Thursday, August 27, 2015

No comment

This news item was published yesterday on 网易 (Netease), one of China's most popular web portals. The comic effect was clearly intentional, and it looks like the website has already been forced to take it down, but before they did it had the time to make the rounds on Wechat.

Here's what it says:

Burma (Myanmar) unblocks Facebook. Only four countries now blocking it.

Burma recently announced that it was lifting the ban on Facebook, the world's most popular social networking site. There are at present only four countries in the world which still block Facebook, including North Korea, Cuba, Iran and others.

Wonder who the others might be?

Friday, August 21, 2015

China's economic slowdown: does it matter?

There's been a lot of hand-wringing about the Chinese economy's slowdown recently. In the space of a month, Shanghai's stock index suddenly dropped by 30%, and the Yuan was suddenly devalued by 4.4% against the US dollar. It has been speculated that the official figure of 7% annual GDP growth may well be exaggerated, and we may be talking about "only" 4 or 5%.

Quite frankly, all the concern sounds a bit over the top to me. The stock market's drop of 30% followed a rise of 150% over the previous year. The Yuan's devaluation wasn't really that huge, and it is a far cry from the years in which it was much more severely undervalued. What is true is that the Chinese authorities will always take draconian policy measures to try and fix any economic problem which presents itself, as can be seen from how they attempted to stop the stock market from dropping further. They are just congenitally incapable of not interfering heavily and unpredictably in the economy. Then again, leaving financial markets to fix themselves through market forces also produces dangerous imbalances, as the 2008 financial crisis in the US has shown.

The bottom line is that China's economy cannot continue growing by 10% a year for ever (and if it did, the world's natural environment would suffer all the more as a result). Even 4 or 5% growth is above the global average after all, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be satisfactory. China is already a moderately well-off country, and most of its problems are caused by social and political factors. Further GDP growth won't make them go away. Only political reform will. Even the dire poverty which still exists in the countryside and among the migrant workers could be ameliorated simply by distributing the wealth more evenly. After all, China has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world (going from one of the most equal in the early eighties).

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Are our kids tough enough? Hopefully not.

I have just finished watching the first episode of "Are our kids tough enough?", the BBC program in which a team of Chinese teachers take over a British school and conduct classes using Chinese methods and curricula.

The program is certainly entertaining and well made, as you would expect from the BBC. At the same time, it can hardly be taken as a serious comparison of the two educational systems. You can't just take a bunch of students out of the system they were brought up in, and expect them to adjust. It is also not surprising that faced with unfamiliar teachers who mostly speak their language less than perfectly, teenagers begin to act up (although the disrespectful behaviour of some British teens is a real problem).

As the BBC has made clear, the inspiration for the program came from the idea that Chinese schools are positioned at the top of world rankings, and that they outperform British ones. This notion was widely peddled by the British media as a result of the 2013 edition of the influential PISA report, which compares the educational achievements of students in different OECD countries. The result was that high school students in Shanghai ranked first for mathematics, reading and science, coming just above China's Asian neighbours, and way above Britain and all Western countries. The only problem is that the report's methodology was deeply flawed.

While all the other countries included were surveyed in their entirety, in the case of China only Shanghai was included in the report. PISA did survey some other Chinese provinces (all of them relatively rich and prosperous ones), but the authorities only allowed the results for Shanghai to be released, supposedly because they were the best ones.

The problem with this is obvious: comparing a single city to entire countries make little sense. Shanghai, the richest and most developed city in China, which contends with Beijing in attracting the nation's elite, is clearly unrepresentative of China as a whole. What's more, I have serious doubts that the survey even included the children of Shanghai's poor migrant workers. These children usually lack a Shanghai hukou, which means that they are effectively excluded from Shanghai's public schooling system, especially when it comes to high school. 

This didn't stop international and British news outlets churning out articles with headlines claiming that Shanghai's educational system was ranked "the best in the world", or that Shanghai's (or even China's) students are the "brightest in the world" (For examples, see here, here and here). 

Soon afterwards, British education minister Elizabeth Truss went on a visit to some Shanghai schools, and wrote an almost impossibly fawning and naive piece of flattery about the Chinese educational system and how great it is, especially at teaching maths. Apparently it is a myth that Chinese children are in school at all hours: "actually, their teaching time is similar to ours. But they use it much more efficiently". This is the country where some high schools have classes on saturdays and sundays as well, something I have personally witnessed.

The article concludes with the minister, clearly awe-struck by Shanghai's skyscrapers the way many first-time visitors are, claiming that the respect for maths and the belief in every single child on display in Shanghai should inspire us all. This was followed by a taxpayer-funded program to bring maths teachers from some of Shanghai's best schools to come to Britain and train local teachers in the Chinese ways. Suddenly, everyone is falling over themselves to praise a system they know nothing about.

It is true that Shanghai's results in the PISA test were impressive. It even outperformed Singapore. Clearly Shanghai's schools must be doing something right. I also don't find it hard to believe that the average Chinese student is three years ahead of the average British one in maths. It is a simple fact that Chinese schools (like other Asian ones) have a more demanding maths curriculum than what is normal in Western countries.

The jury is still open, though, on whether Chinese and other Asian students' superior achievements in maths and science are due to a different approach to teaching, or simply to much longer hours spent studying, whether at school, at home or in special after-school classes. It isn't hard to get better results, when you spend three times longer on your books. It is also the simple truth that Chinese education does not encourage critical thinking to the extent that the British one does. Nor does it seem to foster a real love of learning and of reading for reading's sake. It is more about working yourself stupid to get into a good university and have your future set. 

All in all, I don't think that China's educational system is geared to produce especially creative, enlightened or well-informed citizens. And what's more, many Chinese are well aware of this themselves and want reform. As long as China's universities remain average, claims to its educational superiority are going to sound pretty hollow. There may be a thing or two the British could learn from China about how to teach maths effectively, but it probably stops there. The discipline and dedication of Chinese students is the result of values and pressures which the British couldn't hope to replicate if they wanted to.

And by the way, when one of the Chinese teachers in the program claims that British kids aren't motivated to work hard because they know that in Britain "you are given money even if you can't find a job", she is wrong-headed. If British students don't spend all day doing homework it has nothing to do with the existence of a welfare state, which is something to be proud of. 

Maths teacher Zou Hailian patrolling his students in Bohunt comprehensive, Hampshire.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Five common misconceptions about Chinese history

Since China is a country which lends itself so well to myth-making and mystification, it is hardly surprising that misunderstandings about Chinese history abound. Some misconceptions are more common among outsiders, some among the Chinese themselves, and some are shared by all sides.

Here are five of the most commonly heard myths about China's past.

1) China was historically cut off from the world

Many outsiders see China as a country which was completely sealed off from foreign influence for thousands of years. Ancient China was indeed a relatively isolated civilization, surrounded by deserts and impassable mountain ranges. The Himalayas separated it from India, Asia's other great civilization, and its Northern and Western borderlands were made up of huge, inhospitable expanses of steppe and desert. Its main foreign contacts were with its own Confucian offshoots of Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Having said that, China was far from completely cut off or impregnable, both geographically and ideologically. In the most obvious case of ideological contamination, Buddhism was introduced to China from India over 2000 years ago, and became the country's most visible religion. Later on, the Silk Road brought a large amount of foreign people and ideas into China. Especially during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), often seen as China's most glorious period, the country was quite cosmopolitan.

The Tang capital Chang'an (modern Xian) was one of the most international cities in the world, as well as one of the largest. It included a Persian bazaar catering to Iranian tastes, and Nestorian Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Zoroastrian places of worship.  It was during this period that Islam arrived in China and drew quite a number of Chinese converts, as testified by the Hui Muslims today. It was also at this time that China's only traditional Jewish community was formed, by foreign Jews who settled in Kaifeng. They lived completely free of ethnic persecution for centuries, until they gradually assimilated. This shows that it wasn't always impossible for outsiders to become Chinese.

Of course China's traditional openness shouldn't be exaggerated either. Even during the Tang Dynasty, laws were passed segregating foreigners from Chinese in the capital. The Chinese attitude towards outsiders was always ambiguous and tinged with suspicion. Even though the definition of Chineseness was not racial, foreigners had to adopt Chinese customs in order to be accepted. The non-Chinese peoples in China's vicinity were looked down upon as Barbarians. In later dynasties, attitudes became increasingly negative and inward-looking.

2) Ancient China was sexually conservative

Many Chinese have come to see their own tradition as a sexually conservative one, while sexual openness is associated with the West (and the Japanese, who are seen as a people of closet perverts). The reality however is that for most of history the opposite was the case.

Since they did not follow monotheistic religions like Christianity or Islam, with their obsession over what people do in bed, in the past the Chinese had a much more relaxed attitude towards sexuality than Europeans did. The local religion/philosophy of Daoism saw sex as a path to happiness and longevity. Sex was not really a taboo, especially for the upper classes who knew how to enjoy themselves. Wealthy men would often have numerous concubines, and prostitution was allowed and regulated during some periods.

Even homosexual activity was tolerated in old China, at least as a way for men to release their sexual tension. Although the idea of people being exclusively homosexual was rare, just like in Ancient Greece homosexual relationships "on the side" were not seen as a problem. Some emperors even had male lovers within their harems.

The Chinese however shifted back and forth in their attitudes, and the Qing Dynasty was a comparatively puritan period. Then the Europeans came crashing into China's history, and the Chinese were influenced by the puritan Western attitudes on sexuality and marriage. Only now are attitudes starting to become more liberal again.

Having said that, I do think that some of the old tolerance is still visible in China today. In spite of homosexuality being illegal until 1997, most Chinese don't really seem too bothered by it (as long as it is not their own children who are gay, since they are expected to marry and give them grandchildren). Attitudes are certainly much more relaxed then in Muslim countries or Africa, where a violent opposition to homosexual love is still the norm. Sex shops also operate pretty openly in cities across China. And let's not forget the mind-boggling custom of inviting strippers to perform at funerals, which sporadically occurs in rural areas (although many people wouldn't dream of it, and the government keeps trying to put an end to it). Or Taiwan's half-naked "betel nut beauties".

3) China has 5000 years of history

Most people around the world would shake their head if asked exactly how long their country's history was. In China however, everyone knows the answer: China's history is 5000 years long. The 5000-year trope is learned in schools across the country and generally accepted as fact. Even foreigners who move to China quickly take it up. The problem is that it is a highly dubious claim.

It is hard to define when a nation's history starts, but no matter whether we take the adoption of writing or the emergence of the first cities as the starting point, China's history is not 5000 years old. The first accepted example of Chinese writing are the oracle bones, which date back to just over 3000 years ago. Chinese history prior to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) is hard to disentangle from myth. Farming probably did exist in China 5000 years ago, but this is true of many other places as well.

While is not true that China developed civilization earliest (Iran, Egypt and most of the Middle East definitely came first), there might be something to the claim that China is the world's "longest continuous civilization". Chinese imperial history does indeed present an amazing degree of coherence and continuity from the time of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the first real Chinese empire, until the Republican revolution of 1911.

The Chinese imperial system, based on the pillars of Confucianism and the examination system, was probably the longest lasting political construct of all times. It even maintained exactly the same official written language for over two millennia. No other country, from India to Egypt to Italy, can claim anything quite like it.

4) The Korean and Japanese languages come from Chinese

In spite of what most Chinese (and many others) believe, the Korean and Japanese languages do not derive from Chinese. To a linguist, they very obviously belong to a completely different family of languages. Their phonetics, structure and basic vocabulary all attest to this. Most linguists classify both Korean and Japanese as language isolates. Some see them as related to each other, and possibly even to Mongolian and Turkish (highly contentious). Nobody however relates them to Chinese.

The reasons for the persistence of this myth are easy to see: historically the Koreans and Japanese received much of their culture from China, which was the main center of civilization in East Asia. As such, a huge amount of Chinese vocabulary seeped into both languages. This can be compared to the way that a large amount of French vocabulary penetrated into English after the Norman invasion. Even nowadays, many Korean and Japanese words maintain a pronunciation similar to the Chinese equivalent.

What's more, both the ancient Koreans and the Japanese took to using Chinese characters to write down their own languages. The problem is however that the structure of these two languages differs considerably from Chinese. The latter is an analytic language, containing no grammatical inflections (no tenses, no voices, no singular and plural forms etc). Words never change their form. Korean and Japanese, on the other hand, do have plenty of grammatical inflections. As such, the non-phonetic Chinese writing system isn't really suited to representing these languages.

As a result, both the Japanese and the Koreans eventually developed phonetic alphabets of their own, which they would often mix with Chinese characters when they wrote. The Koreans have now almost abandoned the use of Chinese characters, except in ceremonial contexts. The Japanese continue mixing the different writing systems all the time.

To a linguist, however, the use of the same writing system and the presence of much borrowed vocabulary does not mean that Korean or Japanese can be said to derive from Chinese, in any way, shape or form. They are, rather, unrelated languages which were heavily influenced by Chinese throughout history.

5) Genghis Khan was Chinese

This particular misconception is only widespread within China, where most people take it as unquestionable fact. This is because of the way Chinese schoolchildren are taught their history.

To many Chinese, the Mongols are historically a part of the Chinese nation. It is true that the whole of what is now the Republic of Mongolia belonged to China throughout the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). China currently still rules over part of historic Mongolia, the province known as "Inner Mongolia". Although most of the province's population is not Mongol, there are still more Mongols within China's border than there are in the independent state of Mongolia. Mongols are thus officially classified as one of China's 55 ethnic minorities, which is reasonable enough.

The Mongols of the 12th century, however, were simply not Chinese. Genghis Khan, who was born North of Ulan Bataar, would never have seen himself as Chinese. If anyone had suggested it to him, he might well have cut their heads off. It is true that his grandson Kublai Khan conquered the whole of China and founded the Yuan dynasty. He then posthumously declared his grandfather to be the founder of the Dynasty, or 太祖.

Chinese schoolbooks now describe the Yuan dynasty as a legitimate Chinese dynasty, but at the time most Chinese despised the Mongols as foreign invaders. Even if you want to define China's Mongol rulers as Chinese, however, extending this posthumously to Genghis Khan is quite preposterous.