Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Chinese media's excessive coverage of the Connecticut school shooting incident

Over the last few days, a curious phenomenon has been commented on in various Chinese websites and forums: the Chinese media’s constant focusing on the tragic Connecticut shooting incident, and on the debate on gun control in the US which has come in its aftermath.

I had already noticed myself that the CCTV evening news kept having coverage of the shooting in Connecticut and of how Americans are apparently rushing out to buy guns because they fear imminent legislation restricting their “right” to gun ownership. When I really got suspicious was when I found that even last Sunday’s edition of 新京报 (a daily Beijing newspaper) dedicated an entire six page special insert to the issue of gun control in the US, a full nine days after the shooting.

The quantity and the duration of the coverage certainly seems exaggerated, especially when compared to how little attention other international events often get in the Chinese press. It becomes even more striking when you consider that very little coverage was devoted to the attack in a primary school in Henan province, where a madman with a knife injured 22 children. This attack happened exactly on the same day as the one in the US (some have justified the lack of coverage as an attempt not to encourage copycat attacks).

Why this excessive focus on the attack in the US, and on the gun control debate? In most of the Chinese internet forums where the issue is discussed, people seem to believe this is due to two reasons: the fact that many high ranking Chinese officials and wealthy people have family and children in the US, so they want to know about what goes on there; and the fact that the Chinese media want to deflect attention from the problems in China, and give the people a negative idea of life in the US.

Personally I find the second explanation much more convincing. I can easily imagine some ordinary Chinese people seeing these reports, and saying “美国很乱. 还是中国好” (the US is such a mess; China’s still better in the end), or some such nonsense. Of course the fact that Americans can freely buy guns in shops is quite shocking for Chinese people, just like it should be for people anywhere (just think that if the attacker in Henan had had a gun handy, there would now be scores of dead children, rather than just injured ones). Focusing on the issue of gun control is thus an excellent way to make the US look unsafe and barbaric, and China good by comparison. On the other hand focusing on the lack of universal free healthcare in the US wouldn’t work, since the Chinese don’t really have that either.

With the NRA now going on the offensive, and claiming that the solution to school shootings is posting armed guards in every school, doubtlessly the Chinese media will have more easy chances to present the States in a negative light in the near future.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Visit to the Shaolin Temple

A few weeks ago I had the chance to go on a trip to Henan province. I went there to attend a conference and then stayed on a couple of days to do some sight-seeing. One of the places I went to see was the Shaolin Temple, the place of origin of Shaolin Kung Fu.

Although I usually travel alone, this time I decided to join a tour group arranged by my hotel in Zhengzhou, Henan's capital city. I was the only foreigner in the group, and an object of curiosity for everyone else. The guide spoke incessantly into the microphone practically the whole way to the temple, going on and on about Henan’s history, having a happy trip, Zhengzhou’s traffic problem etc etc… The volume of her microphone was far too high and it gave me a headache. Of course none of my Chinese travelling companions were at all bothered. When you join Chinese tour groups, this is the sort of thing you can expect.
The Shaolin Temple's "pagoda forest"

The Shaolin temple is a Chan Buddhist temple (Chan Buddhism gave rise to Japanese Zen Buddhism, better known in the West. The character for Chan is pronounced Zen in Japanese). The temple is mainly famous as the place of birth of Shaolin Kungfu. The term Shaolin Kungfu is popularly used as a synonym for all of the Chinese external martial arts, as opposed to the internal arts. Not all Shaolin Kungfu styles are really connected to the Shaolin temple, but the temple is historically the most important center of Shaolin. It is supposed to have been founded in 495 CE, and its first abbot was an Indian master of Buddhist meditation known as Batuo.

Although Buddhism contains strong prohibitions against violence, Chinese martial arts were originally developed mainly by Buddhist monks like the ones who resided in the Shaolin temple. Since Buddhist monasteries were sometimes incredibly wealthy, and controlled large estates, they were important economic actors which might clash with the local authorities, and which needed protection against thieves and opponents. Martial arts were thus necessary for fighting and self-protection.

An interesting aside is the legend of Southern Shaolin, another Shaolin Temple which is supposed to have existed somewhere in Fujian province, or anyway somewhere in Southern China. It was supposedly razed by the Qing government in the eighteenth century when it became a base for people who wanted to reinstate the Ming dynasty. Popular legend has it that only five monks escaped, and they later established the Heaven and Earth Society (天地会), a secret society devoted to overthrowing the Qing regime.

After the overthrow of the Qing in 1911, this secret society (or some branches of it) allegedlly turned to crime and merged with the Chinese triads. While in Hong Kong it is still illegal, in the PRC the Heaven and Earth Society eventually turned into the Zhigong Party (致公党), one of the eight minor political parties which are allowed to function outside of the Communist Party (but "under its leadership"). The party is used by the government to strengthen ties with overseas Chinese and as a convenient intermediary with certain foreign governments, apparently.

The actual Shaolin Temples lies at the base of Mount Song, one of China’s five great mountains which have been worshipped throughout history. According to Chinese mythology, the five mountains originate from the body of Pangu, the first being who created the world. Mount Song was believed to have been formed out of Pangu’s belly, and thus to be the center of the world. It is holy in both Taoism and Chinese Buddhism.

Typically for China, the Shaolin temple was destroyed numerous times throughout its history, and the buildings you can see there now are mostly of recent reconstruction. A devastating recent bout of destruction came about in 1928, when the troops of Warlord Shi Yousan burnt the Temple for 40 days, destroying most of the building and manuscripts. During the Cultural Revolution more damage was done to the site, and the few remaining monks were victimized.

Shaolin Kungfu enjoyed a great revival of popularity in China in the eighties thanks to a 1982 Hong Kong film called “the Shaolin Temple”, starring Jet Li. After the film was released, thousands of youngsters apparently ran away from home to study Kung Fu at the Temple, and had to be sent back. At the time there was only one Kung Fu school which had recently opened in Dengfeng, the town next to the temple, and it was quickly overrun with applicants. Since then, numerous Kung Fu boarding schools have sprung up in the town. The students are usually children or young adolescents. As well as Kung Fu they are also supposed to learn other subjects. The best ones may one day join the Shaolin performance troupes that stage shows around the world. Others may end up in the military, the police or as Kung Fu teachers. My own San Da teacher in Beijing studied in one of these schools.

As my tour bus drove through the town, I saw courtyards full of young students practicing their Kung Fu moves in unison (on the right you can see a photo I took of practicing students).The actual Temple grounds did not look dissimilar from other collections of Chinese temples I have seen, and it was of course heavily commercialized and packed full with Chinese tour groups like the one I was part of (even though it was the low season). What gave the place a bit of authentic atmosphere were the hordes of students training all over the place, some of them wearing the grey robes of Shaolin monks. Our group was taken to see a Kung Fu show which was decent, although far from amazing. All the performers were young students, sometimes children. Some of them demonstrated their skills by braking thin slabs of metal using their heads.

An interesting site was the Pagoda forest, an area full of pagodas which each commemorate a different Shaolin monk of the past. The higher a pagoda, the more good deeds the monk performed in his lifetime. The Shaolin temple also includes a hall with a statue of the Buddha and a series of depressions on the stone floor, supposedly made by monks practising Kung Fu. I made friends with two rather nice girls in my group who were from Henan province themselves, but had never been to the temple before. When they knelt down and started prostating themselves to the Buddha in one of the temples, I knew that they were most likely not expressing any serious religiosity, but just doing it because it seemed amusing and fun, in the spirit of a tourist who tries to do something unusual while on holiday. I have even seen tour guides lead groups of Chinese tourists in "prayer" in Buddhist temples, telling them what to say and when to bow.                                  

Friday, November 23, 2012

Intelligent Sinophiles

The recent BBC article by Martin Jacques, entitled “A Point of view: is China more legitimate than the West?”, has provoked the ire of seasoned “China Watchers” everywhere. A few intelligent rebuttals have already been produced. I saw the article yesterday, and the reason I wasn’t surprised by its content is that I had already browsed through Jacques’s recent book, When China Rules the World.

The fact is that for anyone with a real knowledge of China, it is impossible to take Jacques too seriously. His triumphalism about the Chinese model masquerading as impartial analysis just does not fit in with the actual situation in China, and few Chinese would share it. His idea that the Chinese see the state as the head of their family, even some sort of “extension of themselves”, and that the government enjoys great authority and legitimacy, doesn’t coincide with what those who really know the Chinese will tell you. And as it has been remarked elsewhere, the surveys of satisfaction with the Chinese government which he quotes cannot be taken too seriously.

It is funny that in his article, Jacques mentions Italy as an example of a country where, in spite of constant elections, the government lacks popular legitimacy. This is supposed to be in opposition to China, where the government enjoys great legitimacy in spite of the lack of elections. In fact the Italians and the Chinese are actually rather similar in their attitudes: the only thing they take seriously is their circle of family and friends. Outside of that, nothing really matters. The state is seen as something which has to be put up with, and the corruption of those in power is met with cynical acceptance. 

Unsurprisingly Martin Jacques has little personal experience of China, and cannot speak Chinese. He apparently spent a short period as a visiting professor in Renmin University. Not enough time to really understand the country, but just enough time to be awed and overwhelmed, while not having to deal with any of the real problems of living here.

The tragedy is that the most basic arguments outlined in Jacques’s book are correct, or at least deserve a hearing. China is indeed going to become more important in the future, the West will no longer dominate the global order, China and other Asian countries are not going to become more Western as they become more modern. China is the product of a different history, and we cannot hope to understand it by just applying Western concepts and prejudices in a different context. And yes, the Chinese state is quite efficient and effective in a number of ways, while managing to retain a certain amount of consensus (does that equate legitimacy?), even though none of the Confucian-style devotion he imagines.

All this is true and needs to be said, but it would take somebody who actually knows Chinese society to say it, someone who is aware of China’s problems and negative sides and does not just engage in blind sycophancy towards Beijing. We may need Sinophiles, but intelligent, informed and balanced ones.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

On Japan and the Diaoyu islands

 (above, one of the many Chinese demonstrations against Japan's control of the Diaoyu islands)

China Daily reported last week that Kawahare Keiichiro, a 28 year old Japanese nurse and globe-trotter, is continuing to volunteer in the earthquake-hit areas of Yunnan Province in spite of the current animosity towards Japan within China. Kawahare first caught the Chinese media’s attention last February, when the expensive bicycle on which he planned to travel around the world was stolen in Wuhan, but then improbably returned after three days by the local police after he publically called for help on Weibo. This caught people’s eye mainly because bicycles are stolen the whole time in China, and usually nobody even bothers to report it. The idea of the police actually finding your bicycle again would normally be ludicrous.

Anyway, during the last few months the young Japanese idealist has apparently had to lie about his country of origin to protect his safety numerous times, had service refused in shops, and was even surrounded by a group of young men yelling at him in Guiyang after they identified him as Japanese. Even so, he is planning to carry on volunteering in China, and stated to China Daily: "I don't care about politics and the stupid islands thing, I care about victims of the earthquake. People are people, and governments are governments."

Here in Beijing people are still as fired up as ever over the Diaoyu islands issue. It has become quite common to see stickers on cars and shop windows with patriotic slogans on how the Diaoyus belong to China. The owners of Japanese-made cars will sometimes display a sticker on the back window saying things like “the car is Japanese, but the heart Chinese” in an attempt to dissuade hot-heads from damaging the car.

Practically all the Chinese I have spoken to are adamant that the islands belong to China and that China should, if necessary, use force to get them back (although one young man did tell me that they are “just some stupid islands where nobody lives”). When I suggested to my Chinese friends that the Chinese government was making a big deal of the issue to divert the people’s attention at this delicate time when the country’s leadership is about to be changed, their reply was along the lines of “yes, that’s probably true, but that’s the government’s thing, it’s nothing to do with us, the islands belong to China”.

Although China has territorial issues with other countries as well, it is a safe bet that emotions would not be running so high if the other country involved wasn’t Japan. Dislike of Japan runs deep in China, as anyone who has lived here will know. Most Chinese, although not all, strongly resent Japan’s occupation of China during the Second World War, and their perceived lack of contrition or recognition of their mistakes. The Chinese educational system and Chinese television, which features constant re-runs of old war films on the Japanese occupation, reinforce this resentment.

Western “China-watchers” tend to blame the Chinese government for encouraging generations of Chinese to hate Japan as a way to deflect the people’s anger on an external target and fan the flames of nationalism. I personally feel that it would be unfair to present Chinese resentment of Japan as being solely the result of manipulation and propaganda, although the government certainly has an interest in encouraging it. After all the South Koreans with their different government also resent Japan, perhaps even more strongly than the Chinese do. 

When the Chinese claim that “unlike Germany, Japan never apologized for the War”, they are technically incorrect. It is a fact that Japanese prime ministers have on various occasions apologized directly for what their country did to its neighbours, including China, during the War. Having said this, it is also a fact that Japanese society’s attitudes towards the Second World War are deeply different from German attitudes. While the mainstream of German society unreservedly condemns Nazism and is acutely aware of all the atrocities Germany committed, Japanese society seems to be far less aware of the darker side of its past, less willing to discuss it openly and more ambiguous in how it judges the war-time regime.

There are still constant cases of mainstream Japanese politicians either minimizing or outright denying the atrocities committed by Japanese troops during the war, and presenting the country’s war effort as a benign push to liberate the rest of Asia from Western imperialism. Most official Japanese apologies were made as a result of similar outbursts causing a scandal in the rest of Asia. It is still common to hear Japanese people voice the opinion that their country was pushed into war, and justifying its wartime actions.

It is hard to say what Europe would be like nowadays if Germany had maintained such an attitude. I wonder if the European Union would even exist. As it is resentment against Germany took decades to die down in the rest of the continent, in spite of the fact that the German state unreservedly apologized, paid reparations to some of its victims and taught its younger generations all about the Holocaust and the War.

Even nowadays the memory of Nazi occupation seems to be rekindled whenever there is a disagreement between Germany and another European country. Only recently Greek politicians raised the issue of the money Germany plundered from Greece during the war, money which was never repaid. In 2010 the Greek prime minister rather implausibly blamed the state of the country’s finances on this fact.

Across much of Europe, the image of a German chancellor trying to impose policies on local governments leaves an uncomfortable feeling. While memories of the War may not usually translate into resentment of modern day Germans, they often do so when relations with Germany sour. Given this fact, can Europeans really be surprised that the Japanese, who are far less repentant than the Germans, are still resented in China?

Having said this, it is undeniable that Chinese animosity against Japan can reach unenlightened and ridiculous extremes. It is sometimes possible to hear Chinese people claiming (only half-seriously I hope) that their country should one day attack Japan in revenge. Terms of abuse like 小日本鬼子 are constantly used when discussing Japan. The blanket dislike of all things Japanese expressed by Chinese youngsters whose parents were not even born during the war, and who probably grew up watching Japanese cartoons, feels like an induced reflex more than a result of genuine grievances.

Although not all Chinese share these attitudes, they remain widespread amongst the young as much as the old, and the islands dispute is now exacerbating people’s feelings. Although Japanese individuals don’t usually encounter actual violence in China, as long as the Diaoyu islands remain front page news Japanese people may well be wise not to advertise their origins too loudly. In the mean time it can only be hoped that people like the brave young Japanese nurse in Yunnan will continue working to build bridges, and that the Chinese media will continue reporting with honesty on such people.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

National Day Crowds

The week-long holiday for China’s National Day (which has just finished) has always been the busiest week for internal tourism within the country, with hordes of visitors jostling for space at all the country’s major and minor attractions. As more and more Chinese have the money to travel internally, the number of people moving within the country during the holidays is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

This year new peaks of overcrowding have been reached. The Forbidden City received 182.000 visitors on the 2nd of October, an all time record for a single day. According to an article in Xinhua, by the 3rd of October the 119 national tourist sites under monitoring (supposedly the most important ones) had received 609 million visitors! That would be half the population of China.

Many tourist sites were working at almost ten times their optimal capacity. In Dunhuang, Gansu Province, some camels died from overwork after carrying tourists back and forth for days. On Mount Hua, Shaanxi Province, thousands of visitors were stuck until midnight on the 2nd of October, because the cable cars were unable to cope with the crowds. There were chaotic scenes as visitors were refused entry, others demanded refunds, and a few fights broke out between visitors and staff.

Personally I had never traveled during the National Day holidays, but I had the brilliant idea to do so for the first time this year, thus joining this madness (and adding to it I suppose). What’s more I had the even better idea to go to Hangzhou, one of China’s most popular tourist destinations of all (well it wasn’t really my idea, a Chinese friend who was going there suggested I come along). 
Hangzhou is a big city just south of Shanghai. The main attraction is the West Lake, a large lake at the center of the city which is renowned throughout the country for its beauty and its historical relics. The Lake has influenced Chinese poets and artists throughout the ages, and it is associated with numerous important figures in the country’s history. As the Chinese saying goes, 上有天堂,下有苏杭 (above there is heaven, below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou).

As one might imagine, train tickets for the holiday period are extremely hard to come by, even if you start queuing on the morning of the first day when the tickets you need are on sale. Flights cost double the usual amount. Somehow my friend managed to get me a ticket for the Beijing-Hangzhou high speed railway for the first day of the holiday. It must be said that the new high speed trains connecting China’s major coastal cities really are very fast. This particular train takes only six and a half hours to get from Beijing to Hangzhou, a distance only slightly shorter than going from London to Nice.

Hotels also tend to be fully booked during the holidays, and I had to settle for an expensive and overpriced room in Home Inn. What has really stayed with me of Hangzhou’s West Lake is not the beauty of the Lake, but the size of the crowds swarming around it. The Lake is kilometers long in circumference, but there were so many tour groups on site that it was almost impossible to move. I tried renting a bike, but the road around the lake was so packed with people, cars and other tourists on rented bicycles that cycling was both difficult and potentially dangerous. Honestly I doubt that I would have found the Lake as beautiful as most Chinese visitors do even at the best of times, but I was so fed up with the constant mass of people surrounding me on all sides that I really couldn’t focus on its supposed beauty anyway.

My friend and I attempted to visit the famous Lei Feng Pagoda (no connection with the selfless soldier of Maoist propaganda; the second character is slightly different). There was such a mass of Chinese humanity swarming around it that I felt dizzy by the time I got near. Spotting my friend was utterly hopeless, and we had to go to the closest bus stop to find each other. By then we both agreed that we had no interest in visiting the pagoda anymore, especially since we would have had to queue for hours to get in.

My original plan was to continue traveling to Henan Province after going to Hangzhou, but after a few days I was so fed up that I just booked a flight back to Beijing on the 4th of October and spent the remainder of the holiday in my flat.

This year many Chinese holidaymakers have also complained that the size of the crowds at the places they visited affected their enjoyment of the vacation, in spite of the Chinese tolerance for overcrowded environments. It is clear that having hundreds of millions of people traveling through China at the same time and visiting the same places is becoming unfeasible, damaging for the tourist sites, uncomfortable and even dangerous (especially for the poor camels in Dunhuang). In any case, I know that I am not traveling anywhere in China for the National Day ever again. 

(Above: tourists turning Tiananmen Square into a campsite over the holidays)

Monday, September 17, 2012

On Mark Kitto's "Why I am leaving China"

Among China watchers and China expats, the latest stir has been caused by Mark Kitto’s article for Prospect magazine, entitled “You will never be Chinese: Why I am leaving the country I loved”. This outpouring of frustration and disillusionment has pushed other expats to go public with the reasons why they have left or are about to leave China, and prompted much debate.

The article in question is certainly heart-felt and well written. The author is a Brit who has spent 16 years in China, and founded the "That's Beijing" magazine. I can sympathize with some of his reasons for wanting to leave, and some of what he says about modern China is undeniably true. I will probably write more about this in another post. What I want to emphasize today is this: where I stop taking Kitto seriously is when he prophesizes the Chinese government’s violent downfall, or in any case an imminent violent upheaval in China.

According to Kitto, this will happen because of the property market bubble bursting, perhaps in conjunction with an “outburst of ethnic or labour discontent”. Outsiders have been making prophecies about the collapse of China’s government and system for a long time. In 2001 a book came out entitled “The coming collapse of China”. The writer was Gordon G. Chang, an author and lawyer who worked for years as a consultant in Shanghai, and is considered an "expert" on China. He argued in his book that many factors, but especially the hidden non-performing loans of China’s state banks, were going to bring the Chinese system to a crash and cause the Chinese government to lose its power. Chang even had the ill-fated idea of predicting exactly in which year the Chinese government would collapse: 2006. It is now 2012, and China is looking as confident and as growing as ever, with the same old people still in power.

Then it was the non-performing loans which were supposed to bring China down, now it is the housing bubble. Commentators seem to have a tendency to read too much into economic problems which are certainly real, but probably not as catastrophic as they are made out to be. The Chinese property bubble has by most measures begun to deflate in late 2011. Then again, this has led to declining economic growth in 2012, but we are really quite far from anything which could threaten the system as a whole. As for ethnic and labour unrest, well…ethnic unrest concerns only the minorities, who are less than 10% of the population, and it seems to be able to make the Han populace rally around its government like nothing else. As for labour unrest, it has existed for years, without seriously shaking the system.

It is impossible to predict the future of course, and I do not claim to know what it holds in store for China. I am however skeptical about any outsider who comes along and predicts the downfall of the Chinese government based on this, that or the other. The people who lead China may be many things, but stupid they are not. If they have been able to stay in power while China went from being a centrally planned economy to a free market one, they can probably survive quite a while longer. You may disapprove of their methods, but in some ways they clearly know what they are doing. Ridiculing them as hopelessly out of touch and unable to lead is tempting, but does it really hold much ground?

In the last decades the Chinese state’s management of the economy has clearly been wiser than that of many Western states, where we have seen some real bubbles burst in the last few years (Gordon G. Chang was obviously too busy looking at non-performing loans in China to notice the much more pressing problem of sub-prime mortgages back in the US). Of course allowing the people to vote for a new leader is an excellent way to assuage their discontent, something which for now is not available in China. It is likely that the Chinese system will have to change in the long run. How this will happen is anyone's guess, and I don't think Mark Kitto's catastrophic forecasts are really any more reliable than anyone else's.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Why do the Vietnamese dislike China?

I have just got back from a two week trip to Vietnam. I had already visited the country for a few days in 2009, but this time my stay was longer and I feel that I got a deeper impression of the place. One thing that I came to realize about Vietnam during my recent stay there is the extent to which China and the Chinese are unpopular in the country.

On my first day in Hanoi, the receptionist at my hotel noticed that my phone had Chinese writing on it, and I told her that I live in Beijing. After asking me to write my Chinese name down, and showing me how she could write 你好 (ni hao) in a 5 year old's handwriting, the woman asked me why on earth I chose to live in China. She told me that Chinese people are "not good", that China occupies Vietnam's Spratly Islands, and that many of the Chinese tourists she has met are rude and speak too loudly.

During the following two weeks in the country, I had various other such experiences. Once I was in the lobby of one of Hanoi's fanciest hotels, and I was fooling about with a Vietnamese girl I know who speaks a bit of Chinese, trying to have a basic conversation with her in Mandarin. A smartly dressed young man sitting next to us interrupted, asking why we were speaking Chinese, since the Chinese are "bad people who think they can conquer everything".

My good Vietnamese friend Hien, who used to be my roommate when I studied in Beijing, confirmed that his fellow countrymen tend to dislike the Chinese on principle. In fact, he claimed that despite the wars with the Americans and the French, the only foreigners the Vietnamese dislike nowadays are the Chinese (he himself doesn't share these feelings, having had mostly good experiences in Beijing).

        Above: Ho Chi Min's Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi's own little Tiananmen Square

This widespread animosity towards China might seem puzzling at first, since Vietnam is clearly the most similar country to China on the face of the earth. Just like Korea and Japan, Vietnam has always belonged to the Chinese cultural sphere. As the Vietnamese like to remind people, they were ruled by China for a thousand years. As a result, they adopted the same mix of Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism and Daoism as the Chinese, and took to writing their language in Chinese characters. Within South East Asia Vietnam represents an outpost of Chinese civilization, as opposed to its neighbours Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, whose culture is influenced mainly by India.

Vietnam's current political and social system is also very similar to China's, with a "Communist Party" presiding over a "Socialist-oriented market economy" in which the government does not exercise control over people's daily lives, but keeps a lid on political dissent. Vietnam's own "Reform and Opening Up", the "Doi Moi" Policy, was started in 1986. Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi even looks a bit like a small scale Tiananmen Square.

The lifestyle, food and mentality of the Vietnamese all bear a clear resemblance to China as well. Although Hanoi looks very different from a Chinese city, with narrow streets and old colonial buildings everywhere, the restaurants and shops look decidedly similar to the ones you might find in China. The people have a South-East Asian gentleness in their way which is unknown in China, and they thankfully don't share some of the Chinese bad habits which I referred to in my previous post, but otherwise their similarity to the Chinese is obvious. Even the Vietnamese language has borrowed about half its vocabulary from Chinese.

Why then this hostility towards China on the part of ordinary Vietnamese? The main reasons seem to lie in history and in the current dispute over the Spratly islands. The way the Vietnamese see it, their history has been one long struggle to rid themselves of Chinese domination. Most of Vietnam's national heroes are people who fought off the Chinese successfully. Then there was the 1979 war between China and Vietnam, started by China in retaliation for Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, and ending with the war-hardend Vietnamese giving their Northern neighbours a good bashing.

The ancient Chinese were apparently baffled by these Southerners who enjoyed the benefits of Chinese civilization but held on to their separate identity so stubbornly, rather than just become Chinese themselves. I have never heard of modern Chinese laying any claim to Vietnam, unlike Mongolia, which most Chinese see as rightly belonging to China. I suppose China's domination of Vietnam came to an end too long ago for it to remain in the Chinese collectively memory. Even the war in 1979 is rarely remembered or discussed in China. The Vietnamese have forgotten nothing however, and there is currently a dispute between the two countries which serves to keep the old resentment burning.

The Spratly Islands are an archipelago of islands in the South China Sea (known as the "East Sea" in Vietnam) whose sovereignty is contended by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. All of these countries except Brunei currently occupy some of the islands. The islands are uninhabited, but the real prize is the oil and gas reserves which the area contains. Although the islands are geographically closer to Vietnam and the Philippines, China claims that they have been part of Chinese territory for two thousand years, and that they are clearly marked as such on ancient Chinese maps. Archaeological findings of ancient Chinese pottery and coins on the islands is supposed to back this claim. Vietnam on the other hand contends that the islands were never part of China's territory, and that they have ruled over them since the 17th century, when they were not under the sovereignty of any state.

The dispute over the Spratly Islands is obviously very deeply felt in Vietnam, and contributes to the general ill will towards China. A British girl I met who lives in Saigon told me that in her opinion the Vietnamese media is also to blame, because it gives a distorted coverage of China. She said that various Vietnamese friends had told her that the Chinese eat babies after seeing stories to this effect in the media. She also pointed out that the Vietnamese have a rather selective memory, forgetting that Ho Chi Min received much help from the Chinese Communist Party. "Uncle Ho" actually spent years in China, married a Chinese woman and spoke fluent Chinese.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Funny poem on Chinese regional differences

I have run into this amusing poem about Chinese regional stereotypes here. It's from the "Ich bin ein Berliner" blog of former Tang Dynasty guitarist Kaiser Kuo.

"In Dongbei, whence the Manchus came, the men do like their liquor.
While effusive with their friendship, with their enmity they’re quicker
Though they’re honest and straightforward, at the slightest provocation
They’ll show why they’ve been slandered as the Klingons of this nation.

The leggy Dongbei ladies for their beauty are renowned,
(I attest that in my travels, few more fetching have I found.)
But they suffer from one drawback, and it’s very sad to tell—
When they open up their mouths to speak, they break that magic spell.

The stalwart Shandong people grow as hearty as their scallions
On their noodle-heavy diet they’ve been bred as strong as stallions.
They’re known for dogged loyalty; they’re known as trusty folks,
But a bit slow on the uptake—thus, the butt of many jokes.

In Hunan and in Hubei in the country’s center-south
They say the people there can really run it at the mouth
In Hubei in particular, the saying is often heard
That a single Hubei codger can drown out a nine-head bird.

The Hunanese, in temperament, are piquant as their dishes,
Like duo jiao yu tou—capsicum with slow-braised heads of fishes.
Add to this mix the province’s infernal summer heat,
And you see why Hunan’s Xiang Jun had the Taiping rebels beat.

The teahouses of Chengdu represent the Sichuan Way:
The women toil in earnest while the men drink tea and play.
The Chuan hou plays at mahjong as the Chuan mei cleans and mends,
And like the Sichuan peppers do, she burns it at both ends.

The Pearl River Delta in the southlands of Guangzhou
Is home to China’s most industrious people, as you know:
They’re scrappy and they’re gritty and they’re free of all pretension,
And they’ll make a meal of any living beast you’d care to mention.

They say that Henan people are a sly and cunning lot.
But my ancestors are from there—proving some, at least, are not.
My co-provincials countrywide are blamed for every ill,
While provinces that suck as bad get let off easy still.

The Shanghainese are philistines, and this they’ll gladly own:
Commercial instincts permeate them to the very bone.
Their pride in Shanghai’s petit bourgeois ethos is immense
But what they lack in culture, they make up in common sense.

As you might well have expected, I have saved the best for last,
For my love for Beijing’s people is immovably steadfast.
From their gargling r-drenched accent to their dry sardonic wit,
The denizens of Jing Town are the dope, the bomb, the shit.

Beijingers love to gab, and though they’re lazy and they’re slow,
There’s nothing about politics that they aren’t apt to know.
They may complain a lot about the traffic and the air
But scratch beneath the cynicism and you’ll find they care.

So be grateful that you live here, and be clear on what it means.
Be grateful you don’t live among Klingons, or philistines.
Be grateful for the legacy of Yuan and Ming and Qing—
And most of all be grateful for the people of Beijing."

The part on the Henan people rings very true. Living in Beijing, the most common regional stereotype I have ran into is that the Henanese are basically not a very decent bunch. There is a widespread idea that a lot of them are untrustworthy, swindlers and people to be wary of.

For those of you China-illiterate, Henan is a huge province in north-central China, where Chinese civilization is supposed to have originated. It is the third most populous province in the country, with 94 million people living within its borders. If it were a country, it would be the twelfth most populous in the world. Despite its historical prominence, it is nowadays a relatively backward province which produces rather than attracts migrant workers, and not a few of Beijing's immigrants come from there.

I have never really been to Henan, even though I have crossed it by train various times. Although I have friends and acquaintances from all over China, I have never had much to do with anyone from Henan as far as I can recall, so I really haven't got much personal experience on the matter, although in general I certainly don't approve of negative stereotyping of entire peoples.

The small village in Shanxi where I spent a week last year was just over the border from Henan. Even there, when I asked one of my hosts about this regional stereotype, they replied: "well, not all of them are bad people of course, but it is just that Henan has lots of people and it's very poor, so you get a lot of them who do questionable things to make money". Of course in some parts of the world people might say the same about the Chinese in general: overcrowded and poor, so sometimes they do questionable things for money. I kept that thought to myself however.

The stereotype of people from Dongbei (the Northeast) being heavy drinkers, frank and straightforward, and easy to anger, is another one which I have heard a lot. I have been to Dongbei and know people from there, and I have a feeling that there is some truth to it. Perhaps it is the cold weather which just turns people into heavy drinkers who like a punch up, since Northern Europeans are the same.

When it comes to the Shanghainese, what I have always heard about them is a stereotype unmentioned in the poem: they have a huge superiority complex towards the rest of China, much greater even than the Beijingers do. I have also heard numerous people say that they will insist on speaking to outsiders in Shanghai dialect even when they know Mandarin, just to be difficult. Given the current state of health of the Shanghai dialect, this complaint  may not be heard for much longer.

It is interesting that in China you do not find the same stereotype which exists within Europe, in other words that people from the hotter regions in the South are less efficient and hardworking than the ones from the colder North. This is even though the climactic difference between the South and the North of China is as great as that between the South and the North of Europe. In fact China's hottest region, Guangdong, is supposed to be home to its most industrious people, as the poem mentions. Clearly hot weather and a laid back lifestyle do not always have to go hand in hand

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Yang Rui's rant and foreigners in China

More news related to the recent crackdown on foreigners has attracted the attention of the foreign community in Beijing.

First there was Yang Rui's demented post on Weibo. Yang Rui is a Chinese journalist who presents a show called Dialogue on CCTV 9, the only channel in English on Chinese state TV. The show consists of him interviewing foreign guests, usually on political issues. Here is the man's entire Weibo post, translated by the Wall Street Journal:

"The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing."

Lovely stuff, hey? The "foreign bitch" in question is Melissa Chan, Al-Jazeera's China correspondent who was recently refused a renewal of her visa by the Chinese government, effectively kicking her out. Apparently she had made some reports on sensitive topics. Yang Rui complained that this translation was incorrect, because the Chinese word he used in the original (泼妇) can best be translated as "shrew", rather than "bitch". Foreign shrew then.

Yang Rui later released a statement claiming that he was only targetting foreigners who behave badly, which he again called "foreign trash", and that he wants to distinguish them from "the silent majority in the expat community that respect our culture and society". He did not apologize or display any understanding of why his comments provoked so much offense.

A few days ago this rather absurd page appeared in the English section of Sina Weibo (which is a listed company, not a government department), with the title "Beijing Welcomes you, Decent Foreigners". At fist I wondered if it might be a parody, but it is all too real. It's not that there is anything specific which is downright racist. It's more that the whole thing comes across as extremely patronizing, fake and frankly ridicolous. I suspect that few Chinese would understand why it feels patronizing and fake to foreigners, including clearly the people at Weibo who cobbled the page together. If someone asked them how they would feel if someone made a web page called "the World Welcomes you, Decent Chinese", with articles about both decent and indecent things done by Chinese abroad, then maybe they would begin to figure it out.

It is easy as a foreigner in Beijing to become extremely upset about this sort of thing, but it is good not to get overly worked up about the situation. Yang Rui's rant is extreme and unrepresentative for a public figure, and some of the Chinese comments under his Weibo post criticize him for being prejudist. I have not experienced any particular abuse or hostility by anyone in the last few days, any more than I have at any other time in Beijing. The crackdown on foreigners continues, but I have yet to be stopped and checked up on by the police (although a friend of mine told me the police went round knocking on doors in his block of flats, which is packed with foreigners). It also seems that the penalties for those caught working illegally are not that great (a 1000 RMB fine according to one person who was caught, with no deportation).

One must also remember what it is like to be a foreign immigrant back in one's own part of the world. Idiotic rants about immigrants on the level of Yang Rui's outburst are nothing new anywhere in Europe, even coming from members of parliament and celebrities. Hysterical talk of Muslim immigrants wanting to "impose Sharia law" in Britain is really not much less disconnected from reality than Yang Rui's talk of foreign spies and human traffickers. Let us also remember all the unfair complaints about immigrants not learning the language and not adjusting to "our values" which you hear all over Europe, and the way that foreigners get blamed for crime all the time. If you come from a rich and respected Western country and live in China, you actually have it pretty easy by comparison.

It is hard to really compare Europe and China in this respect, because in Europe there is mass immigration of people from poor countries doing menial jobs, while in China most of the foreign residents are students, professionals and English teachers concentrated in a few big cities (with some drug dealers and shady businessmen thrown in). Furthermore, few of the foreigners in China are really settling in the country long term, and most of those who do have married a local. Things may be changing though, as Chinese police recently repatriated some illegal immigrants from Vietnam working in a factory in Anhui province. Rising wages in China could mean increasing numbers of illegal immigrants from poorer countries working low paid jobs, just like what you see in Europe. At that point, it will be interesting to see how the issue is dealt with.

In some ways, China strikes me as being in a similar position to most European societies a few decades ago, in the sense that it is not traditionally an immigrant society, and most Chinese are just not used to the idea of sharing their cities and neighbourhoods with foreigners who look and act differently. It is a fact that as long as you don't have Chinese blood you will always be seen as a foreigner here, for good or bad, and I doubt this will change any time soon.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Crackdown on foreigners in Beijing

The entire world seems to have taken note of the current campaign to crack down on illegal foreigners in Beijing. It has been reported on all the main Western news outlets, including the BBC, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal.
The campaign, which started last week, is set to last 100 days. It has been announced that foreigners will be subjected to random checks on the street, and that they should have their passport and residence permit on them at all time, or at least a copy. I have already heard of police actually going to bars where foreigners are known to hang out and asking to see people's papers, and knocking on doors in neighbourhoods where lots of foreigners reside.

The Chinese authorities, with their penchant for making lists, have declared that their aim is to crack down on the "three illegalities": foreigners who have entered the country illegally, stay illegally and work illegally (luckily I do not currently fall into any of these categories). There is even a hotline for reporting cases. Foreigners in Beijing are a varied bunch, and I have little experience with some of the foreign communities here. When it comes to the group I am best acquainted with, in other words young expats from Western countries trying to make a living and gain some experience in China, I can say that I am pretty sure few people actually overstay their visas, and that nobody enters the country illegally. (How do you do that? Do you trek through the mountains on the border between China and Kirghizstan?)

What happens more often is people working illegally, in other words with no work visa. Work visas are hard to come by, and many of the foreign English teachers in China work on business or student visas, which are easier to obtain, and sometimes even on tourist visas. The same is true even for some people doing other kinds of jobs. The fact is that until recently, nobody really seemed to care. It was an accepted practice for language schools to get their teachers a business visa through an agency, or to employ foreign students. I myself worked part-time in a university while studying in Qinghua, and since I was on a student visa it was technically not allowed. This didn't stop the university from officially declaring my salary and me paying tax on it. As the dean of the college said "here in China no one checks, no one cares".

Things seemed to have suddenly changed, with talk of police raids on language schools and places where foreigners are known to work. A friend of mine, a young American on a one year tourist visa who works as an English teacher, is so freaked out that he is seriously considering quitting the English teaching job, and possibly moving to Korea until the crackdown is over. The authorities have threatened penalties ranging from fines to detentions and deportation. Personally I doubt it will go beyond fines, and I am supposing they just want to catch a few people to make examples of. Still, nobody wants to be one of those people.

There is a myth that the crackdown was motivated by this video which appeared on the internet a couple of weeks ago. It shows a foreign man apparently attempting to rape a Chinese girl on a Beijing street, and then getting beaten up by some local men in retaliation, before the police come and arrest him. The man looks either retarded or drunk out of his mind. The police have confirmed that he is a British citizen on a tourist visa and that he is being held under arrest. Although the case was reported in the media and has caused an uproar, it appears to be untrue that the crackdown on foreigners was started because of it. Authorities have denied a link, and articles in the Chinese media were already reporting on a coming drive to crackdown on illegal foreigners before the video came out.

To compound matters, another video has recently made the rounds of the Chinese internet, showing a foreign man behaving like a moron and swearing at a woman in Chinese on a train in China. The man turned out to be a Russian cellist in the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. He has now lost his job because of the uproar. Although the man does appear to be behaving in a boorish fashion in the video, he has broken no law, and I can't help feeling sorry for him. He had even posted a second video in which he apologized for his behaviour in Russian (with Chinese subtitles). This only prompted Chinese netizens to comment that if his Chinese is good enough for swearing at people, it should be good enough for apologizing as well (perhaps they don't realize how many foreigners can swear in Chinese in spite of speaking the language really badly).

It is a sobering thought that nowadays if you get into an argument in a public place and someone films you with their mobile and uploads the video on the internet, you might lose your job as a result. Of course, the fact that the man is a foreigner arguing in broken Chinese is the main reason the video grabbed such a lot of attention in the first place.

Personally, I feel that if it was made easier for foreigners to acquire work visas it would not be a bad thing. After all there is clearly no question of foreigners stealing jobs from the Chinese. Most of the foreign workers here fill positions where foreigners are needed for one reason or another. This is true of professionals and of English teachers. The number of foreign residents in China is minute in comparison to the local population anyway (less than a million as a opposed to 1400 million).

There is also no issue of foreign immigrants depressing the wages of local workers, like you find in Europe, for the simple fact that most foreigners earn more and not less than Chinese workers for the same sort of position. This can also cause resentment, but it is the result of the fact that people from Western countries simply would not work here for the sort of wages local workers get.

Most of the foreigners I have spoken to feel that the authorities would do better to crack down specifically on the foreign drug dealers who line the streets of Sanlitun, Beijing's bar district, and accost other foreigners. It is a well known fact that the trade is controlled by Nigerian gangs (of course, you would not want innocent Nigerians living in Beijing to get harassed by the police as a result). But as usual, the people who should really be targeted will probably be the ones who remain unscathed.

When it comes to the Chinese, it is hard to say whether the recent episodes have produced a hardening of attitudes. The comments in Chinese under the videos I linked in the article are mostly pretty ignorant and xenophobic, although not all of them. It should be remembered, however, that internet forums tend to be the place where the most ignorant and backward people and opinions run loose. If you look at any YouTube video concerning crimes committed by foreigners in any European country, some of the comments underneath are enough to make your blood chill.

In any case, I am not going to be walking around in Beijing without a copy of my passport on me for a while.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My first post on "lost laowai"

I've just had my first post published in the "lostlaowai" site. It's about the tendency of many young Chinese to believe in horoscopes and in the superstition that your blood group affects your personality. Here's the link:

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Hong Kong

I have just got back from a trip to Hong Kong.

It was the first time I go to the SAR (Special Autonomous Region) of Hong Kong. To get there I took a train from Beijing to Shenzhen, which took 24 hours, and then the subway to Hong Kong. Shenzhen is the big city right on the other side of the border from Hong Kong, which sprung up out of nowhere in the eighties after the government turned the area into a special economic zone. Shenzhen and Hong Kong are so close that the two subway systems are connected, although you have to get off and go through a border checkpoint in the middle. If it weren't for the border, which runs along a river and includes walls and barbed wire to stop people from swimming to the other side, Shenzhen and Hong Kong would probably have merged into a single mega-city by this time.

I was already aware that Hong Kong is completely different from Mainland China in all sorts of ways, so the strong feeling of being in a different country which I received was no surprise. I already knew that the currency and official languages would be different. What really struck me about the center of Hong Kong is how it looks almost exactly like the center of London, in terms of both the buildings and the atmosphere. There are even double-decker buses, as well as certain chains of shops which are only normally found in Britain. The place clearly wasn't a British colony for nothing.

I quite coincidentally arrived in Hong Kong during the weekend of the "rugby seven", a famous rugby tournament between seven nations which is held in Hong Kong once a year. The tournament is also the occasion for the city to have a huge party. It has become traditional for revelers to dress up, turning the occasion into a kind of carnival for the city's expat community and visitors.

In any case, as a result of this, I was almost unable to find a room for my first two days in Hong Kong, and I ended up staying in an infamous building called the "Chungking mansions". The building, situated in the middle of the city, is basically notorious for its collection of very cheap and low quality hostels, with names like "the pay less hostel", and as a focal point for shady businesses and people. The first few floors are taken over by little shops, restaurants and businesses run mainly by Indians and Africans. The whole building is supposed to have about 4000 full time residents. Although it is the sort of place most well to do Hong-Kongers probably won't go near, it has featured in films because of its unique atmosphere. An anthropologist who spent some time studying the place estimated that about 20% of the mobile phones currently sold in Africa pass through the Chungking Mansions, although I have no idea whether this is true.

The atmosphere within the building is certainly unusual. It reminded me a bit of Tel Aviv's old bus station, but seedier and more down-market. Although the mansions are well known for attracting a certain amount of criminal activity, I did not feel unsafe there, since there are people around at pretty much any time of the day and night, as well as security guards. The accommodation within the building is certainly cheap (though not by Mainland standards) and not too comfortable, although the owner of my hostel was as helpful as possible. What was most irritating was the lifts, which are incredibly slow and few in number. I had to wait in a queue for about ten to fifteen minutes every time I wanted to go up to the floor my hostel was on. One of the lifts also got stuck with people inside it while I was waiting in the queue, although technicians were called to unblock it immediately. The building is also a bit of a fire hazard, although standards of safety have apparently improved in recent years. In any case, as soon as the rugby tournament finished I moved to a different hostel in a more decent part of town.

A big distinction between Hong Kong and the rest of China is the level of political activism and protest allowed. Just as I was there a new Chief Executive was elected for the Hong Kong SAR. The election is not open to the entire population, but only to the members of an election committee made up of representatives of different professional categories. Incidentally, universal suffrage never existed under Hong Kong, even under British rule. On the day of the elections a small protest was held in front of the voting venue to complain about the system by which this electoral committee is supposed to represent all the citizens. Some of the protesters attempted to storm the venue and clashed with the police, just like in a good old Western country.
I personally happened to pass by a couple of street pickets held by Falun Gong, the religious cult which is banned in China and directly opposed to the Chinese government. Wandering around the city I also happened to bump into a picket protesting about the Chinese government confiscating land in Shenzhen, and the "Occupy Hong Kong" encampment, obviously modeled on the Occupy Wall Street Movement, located just under the HSBC headquarters. Of course, all of this would be out of the question in the Mainland.

Hong Kong's is also a truly cosmopolitan city, on quite a different level from Beijing. There are Indian and Pakistani communities who have lived in the city for generations and feel just as "Hong-Kongese" as anyone, and large communities of Filipino and Indonesian immigrant migrant workers. Walking around the center of Hong Kong on a Sunday afternoon, I came across a park where a few thousand Filipino women were picnicking and chatting. Most of them apparently work as maids, and Sunday is their day off.
Not far off in a square I came across a different spectacle: an African evangelical preacher on a stage, preaching to a crowd of women, again mostly from the Philippines (which is supposed to be a Catholic country, but clearly these evangelicals are making their mark even there). The preacher claimed to be a healer, and while I was watching I witnessed some improbable "miraculous healings". At some point a young woman claiming to be deaf emerged from the crowd, and after the healer touched her and prayed a while, she acted as if she had suddenly regained her hearing. The whole thing was so obviously staged that it is a wonder how anyone falls for such stuff.

Another discovery I made in Hong Kong is that the locals can actually speak Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese), although with heavy Cantonese accents and varying degrees of fluency. On the other hand, contrary to what I had been told, not everyone speaks English, although a lot of Hong-Kongers certainly do speak it extremely fluently. Underneath the international and British flair, Hong Kong is still clearly part of the Chinese world, and the locals still Chinese at heart. This was especially clear to me when I visited the peripheral suburb of Wong Tai Sin to see the temple dedicated to the deity after which the area is named. Although the center of Hong Kong feels more like London than Beijing, when I got off the subway in Wong Tai Sin, I immediately felt like I was in China again. The high rises are even taller than the ones in Beijing, reaching forty floors at my count, and they look almost as run down as well. Foreigners were nowhere in sight, and the local shopping mall felt almost like a typical mall in a Beijing suburb.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

China's Two Parliaments

March: the time of year when the heating in Beijing is turned off, flowers and blades of grass startappearing on the capital's streets, and the "two congresses" are held in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square.

The two congresses ("两会" in chinese) are the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (henceforth CPPCC) and the National People's Congress (NPC), the closest thing China has to a parliament. They last a few weeks each. Many of you may be surprised to realize that the CPPCC includes representatives of different political parties, and the NPC includes elected representatives. However, on a closer analysis, these two assemblies can hardly be seen as examples of Western style rapresentative democracy.

The first time I came to China, I was surprised to read in a government-produced booklet introducing the country that there are a number of different political parties in China, including something called "the Revolutionary Committee of the Kuomintang" and a "China Democratic League". There are indeed 8 officialy sanctioned political parties besides the Chinese Comunist Party (CCP), collected into something known as the United Front, which also includes the All-China federation of Industry and Commerce. Two of these parties have the word "democratic" in their name, although this should come as no surprise to those who know that the Chinese government claims to preside over some form of democracy.

The Chinese political system is referred to in official parlance as "multiparty cooperation and consultation under the leadership of the Communist Party". Basically, rapresentatives from all the different parties in the United Front join CCP representatives and indipendents to form the CPPCC. The proportion of seats allocated to each party is decided by established convention. In practice, it is understood that the CCP has the largest representation and dominates the assembly. It is also understood that the other parties hold no real power independent of the CCP.

The other congress which is held every march, the National People's Congress, is slightly more important than the CPPCC. It is the highest state body and the only legislative assembly in the country. Typically for China, it is the largest parliament in the world, with 2987 members. Since the nineties it has apparently moved away from its role as a rubber stamp parliament for the government, and become a place where genuine differences in opinion within the state are sometimes mediated. The Congress does sometimes actually express its opposition to certain bills put before it, which usually results in them being modified before they are put up for vote. By convention, around one third of the seats are reserved to people who are not members of the communist party, normally technical experts or representatives of certain groups within the society. Rapresentatives of China's 55 ethnic minorities are of course always present. On television they always show shots of them wearing their colourful ethnic costumes, which are in fact only worn in daily life in remote areas.

In theory the delegates to the NPC are elected indirectly by the Chinese people. Ordinary citizens can vote for the deputies of their local people's congresses for five-year terms. These local people's congresses then vote for the deputies of the larger people's congresses which represent entire provinces or cities divided into districts, which in turn then vote for the deputies of the National People's Congress. At the lowest level, there is officially no bar on non-party members proposing themselves as candidates in the elections.
Recent years have seen the appearance of more genuine independent candidates who use the internet to campaign, although this is not encouraged and they have faced harrassment by the local authorities. Just this year, a journalism professor who campaigned as an independent in the constituency of Beijing's Foreign Studies University lost his campaign, and claimed that the authorities did everything they could to disrupt his effort to campaign within the campus, even though he was breaking no law.
Even if independents get elected to the lowest level of the people's congresses, the multi-tier election process means that the governemnt firmly controls who will reach the National People's Congress.

In practice, it is obvious that there is no genuine opposition within this political system, and the amount of debate and dissent allowed is firmly determined by the government. However, it is also easy to see how a move towards a more genuine representative democracy could in theory take place within its framework.

The line of the Chinese government is that China's current political system represents the best choice given China's "specific national conditions", since implementing Western-style multiparty democracy in China would bring to chaos and collapse, because China is still a developing country with such a large population. Articles produced by government organs and newspapers point to the failure of China's only experience of multiparty democracy after the Republican revolution of 1911. They also adore pointing out how elections in Western countries (which they still call "Western capitalist countries", despite being capitalist themselves in most people's judgement) are dependent on which party has the most money to campaign, with the different parties rapresenting different economic interests.

In any case, the Chinese press is currently full of reports on the decisions which are being taken in the "two meetings". The talk is all about the reform of the legal system, with 保障人权(protecting human rights) the watchword. The reform includes provisions on preventing forced confessions, notifying an arrested person's family within 24 hours, and "killing few, killing carefully" when it comes to the death penalty. I can only hope these reforms are succesful and implemented in practice, which is all to be seen.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Chinese Press

My Chinese has reached the point where I can read Chinese newspapers and understand them, albeit slowly and painfully. Before my language abilities reached this level, the only Chinese press accessible to me were the two Chinese newspapers published in English, in other words China Daily and Global Times.

So what is the press in Chinese like? The main thing I have discovered is that, just like in other countries, every newspaper is different. I have found two papers which particularly struck me, for opposite reasons. One is the 南方周末(Southern Weekly), a weekly paper published in Guangzhou. It is well known within China for being particularly serious, open and indipendent, and for publishing reports on sensitive topics, pushing the limits on free speech. It is no accident that it is published in Guangdong, traditionally the province where society is least affected by the central government.
I have found that it does indeed have a superior style to other Chinese newspapers, publishing serious reports on government corruption and discussions on social problems, with a complete lack of nationalistic rabble-rousing or towing the Party line. I also find it much harder to understand than other publications, since it tends to use more serious and literary language. I have heard from Chinese people that the owner of the newspaper has been put under great pressure by the government to moderate its publishing line. Recently, a stack of Southern Weekly newspapers was set on fire by some people in Taiyuan, who called it an instrument of US imperialism which denigrates China's government. I was also told by a Chinese friend that it contains "extreme" anti-government opinion, although by Western standards it is hardly revolutionary.

The other newspaper which has struck me is the Chinese version of the Global Times, 环球时报, which is very different from the English version. It is also well known for having a controversial approach, but for quite different reasons from the Southern Weekly. Basically, it focuses almost entirely on international affairs, taking a decidedely nationalistic and anti-Western line.
The front page headline is often something sensationalist related to world news.
For instance, today's headline is "Putin's victory makes the West unhappy", with an editorial inside the paper entitled "Break free from Western public opinion, look at Russia objectively". The articles are usually full of quotations from major Western newspapers designed to further the idea that the West is biased against the developing countries and China.

Another newspapers I sometimes read is 信报,the free paper they hand out in the subway. It is basically similar to such publications in other parts of the world, except that in the last week they have been going on about the government campaign on "the spirit of Lei Feng", in common with all other newspapers. I have never dared to buy a copy of the People's Daily, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which looks as boring as hell and probably is.

My general opinion of the Chinese press in Chinese is that it is not as censored and propagandistic as many outsiders probably imagine, with reporting on many national and international issues at the same standard as you might expect in the West. Even the Arab Spring has been reported on honestly and completely, in spite of the fact that it could be seen as a sensitive topic. Intelligent commentary on social issues can also be found.
However, it is clear that there are lines which cannot be crossed, and topics which cannot be mentioned. The famous events of '89, for instance, are completely off bounds. I have only ever seen oblique mentions of "the political disturbances of the eighties" buried in the middle of articles on China's recent history. Any reporting on the government's activities, Taiwan or separatism within China which doesn't follow the official line is also quite unthinkable, as are calls for a radical change in China's political system. Disturbances and protests (for instance illegal strikes) within China are sometimes reported on, but it is hard to know how much of it goes unreported.

I was also surprised at the way that the passing of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il was reported on recently. There was absolutely no mention of the fact that he was seen in most of the world as the leader of a particularly brutal regime and of the most closed country on earth, or of the famine which occurred in the nineties under his rule. Even the Southern Weekly stuck to a rather pointless article on a troupe of North Korean actors touring China who suddenly had to go back home because of their leader's death.
All this even though North Korea is generally seen as a poor, backward and ridicolous anachronism even within China. I can only suppose the press had received instructions to keep their reporting completely neutral and non-critical of North Korea, so as not to affect the two countries' relations at such a delicate time.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Is Chinese unlearnable?

There seems to be a school of thought among Sinologists and foreigners who know Chinese, according to which the Chinese language is particularly difficult and fundamentally unlearnable, or so difficult to learn that it's basically not worth the trouble to do so. There are a number of serious articles on the internet written from such a perspective, and their aim is often to discourage foreigners from embarking on the learning of the Chinese language before they realize what they are getting into.

A good examples is this article by David Moser, from the Center for Chinese studies of the University of Michigan, entitled "Why is Chinese so damn hard?". Other examples are this post on "the Lingua Franca" blog, or this rather shorter and less serious post on "the China Expat" site.

The basic argument is that Chinese is too difficult to learn as an adult for it to be worthwhile, and true fluency is beyond reach for most people. It will take you years of full time study, probably while living in China, to get anywhere, in the which time you could have learnt three different european languages or an entirely new profession. You will always sound like a foreigner and never master the tones correctly, except perhaps for a few who have a natural talent for it, and being able to reach a point where you can express yourself fluently and naturally and are able to read a book either takes years or is out of reach.

Chinese is Hard

That Chinese is hard to learn for someone whose own language is unrelated to it is beyond doubt. I myself have lived in China for three and a half years, studied Chinese full time for one of those years (as in 20 hours of class a week in university), and learnt Chinese on my own or in part time private classes for the rest of my time here. I have numerous Chinese friends, and I do my best to communicate with most of them in Chinese. I also chat in Chinese on the internet regularly using QQ, the Chinese instant messaging software.

The results? Well, I can get around in China, and even go through the process of renting a flat in Chinese (including phoning landlords, negotiating with housing agencies and so on). I can chat about general topics in Chinese, but I often have trouble understanding what the other person is saying, and often can't think of the word I need. If the person I am chatting to doesn't make an effort to speak a bit slower than usual and use realtively simple language, it becomes much harder. Someone who speaks with a strong regional pronunciation can completely throw me. I have to settle for expressing myself far less fully than I could in my own language, and I normally sound stilted and unnatural. Speaking about specialist topics is almost impossible, except politics or history because I have an interest in them, and thus have learnt some of the vocabulary. My pronuncation is also not good: I can pronounce almost all sounds correctly, but I usually only know and use the tones for the most common words, and when I speak fast even those get lost. I sound very markedly foreign, and although most Chinese people can understand me, they sometimes have to make an effort to do so. When Chinese people speak to each other I can only understand some of it, how much depending on the topic. And that is provided they speak clearly and in a standard fashion.

When it comes to reading, I think my skills are actually unusually high when compared to my speaking, mainly because of the effort I put into it. If I can follow Chinese films at all, it is mostly thanks to the Chinese subtitles they almost always have underneath. I can read a newpaper article and usually understand the general point, but there will be lots of words and even phrases which I don't understand. With books it very much depends on the topic. Even if I can understand enough to make it worth reading, it takes me such a long time to read a Chinese book that it's almost pointless. As for writing, I can write pretty fast with a computer or a mobile, but writing by hand is of course slow and painful, and I routinely forget how to write even elementary characters (although my Chinese handwriting apparently looks very nice and neat for a foreigner. It's odd, because my english handwriting looks horrible.)

I am not a genius at learning languages, one of those people who can go to a foreign country and starts chattering away in the local argot after a few weeks. Still, I suspect my abilities in this area are higher than average, and Chinese is not the first foreign language I attempt. Needless to say, if I had spent as much time and effort learning any European (or I suspect, Indo-European) language, by now I would be far more comfortable in it, and able to function almost fully.

But are other languages really easier?

The question I want to focus on is this: is Chinese objectively harder to learn than other languages, or is it just that any language with no relation to your own is going to be tough? In the article I quoted earlier, David Moser takes the first view: "(...) part of what I'm conteding is that Chinese is hard compared to..well, compared to almost any other language you might care to tackle. What I mean is that Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it's also hard in absolute terms. Which means that Chinese is also hard for them, for Chinese people".

Some of the points made in the article seem definitely weak to me. I mean, complaining about not being able to read classical Chinese after learning modern Chinese is a bit like complaining about not being able to read Latin after learning Italian. The point about the difficulty of using dictionaries has been made irrelevant by electronic dictionaries, and at least in the PRC there are no longer different Romanization systems to contend with. However, the basic point that Chinese is especially difficult, in a different category from "normal" languages, will strike many foreigners learning the language as credible.
But is this true? The Foreign Service Institute of the US State Department once classified all the world's major national languages (88 of them) into three categories according to their difficulty for an English speaker. Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Arabic and the various forms of Chinese were the only languages to fall into Category III, the one for the hardest languages which necessitate on average 2200 class hours to be learnt (I haven't even reached 1000 in Chinese). Even many other non-Indo European languages (thus entirely unrelated to English) such as Tamil, Armenian, Thai and Vietnamese fall into Category II ( languages necessitating 1100 class hours).

According to this well-known classification, it would seem like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic and Mongolian, are indeed particularly difficult. But is Chinese the hardest of all? My impression is that the Chinese writing system is objectively harder and more impractical than other writing systems. There is no other language in which you have to learn a few thousand characters by heart in order to read fluently (except Japanese, but it is the same system). The Chinese take more years than anyone else to learn to read and write, and writing by hand remains difficult even for Chinese adults at times. There is also a big gap between the written and spoken languages, with many characters which are only ever used in writing, even for the most basic concepts (for instance 此,meaning "this", which is not normally used in speech).

When it comes to speaking the issue is more debatable. As it is often pointed out, Chinese grammar is relatively simple, not possessing any cases, declentions, or gender and singular/plural variations, which is a big advantage in comparison to European languages. The tonal system is indeed a big hurdle, but it is shared by some other languages (notably Vietnamese and Thai). A few people at least do seem to be able to pick up the tones naturally just by speaking to the Chinese, something which cuts down a lot of the learning work.

The combination of the tones and the characters is pretty daunting for most foreign learners, but other languages have their complications too. Japanese and Korean have difficult grammars and a complicated system of different levels of speech according to the status of the person you are speaking to, which foreigners do need to master in order to function in Japan and Korea. Japanese also uses a combination of Chinese characters and two different phonetic alphabets. Foreigners who learn Japanese also like to claim that it is the hardest language in the world to learn.

Arabic doesn't often get compared with the East Asian languages, since it is unusual for someone to learn both, but it is also recognized as extremely hard to learn. Personally I did give it a shot in the past, without getting terribly far. The alphabet is relatively simple, but the grammar is extremely complex, and the language is full of commonly used sounds which most non-Arabs can neither hear nor reproduce. A further huge complication is that "modern standard Arabic" or fusha, the official language of the Arab world, is literally not spoken anywhere at all, and it is a necessity to learn the local dialect to live in an Arab country. Looking back, I don't feel Arabic was any easier than Chinese for me to get my head round.

The truth is that while some languages may be objectively harder than others (on the other end of the scale, Malay and Swahili are known for being objectively easy), I would assume that most of the difference simply depends on the distance of the language learnt from your own one. The less closely related it is, the harder it is to learn. European languages, with their super-long words and their strange grammas in which every word is either masculine or feminine, are basically just as hard for the Chinese to learn as Chinese is for a European (at least when it comes to speaking. The characters might make Chinese objectively harder to read and write).
Chinese is hard, but not impossibly so, and the fact that Chinese minorities whose mother tongue is not Chinese still manage to learn it reasonably well through school proves the point.

Chinese as an international language
On a related note, it has by now become commonplace to hear the prediction that "Chinese will be the international language of the future", especially coming from foreigners learning Chinese.
The reasoning is that since China will one day be the world's foremost superpower, it's language will also rise to a comparable status. Setting aside the issue of whether China really is on track for superpower status, is it really possible to imagine a language like Chinese rise to become an international lingua franca?

On the one hand it is true that when a language has the prestige of having a great power behind it, you find that people suddenly can learn it no matter how difficult it may be. The myth that English is easy to learn is in fact just that, a myth. Unsurprisingly, this myth is not very widespread in China, where people find the language incredibly hard to achieve fluency in. English does have some easy sides for sure. In particular, it's grammar is far easier than most other European languages' ones, although the Chinese would take that for granted. On the other hand, English spelling is a nightmare of un-phonetic, illogical spellings which give little clue to pronunciation (think "four" and "forty"), and in fact British children take longer to learn to read and write than any other European children. Even well educated English speaking adults sometimes make spelling mistakes, something almost unthinkable in Spanish or Italian, which reminds me of how Chinese people sometimes forget how to write characters.

English pronunciation is also quite hard in comparison to most languages, with a wealth of unclear, barely differentiated vowel sounds and words which sound almost the same, but not quite. English also has a huge vocabulary, far wider than most languages, and often uses words with different Latin or Germanic roots for similar concepts (think "tooth" and "dentist" rather than the more logical "toothist"). All this is of course barely acknowledged in English speaking countries and in the few North European countries where, because of cultural and linguistic similarities, most people have aquired good English.

In spite of these shortcomings, English has reached the status of international working language because of the power of the British Empire and more crucially, the United States. In so doing it has displaced French, another language with tricky pronunciation and spelling. And somehow, even in China or Japan people who really need English do somehow manage to learn it, at a huge expenditure of time and money. If a language like that can make it, surely there is a chance even for Chinese? Or does the Chinese writing system make it unthinkable that Chinese could reach such a status, in spite of the presumed power China will enjoy in the future?

My feeling is that it is unlikely that Chinese will ever be able to displace English, partly because English is much easier for anyone who speaks a European language (a large chunk of the world outside of Asia), partly because English is already so entrenched in so many countries, and partly because I doubt China will ever enjoy the sort of power which the US enjoyed from the Second World War until recently.
Having said that, it is really hard to say with these things. In the coming years, it will certainly become more common for members of the elite in other countries to have learnt Chinese, and especially in other Asian countries this might start trickling down to the masses too. We will just have to wait and see.