Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Martin Jacques is at it again

Martin Jacques is at it again.

The ex-Marxist intellectual has jumped on the occasion of the Chinese president's controversial visit to Britain to pen an article for the Guardian, in which he lauds David Cameron's cosying up to China as "the boldest change in British foreign policy since the Second World War". Apparently it shows that "Britain can prosper in the Asian-oriented and Sino-centric world rapidly unfolding before us".

For the record, I have no problem with the British government cultivating a good relationship with China. Engagement with other countries will only change China for the best. Still it's funny to see a leftist intellectual congratulating a conservative prime minister for his courage in grovelling for money and investment at the feet of a government whose prime ideological mover is basically raw nationalism, but China does strange things to people.

I have already claimed on this blog that if you want to gain a real understanding of China, the last person you should turn to is Martin Jacques. To anyone who has lived in China long-term and/or knows the country properly, his views appear superficial and uninformed. Jacques speaks no Chinese, and the only time he actually lived in Mainland China was when he spent a term teaching in Renmin University, Beijing. If someone who had only spent a few months living in San Paulo and spoke no Portuguese claimed to be an expert on Brazil, most would be skeptical. When it comes to China though, people are a little more gullible.

Judging from Jacques' bestselling book, "When China Rules the World", he seems to be entirely unaware of China's massive problems, and in any case has never offered any explanation of how they could be solved within the country's current system. His arguments are based on pseudo-Confucian mythologizing and the simple fact, known to all, that China's GDP is very large and getting larger. He claims that the world of the future is going to be a "Sino-centric" one, even though China's cultural and ideological influence on the rest of the world remains close to nil, something that fawning Sinophiles like him are quite unable to explain. He seems to be entirely oblivious to the increasingly strident nationalism in China, and its tensions with its neighbours.

In his new article Jacques makes the claim, which is always trotted out in any pro-Beijing polemic, that over the last three decades China has lifted 600 million people out of poverty, which has been "the single biggest contribution to human rights over the last three decades". Although China's economic growth has indeed been impressive, I think that calling the creation of wealth by any means necessary a contribution to human rights is a very debatable proposition. Let's also remember that other countries in Asia have seen huge economic growth as well, and it's only because of their smaller populations that the total number of people lifted out of poverty looks less impressive.

He also claims that China has become a much freer society over the same period. This is true if you compare the situation today with 1980, but it ignores the fact that China has not been getting any freer over the last ten to fifteen years, and in fact over the last three years it has actually got decidedly less free. Inevitably, Jacques claims that we have to resign ourselves to the fact that China will never be like the West, and understand it on its own terms. I think everyone agrees that China, just like Japan, Korea or India, will always be very different from the West. The problem with understanding China "on its own terms" is when this comes to mean blindly accepting the self-serving narrative of its ruling class.

Of course, the article doesn't make any reference to the obvious slowdown in China's economic growth, or to the recent stock market crash, instead just repeating the prediction that China's economy will be twice the size of the US economy by 2030, and that the whole world depends on China for growth and capital. Be it as it may, it is clear that Beijing's huge reserves of cash just waiting to be spent are still appetizing enough for the Chinese president to get the red-carpet treatment on his state-visit to London. It is hardly surprising that Martin Jacques should be pleased.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Holiday in Thailand

I've just got back from a holiday in Thailand.

Last August I was wondering where to go for China's one week national holiday in October. I considered going to visit a friend in Bangladesh, but he couldn't guarantee he would be there. I considered an extremely adventurous Central Asian trip spanning China's Xinjiang province and Kyrgyzstan, but then I realized that we would have to spend most of the holiday traveling through the deserts and steppes on long-distance buses. Finally I looked at options for South-East Asia, and came across some cheap tickets to Bangkok.

Thailand is probably Asia's most popular tourist destination, but for various reasons, which are quite unconnected to the country itself, I had never been particularly interested in going there. I've never been a fan of holidaying in "tropical paradises", and in fact I have no habit of going to the beach at all. I don't swim very well, and lying on a deckchair relaxing all day is hardly my idea of a holiday well-spent. I like my holidays to contain a certain amount of excitement and adventure, and I try to avoid tourist hotspots, which Thailand clearly is.

The more I looked into it however, the more the idea of going to Thailand grew on me. Away from the notorious tourist haunts like Pattaya and Pukhet, Thailand is actually host to one of Asia's most fascinating cultures. What's more it's warm, relaxed and easy to get around (none of which would have been true of Kyrgyzstan).

At last I snapped up the tickets for Bangkok, and set off on the 28th of September with my girlfriend, a few days before China's national holiday actually begins. Our journey started off in Macau, where we changed planes and spent a night. Macau was the last constituent part of China which I hadn't yet been to (Hong Kong and the Mainland being the other two), so it was good to go there. The city is a mixture of glitzy casinos and old cobbled streets from the Portuguese era. What is striking is the Portuguese writing still to be seen all over the place, even though I doubt many people speak much Portuguese.

We then flew on to Bangkok. As I took the train into the city, what struck me most were the amazingly colorful and beautiful Thai temples sticking out from the grim buildings around them. Thai Buddhist temples truly are some of the most cheerful and attractive religious buildings out there. Bangkok definitely came across as more modern and prosperous than Hanoi, the only other South-East Asian capital I have visited up to now.

Central Bangkok

We stayed in a nice hotel in the new city centre, and in the evening we took the boat down the river to the historic centre of Rattanakosin. While wondering around I noticed a roadside stall selling bags of fried grasshoppers and assorted bugs, so I decided to try them. They were crispy, but pretty tasteless. After a while we made our way to Kao San Road, Bangkok's notorious backpacker haunt. I immediately felt relieved I hadn't chosen to stay there, as it is messy, noisy and entirely removed from the local culture.

Bugs on sale as a snack in Rattanakosin

Next morning we visited Bangkok's Great Palace, the palace where the kings of Thailand resided from 1792 until 1925. It turned out to be truly one of the most amazing royal palaces I have ever seen. It was both majestic and tantalizingly exotic, the walls adorned with murals showing scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, in which an army of monkeys fights against one of demons. The grounds were packed with tourists, about 80% of whom were Chinese. When you travel to any of the countries surrounding China, especially during a Chinese public holiday, the sites are almost as packed with Chinese visitors as the Forbidden City would be. Luckily I didn't witness any of the bad behaviour which has made Chinese tourists in Thailand sadly famous.

A man meditating in his store in Bangkok

After that we embarked on the eight hour journey to Kho Chang (Elephant Island), an island in the far east of Thailand, near the border with Cambodia. Although it has now become a holiday destination, it is not nearly as packed with people as some of the more famous islands in Thailand's South. We stayed at a fancy resort on the island's coast, which only cost about a third of what it might have done in China. The island is quite large and ringed with little settlements, all of which are touristy. Most of the tourists seemed to be either Chinese or Russian, interspersed with some Western backpackers.

The island of Koh Chang as seen from the boat approaching it

We spent a lazy first day on a tropical beach. Even though I don't usually go to the beach, I can see why people travel thousands of miles to relax on beaches like these. It certainly beats Brighton or Qingdao. On our second day we went on a snorkeling tour. I had never been snorkeling before, and seeing all the tropical fish and coral up close was quite amazing. Our third day on the island it started to pour with rain.

Although October is the tail end of the rainy season in Thailand, most days you only get brief tropical downpours, after which the sun comes out again. This time however it just poured and poured for about two days straight, with only brief interruptions. The locals seem to just ignore the rain, and ride around on their scooters even during torrential downpours. After spending most of the day holed up in our room, we decided to do the same: we donned our raincoats and rode our rented scooter around the island anyway. The hot weather meant that getting soaked wasn't too bad. When the rain got really heavy we would quickly stop and dash into a restaurant for cover.

A Koh Chang beach
Our last day on the island we did a classic tourist in Thailand activity, in other words riding on the back of an elephant. We booked a tour at one of the local elephant parks, and then we rode on the back of a huge Asian elephant for about an hour, which was fun in spite of the rain. Apparently these highly intelligent animals could be found as far as Turkey and Shandong province in China only a hundred years ago, but now their habitat has been drastically reduced. If I had read articles like this one before going to Thailand, I might have thought twice about the ethical implications of elephant riding. Then again, the elephants at the camp which organized our ride seemed pretty cheerful and well looked after, but still what would I know?

  A trainer riding an elephant on Koh Chang

That afternoon we left the island and took the ship back to the Thai mainland. After spending a few days on Koh Chang I totally understand why people will spend weeks wiling away their time on Thailand's coast and islands. It's cheap, the locals are always friendly and helpful, the food is good, and you can just kick back and relax. There are probably few countries which can match Thailand in these terms. There is certainly nowhere in China, including China's own tropical island of Hainan, which can even begin to compare.

After leaving Koh Chang we decided to stop at a town called Chanthaburi on the way back to Bangkok. Although it is mentioned in guidebooks and has a couple of attractions, the town is by no means a tourist destination, so it gave us a chance to see something of the real Thailand. We stayed at a cheap local hotel which turned out to be a bit like a low-end Chinese hotel you might find next to a train station. It was extremely scruffy, and there was no hot water in the showers (in tropical countries this is often considered to be a luxury). To be fair, a double room only cost the equivalent of 5 euros a night.

Chanthaburi has the distinction of being an important center for the trade of precious gems. Bizarrely there is a small community of Africans living there, mostly involved in the gem trade. We walked down one street which was entirely filled with African men hanging around chatting. The town looked rather similar to a Chinese town of the same size, with similarly run down blocks of flats. On the other hand it seemed a lot more empty and sleepy then a Chinese town would ever be. We could find virtually no restaurants, only street-stalls, and most of the shops seemed to be shuttered even though it was a Monday. All the same, the people were almost all cheerful and helpful in the typical Thai way.

A monk walking in front of a temple in Chanthaburi

Few people spoke any English, so I had a chance to try out my phrasebook Thai. Learning Thai is basically like learning Chinese, but with a phonetic alphabet replacing the characters. The language has five tones, and the way in which sentences are strung together is very much similar to Chinese. In fact, I can't help thinking that the linguists who classify Chinese and Thai (as well as Vietnamese) as belonging to entirely unrelated language families are clearly mistaken. The similarities between these languages, all of which use tonal systems and have similar ways of constructing the phrase, are too striking to be coincidental, and probably point to a common origin at some earlier stage.

In any case we rented a scooter (this seems to be the simplest way to get around in most of Thailand, with private taxis very rare), and went to visit a waterfall just outside the town. Next to the waterfall there was a path which ran through a thick tropical forest, replete with hanging lianas which luckily never turned out to be poisonous snakes. After going back to the town, we visited the biggest local temple, in which there was a huge golden statue of a reclining Buddha. Thailand's profound popular devotion to Buddhism is one of the country's most striking aspects. There are shrines everywhere, and most passers-by will automatically put their palms together in a Wai gesture when they pass one. Saffron robed monks can be seen on every corner. In Chanthaburi even a local government building displayed quotations from the Buddha in both Thai and English on its walls.

While my old pre-China self would have rejected all this piousness as superstition and as a way of controlling the minds of the downtrodden, my new post-China self  sees it more as an admirable preservation of tradition and as a way of providing people with a set of values which go beyond mere materialism. It is funny how China can change your perspective on things. Of course I know very little about Thai society, and how Buddhism ties in to the personality cult of the king and the social injustice which certainly exists in the country. Perhaps if I lived in Thailand for a while and spoke the language, my perspective might change yet again. Certainly South-East Asian Buddhists can also be religiously intolerant, as one can see in neighbouring Burma today.

That night we took a five-hour bus ride back to Bangkok, and the next morning we got on a plane headed back to China. After this first taste of Thailand, I can't wait to get the chance to go back and see more of the country. Then again, neighbouring Cambodia and Laos are also enticing destinations. And I still want to see Kyrgyzstan one of these days. 

Posters like this one, in English and Chinese, are quite common in Thai temples