Sunday, November 9, 2014

What does it take to clear up Beijing's pollution?

The APEC summit currently taking place in Beijing has provided Beijingers with a week of unusually low pollution and blue skies, due to the exceptional measures which have been taken to ensure that the city would not be blanketed by smog during the summit.

The aforementioned measures have included a five day holiday for all educational institutions and public offices in the city, a suspension of work in all factories and building sites, and only allowing cars to take the road if their number plates end with either odd or even numbers, depending on the day. 
This last measure has been extended to a huge area of Northern China, all the way down to Shandong province. More petty measures have included a ban on burning incense for the deceased in cemeteries, and on taking your own incense into Buddhist temples.

As always, the Chinese authorities will do anything to look good and keep face when they host an international event. It seems to have worked too. In the five days since these measures have been in place, Beijing's skies have been a lovely blue, and the haze which is visible to the naked eye for much of the year (with the exception of when there are strong winds) has completely dissipated. 

According to the US embassy estimates, the ones which savy Beijingers trust the most, PM 2.5 levels have consistently remained below 200, the level which the WHO defines as "very unhealthy" (although today they are over 150, defined as "unhealthy", which in any European city would still be considered unacceptably high).

This shows you what sort of extreme steps currently have to be taken just to ensure a smog-free Beijing for a few days. Unfortunately such measures are not sustainable in the long run, and structural changes will be needed to achieve a long-term improvement. 

In the meantime we can all enjoy the Beijing sky's "APEC blue", as the locals have dubbed it.

The unusually clean air over central Beijing last Thursday.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How has China changed since 2004?

That China is undergoing "a dizzying pace of change" has become a worn-out journalistic cliche'. An old Lonely Planet guidebook once put it better: China is a country undergoing massive and rapid change, but still somehow always exactly the same.

The first time I visited China was in 2004. It's now been a decade. China has changed, and so have I. I have decided to list a few of the ways in which China has changed since that first visit of mine, as seen from my perspective.


Ten years ago, getting around China meant either spending money to fly, or taking 10, 20 or 30 hour train-rides. The options in the trains included a "soft bunk bed", a "hard bunk bed" (not really hard but cramped and with no privacy), a simple seat, and even a "standing ticket" which meant you had to spend the journey standing in the aisle.

Fast forward to 2014, and most Chinese trains are still like that. There is however a growing network of high-speed railways, which is already the most extensive in the world. High speed trains now link pretty much all of China's biggest and richest cities, crisscrossing most of the Eastern coastline. They are seriously fast too: the 1300 Km. tract from Beijing to Shanghai now takes just five hours. Journeys which used to be grueling overnight odysseys can now be done in a few hours, in comfortable new trains where people are not allowed to travel without a seat. The carriages are sometimes even equipped with wi-fi.

Of course many parts of China still aren't reachable in this way, but the high-speed network is scheduled to expand, and quite soon almost all of China's provincial capitals will be covered. Tedious 20 to 30 hour train-rides to get around the country will then become a thing of the past. I think this is one aspect of China's policies which the US should seriously consider imitating, if the car and oil lobbies don't get in the way.

The attention which foreigners gather

When I traveled through China in 2004, the only places where I did not receive too much attention as a foreigner were the centers of Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing. Everywhere else I went, I would attract surprised stares and cries of "laowai". Young people would stop me on the street and try to speak to me in English, or ask me if they could take a photo with me. This happened to me a lot even when I visited Chongqing, already a huge city with skyscrapers and McDonalds in the center.

I still remember going into an internet cafe' in Suzhou to check my e-mail, and having some youngsters literally crowd round my screen to see what the foreigner was writing. When I visited some smaller towns in the vicinity of Chongqing, people would sometimes stare at me as if they had just seen a ghost, with their mouths wide open and their eyes almost popping out of their sockets (it wasn't everyone, but it happened).

Fast forward ten years, and the amount of attention you draw as a foreigner in China has decreased considerably. In the bigger and more cosmopolitan cities, from Beijing to Qingdao to Shenzhen, it is quite unusual for anyone to give you even a passing glimpse. Chinese and foreigners are treated almost with the same level of indifference. There have just been too many foreign visitors here for too long, and it is no longer a novelty. In smaller or more remote places the sudden appearance of a foreigner can still draw surprised stares and curiosity, but less so than it used to be the case a decade ago.

Then again, it might also be me: in 2004 I had long hair and a ginger beard, which must have made me look much more outlandish. 


When I visited China in 2004, I got the impression that the entire male population smoked. The majority of the men you saw on the streets were smoking. On the other hand you almost never saw ladies lighting up, since it was not considered a feminine thing to do. Smoking was permissible pretty much everywhere. I don't remember any restaurants or cafes where it wasn't possible to smoke. Since I smoked too at the time, I found this quite agreeable. I also remember that packets of cheap local cigarettes only cost 3 Yuan. 

Although smoking is still widespread in China, the proportion of men who smoke has decreased considerably. Especially among the young and educated, it is no longer the norm. In the big cities there are now numerous establishments and restaurants which don't allow smoking on the premises, or confine it to a special smoking area.

On the other hand, you see noticeably more women smoking on the streets than you did a decade ago. I suppose this is an unfortunate off-shot of the weakening of traditional gender roles.


For an English-speaker, one of the funniest aspects of travel in China is coming across the bad translations of Chinese into English which dot the country's cities and tourist sites. They can be bemusing, hilarious, meaningless and even surreal. Often the product of computerized translation, notices and menus mistranslated into English can always provide a good laugh. There are in fact entire books dedicated to collections of the funniest examples.

Unfortunately, the quality of English signage in China's bigger cities has improved considerably over the last decade. Menus can still provide a good laugh (you may order a "Spicy temptation of frog", or even a "Ding Xiang fish with investigate the benefits of chamomile"), but English signs at tourist sites and in offices tend to have much less comedy value then they used to. Whoever deals with such things has clearly zeroed in on the necessity to ask someone competent for advice before just putting up a sentence mechanically translated from Chinese. 

Don't despair though: plenty of funny Chinglish is still out there if you search for it, and restaurants all over China still have the "mind out: knock head" notice above doorways where a tall foreigner might bash their head. I just hope that the brilliant "don't walk on the grass" signs like the one below will always survive.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hong Kong and the "hostile foreign forces"

So it seems that the Hong Kong protests may be starting to peter out, without having achieved their goal. This was to be expected; there was no way the government was backing down.

Over the last couple of weeks I have heard various of my foreign friends here in Beijing wonder if the protests were going to end with a repeat of Beijing 1989. This always seemed unlikely to me, as I couldn't imagine the Chinese government sending the army into Hong Kong. Instead, it seems like they may well have chosen the sneakier method of encouraging Hong Kong's triads to attack and harass the demonstrators.

Here in the Mainland, the media has attempted to paint the demonstrators as naive students manipulated by shadowy "外国势力" (foreign forces), which in their imagination are always waiting to pounce on any chance to destabilize China. That they would present it this way is entirely predictable for those who know anything about China. It is also not at all surprising that many Mainland Chinese are ready to be swayed by such accusations.

Allegations of foreign backing are relatively groundless (as this piece by Dave Lindorff intelligently argues). The protesters themselves are genuine Hong Kongers of all ethnic backgrounds, and most of them were not part of any organized movement, but simply turned up spontaneously. The Occupy Central and Scholarism movements are organized, lead and staffed by Hong Kongers. While it is obvious that such a movement would receive sympathy and support in the Western world, there is no real evidence that it was organized or received material support from the outside.

The real mystery is perhaps not whether there are "foreign forces" supporting the protesters, but why this should matter. When the Chinese Communist Party was struggling against the Japanese and the Guomindang in the fourties, were they not receiving the support of "foreign forces"? Or was the Soviet Union not a foreign country? Is receiving international support necessarily a bad thing?

Surely any political movement should be judged on the strength of its goals and its cause, and not on whether it is receiving foreign backing. The Hong Kong protesters demand the right to elect Hong Kong's Chief Executive freely. It is the central government's refusal to allow this that is "destabilizing" Hong Kong. Having a chief executive that doesn't just toe Beijing's line would probably not destabilize Hong Kong, but just improve the level of trust between Hong Kongers and their local leaders. There is no way it could lead to independence for Hong Kong.

Protesters in Hong Kong. The crossed out Chinese word on the placards means "silence" (沉默)

It is interesting to note that Beijing's accusation that Hong Kong's protest movement is basically a pawn of the West ties in with a certain sort of discourse which is gaining much ground internationally. This discourse, which unites the Chinese and Russian governments and their supporters with certain sectors of the Western left, holds that most of the pro-democracy protest movements and rebellions against authoritarian regimes which have erupted around the world in recent years have been initiated and funded by the United States and its allies, in order to destabilize and replace governments unfriendly to them.

According to this line of reasoning the uprisings in Syria and Libya, the Maidan protest movement in Ukraine, the electoral protests in Iran in 2009, the Venezuelan protests against Maduro's government, the unrest in Xinjiang and now the Occupy movement in Hong Kong are all mere tools of the US and the West in their geopolitical struggle against their enemies.

It is of course true that all of the governments targeted by these protests are not on good terms with the United States. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that the US views the protests with sympathy, and even aids them materially in some cases (in the case of Libya, NATO warplanes certainly finished off the protesters' job for them). But to presume that these popular movements are all simple orchestrations of the United States exaggerates the role that this country is able to play and takes away any agency from the protesters themselves, who are reduced to the role of pawns in someone else's game.

The simplistic nature of this analysis is obvious if you look at the "Arab Spring". This wave of popular protest started off targeting dictators friendly to the US and Western interests (Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt), and then moved on to countries with regimes long on the list of US enemies (Ghaddafi in Lybia and Assad in Syria). All of these uprisings clearly took inspiration from each other. It would hardly make sense to assume that the rebellions in Syria and Libya were entirely orchestrated by the US, while the ones in Tunisia and Egypt were spontaneous popular uprisings.

Ironically, the way that Russian and Chinese nationalists are always ready to see the hand of the US behind pro-democracy movements around the world reminds me somewhat of how cold war-era conservatives in America and Europe would see the "evil hand" of the Soviet Union behind just struggles everywhere, from blacks fighting apartheid in South Africa to landless peasants fighting for their rights in Latin America. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

The five most repressive countries in the world

Few would debate that over the last few decades there has been a trend towards more representative democracy and respect of human rights around the world.. There are a few countries, however, which seem to be simply unable to free themselves from the grip of complete, unabashed tyranny.

The five countries in this list consistently come last in all global indexes for respect of human rights, freedom of the press, democracy and governmental transparency. They are all places which make China seem like a democratic, open and transparent sort of country. Two of them are located in Africa, two in Asia, and one in the Middle East (technically also in Asia). One is an absolute monarchy, and the other four are ruled by leaders who have been in power for decades (Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea) or are the sons of former leaders (Turkmenistan and North Korea). In what must be a cruel joke, four of these countries also have the word "democracy" enshrined either in the name of the country or in the name of the ruling party.

1) Eritrea

When Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia after a 30 year war in 1991, there were high hopes for the country. The former Italian colony, located on a strategically important strip of the Red Sea and rich in mineral resources, seemed like it might become the success story of troubled East Africa. The former leader of the liberation struggle Isaias Afwerki immediately became head of state. He has remained in power ever since. 

Under his watch Eritrea has turned into possibly the most repressive state in the whole of Africa, which is really quite a feat, although not of the kind which his people were hoping for. The 1997 constitution proclaims the country to be a unicameral parliamentary democracy, but it has never been implemented. Eritrea is in actuality a one-party state. The one party in question is called the "People's Front for Democracy and Justice" (well of course it is). 

Human rights in Eritrea simply don't exist. Freedom of association and worship are severely curtailed. The only religions allowed are the four ones registered with the government, in other words Catholicism, Eritrean Orthodox Christianity, Lutheranism and Sunni Islam. All other religions, including all the various protestant denominations, are outlawed, and people get arrested and persecuted for practicing them. Not a few Eritreans have escaped the country because they are practitioners of an "unregistered" religion. 

Freedom of the press in Eritrea is absolutely dismal. The country regularly comes last in the world for press freedom according to the ranking which Reporters Without Borders releases every year. In 2013 it came 179th out of 179 countries, just behind North Korea. How it's possible to have less freedom of the press than North Korea I really don't know, but somehow Eritrea manages. It is the only African country to have no privately owned media at all. 

One of the strangest and most damaging of the country's human rights abuses is the enforced military service which can go almost indefinitely. All the country's youths (both male and female) are required to complete their final year of high school in a military training camp, and are then drafted. In theory the draft lasts for 18 months, but in practice it is often extended for years and even decades, during which soldiers get used as forced labour in government building projects. They live in terrible conditions and are paid close to nothing. 

The regime is also loathe to allow young people of the age for conscription to get a passport and leave the country. Huge numbers of Eritrean youths have thus fled abroad to avoid this form of slavery masquerading as military service, in spite of the great risks for those who are caught crossing the border illegally.

Isaias Afwerki, Eritra's president since 1991

2) Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is one of those places which you wouldn't even end up in by accident, but it hasn't always been this way. This country about the size of Spain, perched precariously between Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, used to be an important stop on the Silk Road. Incorporated into the Russian empire in 1881, it then became a Soviet Republic.

When the Soviet Union split up in 1991, the former head of the local Communist Party, Saparmurat Niyazov, immediately became the new leader of independent Turkmenistan. He did so by winning presidential "elections" in which he was the only candidate, with 99.5% of the votes in his favour. With the usual cynicism which characterizes such figures, he went about turning the country into his own personal fiefdom.

What gave Niyazov a certain international renown were the more grotesque sides of his personality cult. He had himself renamed Turkmenbashi, which means "the leader of the Turkmens". He famously renamed the months of the years in Turkmen, replacing the old names taken from Russian with new names which were often inspired by members of his own family. January was renamed after him, and April after his mother.

Niyazov also produced his own answer to Charmain Mao's Little Red Book: a book called the Ruhnama (the Book of the Soul), containing historical and personal anecdotes of dubious accuracy. Unsurprisingly, this book became required reading in all institutions of learning. More comically, questions on the Ruhnama even became a part of the exam to get a driving licence.

Some of the laws Niyazov passed make you think that Sacha Baron-Cohen's "the dictator" must have been based on him. In 2001 opera, ballet and the circus were outlawed for being "un-Turkmen". In 2004 men were forbidden from growing long hair or beards.In 2005 all libraries outside the capital were closed by decree. Niyazov argued that the only books most Turkmens need to read are the Koran and his Ruhnama. What is perhaps most bizarre is that Niyazov abolished the death penalty by decree in 1999, and this still stands today.

Niyazov died in 2006, succeeded by his deputy prime minister Berdimuhamedow. The new leader repealed some of Niyazov's more absurd decrees, for instance the banning of the opera and the changing of the names of the months. In general though, the country remains an authoritarian black hole, under the iron rule of the "Democratic Party of Turkmenistan" (no kidding).

Only very few citizens are allowed access to the internet, while everyone else has to make do with the "Turkmenet", a controlled local version of the world wide web. Foreign travel is severely restricted for most citizens. The country's press freedom ranks third worst in the world after Eritrea and North Korea. Any opposition is all but impossible. Non-Turkmen minorities including Russians are discriminated against, and many of the Russians who were there from Soviet times have left.

In the mean time the Turkmens remain poor, in spite of the huge reserves of oil and natural gas which the country is endowed with. Unsurprisingly, Xi Jinping visited Turkmenistan a few months ago, and signed a deal for China to import its natural gas. If any of the money will reach the ordinary people remains to be seen.

A monument of the Ruhnama at Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's capital.

3) North Korea

What is there to say about the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" which has not already been said? The country has attracted great attention in the last few years as the last bastion of extreme totalitarianism, replete with nuclear weapons.

The personality cult which surrounds the country's dynastic leaders reaches levels which outsiders can barely fathom. Jang Jin Sung, one of the highest level North Koreans ever to defect, recounts in his autobiography how he used to believe that the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il never went to the bathroom like an ordinary human being.

The levels of social regimentation also defy belief: you have to be a member of the Korean Worker's Party to even be allowed to live in the capital Pyongyang (cripples are also excluded from living there). It is official practice to punish the whole families of those who commit a crime of any sort, which makes it easy to imagine why nobody wants to step out of line.

What is not often realized nowadays is that while North Korea was always a paragon of totalitarianism, it was not always a basket case. North Korea was not an especially poor country during the first decades of its existence. It was actually more prosperous than South Korea until the sixties (of course South Korea was still a poor country at the time).

The economy declined throughout the eighties and nineties as the collapse of the USSR and China's opening up left the country isolated. Flooding in the mid-nineties led to a widespread famine in which millions died. The North Korean media stepped in and told its people that the famine was even worse in South Korea, and that the Dear Leader was touring the country trying to remedy the situation, sustaining himself on only one rice-ball a day.

It is clear from all accounts that the famine wreaked havoc in a society which had functioned for decades like a sort of closed religious cult which most of its members had genuinely believed in. Millions of people had to re-learn how to fend for themselves and make decisions, since the state's regimented control of everyone's life mostly collapsed. Many fled over the border to China, where they saw with their own eyes what a freer and richer society looked like.

Since then North Korea has never been the same. Although access to foreign travel, the internet and foreign media is still unthinkable for most North Koreans, it is clear that information about the outside world is no longer as limited as it used to be. South Korean DVDs smuggled in from China are apparently widely bought on the black market, and it is an open secret in the country that South Koreans live far better. 

All the same, North Korea remains isolated from the outside world to an extent which no other country can approach in the 21st century. China has traditionally been its staunchest ally, but in recent years the relationship has become strained, as even the Chinese authorities have grown tired with the North Koreans' erratic and aggressive behaviour.

Last year North Korea impounded a Chinese fishing boat, and demanded 600,000 Yuan from China for the safe return of the boat and its 16 members of crew. Not a clever way for Pyongyang to deal with its only friend left in the world, one might think. But clearly making friends has never been one of North Korea's priorities.

A picture from the Arirang festival, North Korea's famous mass games in which thousands of well-drilled school children make up mosaic pictures by holding up different coloured cards. Here's a link to the BBC's interesting documentary on the children who take part, "a state of mind". 

4) Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a bit of an odd one out in this list. In many ways, it would not appear to be your typical 21st century autocracy. Its people are relatively well off; they travel abroad quite freely (except that women need the permission of their "male guardian" to do so); the internet is available and mostly uncensored; the biggest cities are full of glittering skyscrapers and new infrastructure; and the country is full of foreign workers, who make up about a fifth of the population. 

All the same, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most repressive and stifling countries in the world. It is an absolute monarchy ruled by the house of Saud,the royal family which gives the country its name. There are no political parties or national elections allowed, and no human rights whatsoever. All male Saudis are however allowed to petition the king directly, in accordance with traditional tribal custom. The government refuses to sign the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, claiming that it is unsuitable for an Islamic society.

Saudi Arabia is run according to the principles of Wahabism, the extreme and puritanical Islamic movement founded in the 18th century by Muhamad Ibn Abd Al Wahab, a preacher from the remote desert interior of the Arabian peninsula. Al Wahab wanted Muslims to return to what he considered the "real Islam" of the origins, and to give up on idolatrous practices like the worship of saints and shrines, instead of the direct worship of god.

As a result, Saudi society is dominated by a version of Islam far more extreme than that which is found almost anywhere else. The Quran and the Sunnah are declared to be the country's constitution. The public worship of any religion but Islam is strictly forbidden, and churches or other non-Muslim places of worship are not allowed to exist. Any public rejection of Islamic principles is completely unthinkable and very, very dangerous.

Saudi law is supposed to be based on Islamic Sharia, and it is famous for its backwardness and barbarism. Beheadings, floggings and amputations are part of the legal system and routinely carried out. Saudi Arabia is one of the countries which makes the heaviest use of capital punishment, most often in the form of public beheadings. Sometimes the beheaded bodies are then put on public display for days. Capital crimes include apostasy, adultery, homosexuality and witchcraft (!). People have actually been put to death for sorcery in recent years.

The status of women in Saudi Arabia, both legally and socially, is probably lower than it used to be in medieval Europe. Extremely few of them work, and they need the permission of their "male guardian" (usually a husband, father or brother) to do a host of things, including travelling and opening a bank account. Famously, women are also not allowed to drive cars.

Saudi Arabia's strict religious laws are often enforced by the infamous Mutaween, a kind of "religious police" employed by a government agency with the Orwellian name of "the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice". These bearded young men patrol the streets, ensuring that unrelated men and women don't mix, that women are dressed modestly, and that people observe prayer time.

In an infamous case in 2001, the Mutaween prevented a group of girl students from escaping from the premises of their school after it was engulfed by a fire, because they were immodestly dressed and thus could not be seen in public by men. 15 of them died.

Until the sixties Saudi Arabia used to be an extremely poor desert nation, but since it is blessed with the world's largest deposits of oil, it has now become a high-income country with a modern infrastructure. Attitudes however remain stuck somewhere in the deep Middle Ages. A curious facts is that most of the actual work in Saudi Arabia is done by foreigners. While foreign workers make up about 20% of the population, they hold about two thirds of the jobs. This is partly because Saudi Arabia's antiquated beliefs and educational system leaves its citizens unprepared to work in a modern economy.

Foreign workers usually mix very little with Saudis. Westerners and others who work for the oil corporations live in segregated compounds, where they are to some extent allowed to follow their own social norms and get away from the country's stifling brand of puritanism.

Although protests did shake Saudi Arabia in 2011-12 during the Arab Spring, the state managed to successfully put them down. Both liberals demanding reform and the Shia minority demanding and end to being discriminated against for not being "real Muslims" saw their demands suppressed. Meanwhile the majority of the population may well support the regime, given the extremely conservative attitudes prevalent in the country.

Deera Square in Riyadh, where public beheadings usually take place. Also known as "chop-chop square".

5) Equatorial Guinea

Rounding off this list, tiny Equatorial Guinea is an ex-Spanish colony lying off the coast of West Africa. With only 622.000 people, it should be the richest country in Africa by far. Since large oil reserves were discovered there in 1996, its government revenues have skyrocketed. With such a small population and lots of oil money, Equatorial Guinea's GDP per capita has risen to be the highest in Africa and the 29th highest in the world, standing at 33.000$ per person, higher than countries like Spain and South Korea.

Looking at other indexes of human development however, a very different picture emerges: 20% of children die before the age of 5, and less than half the people have access to clean drinking water. Life expectancy is only 61. Most of the infrastructure is old and inadequate.

The reason for this is that the distribution of wealth is extremely uneven. Basically the vast majority of the country's oil money is eaten up by president Teodoro Obiang and his cronies. Although government corruption is rife throughout Africa, this case is a particularly glaring one.

Obiang took power in 1979 by staging a coup and deposing his uncle, Macias Nguema, one of the most brutal and downright crazy rulers in Africa's history, whose actions bore a distinct resemblance to Pol Pot's (he also ordered the execution of anyone with spectacles because he hated intellectuals).

After having his uncle executed, Obiang established a rule which was slightly more humane, but still completely autocratic. Even today, bucking the trend towards at least nominal democracy in most of Africa, Equatorial Guinea is a one party state ruled by Obiang's "Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea" (here we go again). Needless to say, opposition and a free press are non-existent.

More sickeningly, most of the country's oil revenues are siphoned off for the personal use of Obiang and his family. The president is one of the wealthiest heads of state in the world. He and his sons own numerous lavish mansions, while their collection of villas, fancy cars and expensive wines in France have now been seized by the French government. And just a fraction of that money could do so much to improve the lives of the country's not very many citizens.

There are reports that Obiang, the longest serving head of state in the world who isn't a monarch, now suffers from terminal cancer. He is of course preparing his son to succeed him .
A slum in Equatorial Guinea, a country with a per capita GDP higher than Spain and South Korea.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Britain's capitulation over Hong Kong's elections

So the British government's Foreign Office has backed down on the row over Hong Kong's elections, saying that it welcomes "the confirmation that China's objective is for the election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive through universal suffrage." 

Calling the proposed system for the election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive in 2017 "universal suffrage" is clearly stretching things. According to Beijing's plan, the people of Hong Kong will only be able to choose between two or three candidates (apparently too many candidates would confuse people. Weren't the Chinese meant to be good at maths?). These candidates will have to be pre-approved by a committee packed with Beijing loyalists, and they will have to be "patriotic". Everyone understand that for the CCP being patriotic means toeing the party line, and that anyone who is basically opposed to them and their goals won't have a chance in hell of being approved as a candidate.

The Foreign Office adds: "While we recognize that there is no perfect model, the important thing is that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice and a real stake in the outcome". The truth is that while the people of Hong Kong certainly have a stake in the outcome, it is perfectly clear that they will be offered no real choice whatsoever. 

The British government's new stance is clearly an attempt not to let the issue of democracy in Hong Kong hurt its relations with China. It also represents an abandonment of any serious attempt to exert a pressure on China to respect the terms of the Joint Declaration signed by Zhao Ziyang and Margaret Thatcher in 1984. According to Hong Kong's Basic Law, which was drawn up by the PRC's National People's Congress in 1990 in accordance with that declaration, Hong Kong's chief executive is supposed to be elected by universal suffrage, "in accordance with democratic procedures". It had already been agreed that this would be realized by 2017.

Many in Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp have of course criticized the British government for this capitulation. On the other hand, I cannot really see what else Britain should do. It clearly has no real power to influence China's decisions. What's more, any attempt by Britain or other foreign countries to affect what happens in Hong Kong will only make matters worse. 

China's government draws much of its remaining legitimacy from its supposed protection of the motherland from the evil "foreign powers" forever plotting to keep China down. Most of the Mainland population buys into this narrative to a great extent. If Britain is seen as strongly supporting Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, this will simply allow the Chinese government to tar them as the agents of a foreign power which plundered and divided China in the past. It will also be easy game for them to point out the hypocrisy of Britain acting this way, when Hong Kong never actually had elections under British rule.

Genuine representative democracy for Hong Kong is of course a worthy goal. There is really no reason why a city like Hong Kong shouldn't have free elections (of course Singapore, in many ways Hong Kong's twin city-state, seems to manage fine with its semi-authoritarian system). On the other hand, given how unpopular the CCP and the whole of the Mainland's social system are in Hong Kong, it is very likely that genuine elections would be won by candidates who oppose Beijing's policies. This is probably why Beijing will never willingly allow Hong Kongers to choose their own leaders. 

The CCP will continue to allow Hong Kong to maintain its extremely high degree of autonomy and freedom, as long as the Hong Kongers don't rock the boat. If not, they have already threatened to revoke the territory's autonomy if Hong Kong doesn't "respect" the Mainland's political system.

What it comes down to is that if Hong Kongers want democratic representation, they are going to have to fight for it themselves. On the other hand I doubt that most of the city's inhabitants will want to risk its prosperity and stability for the sake of a protracted fight with Beijing. Unfortunately it may well be that their goal will remain out of reach, until real change comes to the whole of China in one form or another.

Another lesson we can draw from all of this is that the CCP is never going to grant any form of democratic representation to China unless they are put under serious pressure by their own people to do so. If they cannot even bring themselves to allow Hong Kongers to choose their own leaders, after promising that this would happen by 2017, I don't believe that they will ever allow the Mainland Chinese to have a say in who governs them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Democracy and Freedom among the "Core Values of Socialism"

During my time in China I have already witnessed a number of political campaigns come and go without leaving much trace. Once you can read Chinese it is hard not to notice the big red banners at overpasses and intersections, displaying the latest government slogans above a mass of people going about their business in complete indifference.

Common catchphrases from the last few years have included the "harmonious society", "scientific development", and last year's "Chinese Dream" trumpeted by Xi Jinping's new administration. The latest campaign to be unleashed on the masses is the "socialist core values" campaign. There are twelve socialist core values, now being trumpeted from the usual red banners in cities all over China. They are(in this order):

富强 Prosperity and Strength
民主 Democracy
文明 Civility
和谐 Harmony
自由 Freedom
平等 Equality
公正 Justice
法治 Rule of Law
爱国 Patriotism
敬业 Dedication
诚信 Honesty
友善 Friendship

Westerners unfamiliar with Chinese political discourse will probably be surprised by "freedom" and especially "democracy" being included in the list. This is actually not that strange. The Chinese government has always attempted to appropriate the term "democracy" (民主 or "the people's rule" in Chinese) for itself, claiming that China already has some unique Chinese version of democracy, or that the Party is striving to establish a more democratic system.

This goes right back to the talk of "democratic reforms" after the CCP took power in 1949. The famous (and catchy) propaganda song from the fifties, "没有共产党就没有新中”(without the Communist Party there will be no new China) , concludes its list of the Party's achievements with the line "他实行了民主好处多” (it has implemented democracy, bringing many benefits).

The inclusion of the term "Freedom" might be more surprising, but the truth is that such vague and abstract terms can be interpreted any way you like. Perhaps they mean freedom from the domination of foreign powers, one of the Party's main claims to legitimacy? And let's not forget the term "socialism" (社会主义) itself. By now it has been reduced to an empty shell, a completely meaningless abstraction onto which the government can graft any trite obviousness it likes (friendship, dedication and civility are core values of socialism?).

I would say that the only one of these "core values of socialism" which has definitely and unquestionably been spread as a result of the Chinese government's policies would be patriotism, usually meaning ignorant nationalism. I guess a good claim could also be made that their policies have increased China's prosperity and strength. But when it comes to "equality", "justice" and the "rule of law", it is no news that modern China could only do with more of those. Then again, it would be nice to think that this new campaign signals a real commitment to a better rule of law, more equality, more justice, and perhaps even more democracy. But I'm certainly not holding my breath.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Censorship Diary: how China cut itself off from the World Wide Web

It is relatively well known throughout the world that the Chinese government censors the internet to its pleasure, and that a number of important foreign websites are blocked in China. What is perhaps not so widely realized is that the censorship of foreign websites has got considerably worse over the last five to six years, the time during which I have lived in China. 

When I first got to China, in September 2008, the Beijing Olympics had just ended. To make a good impression with all the foreign journalists and visitors who descended on the Chinese capital for the games, important foreign websites had all been made accessible. It seems amazing now, but Facebook, You Tube and Twitter were all freely navigable from anywhere in China. At the time I wondered what all the fuss over China's "Great Firewall" was about.

Then in March 2009, the Chinese authorities decided to block You Tube. It was reported at the time that the site was blocked because someone had uploaded a "fake" video of a Chinese policeman killing Tibetan protesters. It's not like they just blocked that particular video. The whole of You Tube was made inaccessible from anywhere in Mainland China. I quickly learned how to download and use a VPN proxy server to get around the censorship, something which I had never done before. 

Shortly afterwards, Blogspot was also blocked in China, meaning that I had to switch on my VPN every time I wanted to update this blog. That summer I went back home on holiday, and when I returned to China in August, I found that Facebook had been blocked as well. Apparently this decision was taken following the unrest in Xinjiang that July. Quite unsurprisingly, groups in support of Xinjiang's independence had sprung up on Facebook, just as you would expect for any conflict anywhere in the world. 

Even less surprisingly, the folks at China's Ministry of the Interior, or wherever else these decisions are taken, reacted with all the subtlety and sophistication they are known for, and simply blocked access to the whole of the world's most popular social networking site. They also blocked access to the whole of the internet for almost a year over the entire territory of Xinjiang, a province as big as Western Europe.

Twitter was also blocked in China around this time, but not being a Twitter user I never really noticed. The situation stayed more or less the same for a few years, with Facebook, You Tube and Blogspot the only major sites I visit regularly to be blocked. Google's exit from the Chinese market in 2010 didn't really make much difference, as searches for were now simply re-routed to

Then in January this year they decided to block the Guardian, my newspaper of choice. This was in response to them publishing a piece accusing relatives of Xi Jinping, Wen Jiabao and other top leaders of transferring money to offshore havens. As always, the Chinese government makes a big deal of its anti-corruption campaigns and openly admits that corruption is a huge problem (since denials would simply be considered laughable by its own people), but it draws a line at any accusations against its top leaders. 

At a briefing on this topic, a Foreign Ministry spokesman had this to say: "I am not aware of the specific circumstances. From the point of view of readers, the logic of some of the related articles is unconvincing, and it leads people to suspect the intentions behind it."(1) So now the Guardian has become part of the eternal conspiracy by the "foreign powers", who want to sow instability and prevent China's "peaceful rise".

In the meantime, access to Google was also becoming increasingly erratic. And then a couple of months ago, even Google and all of its related services (including gmail) were blocked for good. It is now almost impossible for me to do anything meaningful on the internet without using a VPN. My favourite newspaper, Google, my gmail adress, my blog, Facebook and You Tube are all inaccessible without one, hidden behind the great firewall. 

It may be noticed that the advent of the new Xi Jinping - Li Keqiang leadership in November 2012 has not been followed up by a relaxation of the censorship, but in fact quite the opposite. China has now become a country where the casual foreign visitor who doesn't have a VPN feels pretty much cut off from the World Wide Web, or at least the part of it which matters. For a country which wants to present itself as increasingly open and international, this is a huge paradox, and extremely self-defeating.

If nothing else, I hope that blocking Google will backfire. Facebook and You Tube were never really that widely used by Chinese people, who prefer their own social networking and video-sharing sites (which are of course controlled and censored). Most Chinese users also prefer Baidu to Google, but Google is still pretty much essential to search for anything foreign (Baidu's servers just aren't up to standard when it comes to foreign websites).  For many young people and companies, not being able to access Google will be a problem. The use of VPNs may shoot up as a result, at least among the young and educated, making the whole exercise self-defeating.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Chinese sympathy for Israel

So another round of the eternal Arab-Israeli conflict is upon us, and all over the Western world people with nothing better to do are arguing about it over the internet. But how do people feel about it in China?

Here in the Middle Kingdom, most people do not seem to care very much about what is going on in Israel and Gaza. Media reports have been subdued and neutral in tone. The plane crash in the Ukraine attracted far more interest among the Chinese public, perhaps because it was the same airline which had already lost a plane in the Indian Ocean with hundreds of Chinese passengers on board. On my Wechat feed, I have seen various Chinese acquaintances post comments on the plane crash, some of them blaming Malaysia or wondering if Russia is responsible, but I have not seen a single Wechat contact post anything on the events in the Middle East. 

If you search the word "Israel" on Weibo, China's equivalent of Facebook (it often gets referred to as China's Twitter, but I think it has more in common with Facebook), some posts on the issue by random Chinese netizens do appear. What is striking is that a majority of them have a pro-Israeli tone.

Here as some random ones which popped up (the word in red, 以色列,means Israel):

听风灌雨以色列建国时,并未驱逐巴勒斯坦阿拉伯人,留下的也不少。逃难的巴人有相当一部分是被参战的阿拉伯国家忽悠了。事后,这些国家又不允许难民融入本国。//@古筝-赵勃楠: 是太太奇怪了。沙特那一大堆,东南亚一大堆伊斯兰教国家,这么多兄弟都不肯接纳巴勒斯坦兄弟?

This one is in reply to a post about Palestinian refugees. It says "When Israel was created, it actually didn't drive out the Palestinian Arabs, many of them remained. Some of the Palestinian refugees were conned by the warring Arab countries. After the event, these countries didn't even allow the refugees to integrate into their countries." The post it is replying to says "It's so strange. Huge Saudi Arabia and all the South East Asian Muslim countries, are they all unwilling to take in their Palestinian brothers?"

我重新出发也@申点启: 巴平民死亡是哈马斯需要的,不是以色列需要的。以色列是误杀,哈马斯是谋杀。以色列克制,所以巴勒斯坦平民才会死得这么少。

This one says "the deaths among the Palestinians civilians are needed by Hamas, not by Israel. Israel kills by accident, Hamas murders. Israel exercises restraint, and that is why so few Palestinian civilians are dying."


"If the Palestinians had the advantage, there is no doubt what the conclusion would be: all the Jews would become feed for the fish in the Mediterranean. Israel has killed 710 people, but it could have killed 100.000 times more. Where is the good and where is the evil? Israel could receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Support Israel!"

To be very fair, not all the posts are pro-Israeli in their tone. There are also some berating Israel for killing innocent people, and the US for supporting it. Since I first looked a few days ago, the anti-Israeli posts seemed to have increased, I suppose as more and more news of Palestinian civilians being killed comes in.

Last year's meeting between the Israeli and Chinese delegations on the occasion of Netanyahu's visit to China.

All the same, the general sentiment among the few Chinese who even take an interest in such matters is certainly far more pro-Israeli than in Europe. The reasons are varied. The urban Chinese populace generally has a positive image of Jews. The one thing they will immediately tell you about Jews is that they are all "very intelligent". Jews have a reputation for being smart, hard-working, and yes, good at business too, but that is not seen as a bad thing. Everyone has heard that lots and lots of important Western scientists and cultural figures are Jewish.

Furthermore, the Chinese have a certain respect and admiration for anything seen to be 厉害. 厉害 (lìhai) can be translated as "terrific, powerful, formidable". The word implies no moral judgement whatsoever. It simply expresses admiration for someone or something that can get things done and achieve their goals. After the 11th of September incident, many Chinese were describing Bin Laden as 厉害. Currently you can hear many Chinese praising Putin for being a really 厉害 leader for Russia.

Well to the Chinese, Israel is clearly very 厉害. One day a bunch of Jewish refugees decided to get their act together, created a country from scratch, and decided that from that day on nobody was messing with them. In spite of being tiny and surrounded by enemies they have thrived and turned their country into a modern economy which has created many technological innovations and high-tech start-ups, as well as keeping all of their enemies at bay (the book "Start up Nation" ha been translated into Chinese, to a certain success I believe). To the Chinese, all this may be right or wrong, but it is clearly 厉害. And that commands respect, and suggests that the Chinese might be able to learn something from this country.

All this creates an environment where people are open to hearing the Israeli side of the story. There is also another factor which has only come about recently: it seems like some Chinese might be identifying more with Israel after the recent wave of terrorist attacks around China supposedly committed by Muslim terrorists from Xinjiang. These attacks have not improved the image of Islam in China, a religion few Chinese know much about. There are quite a few posts on Weibo making the connection between fighting Hamas and fighting Xinjiang terrorism. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Capital in the North is back!

The Capital in the North is back! After not having been able to post anything in my blog for months due to a problem with my VPN software, I have finally found a free Chinese VPN which works a lot better. Chinese firewall, suck on this.

For those of you who live in China and haven't got a good VPN yet, you should really try 自由门. It's working for me.

On the topic of VPNs, I have just discovered quite a neat protest song by Hong Kong singer Alan Tam, which was inspired by the protest of 1989. It's called 你知我知 (you know and I know). The lyrics only reference the events of '89 and Chinese politics in an oblique fashion, as is the Chinese style. The song is censored in Baidu. A search for the song's name brings up the message 搜索结果可能涉及不符合相关法律法规和政策的内容,未予显示 (the search results might contain content which doesn't conform to the relevant laws and policies, so they are not displayed)...

Here is the video:

And here are the Chinese lyrics:

眼中的意思 腦海火熨構思
敲出野性拍子 你雖不發一言
我雖不發一言 你知我知
你心中句子 我心中句子
沖擊我倆四肢 這天終結之前
有幾多遍痴纏 你知我知



I'll translate them into English as soon as I have the time.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Spring Festival Road Trip 1: Shijiazhuang

This year I decided to take advantage of the Spring Festival holidays by renting a car and going on a road trip through northern China. I was accompanied by my American flatmate and a friend of his from college, who has only just arrived in China. Although I have had a Chinese driving license for the best part of a year, I had previously never done anything more ambitious than driving on one-day trips to the countryside around Beijing. This was my first time driving anywhere really far within China, and I knew that whatever happened we would be in for an adventure.

Travelling in China one must always be ready for mishaps and unexpected events getting in the way of  your plans. During the Spring Festival this is even truer than normal, and travelling at this time is best reserved for people with stamina and some experience of the country. With hundreds of millions of people on the move and most businesses and shops closed for days, China cannot be said to be working normally even by its own pretty abnormal standards.

Driving a car is a fun way to travel, but it also adds a whole new layer of possible problems, from the car breaking down in the middle of nowhere to the highways being closed because of snow (both of which things eventually happened to us). What’s more foreigners driving in China are still rare, and outside of the main cities almost unheard of. We were three foreigners preparing to drive alone through some of Northern China’s remote backwater provinces during the Spring Festival. I was thus quite ready for unexpected, frustrating and/or hilarious stuff to happen, even though I wasn't quite prepared for the amount of things which did eventually go wrong.

We left Beijing two days after the New Year. In typical Western style, we didn't manage to get ourselves together and leave before one in the afternoon. Our final aim was Kaifeng, a city in Henan province which used to be one of China’s ancient capitals, and was home to China’s only ancient Jewish community. We soon realized however that we would never get to Kaifeng in a single day, so we decide to make Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, our first stop on the way South.

After an uneventful four hours on the highway we reached the exit for Shijiazhuang. Once we approached the city, we immediately started regretting our choice. I mean no offense to its three million inhabitants, but Shijiazhuang encapsulates all the worst about Chinese provincial capitals: it is grey, boring, soulless, sprawling, and completely lacking in history or culture, since it only turned into a city about one hundred years ago. The huge buildings which dominate its skyline absolutely fail to lend the city any air of grandiosity or affluence.

What’s more Shijiazhuang suffers from a terrible pollution problem even by Chinese standards, and constantly records worse levels of air pollution than Beijing, which is really saying something. The first time we opened the car windows, we could actually smell the pollution in the air. As I drove into the city’s urban sprawl, I started cursing myself for not getting those cheap tickets to Thailand.

We stopped at a chain hotel where they told us that they weren’t authorized to take foreign guests (a common problem with provincial Chinese hotels), but pointed us towards another hotel down the road which could. This hotel seemed quite nice and comfortable, until we checked into our rooms and discovered that incredibly there was no hot water in the bathrooms.

The turtle we eat for dinner
After a while we went out to find something to eat, but given that this was 初二,the second day of the year in the Chinese calendar, most of the city was still in a state of shut down, including its restaurants. The only places open where McDonalds, KFC and other international fast food chains. We were almost resigned to eating in McDonalds, when we were lucky enough to come across an open Chinese restaurant, where we eat a really good meal. Our dinner included a turtle, which I joked was probably from an endangered species.

After the meal we decided to sample the local nightlife, and took a cab to what we had been told is Shijiazhuang’s best bar street. When we arrived, we discovered that the “bar street” consisted entirely of KTVs and only a single actual nightclub.  The club followed the worst tradition of Chinese nightclubs: it was a brash, loud, chaotic and expensive affair, full of tables where groups of young men played dice games and munched on fruit. There was also a “show” consisting of a scantily clad young lady pretending to sing in the middle of the room.

Shijiazhuang's  poor visibility on our second day in the city
We quickly decided against buying drinks and rushed back to our hotel, looking forward to getting out of this poor excuse of a city the following day. After waking up the next morning and being unable to shower because of the lack of hot water, we went outside and were greeted by some of the lowest visibility which I have ever seen in my life. (seen! Ha) The entire city was shrouded in a thick coat of mist mixed with heavy pollution. Buildings 100 meters away had become entirely invisible. The PM 2.5 count was however only at the level defined as “very unhealthy” by the WHO, rather than at the “hazardous” level, so we concluded that at least some of the poor visibility was due to natural mist. When you live in China, you learn to make such fine distinctions.

Silently we drove along Shijiazhuang’s boulevards, in a post-apocalyptic scenery. We could only see the vague silhouettes of the giant grey buildings on both sides of the street, while unfortunate locals rode bicycles around us. We reached the exit to the highway, eager to get out of this hell-hole, when we saw that all the entrances had a big red X above them, indicating that they were closed. Fearing the worst, I got out of my car and went to inquire. A guy smoking next to his car told me that the highway was closed because of the poor visibility, and he had no idea when it would open up again. There was a whole queue of cars patiently waiting for the highway to reopen, but we thought better of just sitting there for what could be hours, and decided to take refuge in a nearby Burger King instead.

We spent a couple of hours in Burger King, munching on chips and reviewing our options. We had pretty much resigned ourselves to the idea of spending another night in the area, but once we got out of the Burger King we found that the highway had reopened. We quickly drove through the exit before they decided to close it again, all of us vowing never to set foot again in Hebei’s grim capital city.