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.