Monday, March 13, 2017

Travels in Sichuan's ethnic corridor: Taoping Qiang Village and Gyarong Tibetans

This Spring Festival I headed over to Sichuan. I had a fun and full trip, watching pandas, attending a friend's wedding in the countryside of Northern Sichuan, hanging out with the local Esperanto-speaking community in Chengdu, eating hotpot and even becoming a bit of a champion at the local variety of Mahjong (I won at least 300 Yuan at the game). But the experience most worthy of being written about is probably my visit to a Tibetan village in Western Sichuan.

As you may be aware, the West of what is now Sichuan province forms the easternmost part of the Tibetan plateau, and is historically and culturally part of the Tibetan world. Tibetans call the region Kham. As you travel West and North from Chengdu, you gradually start to feel Han China turn into Tibet. As is the custom of Chinese administration, the region is divided into two "autonomous prefectures" named after the most prevalent local ethnic groups. These are the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. It was to the second prefecture, north-west of Chengdu, that I ventured.

My destination was Taoping, a well-preserved village of the Qiang people which has now been turned into a tourist attraction. The Qiang are one of China's 56 recognized ethnic groups, but I must admit that I had never previously heard of them. They number about 200.000 in total, just a drop in China's ocean, but they do manage to make up 19% of the prefecture's inhabitants, while Tibetans make up 57% and the Han make up the remainder. The Qiang speak a group of related idioms known as the Qiangic languages, a sub-group of the wider Tibeto-Burman family. The language is divided into dialects that may not be mutually intelligible, and attempts to provide it with a writing system of its own have failed. Qiang culture is influenced by both Tibetan and Han Chinese elements, since historically they have fallen under the domination of both.

The village I visited is in the county of Wenchuan, which was the epicentre of the dreadful Sichuan earthquake of 2008. 69.000 people died in the earthquake, and literally millions were displaced. I had to change buses in the county capital, where in typical Chinese style everything has been rebuilt and there are no visible traces of what happened. I don't know if the new buildings and schools are earthquake-proof, but I hope so.

After another half-hour bus ride through splendid mountain scenery I got to Taoping. The village does indeed have a genuine historic centre that has survived, but unfortunately that was not the first sight that greeted me. Taoping has now become a weekend getaway for holidaymakers from Chengdu, and just like any Chinese tourist site it has become fully commercialized and filled with kitsch. An entire new section has been added onto the village in typical "fake-old" style, filled to the brim with hotels and restaurants. The locals, some of them old women in traditional costumes, mostly seem to be selling trinkets for visitors at road-side stands.

That was the area at which the bus dropped me off. Although I was initially disappointed by the mundane atmosphere, the beautiful mountains surrounding me on all sides and the fresh, warm air raised my spirits, and I decided to look for a place to stay. Although touristy the place was far from crowded. The village is after all only well known in the region, not nationally and certainly not internationally (Lonely Planet fails to even mention it in passing). After dropping off my bag at a hotel run by two local women, I went off to look for something to eat. It was already 4 in the afternoon, hardly time for lunch in China, and most restaurants turned me away. I finally found a place that was open, and I went in and sat down.

A family of Chinese visitors saw me, and the father invited me over to sit at their table. He lived in a small town in Sichuan, and was eager to chat with me. I ended up sharing the family's food for free, and having a conversation with the well meaning middle-aged man who had invited me, who was full of questions about life in other countries. His other relatives seemed a bit put out, which made the situation rather awkward. His daughter, a high school student, was of course egged on by her relatives to practice the English she had supposedly learnt in school on me, and predictably refused. This same scene always seems to play out in such situations.

After some awkward goodbyes, I continued walking until I found the genuine old town, which was nice to wander around. I climbed up to the top of the hill overlooking the town, and took some photos. The town is dominated by a traditional Qiang watchtower. Every Qiang settlement used to have one of these, and many still do. In the past the different villages were constantly fighting each other, so the watchtowers served as a warning against raids. The houses were also built of thick stone walls, which might be why they seem to have survived the devastating earthquake better than most modern buildings in the region did.
The old centre of Taoping, with the Qiang watchtowers

The new section of the town built to house tourists. In the background you can see the cluster of white houses where most of the locals actually live.
As I wandered round the narrow alleys, I came across an old house that looked intriguing. When I tried to get inside, however, I was asked to pay a 20 Yuan fee to look around. I refused and started to walk on, but the young man at the door called after me, saying that I was welcome to have a look for free. Foreigners are still rare in these parts, and he was obviously willing to make an exception for me. The house was impressive, genuinely old and full of artefacts. After seeing a few rooms I found a family sitting round a stove. There was a man who looked a bit like a teacher, who invited me to sit down. It turned out he was a university professor in Chengdu, but his family were the owners of the house. They apparently used to be the local chieftains before the communists took power, or so I was told.

The man went into a long lecture about the differences between the Chinese and Western political systems, to which I listened politely and made a few comments. Fortunately his views seemed relatively liberal. He then asked me if I wanted to stay and have dinner with the family. I of course agreed. After the last visitors had left, I was brought into a private back room where a huge dinner had been prepared. There was a big round table and a much smaller, lower one. All the men sat round the bigger table. The women and the children sat at the smaller table. There was only one woman sitting with the men, and I was told she has an especially strong and decisive character, and is a good drinker. I think the bigger table might have been reserved for those who wanted to drink alcohol, rather than for the men as such.

The food was great Sichuanese fare, and everyone was very friendly. It wasn't much of a Qiang cultural experience though, since the family were clearly very urbane and spoke to each other exclusively in Sichuan's Chinese dialect. After dinner we retired to a courtyard where the family organized a barbecue and the men played cards and gambled (I joined them and embarrassingly managed to win 100 yuan). At around 10 I finally retired to my hotel. It struck me that I had just been wined and dined for free not once but twice. Stuff like this would never happen in Beijing or anywhere in its vicinity.

The next morning I determined that before going back to Chengdu I would walk around a bit in the area and try to find somewhere less touristy. There is a major road passing next to Taoping, so I set off along the road with my rucksack. Although the scenery was majestic, the walk itself was hardly pleasant. There were cars driving past, and construction sites nearby. I passed a few villages where people stared at me in surprise, but there was nowhere one could really hang out. After walking for about 40 minutes, I decided to turn back. While I was walking back a young lady driving a car stopped and asked me if I was lost and if I needed a lift. I told her I was going back to Taoping, and she offered to take me. It turned out that she had seen me walk in one direction and then turn around, and wondered what was the matter. She was actually not driving towards Taoping at all, but was still happy to give me a lift. She said that she had once travelled abroad and people had been helpful towards her, so she felt she should do the same with foreign travellers in her country.

The road where I was offered a lift
Road sign in Chinese and Tibetan. The Chinese, being the language most people in the area are actually literate in, is much larger, while the Tibetan writing is included as a matter of policy

I started telling her that I had been looking for a place where I could see a bit more of the local culture. She told me that she was actually an ethnic Tibetan, and she originally came from a Tibetan village a bit further north. She lived in Chengdu, but she was back in her village for the Spring Festival. She ended up taking me to another tourist site near Taiping, which turned out to be a completely reconstructed Qiang village that wasn't even finished, but was clearly waiting to become another tourist trap. Since she had never been there herself, she got out of the car and had a look around with me. We both agreed that the fledgling tourist site had very little charm to it. Seeing my genuine interest in the local culture, the young woman ended up inviting me to go and see her village with her. I refused at first, but she insisted and the idea of visiting a Tibetan village was intriguing, so I ended up agreeing.

We drove north for about an hour, up into the mountains, until we reached Li county. Then we drove off the main road and into an isolated valley with mountains all around it. The young lady's village was in this valley. It consisted of a collection of a few dozen newly built houses. I was told that the original village used to be up on the mountain, but it was destroyed in the 2008 earthquake, and then the government rebuilt it down in the valley. Apparently the locals were satisfied with this, since the living conditions were better in the new village.

The girl's family had a three storey house facing the village's main gathering point, a little square with a basketball court in front of the local government headquarters. Just behind the headquarters there was a small area that seemed to be dedicated to religious practices. There was a series of golden prayer wheels like the ones you find outside of every Tibetan temple, surrounding a drab concrete structure. Next to it there was a space with a much larger prayer wheel and a few old sofas. There were five or six elderly ladies sitting on the sofas, all but one wearing colourful Tibetan outfits. The young lady introduced me in the local Tibetan dialect, and I sat on one of the sofas.

The old ladies continued chatting, then they suddenly got up and started walking around the building turning the prayer wheels while chanting in Tibetan. Encouraged by my new local friend I actually followed them around a few times, spinning the wheels while chanting Om Mani Padme Hum, the most famous Buddhist mantra and the only one I know. Of course we were all walking clockwise, as is the custom. Spinning prayer wheels is supposed to allow you to accumulate wisdom and merit, or good karma, and even an insect that crosses a prayer wheel's shadow is supposed to accumulate some merit, which I suppose it can store up for its next life.

Local ladies spinning a prayer wheel

I spent the rest of the day hanging around in the village and in the family's house. It soon became clear that I would be their guest for the night, especially since the girl was only going back to Chengdu the next day and there was no way on earth I could leave this place in the middle of nowhere without a car of my own. There was exactly nothing to do in the village but sit on the family's front porch and read my kindle while eating sunflower seeds, which suited me fine. I walked once around the village, which took me all of five minutes. As I was walking an old lady in Tibetan clothing approached me and said something. She seemed not to speak Chinese, so all I could do was answer "Tashi delek", the supposed Tibetan greeting that has now become famous throughout China and beyond, even though it is really just a religious invocation and its use as an everyday greeting is very recent. In the old days Tibetans would greet each other by sticking their tongues out. Once I got back to my host family, I learnt from them that the woman had actually wanted to invite me to her home. Word travels fast, I thought.

The weather was quite warm during the day time, although it got very cold at night, as you might expect at such high altitudes. The house was fairly comfortable compared to many where I have stayed in rural areas. It had a modern bathroom, although there was no real shower. I ate both lunch and dinner with the family, and both were delicious. Dinner included a grilled lamb leg with the hoof still attached. The grandmother of the girl who brought me to the village ate with us, wearing her impressive local dress. Although I couldn't really speak with her, the girl told me that she was an open-minded and curious old lady, in spite of the fact that she had never seen much of the world. She reminded me somewhat of my late Italian grandmother.


Lamb leg during and after cooking
As the girl who brought me there had told me, the area's inhabitants are extremely Sinified Tibetans, and I could see this very clearly in the younger generation. Not only did they dress in modern clothing, but they seemed to speak to each other mostly in Sichuan Chinese rather than in Tibetan, and they looked and behaved just like youths throughout China. Although they still have to speak the local Tibetan dialect to communicate with the elderly, there is clearly a language shift towards Chinese going on. This is an area relatively close to Chengdu though, and the girl assured me that if you travel further North you can find more "genuine" Tibetans whose culture is more intact. The girl herself had grown up mostly in other parts of China, since her parents had worked in various cities. She spoke Chinese without the trace of a Tibetan accent, and would have been in no way identifiable as an ethnic minority in any other context. She came across as a cool young Chinese urbanite, and told me that she owns her own business in Chengdu.

Local ladies on the street

The following day I ate an interminable meal with my host family outside another relative's house. This time relatives and friends all collected, with at least 20 people present. The food was grilled on large flat stones, something I had never seen before. There was all sorts of food being grilled, including things like octopus and other seafood which I suppose cannot be part of the traditional menu in an area so tremendously far from the sea. After a lengthy meal the girl and I finally set off for Chengdu in her car. I drove most of the three hour drive, happy to have the chance to finally give something in return for the hospitality. As the mountains turned into the suburbs of Chengdu and the traffic got heavier, I began to think of the flight back to Beijing that awaited me the following day, and I felt my holiday was over.


A few days later, back in Beijing, I shared photos of my trip with an Esperanto-speaking friend from Chengdu, an erudite man who is very familiar with the culture of the Tibetans and other ethnic groups of his native Sichuan. After looking closely at the women's costumes he at first thought that these were not actually Tibetans at all. After finding out exactly where I had been, he concluded that I had in fact stayed in a village of so-called Gyarong (Jiarong) Tibetans, a sub-branch of the Tibetan people so remote they do not even have the honour of a Wikipedia entry. They have their own distinctive customs and identity, and what they speak is in fact a language of their own, distantly related to Tibetan but quite distinct from it and unintelligible to anyone else.

My local host washing her car, while Tibetan prayer flags flutter overhead

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The spring festival survival guide - a humorous song about going home for Chinese New Year

Tomorrow the year of the rooster begins, and China is in full Spring Festival mode. The doors have spring couplets pasted around them, much business has finally come to a halt, the sound of fireworks is everywhere, and China's bigger cities have emptied out as hundreds of millions of people go back to the places where they grew up to visit their families.

For a lot of young Chinese, going back home to see their parents for the spring festival isn't entirely something to look forward to. It means spending a week listening to their parents and other relatives prod them about not being married yet, criticising their life choices, or comparing them to others. 

A Shanghai amateur choir, known as the Rainbow Chamber Singers, have now come up with an entertaining and creative piece of music on what it's like to go home for the spring festival. The song is called 春节自救指南 (spring festival survival guide). The phrase 都是为你好 (it's all for your own good), which often recurs, is exactly what many Chinese parents will say to their children while pushing them to get married, change jobs, not go abroad etc...

The same Shanghai choir had already attracted attention with a humorous song about working overtime, but this one's much better. The video below has English subtitles.


Happy year of the rooster and have a good spring festival!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia

A street in Penang

I have just got back from a one week trip to Malaysia.

Although I only got the briefest glimpse into the country, Malaysia struck me as a fascinating example of a true multicultural society in Asia. The countries I have previously visited in East Asia have all essentially been monocultural, or at least dominated by a large ethnic-linguistic majority making up over 90% of the population. This would be the case for China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Malaysia on the other hand, with its large proportion of Chinese and Indians living alongside the native Malay and the other indigenous groups, is a true melting pot. What's more it is quite a successful one, and the different ethnic and religious groups seem to coexist relatively well.

I am of course aware that there is tension and resentment caused by the government's affirmative action policies that favour the bumiputera, Malaysia's "sons of the soil". But all the same, the fact that the country's last episode of actual racial violence took place in 1969 suggests that it must be getting something right. Malaysia's successful economy and relatively liberal politics, in a country with a Muslim majority, also point to a success story.

While in Malaysia I visited the island of Penang, one of the country's main draws for visitors. The island's main city, known as Georgetown, was established by the British in 1786, and soon became an important colonial hub. It is still Malaysia's second biggest city, and the entire historic centre is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its streets are a fascinating mix of colonial architecture, Chinese temples, mosques, Hindu shrines, and a variety of languages and faces.

Penang is also considered to be Malaysia's gastronomic capital, although to be fair, after constantly hearing people telling me that Malaysian food is amazing and some of the best in Asia, I failed to eat anything truly delicious during my time in the country. Most of the cheap restaurants appear to be of the self-service kind, with Malay or Indian food that you scoop out of big trays onto your plate. The food just lies around for hours in these trays, and in many of the places I visited there were flies buzzing around the food. It didn't look especially hygienic, although I eat in such establishments a few times and never actually got ill. While in Penang I did go to the famous Gurney night market, where you can eat snacks from stalls. There was some pretty good Chinese-style sea food, although nothing that amazing.

Another place I visited in Penang was the Khoo Kongsi clanhouse. In the nineteenth century, Chinese overseas communities would set up clan associations which would include individuals with the same surnames. The Chinese word gongsi or kongsi (公司), now used to mean company, then indicated such clubs. These associations would serve as mutual aid societies and points of social gathering. The Khoo Kongsi (邱公司) served as the headquarter for all the immigrants surnamed 邱 (Khoo or Qiu) in Penang, and it is the most impressive Chinese clanhouse surviving in Malaysia. Originally built in 1851, it was destroyed by a fire in 1894, and rebuilt in 1906. Although it is no longer an important centre of social activities, it has become a tourist attraction. It includes a clan temple and a traditional theatre.

The Khoo clan also became involved in the Penang Riots of 1867, in which the two main Chinese secret societies fought on the streets for days over competing commercial interests. Apparently a cannonball was fired from the clanhouse, which is why the square outside it is known as Cannon Square. The fighting only subsided when the British brought in reinforcements from Singapore.

The Khoo clan is Hokkien, in other words hailing from China's Fujian province, which alongside neighbouring Guangdong and Zhejiang has always been the point of origin of most Chinese emigrants. Many Chinese Malays still speak Hokkien Chinese (known as Min Nan in China), which is essentially the variety of Chinese spoken in Southern Fujian. Outside the clanhouse I happened to see an interesting diatribe against Mandarin Chinese and in favour of Hokkien, which is pictured in the photos below.

I wouldn't fully subscribe to the diatribe, especially since I don't see the problem if Mandarin was influenced by non-Han peoples from the North. Languages evolve and inter-mix, and viewing Mandarin as inferior because it was influenced by outsiders is suspicious. The content of the text is also not all linguistically sound, although it is indeed the case that many Southern Chinese dialects are closer to the Chinese spoken in the Tang Dynasty than Mandarin is. I found a refutation of the text's exaggerated claims here. Still, it was interesting to see this example of Hokkien pride, which would probably be hard to find in Mainland China. I suppose it is also a reaction againse the cultural insensitivity of some Mandarin-speaking visitors from China.



Saturday, December 17, 2016

Good work, Netease! An honest discussion of Chinese attitudes towards black people

Guangzhou's African community, probably the most striking case of foreign immigration to China, is apparently getting smaller and smaller. Over the last few months, articles have appeared in the Huffington Post, Quartz and CNN claiming that there has been something of an exodus of Africans from Guangzhou and from China in general. Part of the reason would seem to be economic: most of the Africans in Guangzhou are small-time traders buying up cheap goods and exporting them to their own country, but China's economic growth is slowing down, and African consumers are becoming better at distinguishing fakes from original products. There is also currently a shortage of dollars in West Africa, which is a problem because these traders cannot use their local currencies to trade in China.

Another part of the explanation seems to be connected with the increasing strictness of the authorities towards foreigners breaking visa regulations in China, something which is affecting both African traders as well as English teachers. Some of the Africans in Guangzhou do indeed overstay their visas, often because they are itinerant traders who are given 30-day tourist visas at a time and find that they are unable to finish their business in such a short time or don't even have the money to fly home. There are however also Africans who have lived stably in the city for years and have proper work visas. What all the reports agree on is that many of the city's Africans complain about the impossibility of acquiring some kind of permanent residence right, and about a general climate of racism and hostility towards them.

That there is a certain dislike of black people among many Chinese is a well-known fact to those familiar with the country. It is however extremely rare to hear such things openly admitted or discussed in the Chinese media. When it comes to racism, official slogans like "racism doesn't exist in China" and "Chinese people are very friendly towards foreigners" are what you will usually hear both in public discourse and on the streets. That is why I was quite surprised, in a good way, to see an article entitled "Why do the Chinese self-righteously discriminate against black people?" appear in Wangyi (Netease), one of China's major internet portals. It should be noted that Netease is one of the most liberal and open-minded of the country's major media providers (of course this is very relative).

The article touches upon all of the problems that black people might encounter in China. For instance, there is an interview with a black American who teaches English in Beijing. He claims that his school was happy with his performance, but his boss still told him that they were forced to look for someone else, because "the students would like a different teacher". During the breaks, he said he would hear students say in Chinese "I spent such a lot of money, and I'd really like a white teacher", or "I really don't want to stare at his black face the whole evening".

The article then goes on: "Saying that in China there is no discrimination against black people means deceiving ourselves and others (自欺欺人). Any ordinary Chinese can imagine the hard-to-conceal sense of foreboding and dread they would feel if they saw a black person walking towards them. Even though historically China has not engaged in the kind of large-scale, organized discrimination that Europe and America did, and there haven't been any policies of separation aimed at black people, racial thinking has long embedded itself in the heart of the ordinary Chinese. These sayings that we often like to use, like "descendants of the dragon" and "descendants of the fiery emperor and the yellow emperor", are actually a kind of racial thinking which show how we uphold the concept of blood lineage." The sayings mentioned (龙的传人 and 炎黄子孙 in Chinese) are often-used ways to refer to the Chinese people. It is really quite rare for an article in the Chinese media to attack the roots of Chinese thinking about nation and race in this way.

Later on the article describes the anti-African protests of 1988-89 at Nanjing University, something else which I am relatively surprised to even see mentioned. Finally, it touches upon the African community in Guangzhou. It says that even though Africans in Guangzhou have their own "Little Africa", "in China they are still a group that is seen in a poor light, rarely mentioned and even studiously avoided". It also quotes an African trader who married a Chinese woman and found that even his wife was constantly telling their children bad things about Africa. Finally, the controversy over the Chinese "Star Wars" poster that relegates the leading black actor to the a supporting cast position is analyzed.

All in all, I am quite impressed at the honesty and self-reflection displayed in the piece, in a country where racial issues of this kind are rarely acknowledged. Hopefully articles like this might help to improve attitudes. Keep up the good work, Netease!

African woman and baby on the streets of Guangzhou

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Why are there so many English teachers in China on the wrong visa?


Over the last few days, China's expat magazines and websites have been reporting the news that a large number of foreign English teachers have been detained for working without a Z (work) visa, or in some cases for using fake diplomas to obtain their visas. They will certainly be fined and may be deported. Although it is hard to separate facts from hearsay, it seems that Chinese police officers are being offered a reward of 2000 Yuan for every foreign teacher without the right visa they can bust.

Due to this incentive they have become very determined, and apparently have gone to the lengths of posting fake adverts for high-paying English teaching jobs on websites used by expats. They will then arrest people who present themselves to the interview if they don't have a Z visa (I don't really understand how it can be a crime to just go to a job interview, but anyway). They have also threatened the foreign teachers detained with 30 days in jail if they don't turn over all their phone contacts, some of whom will then supposedly be the victims of more checks.

When I first came to China, the general situation was that nobody really seemed to care what visa foreigners worked on. It was common for foreign students to round up their meagre scholarship allowances by teaching English part-time in schools. Although it is theoretically illegal for a foreigner to work and earn money on a student visa or anything other than a Z visa, in actuality nobody was bothered. Teachers working full-time on a business visas or even tourist visas were also quite common, and again it was very rare for anything bad to happen. As long as a foreigner didn't actually overstay their visa, nobody really seemed to mind if it didn't match their occupation.

There have of course been moments in the past when the authorities became stricter with foreigners. I have been in China long enough to remember the 2012 crackdown on foreigners "entering illegally, staying illegally and working illegally". I was never actually affected myself, but stories abounded of police randomly stopping foreigners on the street and demanding to see their passports, or raiding language schools and checking whether all the foreigners present had work visas. Although I was not yet in China at the time, the crackdown just before the Olympic games in 2008 is supposed to have been quite bad, with foreigners who had worked in China for years suddenly being refused visas and raids on bars where foreigners liked to gather.

The truth though is that those crackdown were only temporary, and in 2012 things were back to normal after about two or three months of the campaign beginning. The whole campaign gave me the feeling of being more of a show than a serious attempt to weed out foreigners on the wrong visa, although of course I stand to be corrected about this. Nowadays however, what we appear to be seeing is a serious, sustained attempt to kick out any foreigners who work here on the wrong visa. If police officers are being offered bonuses to catch illegal foreigners, then someone is pretty determined to make this happen.

Of course, it could be argued that the Chinese authorities have a perfect right to ensure that their visa regulations are respected. If you need a Z visa to work, then you should get a Z visa, right? As always however, things are not that simple and can be seen from a variety of angles. China is not a country where rules are clearcut and always followed. Rather, it is a country where rules are often unclear, selectively applied and ignored when it is considered convenient. This flexibility allows the authorities to get things done quickly and efficiently when they want to, but it also means that few people are ever completely clean and unassailable. Depending on how strict they decide to be, the government can pretty much choose to crackdown on anyone and anything they like.

There are a number of factors pushing foreigners to teach on the wrong visas in China. For one thing, Z visas are very hard to obtain, and only getting harder. Applicants need to have at least an undergraduate university degree, and they have to get hold of a criminal record certificate from their own country's police, an official letter by an employer proving two years of full-time work experience after graduation, translate all of the required documents into Chinese, and finally apply at their own country's Chinese embassy (it cannot be in a third country).

On the other hand, the demand for foreign English teachers in China is extremely high. Parents in cities all over the country are ready to fork out quite a bit of cash to have their children taught by a "native" English teacher (native very often meaning "white" in their minds). Often the employment of foreign English teachers is handled by third-party agencies that rent them out to schools. Given the difficulty and high costs associated with getting a work visa, agencies and schools have every incentive to hire foreigners who are in China on a business or student visa, and try and convince them that there is no risk involved.

What's more, there have been cases of agencies faking university diplomas for foreigners without a bachelor's degree so that they would be given a work visa. This is another thing which is being cracked down upon. There are also restrictions on the number of foreigners which Chinese companies can legally hire. Although I am not sure how this is applied to language schools, it may mean that schools cannot legally get work visas for as many foreign teachers as they would like.

There is thus a vast English teaching industry in which all players have an interest in cheating. The small army of foreign English teachers is also a most diverse one. The unfortunate stereotype of the Western reprobate who comes to China to teach English because they have nothing going for them back home or to get away from personal problems is probably true for some people, but certainly not in the majority of cases. There are the young Brits and Americans who do it a few years for the adventure. But there are also plenty of people coming from countries like Pakistan, the Philippines and South Africa teaching English in China, probably attracted by the relatively good money you can make.

I have also met people from countries like Ukraine and Russia, hardly famous for their English fluency, teaching English here. Years ago I met a Polish couple teaching English in a small town near Chongqing. They had passable English, and their agency had told them to introduce themselves to their high schools students as Jack and Martha, from England. As far as I know nobody doubted them. But while it is true that some foreign teachers may not speak English quite as well as advertised or may not be the best educators, there are certainly also employers that act dishonestly towards them. This is a field where standards are generally low on all sides.

Essentially, for years this hugely profitable industry was kept going on the understanding that nobody would care if foreigners worked in China without the appropriate visa. Now, however, the authorities have started to care. Of course China's vast size and chaotic development means that different people can have very different experiences. I am sure there are still plenty of foreigners teaching on the wrong visas, or places where the authorities have not started to make a fuss. Essentially, though, the trend is towards greater controls and strictness.

Basically what I see is a contrast between the demand for English language training in China and the sums parents are ready to spend on it, which remain vast, and the current tendency towards more control in all fields and stricter application processes and checks for foreigners who want to work China. If nothing else, when teaching English on the wrong visa becomes so risky it isn't worthwhile, legitimate and certified foreign teachers with the right visa might actually find themselves in better demand and able to earn more for their efforts.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Three-Body Problem: Chinese science-fiction

I have just finished reading Liu Cixin's famous science-fiction trilogy, Remembrance of Earth's Past, better know by the title of its first book, "the Three-body Problem". This trilogy by a computer engineer from Shanxi province is one of the few Chinese science-fiction works to have been translated into other languages. It is also one of the few that have really piqued international interest, and rightly so.

The three novels in the series are high quality science-fiction, on a par with Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. They take an old question (what would happen if humanity came into contact with aliens?) and really run away with it in ways that are both unpredictable and astonishing, as well as scientifically sound. Some of the books' ideas are quite thought-provoking, like the one of the whole universe being a dark forest in which any civilisation that reveals its planet's location to outsiders risks imminent destruction (thus providing an explanation for the Fermi paradox), and the final image of a universe that is dying as a result of different civilisations constantly waging war with each other by turning the very laws of physics into weapons. 

The interesting twist, of course, is the fact that much of the series is set in China, and most of the characters are Chinese, even though you could often forget this. The setting makes itself felt most heavily in the first book, part of which takes place during the Cultural Revolution, and part in present-day China. The second and third books are set centuries in the future, and even though some of the plot still takes place in Beijing, which has now become an underground city, the location obviously becomes less relevant. There is the idea that in future humanity's global language will be a mixture of English and Chinese, but I could easily imagine an American science-fiction writer coming up with exactly the same unoriginal prediction. Apart from the scenes from the Cultural Revolution (a period which the author himself remembers from his childhood), most of the time the Chinese setting feels more like an accidental irrelevance to a series that could just as well take place in another country if the names were changed.

Having said that the books do draw from Chinese history and literature. For instance, there are the aliens who read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and can't understand the constant deception and trickery which the characters employ, since they come from a civilisation in which thoughts are always expressed openly. There is the appearance of Qin Shihuang, China's first emperor, as a character in the virtual reality game set up by the sect that want to assist the aliens in invading the earth. And there is the quixotic advice given by a Buddhist monk to one of the characters in the first book.

If you like science fiction the series is well worth a read. Among other things, it really makes you wonder whether humanity's amateurish attempts to broadcast messages disclosing its existence into outer space are really a good idea.

Liu Cixin and the fist book of the series

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Why are some Chinese happy about Trump's victory?


Trump's victory has most of the liberal, right-thinking people in the US and the entire Western world reeling in shock and apprehension. Many of my acquaintances fit into this category, and they are none too happy today, as my social media feed is clearly showing.

But the circle of my acquaintances also includes another major group, in other words sophisticated, mostly young Chinese, and in this group the reaction would appear to be quite different. Both judging by things I have heard in person and on social media, it would seem that among the sort of Chinese who follow the US elections, sympathies actually lie more on Trump's side.

In the run-up to the elections, the Chinese media had an easy job of holding up the divisive, bad-tempered race between Clinton and Trump as an example of how US democracy and even "Western democracy" are in decline and don't really work. On some occasions, Trump's gaffes and laughable antics were directly held up as an example of the ills and the corruption of the American system.

All the same, it was already obvious that many Chinese citizens were hoping for a Trump victory, or in any case disliked Hillary Clinton. In fact, Trump's odd popularity in China had already been the object of reports in the international media. Part of the reason for this lay in Clinton's more hawkish positions on foreign policy, and towards China in particular. The perception was that a Clinton presidency would be more decisive in resisting China's territorial claims in the South China Sea and more uncompromising regarding the other geopolitical disputes between the two powers. Clinton was also considered to be more keen to promote those terrible American values of democracy and human rights around the world, while Trump was perceived to be more focused on internal matters and the economy.

Thus, in spite of the fact that Trump has described global warming as a Chinese hoax, has often repeated the line that China steals American jobs, and has called the Chinese leaders clever currency manipulators, the perception in China was that Hillary Clinton would be more inimical to Chinese interests. A line one hears is that "while a Trump presidency is more likely to challenge China economically, a Clinton presidency is more likely to challenge China geopolitically".

There may be some truth in this. Trump is an isolationist who has publicly questioned whether the US should defend its NATO allies in the event of a Russian attack. His view is that the rest of the world should "fix its own problems". It is legitimate to wonder whether he will be enthusiastic about supporting US allies in East Asia, which include Japan, South Korea and crucially Taiwan. At the same time, it strikes me that Trump is an unpredictable character who might reverse his views once in power, and be very hawkish about certain issues. But still, chances are that he will be less interested in East Asian geopolitics (and less shrewd in his interventions).

One might think that the Chinese would be more worried about the possibility of Trump setting higher tariffs on Chinese imports and restricting foreign trade, which might actually affect people's livelihoods in China. But unfortunately the strength of popular nationalism and the influence of the media is such that many Chinese are genuinely more concerned about the sovereignty over some patches of sea they will never visit than they are about their economy.

Another reason for the Chinese public's sympathy for Trump might just be their cultural distance from the United States, and their lack of personal experience with an electoral system. America's "culture wars" are obviously rather abstract to people in China. The illiberal values propagated by Trump, his racist comments and misogynist jokes, may not necessarily seem as shocking to people who do not share a Western sense of political correctness. Describing refugees as a threat cannot seem all that terrible in a country where North Korean refugees are happily deported back to North Korea. And the immigrants who have been the targets of Trump's rhetoric are generally Muslim or Latino, not Chinese (in which case I'm pretty sure the reaction would be different).

Another line one sometimes hears in China is that "Trump is a businessman, so he will know how to fix the US economy". I have heard the same line repeated innumerable times in Italy by Berlusconi supporters, so I know exactly how empty it is. But Trump's identity as a demagogue millionaire with no political experience might not be so recognisable or so unpalatable to people in China. There are after all no exact translations for words like populism and demagogue commonly used in China (populism is translated as 民粹主义, but I have never heard anyone use the word in speech).

Of course, not all the Chinese with an opinion are happy about the result. A Chinese ex-colleague who is an activist for gay rights (and lesbian herself), and is now getting a post-graduate degree in Washington University, wrote a long post on Wechat today. She said that this morning all the students in her school received a letter from the dean, who as an "immigrant Latina lesbian" reaffirmed the school's commitment to diversity and inclusion. But she also lamented that racism and homophobia would get worse in the US now that they have political backing, and said that a friend of a friend was told by a white person on the street to "go back to China". She finished off with: "(in Chinese) Hillary lost, the new liberalism is slipping away, and the world that we are about to enter is not going to be a better one. A phrase is constantly reverberating in my heart today: (in English) there's no place in the world that we can live now."