wall displayed a large poster advertising Mao's milk tea and "Chiang Kai Shek's special blend coffee", with pictures of the two leaders' faces. It seems rather incredible that the Chairman's image would be made use of so lightly in Kinmen of all places, but there you go.

Mao Zedong milk tea and Chiang Kai Shek coffee on sale in the cafe' of the August 23 Artillery War Museum

A Republic of China tank outside the museum

War cemetery with the tombs of soldiers who died defending Kinmen

I got out of the museum and rode my scooter to nearby Shanwai, the island's second town. Looking for a place to eat, I wandered into a huge and very fancy five-storey shopping mall which seemed quite incongruous, in the middle of a little town of a few thousand people. I later discovered that the mall was opened in 2014 by Taiwanese company Ever Rich, in the hope of cashing in on Mainland tourism, and it boasts Asia's largest duty-free store and Kinmen's first multiplex cinema. The mall wasn't exactly empty, but it was hardly packed either, in spite of those being the peak days of the year for Chinese tourism, and I wondered how much money it can really be making. I was the only customer in the cafe' where I had a bite to eat.

That evening, back in Jincheng, I ate a bowl of the well-known local Beef Noodle Soup (牛肉麵) in a little restaurant, and then went and had a drink at the only bar in town (and probably on the island), a place named the "White Lion Pub". The bar was completely empty except for me and the girl working there, so we ended up chatting for a while. She was a local, and I asked her whether local people feel Chinese, Taiwanese or what. She replied that by now they don't really feel any of the two. "If we go to Taiwan we just say we are from Kinmen, but if we go abroad where no one has ever heard of Kinmen, then we say we are from Taiwan". It struck me that this would be the least misleading answer, while still technically inaccurate. Saying "Republic of China" would only baffle most people.

All in all, Kinmen struck me as a worthwhile place to spend a few days. It really has quite a lot of things to see, and in fact I only managed to pack in about half of the sites. For anyone who has to spend time in Xiamen it can make for a good weekend trip to see some nature, look at some old buildings, eat some good food and appreciate a few geopolitical realities.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Italy should learn how to manage migration and public security from China, says Italian politician who lived there for a decade

The rise of populist politicians and movements has been the political story of the decade in Europe. "Populism" is a very broad label, sometimes used as a smear against anyone who pushes for genuine change. All the same, it has currently come to indicate a wave of movements that all share some broad features: they claim to be outside of the political mainstream, reject traditional politics as corrupt, are hostile to immigration, view the EU with suspicion, claim to speak for the people against the elites and hark back to the "good old days" when every country was supposedly in charge of its own affairs. 

Italy might well be the first Western European country to elect a government that belongs within this current. Although the prime minister Conte is an unassuming technocrat, the two major parties that make up the government, the Lega and the 5 Star Movement, embody two different brands of populism. The Lega's brand is more "right-wing", anti-immigrant, nationalistic and anti-EU. The 5 Star Movement is more anti-establishment and anti-traditional politics, and in some cases it promotes environmentalism, universal basic income and other progressive causes. On the other hand, it is strongly Eurosceptic and many of its leaders appear to feel an affinity with Putin.

Within this new government, the main link to China is the undersecretary for economic development, Michele Geraci. An ex-investment banker and economist, Geraci moved to China in 2008 and lived there for a decade, teaching finance in the University of Zhejiang and at the University of Nottingham's campus in Ningbo, until he was recently called back to Italy to take up his current post. He has long been close to the Lega, which proposed him for the government post, and he has also long been a strong admirer of the Chinese system. 

Geraci is fond of claiming that Italy should learn from the Chinese model and copy what it can, a point he has made in numerous talks and articles. His view of how China works would appear to be extremely one-sided, since he never makes any reference to China's huge debt problem, or the slowing down of its economic growth, or its worsening repression and pursuing of dubious territorial claims. At a conference organized by the Lega last summer, Geraci exhorted the audience (link in Italian) to "study China and copy the things we can learn from, adapting them to our needs", and he explained the sources of China's success, which lie in the fact that China "decides every year how much to build and how many people will have to move from the countryside to the city, programs immigration, and controls the tariffs on international trade and the interest rates".

This June Geraci authored an article published on Beppe Grillo's blog (Beppe Grillo is the founder of the 5 Star Movement, and his blog used to be the movement's quasi-official media outlet). Entitled "China and the Government of Change", the article lists a whole lot of ways in which Italy's new government should learn from China, a few of which really raised my eyebrows. One area in which China could show Italy the way is apparently the control of migration. China's management of the influx of migrants from rural areas to the cities over the last 40 years is presented as a model for Italy to manage its own problem with migration. "Who can we learn how to manage the migratory flows from? From China".

Geraci claims that the Chinese government only let people move to the cities after investing to give them "dignity and work", but it also limited "loitering and crime" by making sure that the new arrivals "knew the rules and respected the social pact of the place that hosted them". No mention is made of the inequality between rural migrants and urban residents that the hukou system creates, an inequality that extends to the migrants' children and is hardly very dignified. There also seems to be no understanding of how disruptive, chaotic and costly the whole process of urbanization has been. But most of all, there is no recognition of the fact that China's experience with urbanization has nothing to do with Italy's need to deal with a constant inflow of people arriving from Africa on rickety boats across the Mediterranean, given which Geraci's recommendations appear to be nothing more than some cheap rhetoric about how immigrants should be "kept in their place like they do in China". 

Even more strikingly, Geraci claims that Italy should learn from China in terms of public security. "Which is the country where public security works? Who can we learn something useful from? From China", claims the undersecretary. Mirroring the kind of discourse you find in the Chinese media, he says that "in China women can walk the streets happily at night without the terror that reigns over here". He then adds that "in the last few years, China has also improved a lot in terms of criminal and civil justice, overtaking Italy". He does add the caveat that cooperation would be good "within the limits that our culture and constitution impose", however we do not hear a single word about China's dire and worsening human rights record, in the face of which claiming that China's criminal and civil justice has overtaken Italy's can only make any sense if you think that the civil and human rights of criminal suspects are not worth respecting.

This pro-Chinese rhetoric is reflected in the new government's actions. Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement and minister of economic development, as well as unofficial head of the government alongside the Lega's leader Salvini, made an official visit to China last month, with Geraci going along as his sidekick. During the visit, Di Maio made it clear that Italy wishes to be the first G7 country to sign an MOU with China to become a partner in the Belt and Road project, something which the British and French prime ministers have already declined to do.

Geraci's uncritical expression of admiration for Chinese governance has elicited a reaction in the form of an open letter signed by a group of young Italian academics involved in the study of contemporary China. The letter calls Geraci's article part of a "very dangerous drift that is taking place today in many Western societies, including Italy", and takes him to task for his call to learn from China's handling of migration and public security, answering back with reasoned arguments. Strikingly, almost all of the letters' signatories work in universities outside of Italy. I recently met one of them in person when he visited Beijing. He told me that there is a very simple reason why most of the signatories are not based in Italy: the China Studies departments of Italian universities are linked to Confucius Institutes and receive funding from them. People are convinced that if they take this kind of stand, they put themselves at risk of being cut off from funding, cooperation, and visits to China. Now where have I heard all this before?

Geraci and Di Maio signing a cooperation agreement with Sichuan province during their recent visit to China