Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What does Lee Kuan Yew's legacy mean for China?

Lee Kuan Yew (or Li Guang Yao in Mandarin), Singapore's founding father.

These last few days, the Chinese government and media have been falling over themselves to praise the legacy of the recently deceased Singaporean statesman, Lee Kuan Yew.

I don’t find this at all surprising. For one thing, Lee Kuan Yew (who like most Singaporeans is of Chinese descent himself) had cultivated excellent ties with China ever since Deng Xiaoping took power. But more than that, the Singapore he created looks a bit like a dream version of the country which the Beijing elite would like China to become: a society which is prosperous, efficient, respected and at the same time governed with authoritarian and paternal methods which allow for no real dissent.

Lee Kuan Yew is rightly revered for his many achievements. At the same time, he always made it clear that he did not believe in liberal democracy and in allowing dissent to flourish. Here are a few quotes by the father of modern Singapore, which the Guardian dug out the other day: “If you are a troublemaker... it’s our job to politically destroy you... Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.” “You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools.” Spoken like a true China Daily editorial.

The Singapore Lee created was one where opposition politicians would more often than not find themselves jailed, exiled, or ruined through expensive libel suits which the compliant courts would endorse. And his legacy isn’t dead. The modern and civilized city-state continues to be ruled with authoritarian methods, although things are changing. There is still no separation of powers, the press is muzzled, and dissent is only barely tolerated. 

Elections are held, but the PAP (People’s Action Party) Lee created has yet to lose one. 
Singapore was ranked 150th for freedom of the press in 2014. The legal system is also harsh. The death penalty is still in the books not only for murder, but even for drug dealing, and Singapore is one of the countries with the highest number of executions relative to population. Caning is still used as a punishment for a variety of minor crimes, as two German graffiti artists recently discovered (and we are talking about a kind of caning which can leave scars for life).

One might find it slightly ironic that Beijing should be lavishing such praise on a man who was a convinced anti-communist. During his rule, the communist party (which had quite a following in Singapore) was outlawed and harshly repressed. Another one of Lee's quotes is: ““We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins.”

But of course none of this would bother those currently in power in Beijing, who have long abandoned any true interest in communist ideology in favour of a belief in stability, economic growth and authoritarianism justified by vague references to traditional Chinese values. In other words, exactly what Lee Kuan Yew advocated (except that he would make reference to “Asian values” rather than specifically Chinese ones, perhaps so as not alienate Indian and Malay Singaporeans). Unsurprisingly, Chinese officials have often been sent on study tours to Singapore, and its model held up as an example.

I would certainly not wish to diminish Lee Kuan Yew’s accomplishments. Under his watch, Singapore went from being a remote colonial outpost to one of the richest societies on earth, well known for its modernity, efficiency and cleanliness. After Singapore separated from Malaysia, he also managed to build a system in which racial tensions between the Chinese and the Malay were contained. Lee Kuan Yew always felt that the end justified the means, and looking at modern Singapore, it is hard not to agree with him to some extent.

At the same time, what worked in Singapore is not going to work in Mainland China. Singapore is a city with 5.5 million people, and the government was clever to turn it into an international financial hub before the rest of Asia was well developed. But what can be done with a city can’t be done with a landmass with 1.4 billion people. 

It is true that paternalistic authoritarianism and harsh laws have turned Singapore into an eminently clean, efficient and safe city. It is also true that Singapore’s government is well known to be honest and incorrupt. However, anyone who lives in China can testify that decades of authoritarian rule based on a rather similar ideology have not really had the same effect there. Corruption remains endemic and systemic, efficiency and safety have only been achieved in some areas of life, and as for cleanliness the less said the better.

It must also be considered that while Singapore is largely a Chinese society, when it achieved independence the elite was British-educated and had a Western outlook in many areas. Lee Kuan Yew (known to friends as Harry Lee) was a case in point. When he took power, 70% of Singaporeans spoke a Chinese dialect at home. However Lee himself had grown up in an affluent household where only English was spoken, had been schooled entirely in English and then went to Cambridge University. He only began to learn Chinese at age 32 (ironically, in 1979 he began a successful campaign to get Singaporeans to speak Mandarin instead of other Chinese dialects/languages). 

The truth is that the legacy of rule of law and civic sense left by the British, a small population of immigrants and an economy based on financial services all make for a recipe which cannot be emulated in China. Better models on which to base China's political system, in my opinion, could be provided by places like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. But those are models which Beijing's bureaucrats are less likely to find attractive.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Visit to the DMZ

During my trip to Korea I took the chance to visit the DMZ, the demilitarized zone which separates North and South Korea.

The DMZ is the buffer area between two nations which have remained officially at war with each other since the end of the Korean War in 1953, and still don't recognize each others' legitimacy. It is 4 km. wide and runs for 250 km., dividing the Korean peninsula in half. On either side of it lies a huge array of weaponry and military personnel, making it in fact the most heavily militarized border on earth.

The border area is not generally open to the public, but it is possible for tourists to visit the South Korean side as part of a tour (the Northern side is also included in tours of North Korea). Your passport is checked when you enter the DMZ, and it is necessary to book in advance, since only a limited number of people are allowed in every day.

The tour bus took me from my hotel in Seoul to the DMZ in less than an hour, bringing home to me how close this modern and glitzy metropolis is to a fortified border with an inscrutable and hostile dictatorship. To get into the DMZ we had to pass through a checkpoint full of young lads in uniform. South Korea has a mandatory two year military service for men, and it really is mandatory, with no provisions for conscientious objectors to fulfill some other kind of civil service like what used to happen in most European countries. This however is still much better than what goes on North of the border, where young men reportedly have to spend over ten years in uniform. That's North Korea for you.

Map of the DMZ with the four "infiltration tunnels" marked. I visited the third one.

The tour I went on included one of the four "infiltration tunnels" which the North Koreans dug into South Korean territory. These four tunnels have been discovered by the South at different points between 1974 and 1990. South Korea believes that these tunnels were planned as a route for an invasion, not altogether such a crazy idea. It also believes that another twenty such tunnels are still awaiting discovery.

The tunnel we were taken to see was discovered in 1978 after a tip from a defector. It extends about 1.7 kms into South Korean territory, and is about 73 meters deep. The site is only 44 kms from Seoul. Tourists access the tunnel through a long and steep incline built by the South Koreans, which starts in a lobby with a gift shop which bizarrely sells North Korean whiskey. You are not allowed to bring your phone or camera down with you.

The tunnel itself is quite narrow and the ceiling is so low down that I had to walk bending over, and I am not especially tall. The tunnel's walls were painted black, since the North Koreans made a clumsy attempt to pretend the tunnel was a coal mine before retreating. There is in fact no coal in the area. The South Koreans built three bunkers at the point directly under the Military Demarcation Line, the actual border between North and South. You can walk up to the first bunker, which has barbed wire and a machine gun in front of it, but no soldiers. After the three bunkers North Korea begins.

Another stop on our tour was an observation point from which you can get a clear view of the Northern side of the border, especially by using the telescopic lenses meant for visitors. The landscape looked pretty bleak, although that is to be expected during a Korean winter.From the observation post you could see the two so-called "peace villages", which were the only villages allowed to remain in the DMZ after the war. The two hamlets sit just across from each other, one on each side of the border.

Typically, the North Korean village is actually an empty shell built for propaganda purposes, although the DPRK government claims that it is a functioning collective farm. The buildings, which all have white walls and blue roofs, appear to be empty concrete shells, but the lights are turned on and off at set times to keep up the pretense that they are inhabited.

The village on the South Korean side is actually inhabited, and the locals apparently live there voluntary. They have an 11 PM curfew, but they are compensated for their inconveniences by being exempt from taxes and military service. Both villages have an absolutely gigantic flagpole in the middle, bearing the country's national flag at the top. It was the South which started this one in 1980, building a 98 mt. flagpole with its yin and yang flag at the top, to which the North responded with a 160 mt. flagpole, the tallest in the world at the time.

The last site we visited was the Dorasan train station. This station was once a stop on the railway which connected Seoul to Pyongyang before the country was divided. In 2007 part of this railway line was historically reopened, and trains coming from the South began to service the Kaesong Industrial Park, a joint industrial park set up North of the border which was run by South Korean companies but manned by North Korean workers. This project was a huge breakthrough in relations between the two countries when it began. It was also a great source of foreign currency for the North Korean regime.

The Kaeson Industrial Park was however shut down following the Korean crisis of 2013, when the North claimed that it was no longer constrained by the 1953 armistice (it has actually claimed this six times since 1994), and promised "merciless retaliation" against its enemies. The train line was also shut down, and the Dorasan station currently only receives tourist trains from Seoul.
The station gives the impression that it is kept running mostly in the hope of better times to come. There is a board which announces trains "to Pyongyang", something which has not been possible for over half a century and won't be for god knows how long in the future. There is also a ticket office which seems to be kept running mostly for show. A banner proclaims "not the last stop in the South, but the first stop to the North".

During the visit I saw no signs of US military presence, even though the US army helps guard the Southern side of the border. I wondered if they are deliberately kept out of sight, in order not to lend any fuel to North Korean propaganda about the Southern side of the peninsula being a "Yankee colony". 

All the sites we were taken to had the unlikely feel of tourist attractions, with gift shops and the ever-present bus loads of Chinese tourists. However the huge military presence, the barbed wire and the observation posts served to remind us that this is actually one of the tensest borders in the world. Violence can and does flare up between the two sides. Last October, a group of North Korean soldiers were seen approaching the border and the South Koreans fired warning shots at them. They fired back before retreating, but luckily no one was hurt.

In spite of everything, the border is clearly not impregnable. A couple of years ago, a young North Korean soldier killed two of his superiors and defected to the South. He managed to cross the border undetected and had to knock on a South Korean barracks door to attract attention to himself.

A photo I took of what could be seen of North Korea from over the border. Not very much, as you can see.


After visiting Taiwan for the Spring Festival, I still managed to pack in a week in Korea before going home. Although it was my first time in Korea, I had already learned quite a bit about the place while living in China, since Koreans are the biggest foreign community in Beijing and many other cities, and there is currently a craze for Korean pop culture in most of Asia.

The culture shock I got coming from China was pretty big. In some ways, the Koreans remind me of Northern Europeans: they live in a prosperous and efficient country, they come across as pretty serious and reserved, they work hard and come nighttime they drink hard. Of course I only stayed in the country for a week, and I only visited Seoul (apart from the DMZ, which I will describe in my next post), so I only really scratched the surface, especially since I can't speak Korean. 

A girl in a traditional hanbok dress using a selfie stick
Seoul is the second largest city in the world. Its metropolitan area contains a staggering 25 million people, making it second only to Tokyo (36 million). This means that about half of all South Koreans live in the capital and its environs. All the same, the city feels much less congested than Beijing (which has 21 million). The subway is less crowded, and the traffic doesn't seem as bad. I suppose the infrastructure and urban planning must be superior.

The city looks neat and prosperous. There are none of the ramshackle and badly kept blocks of flats which can be seen everywhere in Greater China. I had heard that Koreans place a great emphasis on their appearance, and indeed almost everyone I saw looked fashionable and well dressed.

It was also striking how many of the young women wear short skirts even in the freezing Korean winter. This sort of indifference to the cold reminded me of Britain somewhat. It's something you will rarely encounter in China, although I gather it is also common in Japan.

Something which impressed me about Seoul was its cafe' culture. Literally every single street of the city seems to be lined with cafes, all of them comfortable, high-quality and full of young people studying or chatting. In spite of there being so many cafes, they never seem to lack business either. Although a similar cafe' culture is now spreading to Chinese cities, there is nowhere near the same concentration of cafes as you find in Seoul. On the food front, while Korean food is not new to me, having to take off my shoes and sit on the ground in certain restaurants was a new experience.

One of the palaces in the Changdeokgung complex
While in Seoul I visited Changdeokgung, the palace complex which served as Korea's center of power from 1618 until the end of the nineteenth century, when the Japanese invasion finally broke down Korea's long-lasting and rigidly Confucian Joseon Dynasty. The whole complex reminded me very much of the Forbidden City in its style, only smaller and with roughly 1% the number of visitors. Unlike the Forbidden City, it is not packed with millions of Chinese tourists on the trip of a lifetime to their capital city.

I also walked around the nearby Bukchon area, where the high ranking officials used to live during the Joseon Dynasty. The area is full of Hanok, the traditional Korean homes. These are single story structures of wood and clay with heated floors and curved roofs. They look pretty similar to Beijing's hutongs, only white. Seoul used to be full of hanoks, but over the last decades they have unfortunately been torn down to make way for modern high-rises. Only recently has the government moved in to protect the last remaining ones, and incentivated people to live in and renovate them.
The roofs of Seoul's traditional hanok homes
It seems like China has not been alone in mercilessly tearing down its old buildings to make way for high rises. Some claim that the preservation of such buildings is just not as valued in East Asian cultures as much as it is in the West. It is often said about Chinese culture that it values old ideas much more than it does old objects. I wonder if this is the explanation, or if more prosaic social and economic factors have been at play.

Another thing about Seoul is that it actually felt less international than Beijing. Although I was staying in the center, I didn't notice many obvious foreigners on the streets, at least outside of Itaewon, Korea's answer to Sanlitun. What I did notice was masses of Chinese tourists. It might be because it was the Spring Festival, but every site was simply packed full with Chinese visitors. In the streets of Seoul's famous shopping district of Myeong-ndong there seemed to be more Chinese shoppers than Koreans. Chinese writing was everywhere, and I managed to communicate with shop assistants in Chinese a number of times.     
A view of Northern Seoul

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A visit to Taiwan

This Spring Festival I finally found the chance to pay a visit to Taiwan, China's fabled "treasure island"  (宝岛) of times past. If you want to have a full perspective on China I think it pays to visit this island, 90 miles off the coast of Fujian Province, which for over six decades has offered an alternative version of Chineseness to the one found on the Mainland.

It is amazing now to think that for 22 years, from 1949 until 1971, Taiwan (or rather the "Republic of China") officially represented all of China in the United Nations Security Council. Nowadays the tables are reversed, the PRC is a great power and Taiwan is increasingly marginalized. It is officially recognized as a country by only 21 nations, most of which are small island states few have even heard of. It is forced to compete in international sporting events under the dubious name of "Chinese Taipei", and it sits right next to a huge country which officially considers it to be a renegade province awaiting reunification. What's more, its economy is almost entirely tied to that country. But in spite of all this, Taiwan continues to thrive.

While in Taiwan I visited mainly two places, the current capital Taipei and the old capital Tainan. Taipei is a slick modern city, efficient and interesting. I found I liked it quite a lot. On my first day there I visited the shopping district of Ximendi, which looked a bit like Tokyo and was buzzing with youthfulness and activity. From there I walked on to the imposing presidential palace built by the Japanese, and finally I got to the 228 Peace Park.

This historic park in the center of Taipei now commemorates the victims of the "228 massacre", the violent suppression of anti-government protests by the Guomindang on the 28th of February 1947, in which dozens of thousands were killed. For decades this event was a taboo in Taiwan, much like the events of '89 remain taboo on the Mainland today. After Taiwan democratized, however, it became alright to talk about it, and in 1998 this park was rededicated to the victims of the massacre. Next to the park there is a museum on the incident, but it was unfortunately closed when I went there.

Another place I visited in Taipei was Shilin, the most well known of Taiwan's night markets, which are famous throughout the Chinese-speaking world. These night markets (夜市 in Chinese) are open until late and are dedicated to leisurely eating, shopping and strolling, with the focus definitely on eating. Shilin was crowded, but the snacks on sale were cheap and quite delicious. I went there with a Taiwanese young man who a friend from Beijing had hooked me up with. He brought three friends along, one of whom turned out to live in Beijing as well, and was back in Taiwan for the Spring Festival. They were all extremely nice and friendly, and happy to find out I could speak Mandarin. I asked them if they felt Chinese or not, and their general answer was along the lines of "no, we feel Taiwanese". 

The other big city I visited was Tainan, down in the South. It was Taiwan's old capital during the Qing Dynasty, and it has a cultural heritage second to none. I got there by riding Taiwan's fast and efficient highs-speed railway, which took me from one side of the island to the other in an hour and a half. Tainan turned out to be quite different from Taipei. It felt less modern and developed, and the pace of life is far more laid back. Because of the heat (even in February) and the masses of scooters on the streets, I was somewhat reminded of Vietnam.

In a land of friendly people, the Southern Taiwanese are supposed to be the friendliest of all, and I found this to be true. Quite a few people struck up conversations with me around the city. Although most of the locals speak Taiwanese at home (in other words the variant of Chinese spoken in Fujian province), I found that if I spoke to them in Mandarin I could still understand and be understood. While in Taiwan I also found that getting around in a place which uses the traditional Chinese characters was actually not as hard as I envisaged. Once you have truly mastered the simplified characters, making the switch to the old form of the script is not a big step.

While in the city I went to see the temple in honour of Koxinga, the local hero who liberated Taiwan from Dutch Rule in 1661 and then spent his time resisting the Manchu who had conquered the Mainland. I found out that this hero of both Chinese and Taiwanese nationalism was actually born in Japan and had a Japanese mother. He has been deified in Taiwan, as great historical figures often have been in Chinese culture, and this temple was built in his honour.

I spent the eve of the Chinese New Year in Tainan. Around dinner time the streets filled with the happy banter of families eating their New Year Meal together in their homes. In my hostel I got to know an American who lives in Taiwan, and he took me out to the local night market. Along with us came another American and a local Taiwanese friend of his. As we walked the streets, random strangers would greet us with a 新年快乐 (happy new year). The night market turned out to be absolutely packed, but the food was as good as ever.

Another place I visited before heading back to Taipei was Meishan, a little town in the interior of Taiwan. I got there by bus from Tainan. As the bus rolled through the countryside, I had a strong feeling of being back in the Mainland. The towns and villages really didn't look too distinct from the ones you might find in Southern China.

When I got to Meishan I found the local visitors' centre, where the handful of bored middle aged women who worked there where overwhelmed with enthusiasm when they realized I could speak Chinese ("oh you live in Beijing. That's why you're Mandarin is so standard"). They gave me a map and pointed me in the direction of the local park. When I got there I found it to be quite typical of Chinese parks: there was a little hill which you could climb, at the top of which there was a little pagoda from which you could view the scenery. I climbed up to the top in the company of throngs of local families, and looked at the sub-tropical vegetation which surrounded me on all sides.

Taipei's presidential palace
The scenery at Meishan, in Taiwan's interior.
Taipei's Ximendi shopping district

Although I unfortunately didn't spend very long in Taiwan because of time constraints, I still developed some general impressions of the place.

  • In the end, I would say that what made the best impression on me about Taiwan was the Taiwanese people themselves. Almost all of them are cheerful, easy-going, helpful and friendly, more than the Chinese of the Mainland, and more than anyone else in East Asia for that matter. Other than that, Taiwan seems like an easy and pleasant place to travel: it's small, the weather is nice even in winter (I never needed more than a light jumper even in Taipei), it's relatively cheap, and there are plenty of things to see and do. The only downside I encountered was that Taiwanese hostels are lousy, if my experience is anything to go by. Although staying in youth hostels is a good way to save money and get to know other travellers, if I go back to Taiwan I'm definitely staying only in hotels.   
  • For those who have lived in China a while, Taiwan has a strange feel to it: it feels really familiar, but then it somehow doesn't. It's recognizably Chinese, but without many of the problems and absurdities of China proper. You could almost say that Taiwan is a sort of "China light". The streets can be chaotic, air pollution can be bad and blocks of flats can look ugly and run down, but these problems are still nowhere near as bad as in the Mainland. In general, everything just feels more relaxed and easy to manage. Put it down to a different history, a different system, or even just the fact that it is a tropical island, rather than a huge continent with a billion people jostling for elbow-space. Having said that, in many ways Taiwan feels more similar to the Mainland than Hong Kong does.
  • In Taiwan popular religiosity really is far more widespread than on the Mainland. The most common forms of religious practice seem to be Chinese folk beliefs and Taoism, although Buddhism is also in evidence. As is normal in the Chinese tradition, most people happily dabble in all these belief systems at the same time. Temples are everywhere in Taiwanese cities, and they always seem to be crowded with people lighting incense and chanting (I was there during the Chinese New Year, when temple attendance is probably highest). Although it is untrue that such practices are completely dead on the Mainland, they are certainly much less widespread and harder to find, especially in the urban areas.
  • Before going to Taiwan, I thought of it as an advanced "first-world" economy. When traveling there however, it felt like it was almost at the level of a first-world country, but not quite there, especially once you get out of Taipei. This feeling became even more pronounced when I traveled on to Seoul, which seems more prosperous in comparison. And indeed, if you look at GDP per capita statistics (if you believe in GDP as a good measure of such things), Taiwan is ranked about as high as Portugal or Greece, a bit lower than South Korea and considerably lower than Western Europe or Japan (but still three times higher than the PRC).
  • Taiwan used to be called an "economic miracle", but from what I can see its real miracle is a political one. It is currently the only fully and properly democratic society within the Chinese cultural sphere (including Singapore). In thirty years it has transitioned from being a repressive one-party state under the Guomindang to a genuine democracy with two parties alternating in power, and all the relevant institutions. What's more those institutions were not imposed from the outside like in Hong Kong, but built up locally. And as much as some people like to argue that democracy just doesn't fit in with Chinese culture, the fact is that in Taiwan it basically works fine, in spite of the huge punch-ups which the Taiwanese parliament is famous for.
  • Another thing I didn't realize before going to Taiwan is that it is an extremely overcrowded place. In fact its population density is one of the highest in the world, with 23 million people crowded into a territory only slightly larger than Switzerland. Taking the high speed train down the West Coast, which is the more heavily urbanized side of the island, all I saw was houses and human settlements all the way from Taipei to Tainan. I understand that the mountainous East Coast is less populated and has some amazing natural scenery, and I hope to be able to go there next time and enjoy it.
A parrot in a shop in a Taiwanese village
    People relaxing in a natural hot spring in Beitou, Taipei