Saturday, December 17, 2011

How to be as successful as a Jew

One of the most curious and revelatory things about China which my newly acquired ability to read Chinese has allowed me to discover are the Chinese self-help books concerning the Jews.

Wonder into any large bookshop in Beijing (and I guess anywhere else in China), and you can find books in Chinese with titles like: "Discover the secrets of the Jews", "Jewish business wisdom" and "How to be as successful as a Jew". On the back cover you will usually find phrases like: "the Jews are the cleverest, richest and most successful people in the world. Learn the secrets of their success". Books with similar titles would be considered at best very dubious, and at worst downright antisemitic, anywhere in the Western world. But the fact is that here in China, such books can be seen as a sort of distorted compliment to the Jews.

In China most people have never met a Jew, but there is one extremely common stereotype about them: they are very intelligent. The huge number of succesful Jews in every field, from Einstein to Freud, is considered proof enough. Whenever I have told a Chinese person that my mother's family is Jewish, I have almost always been told: "oh, you must be very clever then." (the Chinese, not having our Western notions of political correctness, are quite happy to assume that every single Jew must be intelligent, with no exceptions). The stereotype that Jews are wealthy also exists, but it is not seen as something to be envied or hated, but rather just another proof of the Jews' abilities and intelligence. All the negative stereotypes of the Jews as stingy and clannish which infest Western culture simply haven't made their way here, thank goodness.

In today's extremely competitive and materialistic Chinese society, success in work is an obsession for many, and this coupled with the belief that Jews are inherently successful and smart can produce some curious results: a Chinese girl I once knew had actually read the Talmud (in Chinese of course), because she had heard that reading it could help you to achieve success in life (if the Jews are so succesful there must be a reason after all).
I must say that I can't help but feel ambiguous about these Jewish-themed business success guides in Chinese bookshops. I know there isn't any hostility towards the Jews behind them, but I can't help wondering if it is a good thing to encourage the stereotype of Jewish wealth and success in business which has brought the Jews so much misfortune elsewhere.

(Below, the cover of a Chinese book entitled "the Business Acumen of the Jews")

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Berlusconi's secret society

Berlusconi has resigned as Italy’s Prime Minister. It is too early to know whether we have finally seen the back of him in Italian politics, but given his age (75) it does seem likely that Italy will never be governed by him again.
The man has been the dominant figure in Italian politics for 17 years, from his sudden entry into politics in 1994 until today. He won the elections three times (in 1994, 2001 and 2008) and lost them twice (1996 and 2006), and the government he formed in 2001 was the only one in the history of the Italian Republic to survive until the end of its term.

I think it is hard for people who can’t speak Italian and aren't well acquainted with the country to understand just how corrupt and indecent the man and his cronies are. Any one of the scandals surrounding him, from his trials for corruption to his sex with underage girls, his relationship with convicted mafia bosses, his obscene and offensive puns and pranks, his blatant conflict of interests and his laws tailor-made to save him from prosecution, would have been enough on their own to cause his resignation in most western countries.

 His continuing hold on Italy has done great damage to the country’s international reputation, especially in these last few years. At the same time his ownership of Italy’s most popular private television channels, which hold a great influence over the less educated sectors of the population, helps to ensure that most of his voters aren't even aware what the world thinks of their prime minister. One scandal above all others seems to me to be worth mentioning, especially since it is virtually unknown outside of Italy, and even within Italy it has been all but forgotten by most people.

In the early eighties Berlusconi was a member of the infamous P2 Masonic lodge, alongside numerous other members of the Italian elite. This is not some conspiracy theory, but a fact which was certified by a police investigation at the time. The P2 lodge (the name stands for Propaganda 2) was a Freemason lodge headed by Licio Gelli, a shady Italian businessman who started off as a liaison officer between the Italian and German fascist regimes during the Second World War, and chose to participate in Mussolini’s puppet state, the “Republic of Salo’”, after the Nazis invaded Italy.

After the war he went on being a convinced fascist, joining a small party on the extreme right, and in 1966 he took on the leadership of the P2, a lodge which fell under the jurisdiction of the Grand Orient of Italy, the official Italian Freemason organization. Slowly, Gelli set about using his powerful connections to bring as many politicians, industrialists, and military leaders as possible into the lodge, and turning it into a vehicle for his vehemently right wing ideas. The Freemasons either expelled or suspended the P2 lodge in 1974 (it has never been quite clear), after finding out what Gelli was up to, but the lodge went on existing illegally, violating Italian laws against the constitution of secret societies.

The existence of the lodge came to light in 1981, during a police investigation into the collapse of Michele Sindona’s financial empire. A list of members was found in Gelli’s home, and the names in the list included a host of important politicians and businessmen, the heads of all three of Italy’s secret services and the son of the last deposed king of Italy. Berlusconi was also include. Later on, a couple of documents were found hidden in the false bottom of a suitcase belonging to Gelli’s daughter in Rome's airport. One of the documents, ironically entitled “Plan for a democratic rebirth”, is generally seen as the P2’s political program.

The document clearly stated the aim of turning Italy into an authoritarian right-wing state so as to curtail the influence of the Communist Party and the trade unions. This was to be done by placing P2 members in key positions in the country's institutions and engaging in widespread political corruption. These were no empty threats. Gelli himself had taken part in the failed coup organized by the former fascist general Junio Valerio Borghese in 1970, whose aim was to set up an authoritarian right wing dictatorship. He was on excellent terms with the leaders of Argentina’s military regime. And Italy’s neighbor Greece had become a fascist dictatorship as a result of a right wing military coup a few years earlier.

Berlusconi has never denied being part of this shadowy secret organization dedicated to subverting democracy, but when asked about it he has simply given evasive answers, saying that he didn’t really know what he was getting into. Of course, you would never hear the issue mentioned at all on Berlusconi’s TV channels. As a matter of fact, you would hardly ever hear about it on the state channels or on independent newspapers either. Quite simply, it has become one of the outrageous facts about Berlusconi’s past which are well known and documented, but do not seem to have any impact on his popularity with the half of the Italian population which has supported him for years.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Simplified vs. traditional Chinese characters

Today I would like to share some thoughts with you about the simplification of the Chinese characters. It is well known that the characters now used in Mainland China were simplified in the middle of the twentieth century, so as to make literacy more accessible to the masses. The vast majority of people learning Chinese throughout the world, and all those who learn it within the People’s Republic of China, will be familiar with the simplified characters.

For those of you unfamiliar with the issue, I will give some background: various Chinese intellectuals started suggesting that the Chinese writing system should be simplified towards the beginning of the twentieth Century, especially after the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when traditional Chinese culture was challenged by modernizers. There was an attempt by the Guomindang government to simplify the characters already in 1935, something which makes the current die-hard opposition to the simplified characters in Taiwan all the more curious.

After the revolution, the characters were simplified in two rounds, one in 1956 and one in 1964. The simplification involved reducing the number of strokes and the complexity of the characters. Many of the simplified forms had already been used in handwriting for years. A few characters which had the same pronunciation and meaning were merged. Many characters were also left entirely the same. There was a second round of simplification in 1977, just after the Cultural Revolution, but due to widespread opposition and confusion the reform was abolished in 1986. A few of the simplifications introduced in 1977 can still sometimes be seen I handwritten signs, for instancefor andfor (I can see why people like that one).

While the People’s Republic of China and Singapore officially use the simplified characters, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau continue to use the traditional ones. In some cases, the traditional characters can be extremely more complicated than the simplified ones. Take 个,the most basic Chinese character, whose traditional form is. Or , which becomes.

I have personally never studied the traditional characters, and although I find I can guess some of the most basic ones, I am basically unable to read them. Here in Mainland China, traditional characters are usually only found in ceremonial circumstances or in logos, although most people seem to know them to some degree. The only time I find not knowing them a problem is when I go to karaoke parlors, since most of the karaoke machines have subtexts in traditional characters, because they are produced in Taiwan.

When I studied Chinese in Qinghua I used to sit next to a student from Hong Kong. He was dead against the simplified characters, and tried various times to convince how they are ugly, illogical and actually more difficult to learn than the traditional forms. A hostile attitude towards simplified characters is apparently widespread amongst the Chinese outside the Mainland and especially in Taiwan. In Taiwan people are basically convinced that the simplification of the characters was part of an evil Communist ploy to destroy traditional Chinese culture, and that they are the defenders of Chinese tradition because they stick to the old writing form. This is in spite of the fact that it was by no means only members of the CCP who initially wanted Chinese writing to be simplified.
I have been surprised however to notice that even quite a few Chinese Mainlanders, when asked, will lament the disappearance of the traditional characters and even advocate their return. I have heard many people argue that the traditional characters are preferable because they “contain Chinese traditional culture”, and that they are actually easier because you can guess the meaning just by looking at the character.

Although I realize that since I am not Chinese and I don’t know the traditional characters, most Chinese people would not take my opinions on the issue very seriously, I am still going to share my thoughts on the matter. Even though I am not literate in the traditional characters, I find the idea they are easier because they allow you to guess their meaning rather improbable. Although a few of the traditional characters may have a rather obvious relationship between their shape and their meaning which is lost in the simplified form, this is not such a common occurrence. In any case, the traditional characters have got to be much harder to learn to write by hand and to differentiate, and in a country where it takes children until high school to learn to read and write, this has to be an important point.

It may be because I am not used to it, but when I see a website written in traditional characters I can’t even make many of them out without enlarging the font size, because they are so full of strokes. Although this can also happen with a few particularly complex simplified characters, it is much rarer. The traditional characters seem to me to be impractically complicated for a modern society to use (although the Taiwanese seem to manage somehow). Then again, isn’t that true for the entire Chinese writing system? It is impractically complex, but the Chinese manage one way or another. In the past there were proposals to just overhaul the entire character system and only use pinyin. However, they never gained much popularity.

There is the argument that Chinese could not practically be written solely in pinyin, because the language is so full of homophones that in some cases the meaning is ambiguous if you use a phonetic script. If this is so, it means that the characters have to be kept, but simplifying them seems to me to be a reasonable move. The fact that after World War II the Japanese also simplified the Chinese characters which they use suggests that it is a natural step towards creating a modern society where the writing system has to be accessible to the masses. It is true that modifying the characters could be viewed as a cultural loss, but then again Chinese characters and all other writing systems have changed throughout history, and it is right that they should keep on changing.

And as a final point, poor foreigners in China like me already struggle enough to learn Chinese as it is. With the traditional characters the difficulty would be even greater. This is not such an irrelevant point. As more and more foreigners flock to China, and more and more people around the world take an interest in learning Chinese, it is important that the writing system be easy enough for them to at least have a chance of becoming functional in it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

On the girl run over in China

Most of you will probably have heard about the horrible case of the two year old girl who was run over by a van in Foshan, Guangdong province, and was ignored by 18 passers-by until finally a 57 year old rag collector picked her up and tried to find her parents.

The story has received lots of attention within China as well as worlwide. The incident has produced much soul searching and revulsion. There is an assumption that some recent high-profile cases in which people who tried to help someone who had had an accident were later blamed and sued by the person they wanted to help have discouraged people from assisting strangers. There is now discussion of changing the law to protect and reward those who offer assistance to strangers. The government has also promised a big reward for the woman who finally tried to help the little girl.

And of course, just a few days after the event the Chinese press has conveniently come up with a different story about how in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, a 22 year old girl who was hit by a car was immediately helped by by passers-by and the workers from a nearby construction site, who came, lifted the car up from on top of her and called the emergency services.

Websites directed mainly at expats in China, for instance chinasmack, shanghaiist and echinacities, have all run articles about the incident. And of course, if you look at the comments under the articles, you will find the usual outpouring of expat prejudice and hostility towards China and the Chinese, mixed with some (rare) intelligent comments. For many of the commenters, this episode shows how the Chinese and their culture are indeed basically flawed, how they only care about money, how they have no morals or compassion, how this country is basically a hell-hole etc....

The fact that the incident has precipitated a lot of public disgust and condemnation within China would already seem to disprove this vision of things. Not to mention the fact that in the end it was a poor rag collector who did try to intervene.

Another important fact to remember is that this sort of thing can happen anywhere. For instance, in 2010 there was a case in New York in which a Guatemalan homeless man was stabbed while trying to save a woman from an attacker with a knife, and he then bled to death on the pavement as dozens of people walked by and did not help or call for an ambulance. One person even stopped to take a photo. Just as in the case of the girl in China, it was all captured by a surveillance camera. Clearly heartlessness towards strangers in big cities is not limited to China.

My assumption is that what stopped those passers-by from intervening was a mixture of fear of being blamed themselves and getting into trouble, and the idea that someone competent would surely deal with it anyway and that they might as well mind their own business. One of the passers-by who ignored the girl has spoken out, according to a report by China Daily. Here is the excerpt from the article:

Many of the 18 people who passed by the girl at the accident scene and did not help denied that they saw the girl or were aware of the situation.

One of them, a mother of a five-year-old girl, said she felt "regretful, compassionate, painful at heart and guilty," for seeing Yue Yue but not helping her.

"I thought she had fallen down from playing and didn't know she was run over by vehicles until her mother came in tears.

"She was bleeding from the mouth and nose and crying faintly. I was scared and my daughter was scared to cry. So we left in a hurry," said the woman surnamed Lin, cited by Guangzhou Daily.

"I wanted to lift her, but there was so much blood. I was scared. If someone was helping at that time, I would have done the same."

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I've just finished reading Amy Chua's hugely controversial memoir "the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". The book by the Chinese-American Yale professor (photo above) on how she raised her two daughters has already generated much discussion, and some of it has even reached China.

In her book, Amy Chua tells us about how she set out to raise her two daughters in a strict Chinese style (or what she considers to be the Chinese style), even though she lives in Connecticut and her husband is not even Chinese. The daughter of Chinese immigrants who came to the States from Fujian through the Philippines, she was raised in a very strict fashion by her parents, always being expected to excel in school and in anything else she did and never being allowed to mess around. After becoming a Yale professor, Chua decided that she was not going to give in to the soft and liberal approach to parenting which "Westerners" favour, but she would stick to the model which she believed had worked so well for her. Her husband, another Yale professor raised in a liberal Jewish household, rather surprisingly agreed to let her have her way ( although "in exchange" the girls were brought up as Jews with Bat Mitzvahs and the like).

In the book, Chua's methods come across as quite extreme. The girls are never (and I mean never) allowed to attend sleepovers, watch TV or play computer games, get any grade less than an A, act in school plays and a host of other things. Their mother chooses an instrument for the two of them (the piano for the older daughter and the violin for the younger one) and forces them to practice hours a day, pushing them to excel as much as is humanely possible. As a result, both of them become prodigious musicians as well as star students. But while the oldest daughter Sophie responds quite well to this upbringing, her younger sister Lulu has a rebellious personality and is much less willing to go along with her mother. By the age of thirteen she has her way and breaks free from her mum's control, refusing to play the violin any longer.

Part of the book's controversy originated from this piece in the Wall Street Journal which contains excerpts from the book designed to shock and a title ("why Chinese mothers are superior") which the author later said she didn't choose and disagrees with. Much of the fuss probably originates with the unease in the US at the idea that there might be one billion Chinese tiger mothers producing super kids, waiting in the wings to take away Americans' jobs and turn China into the new superpower. In any case, I found the book to be extremely readable and sometimes quite amusing, and I finished it in the space of a weekend. Amy Chua's parenting methods certainly come over as ridicolously over the top, especially the way she obsesses over her children's musical progress, which seems to border on insanity (for god's sake, playing the violin or the piano don't even lead to a good job, except if you are going to be a musician, but I suspect she would not consider that a decent occupation for her kids, since you don't need a Yale degree for it.) She later stated that she exaggerated it all in the book for literary effect, which I certainly hope.

Others have already written lots about the obvious downsides to her way of being parent: you are depriving your kids of valuable social skills by preventing them from socializing, you are preventing them from discovering their own interests and developing their own personalities (although she claims that these are Western preoccupations which the Chinese don't share, because they believe children need guidance) etc....

What I am struck by is Chua's attitude towards China and Chinese culture. This woman was born and raised in the States and went to an American school. She has never lived in China and her ideas about Chinese culture seem to be based entirely on her parents, who must have left China something like sixty years ago. And yet she feels completely Chinese, and often speaks about the "Westerners" who surround her in opposition to her Chinese self. It doesn't seem to strike her that Chinese culture and the Chinese immigrant culture in the States which she grew up in might not be quite the same. It reminds me of an article I once read about Chinese Americans who move to China and are surprised to find that they don't fit in at all.

And while she is going on about the advantages of forcing children to engage in rote learning for hours, choosing their hobbies for them and never being happy with anything but As, here in China there is increasing interest in more liberal Western approaches to child rearing (although the Chinese schooling system doesn't make it easier to allow children to take time off from schoolwork).
It also strikes me that Chua's methods might make sense in the context of China, a country of a billion people where most children have to work extremely hard to even have a hope of getting into university, and there is huge competition for everything. However, they don't make sense in the context of a privileged American family whose children will have loads of opportunities whatever happens.

Amy Chua's book has been translated into Chinese, with the title 我在美国做妈妈(being a mother in the US) . With characteristic lack of political correctness, it was added on the bottom of the Chinese cover that: "this book proves it: in the field of educating children, Eastern parents are more successful than Western parents." Some Chinese commentators have pointed out how the book is actually very un-Chinese, because even though many Chinese mothers could identify with the author's obsessive desire for her children to excel, none of them would ever publicly expose embarrassing facts about their family life with such honesty and candor.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sounds which the Chinese mix up.

It is a universally held stereotype in the West that the Chinese and the Japanese cannot distinguish between the letters L and R. When it comes to the Japanese, this stereotype does hold true in my experience. When Douglas MacArthur was running as presidential candidate in the States, his Japanese supporters displayed a banner in the centre of Tokyo, reading "we play for MacArthur's erection".

When it comes to the Chinese on the other hand, it is little realized that it is only the Chinese from the South who can't distinguish between L and R, since Southern dialects don't distinguish between the two. Southerners get the two sounds mixed up even when speaking standard Mandarin Chinese, which does distinguish between the L and the R (although the Chinese R is a bit different from ours, and the ability to produce a long rolled R can make the Chinese fall around with laughter.)

The Chinese from the South have much greater trouble pronouncing the sounds of standard Mandarin Chinese than do Northerners in general. This is unsurprising, since the language is based on the Beijing dialect, which is closer to other Northern dialects than to the Southern ones.
Another mix up which is not at all well known in the West, but which I find far more baffling than the inability to tell an L from an R, is the lack of distinction between the L and N sounds which one finds in many dialects of Southern China (although not in all of them).

When I traveled through Guizhou province, understanding the locals' Mandarin was made harder by their constant and unconscious substitution of N for L. Although I had never thought about it before coming to China, I suppose the two letters are pronounced similarly. I know lots of people in Beijing who come from Sichuan, Guizhou or Hunan, and they are still unable to tell the two sounds apart. If they know English they will make the same mistake in English, referring to a lecture as "necture" or Mr.Li as "Mr. Ni". Although some of them do make an effort to learn the difference between the two letters (which is after all marked in the Pinyin they learn in school), it still seems to take a conscious effort for them to remember which one is which. A bit like me with the second and third tones of Chinese.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Life as an ant-person

Here in China the term "ant-people" ( 蚁族) has become popular in recent years to describe a certain demographic in Chinese society: the masses and masses of young people, often university graduates, living in cheap and overcrowded accommodation on the outskirts of big Chinese cities and shifting from one job to another.

Although I am certainly not part of that demographic (I have not heard of any "foreign ant-people" yet, although one day soon it may start happening), my current accommodation is making me feel like the definition fits me and my flatmates rather well. I am living in a flat on the 14th floor of a high-rise in Haidian district. The flat is one of the old-style Chinese ones, with no living room, but just a small kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms. It is facing a large junction, so that there is quite a racket from all the engines and hooting down below, especially when the windows are open. My flatmates are two young men, a Chinese and a Japanese, who work here. As is normal in this kind of place I didn't know my flatmates before moving in, and indeed I never even met them before signing the contract. There is also no suggestion that we should get to know each other.
There is an abundant number of flats of this kind around in Beijing: relatively cheap flats where young working people live, often for relatively brief periods of time (but it can be years). The atmosphere is almost like a hostel, so that although you share the same kitchen and bathroom with the others, you do not necessarily get to know them or ever feel that you are actually living together. There is normally no such thing as a living room, or if there is it goes unused, since people spend their free time surfing the internet in their own (often tiny) bedrooms, and do not feel that the rest of the flat is really their home. In fact, it is normal to lock your bedroom whenever you go out, since you are basically sharing a flat with strangers. Another feature of these flats is that while people keep their own bedrooms clean, there is no agreed rotation for cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, so very often they are simply not cleaned, or cleaned only very rarely.

Last year I stayed in another flat of this kind for a few months, and there were two Chinese girls living there who never took the trouble to introduce themselves to me a single time while I was staying there. There were also three rather nice young boys from Guanxi province who were sharing a bedroom, and they invited me to chat and drink beer in their room a number of times.

Life for most of these young people (who are usually university graduates and work in offices) in a place like Beijing is often stressful and not much fun: they earn comparatively little money, they live in cramped and not very high-quality accommodation, they sometimes work overtime for no extra pay, and they have to commute for ages in unbelievably crowded buses and subway trains. Most of them come from other parts of China and make the long journey home only once a year, for the Spring Festival. Except if they go to some park in the weekend, the only scenery they ever see is a concrete jungle of high rises and more high rises, cars, people and polluted air above.
Most of them will also readily complain about how in Beijing 压力太大(the pressure is so great). Because of the stress and the pressure of living in Beijing, most of the city's locals have apparently migrated to the extreme suburbs outside the fifth ring road, where life is still comparatively less stressful. Within the fifth ring road, where the city proper is located, there are now only two million native Beijingers, and eight million waidiren, or outsiders.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

China, South Sudan's independence and the scramble for oil.

Southern Sudan has gained independence a few days ago, becoming the world's newest country.

Although I am no expert on Sudan, I understand that the splitting in two of one of Africa's biggest nations is the result of an ethnic division between the North of the country, which is mostly Muslim and identifies with the Arab world, and the South which is mostly christian or animist and identifies with Black Africa. The country has always been ruled from the North, and some Southerners have been at war to gain independence for decades.

The aspect I would like to focus on are the obvious geopolitical interests circling around Sudan and its oil. Sudan has very large oil reserves (it comes 20th in the world in this respect), and about 80% of the country's oil is concentrated in the South. Although secession does seem to be the genuine will of the people who live in Southern Sudan, it would be naive to think that the attitude of the great powers towards the birth of the nation of South Sudan is not heavily influenced by their insatiable thirst for oil. My original assumption was that the split of Sudan into two nations is basically an important point scored in the Western countries' battle with China (and other emerging powers) for prime access to Africa's oil resources.

It is well known that the Sudanese regime of Omar al-Bashir is in pretty good terms with China, and very bad ones with the US and the West in general. Sudan used to host Osama Bin Laden, and the US army bombed a chemical factory in Sudan in 1998, claiming that it was linked to Al Qaeda. An International Criminal Court arrest warrant even hangs over Al-Bashir's head. The country is on the US's "state sponsors of terrorism"list, and the US has imposed sanctions on the country, forbidding its companies from trading with it. As a result, most of the country's oil fields are owned by China's National Petroleum Corporation, Malaysia's Petronas, and India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, with the Chinese having the biggest share.

Of course, China has always been criticized in the West for its proximity to the Sudanese regime, especially in connection with the massacres in Darfur. I cannot help feel that there is a certain hypocrisy in such criticism, especially when it comes from those who will not hesitate to go to war themselves over oil, as well as support all kinds of regimes as long as they will continue providing them with their flow of black gold. As relative newcomers in the scramble for Africa's natural resources, the Chinese (and to an extent the Indians, Malaysians and others) are forced not to have too many scruples and do business with whatever government will agree, and countries which the West treats as pariahs, such as Sudan, are clearly a very good option for them.

On the face of it, the independence of South Sudan doesn't seem to bode well for Chinese interests. It is not hard to imagine that the government of the new nation of South Sudan will be much friendlier towards the West (as well as lying outside of the Arab sphere), and it will hold the lion share of Sudan's oil resources. However, after a more detailed look at how South Sudan's oil will be refined and exported, the real beneficiaries of the new situation are not at all clear anymore. North Sudan still holds all the refineries, the only pipelines and the only seaport (the South is landlocked). During the period of autonomy which the South of Sudan has already enjoyed from 2005 until 2011, the North got 50% of the revenue for the South's oil, in exchange for the use of its refineries, pipelines and its port.

It is not clear what will happen from now on, but the North wants to continue receiving a 50% cut, while the South is reluctant to agree. Although South Sudan is not under US sanctions, if they continue exporting their oil through the North then the sanctions will still apply and the US will continue to be unable to extract or buy the country's oil. There is a plan to build a new pipeline running from South Sudan through Uganda to Kenya which would avoid relying on the North, but it is not clear whether this is viable. Meanwhile China's economic councilor in South Sudan, Zhang Jun, has already told the Financial times that China would be willing to give loans to the country to keep it going financially while the Chinese build the pipeline to Kenya themselves.

All in all, I am beginning to wonder whether South Sudan's independence is that bad for China after all. It's companies still seem to own most of South Sudan's oil fields, and their allies in North Sudan may still get a big cut in the export of the South's oil in any case. What seems pretty certain is that South Sudan is going to become another unstable and corrupt country whose economy is entirely based on exporting one particular natural resource, and the oil revenues will most likely only benefit the local elite and foreign companies, rather than the local people. Renewed conflict with the North over oil is not to be excluded either.

One thing is clear: as long as the world economy is so dependent on fossil fuels and oil in particular, it will be difficult for countries like Sudan to achieve lasting peace and a healthy form of development.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Chinese poem on Western bias: "What do you really want from us?"

A poem originally written in Chinese and called "What do you really want from us" has recently been making the rounds on the internet, both in Chinese and in its English translation, and it has caused much debate. Although its autorship has not been confirmed, it is rumoured to have been written by a retired Chinese professor of physics in an American university.

The poem is directed at Westerners and complains about the double standards they employ when they view China. Although I don't think all the points raised in the poem make sense, I feel at least some of them really hit home. It certainly gives voice to the general feeling among many Chinese that Westerners are basically biased towards them and unwilling to accept China becoming a great power which is able to compete with them on its own terms. Here is the poem itself, in both English and Chinese:

The Poem (in English)

What Do You Really Want from Us?

When we were the Sick Man of Asia, we were called The Yellow Peril.
When we are billed to be the next Superpower, we are called The Threat.

When we closed our doors, you smuggled drugs to open markets.
When we embrace Free Trade, You blame us for taking away your jobs.

When we were falling apart, You marched in your troops and wanted your fair share.
When we tried to put the broken pieces back together again, Free Tibet you screamed, It Was an Invasion!

When tried Communism, you hated us for being Communist.
When we embrace Capitalism, you hate us for being Capitalist.

When we have a billion people, you said we were destroying the planet.
When we tried limiting our numbers, you said we abused human rights.

When we were poor, you thought we were dogs.
When we loan you cash, you blame us for your national debts.

When we build our industries, you call us Polluters.
When we you goods, you blame us for global warming.

When we buy oil, you call it exploitation and genocide.
When you go to war for oil, you call it liberation.

When we were lost in chaos and rampage, you demanded rules of law.
When we uphold law and order against violence, you call it violating human rights.

When we were silent, you said you wanted us to have free speech.
When we are silent no more, you say we are brainwashed-xenophobes.

“Why do you hate us so much”we asked.
“No,” you answered, “we don't hate you.”

We don't hate you either, But, do you understand us?
“Of course we do, ”you said, “We have AFP, CNN and BBC's.”

What do you really want from us?
Think hard first, then answer. Because you only get so many chances.

Enough is Enough, Enough Hypocrisy for This One World.
We want One World, One Dream, and Peace on Earth.

This Big Blue Earth is Big Enough for all of Us.

The Poem (in Chinese)







  我们要整合破碎的山河,你说我们“入侵”…… 叫喊“给西藏自由”。


















  “当然了解”,你说。“我们消息多的是,有 AFP、CNN、还有BBC……”


  回答之前,请仔细的想一想…… 因为你的机会不是无限的。



  这个宽广、辽阔的蓝地球, 容得下你们,容得下我们。

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Discussing politics in the Yellow Loess Plateau.

During my stay in the village in Shanxi detailed in my previous post, I had an interesting chance to hear the political views of the father of the friend I was staying with. Her father spends most of his time working in cities as a labourer, although he comes back to his home in the village regularly. One evening he started telling me how when he was a child, Chinese schools stopped teaching foreign languages for a while because Jiang Qing, the wife of chairman Mao and a member of the Gang of Four that was behind the Cultural Revolution, said that in her opinion learning other languages was not necessary.

Since he obviously didn't think the Cultural Revolution was a good period, I decided to ask him why there was a medallion of Chairman Mao dangling over the bed where I slept. He told me that he admires Chairman Mao, because when he took power he redistributed the land to the peasants. I have often heard this mentioned as a reason why the Chairman is still held in high esteem. He started telling me how Mao Zedong fought against the Guomindang, who wanted to exploit the people. Even though he made some mistakes in later years, he is still basically a positive figure. I then asked him if he also admires Deng Xiaoping. He immediately shook his head, and said the Deng Xiaoping improved the economy by starting the "reform and opening up", but at the same time the society's "security" got worse. I asked what he meant by security, and he answered that political corruption has got much much worse. Nowadays most politicians are corrupt, and the ordinary people can do nothing about it. The man's anger at the politicians' corruption was obviously very strong. He also said that since Deng Xiaoping got into power, people's attitudes have changed. In the old days people would help each other out, but nowadays they only think about themselves and about making money. My host also quoted the famous saying by Deng Xiaoping "it doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mice". While the phrase was usually understood in the West to mean "it doesn't matter if the economy is socialist or capitalist, as long as it works well", his understanding was rather different. According to him, the saying's real meaning is "it doesn't matter if you make money by honest or dishonest means, as long as you get rich". The way he sees it, this philosophy caused a big decrease in public morality.

The man's views rather confirmed what I read in a book by prof. Mobo Gao, "the battle for China's past", in which the author stated that in rural areas of China people tend to have a generally positive image of Mao, but a negative one of Deng Xiaoping and of the current leaders, who are seen as corrupt and developing the country at their expense.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A week in the Yellow Loess Plateau

I have just got back from my Spring Festival travels. As you can see I managed to make my way out of Beijing in the end, although I had to take a plane to do so, since buying a train ticket turned out to be simply impossible. I initially flew to Xi'an and stayed there a couple of nights, taking the chance to see the fabled Terracotta warriors. After that I made my way to the small village of Dong Hou, in Shanxi (山西) province. A Chinese friend of mine comes from there, and she invited me to spend a few days at her family's home.

The village is located in the depths of the Yellow Loess Plateau, the plateau that straddles the Yellow River and covers 640.000 square kilometers of Central-Northern China. To get to the village I first took a train to the town of Sanmenxia, where I was met by my friend and we travelled by bus to her home. As the bus crossed the Yellow river and made its way through the countryside along dusty roads, houses and cars started to get scarcer and scarcer and I realized with pleasure that I was headed for somewhere quite remote. The village in question turned out to be the last stop on the bus line. It must have consisted of a few hundred houses.

Although I have been to the countryside in China on other occasions, before this experience I had only ever been to rural areas in Southern China, where the villages and the landscape look remarkably different. In the North, houses tend to contain their own private courtyards, as my friend's house did. As I expected from my previous experiences in rural areas, the living conditions turned out to be quite rough. There was no heating, no possibility to shower and no running water. There was a tap in the courtyard, but it was frozen, so we had to rely on containers of hot water. The bathroom was the usual hole in the ground behind the pig sty. What I found hardest to stand was the constant cold. Since this was Northern China the temperatures were often bitterly cold, only slightly better than Beijing. Although in Shanxi central heating does exist in the cities, it still hasn't reached such small villages. I spent every waking hour with a heavy coat on. At night I was so cold that I slept with my hat on, as well as three thick blankets over me. Towards the end of my stay I got a cold myself. The food I was given was good, although it was pretty much the same for every meal. Rice is not usually eaten in rural areas of Northern China, and I never eat it once while I was there. Instead, the staple food which is eaten with every meal is Mian Bao (a kind of bread bun). Another interesting fact is that the family I stayed with only eat two meals a day (one around 10 AM and one around 4PM). I was told that in the summer they eat three times a day, but in the winter only twice because they days are shorter.

My friend's father works as a labourer in cities during the year and only returnes to the village during holidays, while her mother lives there permanently. As a result the father could speak relatively good Putonghua (Standard Chinese), while the mother only spoke in pure local dialect, which I could hardly understand at all.Of course, on the first evening of my stay they displayed much curiosity towards me and asked me many questions, including "what special food do people eat in your country for the Spring Festival?". During the following days, relatives of the family would pay visits to the home for the Festival, and I would also be taken to the homes of other relatives. I found that most people could speak to me in Putonghua, except for the elderly. Among the many questions I got from people, there were certain recurring ones: "is it true that England is very developed/more developed than China", "is it true that in your country you don't have the Spring Festival, but only Shendangjie (Christmas), "Can you get used to our food" etc... One rather unusual question which I was aked by various different people was if it is true that in the West when a person turns 18, their parents will stop looking after them. Although nobody has asked me this anywhere else in China, it seems to be common knowledge throughout the village that Westerners turn indipendent at age 18. Perhaps they had just had a program on a local television channel which implied this. Various people also asked me if I thought their village was "luohou" (backward), to which I was forced to reply that yes, the economy is not very advanced there. (In the photo, some rather dramatic scenery next to the village where I stayed)

What really struck me was the apparent level of adherence to traditional folk religion and customs. The house where I stayed and many others displayed a shrine for the local gods in the living room, and a little shrine to the "earth god" near the entrance. My friend's mother is apparently a strong believer in these gods, while she herself said that she "would like to believe in them", which I take as an indication that she doesn't. There is a little temple to the gods located on the edge of the village. The road going towards the temple from the south was blocked for the following reason: more people than usual have died in the village over the last two years, and a Feng Shui expert suggested that blocking the road might lead to better luck. Feng Shui is clearly still followed and taken seriously by everyone.

My friend's family belongs to a clan which was begun by a man who arrived in the village 200 years ago. On the first day of the new year, all the members of the clan gathered together, and the men conducted a religious ceremony to commemorate the clan's ancestors. The ceremony is forbidden for women, and I was given the chance to observe it. I followed all the clan's men to the courtyard of a house where the ritual would take place. Sitting among the others was a man who I immediately supposed must be a religious figure of some kind. He had long hair gathered in a pony tail, a long beard and big round glasses, all of which made him very conspicuos in the context of a Chinese village. Indeed, he turned out to be a professional Feng Shui expert. On my arrival he looked at me with curiosity and asked me where I was from and if in my country our ceremonies are the same. The ceremony consisted in all the men (about 40 people) bowing down in front of a shrine and praying under the guidance of the guy with the pony tail, while someone lit fire crackers on the side.

All this doesn't really fit in with the commonly held opinion that religious practice is almost absent in China. Even many Chinese will tell you that most Chinese people have no religion, however in rural areas such as the one I visited traditional folk religion is clearly alive and kicking. As well as shrines to the gods, many homes displayed a picture of Chairman Mao. My friend's grandfather had a bust of the chairman in his bedroom. The bed I slept in also had a little medallion with Mao's face danggling over it. Considering that many Chinese gods are actually former generals or other historical figures who were turned into gods after their death, I wonder if Mao might not just become another Chinese folk god in the run. It would be a funny end for a professed Marxist.

I also observed some interesting traditions related to the Spring Festival. Ash was scattered outside the door on the first day of the year, to prevent evil spirits from coming into the house. The usual red strips of paper contain 对联 or Chinese lines wishing luck and prosperity were pasted around the doors of the houses on the last day of the old year, just like everywhere in China. I noticed that one home had white strips and not red strips pasted around the door. When I asked why, I found out that it means that someone has died in the home over the last year.

Talking about death, someone actually died in a home next to the one where I was staying on the first day I arrived. He was only 60, and died of cancer. My friend told me that there has been an increase in cancer deaths in the area over the last years, which she blames on increasing pollution. However, she said that most local people have no awareness that there might be a connection with pollution.

Another interesting feature of the area are the yaodongs, or homes inside caves. Many people used to live in rooms carved out of the rock below ground throughout the area, and a few elderly people still do. I myself visited a home in a cave in which and elderly couple live, in the middle of the village. It was necessary to walk down a flight of stairs to get to the cave's entrance. Seeing how warm the cave was inside, I wished my host family lived in one too. Apparently when my friend was a child, a big proportion of the people still lived in such dwellings, but nowadays most of them lie abandoned.

All in all, the experience was interesting and fun, if a bit trying because of the constant cold and lack of conveniences. Once I got back to Beijing after a 12 hour train ride, I suddenly had a new appreciation of living in a flat with heating, plumbing and a shower. (In the photo below, me with my friend's grandfather, and a little grandchild of his)

Monday, January 24, 2011

On the greatest annual human migration in the world, and my failed attempts to join it.

Do you know what the greatest annual migration of people in the world is? Anyone who lives in China might guess: it is the hundreds of millions of Chinese who go back to their homes to celebrate the Spring Festival. Every year around this time, countless numbers of Chinese travel across the country to go back to their beloved 家乡 (hometown) to spend the Chinese new year with their loved ones. This leads to the dreaded 春运, loosely translatable as "Spring festival rush". In 2008, the total number of rail journeys undertaken during the Spring festival was 2.26 billion. All the country's transport systems, and especially the trains, are overloaded like mad, and getting hold of train tickets is incredibly difficult and frustrating. I have just found out how difficult it can be myself.

This year, I am (or was) planning to go to Shaanxi province to pass the New year's eve (which will be on the 2nd of February this year) in the home of a Chinese friend. The closest towns to my friend's home are Yuncheng and Sanmenxia. There are two trains a day from Beijing to Sanmenxia, and one to Yuncheng. According to the current system, train tickets only start to be sold five days before the train leaves, so as to avoid the tickets running out months in advance. Since I was planning to leave on the 29th, and today was the first day that the tickets for the 29th are on sale, I got up early and went to the ticket booth near my home to attempt to find a ticket. I was not surprised to see a long queue of people waiting outside the booth. At around 8.30, I got into line and started waiting. I waited for about two hours in the open in sub-zero temperatures, while the queue painfully moved forward at the pace of about 1 meter every half an hour. My feet were freezing despite the thick socks I was wearing.

At around 10.30 I finally reached the front of the queue, and guess what, I found out that the tickets for soft sleepers, hard sleepers, and seats had all already sold out for both the destinations. They had only started selling the tickets on the same day at 9 in the morning, and by 10.30 they were sold out! The only tickets left were for standing. Although I am pretty enduring, standing for over 10 hours in a ridicolously crowded Chinese train during the Spring Festival is more than I can bear. The incredible amount of people makes even going to the bathroom a huge struggle.

I left empty-handed, remembering how I used to live in a country where all you need to do to take a train is go to the station on the same day you want to travel and buy a ticket. This is the kind of thing that millions of Chinese need to put up with around this time in order to buy a ticket to go back home, unless they can afford a flight. In the last few days, the Chinese internet has been full of articles on how a man in Shanghai streaked almost naked through the train station in protest, after he could not buy a ticket to go back to his hometown even though he had started waiting in the station the evening before the day when the tickets were first put on sale.

As for me, I have not made up my mind on my plans yet. Flying is far more expensive, and buying a ticket is an uphill struggle. I will now consider how to get out of Beijing for the holidays (something I am determind to do).