Monday, January 26, 2015

A few thoughts on China and the internet

The last few weeks have seen an intensification of the Chinese state's attempts to control which parts of the internet its people should be able to access.

After having blocked nearly all major foreign websites (Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Gmail, Google...), the authorities are now cracking down on VPNs, the softwares which people use to get around the "great firewall". Over the last month some popular VPNs have been blocked. Anecdotal evidence suggests that all VPNs are becoming increasingly unstable and hard to use. Although I am still managing to use my own one (otherwise I would be unable to access this blog), I have also found that it frequently stops working and needs to be restarted.

I doubt the authorities would go so far as to completely block all VPNs even if they were able to, since that would be a real headache for multinational businesses operating in the country. I must say that a part of me almost hopes they did, since it might finally precipitate a public debate on the issue. In any case,it will now become even harder for the less determined to view censored websites.

This crackdown on VPNs would seem to be part of a more general tightening of the screws on all kinds of dissent which has taken place since the new leadership came to power in 2012. Over the last couple of years, liberal and independent thinkers of all kinds have found themselves increasingly attacked and marginalized.

I think there are some general conclusions to be drawn from all of this. It used to be a common trope that as time goes by and the economy develops, China would "naturally" progress towards being more free and democratic. In my view it is high time to put that old chestnut to rest.

The truth is that a lot of progress was made towards allowing the Chinese greater social freedoms and freedom of expression during the eighties and nineties. Then again, when the baseline was the Maoist years it would have been hard not to improve in these respects. By the start of the 21st century however, China had stabilized at a certain level of freedom (or un-freedom).

While the economy has continued growing at great speed since then, and the infrastructure has continued improving, there has been no great progress in terms of granting citizens genuine freedom of speech and other basic political rights. Further progress would probably necessitate profound reforms of the political system which would ensure a separation of powers and subject the state's actions to constraints and oversight, but the people who run the country are just not willing to undertake such reforms, as much as they may pay lip service to concepts like the "rule of law".

Another thing to realize is that the government still enjoys much support and legitimacy in the eyes of the middle and upper classes of urban China, exactly the people who would have the ability to affect change (the peasant workers who man the country's construction sites may view things differently, but they have little possibility to act upon their feelings). Free thinkers and dissidents like Ai Wei Wei do not represent the mainstream, and never have done.

This holds true for a variety of reasons: partly because of how the state is seen as ensuring economic growth and providing new infrastructure (Beijing has just opened three new subway lines), partly because there is a good degree of social freedom (like the freedom to work where you want, dress how you like and spend your free time how you like), partly because people buy into the line that stability is what matters most and democracy would make China descend into chaos, and partly because they truly believe (or have been convinced) that the current government is what defends the nation from foreign intrusion and restores its honour after the "century of humiliation".

What's more, most of the Chinese public remains only vaguely aware of things like the current crackdown on the internet and on dissent, and has little interest in finding out more. As long this situation continues, the government is on solid ground. This doesn't mean that outside observers have to ignore the obvious negative sides of China's system, or refrain from criticizing these policies. At the same time, there is no use in kidding ourselves: China's internet isn't opening up any time soon. And what's more, most Chinese couldn't really care less.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Chinese football continues to suck

Last Thursday China got kicked out of the Asian Cup by hosts Australia in the quarter finals, in the most significant match China's national football team had played in years.

China's team is generally quite awful, to the extent that it has become a national joke. It only ever qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, and then went on to give a downright embarrassing performance, losing all three of its games by 2-0, 4-0 and 3-0. And this was in spite of being managed by Bora Milutinovic, the Serbian trainer who had already worked miracles with other unfancied teams in previous world cups. 

A couple of years ago the Chinese team's awfulness came to the fore again when they lost 5-1 against Thailand in a friendly on their own turf, leading to much whining online about the state of the country's football. In this year's Asian Cup however China seemed to have bucked the trend, winning all three of its first round matches with Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. This lead to moderate excitement about China's appearance in the quarter finals against Australia. Then last week things went back to normal, with China losing the match 2-0 and heading home with little honour.

I watched the match with two Chinese colleagues in their rundown flat in the north of Beijing. China played a decent first half, then completely came apart after an amazing goal by Tim Cahill, suffering attack upon attack until the hosts inevitably doubled their lead. In the end they thoroughly deserved their defeat against an extremely average football nation. Of course Australia were the hosts, but the Brisbane stadium was so packed with local Chinese that you might have been forgiven for doubting it.

Now there will be renewed debate about why a decent football team cannot be put together out of a nation of 1.4 billion people. It's not as if they haven't tried, with loads of money being spent on importing fancy foreign coaches and players in an effort to raise the level. The sport does not lack popularity either, as you will notice if you go to the sports ground of any Chinese university.  

All the same, Japan and South Korea's teams have been in a completely different league for years. Some blame the pervasive culture of corruption and bribery in Chinese football. Match-fixing scandals are common in China's league. Being familiar with Italy, I don't find this explanation convincing: similar scandals constantly rock the Italian league, but it remains one of the world's great footballing nations. 

As with many other things, it probably comes down to China's system: while the centralized, top-down approach of an authoritarian country works for nurturing gold-medal Olympic gymnasts, it probably doesn't work well for team sports. What's more, a lot of Chinese children would be discouraged from wasting time playing football, and find few places to play it even if they had the time to do so.

Then again, Taiwan's national team (which plays as "Chinese Taipei") is dreadful as well. Perhaps the Chinese and football just don't go together well? Oh well, they still have ping pong.

The Chinese players after a defeat

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A vacation in Italy

I have just returned from a two week vacation in Italy to see my parents. While there I was struck by the decrepit state of some of the Italian infrastructure, particularly when compared to China.

After spending two weeks in the countryside near Rome, two things in particular really made an impression. First of all, mobile phone coverage in the Italian countryside is not terribly widespread. In the house where I stayed, which is located at the top of a little hill in an idyllic rural area, mobile phones simply don't pick up a signal. The same goes for many parts of the surrounding countryside and the nearby village. Driving around, I found that my mobile would only pick up a signal in certain spots. This held true for all Italian providers.

By contrast, in China mobile phone coverage seems to extend to every last hamlet. This may just be my experience, but I have traveled quite a lot in Chinese rural areas, including remote mountainous areas of a relatively poor province like Guizhou, and I have never found that my mobile phone lacked coverage (I use China Mobile). I don't know if this also holds true for the Tibetan plateau, but in most of China mobile phone coverage seems to be universal.

The second thing which struck me is the bad state of many Italian roads. In the area where I was staying, most of the roads seem to be full of bumps and small holes, making any car ride a real strain on the suspensions. Large potholes are unusual, but I did come across a couple of holes which would be big enough to puncture a tire if you drove over them fast. 

Of course in China there are areas where the roads are in an even worse state of disrepair. In fact, some villages still have no paved roads at all. Having said that, I have driven around a lot in Beijing and I can guarantee that the roads throughout Beijing municipality, including its large rural areas, are in quite an excellent state.

Another thing I noticed was how terribly difficult it is to find a parking spot in Rome, something which the locals are always complaining about. In Beijing, on the other hand, I have never had much trouble finding parking in spite of the city's dreadful congestion and traffic jams. I suppose part of the reason must be the underground parking lots which most shopping malls and apartment blocks are equipped with. To be fair, it is hard to build anything underground in Rome without bumping into some Roman remains.

All in all, I got the clear feeling that China's infrastructure has already overtaken Italy's in some respects, at least in the more developed parts of China. Of course Italy still has a much higher GDP per capita than China, and remains a pleasanter place to live for the ordinary citizen. In some ways however it is beginning to feel like more of a "developing country" than China.