Monday, December 21, 2015

Five great China expat memoirs

Many foreigners who have spent time in China feel compelled to write a memoir about their experiences in this big, mysterious country. Unfortunately many of these books turn out not to be especially entertaining or interesting. Just because you've lived in China, it doesn't mean you have either good writing skills or anything insightful to say about the place. Every now and again though, a book comes out which really manages to capture the essence of the foreign experience in China. Here are a few of the best ones I have read so far.

River Town, by Peter Hessler

This classic remains the standard for the "foreigner in China" genre. In 1997 young American literature graduate Peter Hessler ends up on a two year stint teaching english in Fuling, a small town near Chongqing, in the proverbial middle of nowhere. New to China and not knowing a word of Chinese, he has to figure everything out for himself. His book is a superbly crafted description of his experiences, and what he comes to understand about China and his own culture in the process.

The book doesn't gloss over some of the less savoury aspects of the society which Hessler finds himself immersed in, but he always does his best to find poetry and beauty where he can. Hessler's students, young adults from the Sichuanese countryside training to be teachers, really come alive in his description. The challenges and the fun of teaching English literature in the middle of China are also described quite vividly.

After writing this book Hessler moved to Beijing, where he wrote another two books about China and became well known for his ability to describe the country to American audiences. He has now moved to Cairo, where he is trying to learn Arabic and write about the Middle East.

Mr. China, by Tim Clissold

A memoir by Tim Clissold, an englishman who set up shop in Beijing in the early nineties as a young, starry-eyed businessman with dreams of making it big in China's new market economy.

After a year of studying Chinese in Beijing, Tim was hired by a Wall Street banker referred to only as "Pat" (in actuality Jack Perkowski), who needed someone to oversee how the millions of dollars he was pouring into Chinese factories were being put to use. Inevitably all sorts of unforseen problems arose, from factory bosses escaping to Las Vegas with 58 million in cash, to other bosses transferring land to rival factories personally owned by their associates. Tim had to run around China from one end to the other, trying to deal with all the mishaps and explain them to incomprehending American investors.

The book is certainly entertaining, and does its best to be culturally sensitive. At the same time, it reads a bit like an expose' of the kind of business ventures which unprepared, amateurish Westerners would throw themselves into in the China of the nineties. Apparently Jack Perkowski now blames Tim Clissold for many of the problems the book describes, and has refused to read it. Perhaps he should have thought it through before hiring a clueless young man with one year's experience in China to oversee 418,000,000 dollars in investment?

The Forbidden Door (La Porta Proibita), by Tiziano Terzani

Tiziano Terzani was an Italian writer, journalist and adventurer who spent decades living all across Asia. He was well known in Italy for his deep knowledge of Asian languages and cultures, and for his fascinating travel books.

Terzani and his wife eating with some Chinese friends
Terzani was fluent in Chinese, a language he learnt in Stanford in the late sixties, and always curious about China. As soon as the country opened up slightly to the outside world in the early eighties, he moved to Beijing as a correspondent for a German magazine. Terzani arrived in the Chinese capital in 1980, when foreigners where still extremely rare. He immediately did his best to integrate and learn about his new home, refusing to remain confined within the diplomatic compound where foreigners were forced to live at the time. He rode a bike, sent his children to a local school (which they hated), travelled around the country hard class, and got to know as many people as possible. In the end the authorities got fed up with this man who just wouldn't stick to the script; in 1984, Terzani was arrested on the fabricated accusation of smuggling artistic treasures out of the country, "re-educated" for a month (which mainly consisted in him having to write nonsense confessions), and then kicked out of China.

The book he wrote on his years in China (called La porta Proibita in Italian) is a fascinating portrayal of the country in the early eighties: in some ways so different from now, and in some ways exactly the same. It also offers something different from the Anglo-Saxon perspective of many foreign authors who have written about China. Although Terzani was enthralled by Maoism as a young man, he became highly critical of the Chinese system after moving there. At the same time he discovered the real, human side of China, which he found much more interesting and exciting than the faultless facade which the authorities attempted to show the outside world.

Unfortunately Terzani died of cancer in 2004, after spending his last few months in the hills of his native Tuscany. No other Italian has since written about China as insightfully as he did.

Foreign Babes in Beijing, by Rachel DeWoskin

Rachel DeWoskin, the daughter of an American Sinologist, arrived in Beijing in 1994, aged 23, to work in an American PR firm. Before long Rachel, who had no acting experience and shaky Chinese, was offered the starring part in a TV soap on a foreign lady who falls in love with a Chinese man. The show was hugely successful, gaining over 600 million viewers, and Rachel turned into a celebrity and a sex symbol overnight.

Her memoir is a sensitive, amusing description of her five years in the Chinese capital, during which Rachel delved into the city's emerging alternative arts and rock music scene and met all sorts of curious characters, while holding down a variety of jobs. China was an exciting and bewildering place to be at the time, and Rachel always did her best to keep an open mind on what she experienced.

The book is a great portrayal of what expat life was like in Beijing in the nineties, a time when you could receive an offer to appear on TV just for having a foreign face and being able to put three words of Chinese together, everyone was curious about Westerners and their culture, foreigners were only allowed to live in certain neighbourhoods but would happily flout the law, and the traffic and pollution were still at bearable levels.

Why China will Never Rule the World, by Troy Parfitt

After a decade spent living in Taiwan as an anonymous English teacher, Canadian Troy Parfitt got fed up with hearing supposed experts back in the West go on about how China was going to become the next superpower and a dominant influence throughout the world. This just didn't chime with his experience. So armed with his ability to speak Chinese and his first-hand knowledge of Chinese culture, Parfitt decided to embark on a long journey through Mainland China and Taiwan, and craft it into a travelogue with an agenda.

The first part is a bitter and sometimes hilarious description of his travels through the Mainland, which are replete with the sort of of misadventures any old China-hand will be familiar with: revolting restrooms, rude, unresponsive or just plain idiotic staff, dismal accommodation, tacky "ancient ruins" rebuilt 20 years ago, scams and touts etc.... Parfitt finds almost nothing to like in China, and he is not afraid to say it like he sees it. His descriptions of his travels are replete with historical and cultural digressions, during which he dismisses Chinese culture and all it stands for. In the end, Parfitt concludes that China is condemned to remain authoritarian forever, and has no hope of gaining any kind of real global influence any time soon. Although he has no love for China's current rulers, he sees the roots of the problem as lying even deeper, in Confucianism and the country's basic cultural identity.

In the second part of the book, Parfitt tours his adopted homeland of Taiwan, and meanwhile tells us his impressions of Taiwanese society which he gained from his years of living there. He describes Taiwan as being a better place than the Mainland in almost every way, but he still finds Taiwanese society to be lacking in many important respects, and he blames Chinese culture and education for the lack of critical thinking, ignorance and obtuseness which he perceives all around him.

Obviously Parfitt's conclusions are highly provocative and debatable, and not everything he claims about China is true. It is not true, for instance, that you never see people exercise outdoors (has he ever been to a Chinese park?). I don't find it to be the case that nobody ever knows the way to anywhere, a constant theme throughout the book. Parfitt's historical anecdotes are interesting and informative, but often biased, and dismissing the whole of Chinese history as nothing but war and chaos is highly simplistic. At the same time, I think anyone who knows China properly will find themselves secretly agreeing with him every once in a while.

If this book deserves to be read, it is mainly because it gives vent to some of the negative attitudes and frustration which many long-term foreign residents develop towards Chinese culture. At the end of the book Parfitt describes how he decided to move back to Canada, finally fed up with Taiwan and Chinese society as a whole. This was clearly a long overdue decision.

Monday, December 7, 2015

"Red Alert" over smog in Beijing

The Chinese government has issued its first ever "red alert" over Beijing's air pollution. The entire population of Beijing, myself included, received text messages both yesterday and on Sunday warning about the upcoming pollution. The first message warned about severe pollution from Monday to Wednesday, and said that schools should suspend outdoor activities, and vehicles which transport earth from construction sites should suspend their operations.

The second message spoke about terrible pollution from Tuesday to Thursday at midday (when strong winds are predicted), and warned that cars will only be allowed on the roads on alternate days. It also suggested (the Chinese term used was 建议) that Middle and Primary schools suspend classes, and that enterprises consider "flexible working arrangements". My company is actually allowing everyone to work from home tomorrow.

The funny thing is that the pollution is nowhere near as bad as it was on Monday and Tuesday last week, when the PM 2.5 index reached 600, a level which hadn't been seen since the first "airpocalypse" in 2013. And yet because of the lack of an official government alert, people seemed to be less concerned than they are now, when the PM 2.5 still hasn't gone above 300. The difference is apparently that the heavy pollution has to be forecast to last over three days in a row for there to be a "red alert". Go figure.

If you don't live in China or another place with dreadful air pollution, you are probably unaware of the significance of the PM 2.5 index. In order to give you an idea, the WHO considers safe levels to be below 25. In no major European city does it usually go beyond 100 even on the worst of days. Once you get past a level of 150-200, the pollution becomes visible to the naked eye. Especially in the winter, this is a common occurrence in Beijing. Like most Beijingers, I can eyeball the PM 2.5 level based on how far I can see out of my window. If I can make out the high rises in the next neighbourhood, I know it can't be too bad.

The air quality may not be improving, but what has changed enormously since I first came to Beijing is the level of public awareness. Just a few years ago, most people here had no idea about PM 2.5 levels, and did not give the air quality too much thought, or even distinguish between smog and natural fog. Only very few wealthy people and foreigners possessed air purifiers, and almost no one wore a face mask.

Especially since 2013, awareness has increased exponentially. Air purifiers have appeared in many households of ordinary means, and those who can't afford the expensive ones buy cheaper and less reliable ones. Although you can still hear people say that it's better not to use a purifier at home in order to for your body to "get used to the pollution", such attitudes are on the decrease.

More and more people also wear masks on smoggy days, and not just the useless little surgical masks they used to wear, but the imported masks with a filter which you can buy in 7-11 (25 yuan for a packet of five). Recently, a small but increasing number of people are actually going around with a mask connected by a tube to a little oxygen tank strapped to their arm. Below is a photo a friend of mine took today on the Beijing subway. Underneath it is an advertisement for such a contraption.


The extraordinary measures that ensured clean air during last year's APEC summit and this year's military parade have shown the people that smog in China's capital is not actually unvanquishable. Now that they've understood that air pollution is bad for them, I wonder how long it will take for them to start considering such dreadful air quality to be unacceptable on principle, rather than an annoyance which you just have to bear.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New bout of dreadful air pollution in Beijing

Over the last couple of days Beijing has been struck by one of the most dreadful spells of pollution of the last few years. PM 2.5 levels have soared to 600, and the entire city has been covered by a thick, grey blanket of smog of the kind which smells bad and makes it dark and gloomy even in the middle of the day. This morning however strong winds finally arrived and blew it all away, allowing us to see the sky again.

Here's a couple of photos taken by a friend of mine from inside Beijing's famous CCTV tower. The first one shows the view out of his window this morning, and the second one shows the same view yesterday. Scary stuff.

People were beginning to hope things were looking up for Beijing' air quality, after a comparatively smog-free 2015, but the last few days have brought everyone back down to earth. At least this time most of the people out on the streets wore face masks. It seems like awareness of the ill health-effects of smog is increasing.

The Syrian conflict

The Syrian conflict seems to have become the defining issue in world politics. Much recent front-page news, from the refugee crisis engulfing Europe to the terrorist attacks in Paris to the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, involve what is going on in Syria in one way or another.                                  
The fact is that the fighting in Syria is increasingly coming to resemble the Spanish Civil War: a conflict which not only tears a country apart, but also becomes a battleground for a global struggle between foreign powers with competing interests and ideologies. The narratives being peddled by the international supporters of the two sides at war are very different, but they both share a disconnect from what is actually happening on the ground. It is ideology and wishful thinking which seems to guide most of the commentary on Syria, rather than a hard look at the facts.

Basically there are two main international narratives concerning the conflict in Syria. One we could call the mainstream Western narrative: an oppressed people rise up against an oppressive dictatorship in power for decades, inspired by the "Arab Spring" revolutions in neighbouring countries. The regime fights back, and it turns into a bloody civil war. Although Western governments consider the emergence of the Islamic State to be a huge threat, they maintain that Assad is a bloody dictator who has massacred his own people and has to renounce power if there is to be a solution for Syria. The so-called "moderate rebels" are considered to be the good guys worthy of support, fighting against both Assad and the Islamic State fanatics.

The other narrative is the one being peddled strongly by Russia, more quietly by China and other allied countries, and increasingly by the Western left-wing and others who have a bone to pick with US foreign policy. According to this camp, the secular regime led by Assad maintained Syria's stability and prosperity for decades and acted as a bulwark against religion fundamentalism. Then one day, using the excuse of the Arab Spring, the US and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia above all) fomented rebellion against Assad, and funded Muslim fundamentalists and terrorist groups to fight against Syria's legitimate government. What followed was the destruction of what used to be a peaceful country, and the emergence of the plague known as the Islamic State. Assad deserves support in his fight against the foreign-backed terrorists, and the Russian airforce is providing it.

Both these narratives respond to the worldviews and to the geopolitical interests of those who spread them. There is some truth to both of them, and also much simplification. The Syrian conflict started when popular demonstrations against Assad, inspired by what was happening in Egypt and Tunisia, were met with gunfire by the regime. That the US somehow pulled the strings is unlikely. It is much more logical to presume that Syrians took to the streets for the same reason that people did in other Arab countries: because they were fed up with living for decades on end under the same corrupt, inefficient and brutal regime. When they were met with violence, they responded with violence.

On the other hand, over four years after the civil war began, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it would have been better if nobody had challenged Assad in the first place: Syria has not moved towards becoming a better country, it has simply been devastated by war, turning into a place from which people are escaping in droves. All its ethnic and religious faultlines have exploded, and Syria has become a battleground on which Iran on the one side and Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other battle for power and influence. Even if eventually a better alternative to Assad emerges, Syrians will have paid a huge price in the process.

And then there is the composition of the rebel forces: it is an undeniable fact that Muslim fundamentalists now constitute a large part of them. The Islamic State's caliphate, spread out between what used to be Syria and Iraq, is attracting lunatics from all over the world. Syria's ancient non-Muslim minorities are being threatened and driven out. And then there are the other Islamist organizations operating in Syria, like Al-Nusra, Sunni fundamentalists who have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.

The Baath Party held onto power in Syria through brutality, as such regimes have always done in the Arab world (just look at the infamous massacre which Assad Sr.'s troops carried out at Hama in 1982). At the same time, it probably did prevent the country from descending into ethnic and religious warfare, while maintaining a relatively "secular' public culture. If the regime goes, there is no saying what could replace it. All this does lead some credence to the narrative of what we might call "the authoritarian camp": sometimes stable regimes had best not be toppled, regardless of how bad their human rights record might be, because the only alternative is chaos and ethnic conflict.

At the same time, the view that we can only choose between Assad and religious fundamentalism is simplistic as well: for one thing the Syrian rebels are not made up entirely of Muslim fundamentalists. There are other rebel factions which are more moderate, including the Free Syrian Army, which fights both the regime and the Islamic State at the same time. Then there are the Kurds, who fight for their independence as they always have done, and have become one of the main sources of resistance to the Islamic State. The self-governing Kurdish enclave of Rojava, which sprung up after Assad's forces withdrew from the region, is said to be an amazing experiment in secularism, grassroots democracy and women's rights in the Middle East.

According to most reports, Russian airstrikes are not aimed only or even mainly at the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, but also at more moderate rebel factions which want to overthrow Assad. What's more, Russian missiles have been killing Syrian civilians in droves. People who berate the US for propping up friendly dictators and engaging in bombing campaigns which kill civilians in the Middle East, but then support Russia for doing the same thing, might wish to consider whether there isn't a certain hypocrisy in this.

What remains clear is that the real losers are the ordinary people of Syria, who see no end to their suffering in sight. Further bombings by Russia, the US, France or Britain are not going to provide a viable or just solution.