Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Anti-gentrification" or antisemitism?

The idiotic "anti-gentrification" protest in East London, which targeted a cereal cafe' in Shoreditch for the terrible crimes of being a hipster hangout and selling bowls of cereal (certainly fair trade ones) for £3.20, leaves me feeling pretty disgusted.

The problem of a lack of affordable housing is very real, in London, Beijing and all the world's big cities. But it's not going to be resolved by attacking small independent businesses catering to people who belong to subcultures which the protesters don't like. It's also silly to attack "outsiders" in an area which has been a haven for immigrants for centuries.

But what makes me really worried is the language used in the manifesto calling for the protest. Here's the opening lines:

"Stand up to gentrification!

Our communities are being ripped apart – by Russian oligarchs, Saudi Sheiks, Israeli scumbag property developers, Texan oil-money twats and our own home-grown Eton toffs. Local authorities are coining it in, in a short sighted race for cash by “regenerating” social housing."

Israeli scumbag property developers? I am not well informed about how many Israeli property developers are active in London, but I am pretty sure that they are not such a big presence compared to other countries. Note also that the word scumbag is not used for any of the other categories. No "Russian scumbag oligarchs", no "Saudi scumbag sheikhs".

Let's not mince our words: the reason why Israelis are specifically mentioned, alongside Russian oligarchs, Saudi Sheikhs and "Eton Toffs", is that these people hate Israel as such, and can't resist the temptation to drag the country into issues which have nothing to do with it. And quite frankly, when you have such an irresistible urge to vilify the only Jewish country in the world and its people, you can hardly complain when someone suspects that you might be motivated by antisemitism. 

Writing in the Guardian, Audrey Gillan criticizes the latent xenophobia behind the protest, but fails to specifically take note of the pointless and suspicious mention of Israel. It's lucky that the area where the protests took place is no longer heavily Jewish like it used to be. I'm pretty sure that otherwise the cereal cafe' wouldn't have been its main target.

Five myths about learning Chinese

1) Chinese is impossibly difficult

The most widespread myth concerning Chinese is that it is practically impossible for non-Chinese to learn it. This myth is commonly held both by outsiders and by the Chinese themselves, who will sometimes tell you that their language is the "most difficult in the world" with a kind of odd pride that their forebears managed to come up with such an impenetrable tongue. The truth is that while Chinese is certainly one of the hardest languages to master (at least for non-Asians), it is by no means impossible to do so.

The list of Westerners who have acquired fluent Chinese is by now quite long. You can see some examples in this previous post. Even in China people are starting to get less impressed when they hear foreigners speak their language well, although it can still attract amazement. The fact is that if you have a keen intelligence and a few years to dedicate to it, learning to speak Chinese to a functional level is perfectly possible.

Modern technology has also made things a lot easier. While remembering how to write Chinese characters by hand is indeed almost impossible unless you do nothing else but write Chinese for years and years (like Chinese schoolchildren), it is now almost never necessary to do so. Writing Chinese with a computer or a mobile phone is a lot simpler, as it only involves imputing the word in pinyin, and at most recognizing the character (which is many times easier than remembering how to write it). Electronic dictionaries are also incomparably easier to use than paper dictionaries, in which it is virtually impossible to find a character unless you already know how it is pronounced.

2) Chinese isn't really that hard

An opposite myth, peddled by Chinese language schools and sinologists and others who want to sell the language, is that Chinese isn't really as difficult as all that, especially if you use the right method. The reality is that mastering Chinese takes an awful lot of time and dedication no matter how it's done. Stories you hear about people who could speak fluent Chinese after only living in China for a year or so are to be treated with great skepticism.

You may hear claims that Chinese has an easy grammar, and this is more or less true. The point though is that the hard thing about Chinese is not its grammar. Chinese essentially has two aspects which make it difficult: the writing system and the tones. Learning the thousands of characters necessary to read the language is not unachievable for an adult, but it will take years of memorizing and practice, and there are no shortcuts. Claims that you "only" have to learn 3 or 4000 characters, as opposed to the dozens of thousands of words you need for English, ignore the fact that those characters can be put together in all sorts of ways to make up other words.

The tonal system is in some ways an even bigger obstacle than the writing: for those who did not grow up speaking a tonal language (most of humanity), it is just extremely unnatural to use tones to convey meaning. Learning to reproduce the four tones of Mandarin Chinese in isolation is easy enough, but learning how to use them smoothly while speaking is a huge feat. Even if you manage to memorize the tone of every syllable, actually convincing yourself to say the words like that is hard. Some people seem to have a natural ability to just pick up the tones by osmosis, but they are few and far between. Most people will just end up with toneless Chinese unless they make a conscious effort to learn the tones.

Add to all this the numerous characters which can have two or more different pronunciations according to their meaning, the hundreds of "four-characters proverbs" constantly used in writing, the high number of homophones guaranteed to confuse learners, the occasional use of traditional characters even in Mainland China etc etc... and you get the picture. Learning Chinese, while not impossible, is very tough. Just like learning Japanese or Arabic, it will take a Westerner years of work.

3) Learning the tones isn't necessary

This is a piece of advice which foreign learners sometimes get from well-meaning but misguided Chinese friends: don't worry about the tones, they aren't necessary. Even if you don't use them, "we Chinese will understand you anyway". There is a degree of truth in this: as long as you talk about pretty basic stuff in an otherwise correct fashion, most Chinese will be able to understand what you mean from context in spite of your lack of tones. However this changes as soon as you want to discuss deeper topics, or if you say a word in isolation (for instance, when you give a taxi driver the name of a place you want to go). The ability to understand toneless Chinese seems to vary from one person to another as well.

But there is an even better reason not to take this advice: if you speak Chinese without tones, it sounds pretty dreadful. People may understand you, but you are going to end up sounding extremely foreign for the rest of your life. It's a bit like speaking a European language and not conjugating any of the verbs. People can probably understand you anyway, but it's not a good reason to do it. 

4) In many parts of China people don't speak Mandarin

You may hear people claim that Mandarin (here meaning 普通话 , China's official language) is only spoken in Beijing and will be almost useless in other parts of the country. This is nonsense. This state of affairs did hold true 100 years ago, and perhaps even 50. It is however quite untrue nowadays. The reality of the situation is that Mandarin is spoken just fine by all the young and the educated throughout the PRC (the exception is Hong Kong, because of its separate history and system). In fact, some of the other "dialects" (which might just as well be called languages) are unfortunately dying out in urban areas. In big cities you may struggle to hear anyone speak the local dialect.

Things do change when you go to the countryside, but in my experience even in little villages the young are able to communicate in good Mandarin, even if the middle aged and the elderly are not. As long as they don't go to Tibet or to remote areas, the chance that the average foreign traveller will meet anyone who can't communicate in Mandarin is tiny. Even when travelling in Guangdong, supposedly the province most attached to its own dialect, I had no trouble getting around with Mandarin.

It is true that people in the South of China sometimes speak Mandarin with a strange accent, and get some of the sounds wrong (in some areas L and N become mixed up, while in other areas it's H and F), but if your Chinese is up to scratch, it shouldn't be hard to understand people. Sometimes Mandarin spoken with a regional accent is enough to throw a foreign learner with basic Chinese, but that says more about their own abilities than it does about China's linguistic unity.

5) You can learn to speak Chinese without learning to read and write it

Due to the nature of the Chinese language, with its non-phonetic writing system, it would in theory be possible to learn to speak it without learning how to read and write it at all. You could learn how to say all the words, without ever learning the corresponding characters. The reality however is that it is extremely unusual for people to learn to speak Chinese without learning the writing as well.

Although there are certainly plenty of foreigners in China who pick up some basic Chinese phrases without knowing how to read at all, it is very hard to progress beyond that level without learning the characters at the same time. Any language course will teach you the writing system, and very few people have managed to get far with Chinese without learning it out of a book.

All the same, it is a widespread misconception among the Chinese that foreigners who speak their language are still likely to be quite unable to read and write it. If they think about it at all, they may assume that foreigners learn Chinese entirely through the medium of pinyin, or just by speaking it. They may also assume that Chinese writing is simply too difficult for foreigners to master. The following scenario has happened to me a number of times: I chat with a Chinese person in their language for a while, without them even commenting. Then at some point they see me read a message in Chinese on my mobile, give me a puzzled look, and say: "wow, you can actually read Chinese". Well d'oh.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

This is not a Muslim invasion

As the wave of Syrian refugees continues pouring into the promised lands of Europe, it would be advisable to respond to the rhetoric coming from sections of the European public and political class about a potential "Muslim invasion".

The worst culprit in this regards is certainly Viktor Orban, Hungary's very right-wing prime minister, who recently used the term "Muslim invasion" in a speech. He also claimed that Hungarians know what it is like to live with Muslims, because they had to experience it for 150 years. He was referring to Hungary's conquest by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. Why this should provide the basis for dealing with a modern influx of refugees, I have no idea.

Orban is a pretty scary character, who is openly disdainful of democracy and what's more is getting the support of the majority of Hungarians. When a prime minister publicly uses language like that, it inflames the situation and legitimates popular prejudice. But the truth is that this refugee crisis has exposed a nasty strain of thinking across Central/Eastern Europe, with Slovakia agreeing to take in 800 Syrian refugees, but only at the condition that they are all Christians.

Luckily, many Western European countries have been far more accommodating with the refugees who make it to their borders. But even in Western Europe there has been some nasty rhetoric and protests, originating from movements like Germany's Pegida, an acronym for "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West". Although Germany has been commendably generous in taking in refugees, there have also been numerous arson attacks on shelters meant to house refugees, and physical attacks against the refugees themselves.

It is important to remember that we are talking about hundreds of thousands of Syrians spreading out over a continent of 500 million people. They are escaping a war-torn country, or they are leaving Turkey after being stuck there for years without the permission to work. They may well decide to return to Syria once the situation improves. There is no way that they constitute a "Muslim invasion" of anything (not to mention that not all Syrians are Muslim).

More generally, looking at the actual statistics, it is a simple fact that there is no risk of Europe turning Muslim any time soon. Muslims do not even constitute 10% of the population in any EU country. The country with the highest proportion of Muslims is France, where they are 7.5% of the population. In Germany they are 5.8%, in Britain 4.8%, and in Italy 3.7% (and not all of them are especially devout or practicing). In Hungary, the country which the worst rhetoric is emanating from, Muslims are less than 0.1%. Throughout the European Union, the Muslim population has grown at a rate of 1% a decade, from 4% in 1990 to 6% in 2010. At this rate, they will be 10% by 2050. The end is nigh!

I don't disagree that some Muslims hold unacceptable attitudes. Last summer's wave of attacks on Synagogues and Jewish targets throughout Europe came mainly from Muslims. It is a fact that the children of Muslim immigrants don't always develop attitudes closer to those of the societies they grow up in, and sometimes become more radical in their beliefs than their parents. If I really thought Muslims were going to become the majority in Europe, I might be concerned, since I have no wish for my own society to adopt Muslim mores. All evidence suggests that there is no risk of this however.

The fact is that taking in refugees from war-torn Syria is a reasonable thing to do, and Europe as a whole is quite able to absorb them. Talking about a Muslim invasion or the "Islamization of Europe" at a time like this is plainly irresponsible, especially when people are worried about their futures and looking for a scapegoat. What the crisis has highlighted, however, is the need for a proper mechanism by which the various EU states can coordinate and decide how to share out the burden. As usual, in times of need it's every European country for itself, with the EU counting for little. 

Syrian refugees walk along a railway track to cross the Serbian border with Hungary

Friday, September 4, 2015

Lukashenko and his son win the hearts of the Chinese

An interesting feature of yesterday's parade was the collection of foreign heads of state who came to attend the event.  Most surprising was South Korean prime minister Park Geun-hye's attendance. Apparently she took a long time to decide whether to come. Her presence might have to do with how much the Koreans are still resentful of Japan, and it might also be to do with North Korea's Kim Jong Un refusing his own invitation to attend.

Apart from Park and Ban Ki Moon, the other leaders who gathered in Beijing were mostly autocrats, from Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov to Egypt's Al Sisi. And then of course there was Putin, the star of the show, who was allowed to stand right next to Xi Jinping. This parade was clearly about cementing Russia and China's alliance as much as anything else.

Another foreign leader who really attracted attention, on the other hand, was president Lukashenko of Belarus, who brought his 11 year old son with him to watch the parade. The Chinese public fawned over the boy, and images of the child chatting to China's first lady went viral. Lukashenko apparently brings his son along with him to official visits all the time. Although he denies this, many claim that he is in fact grooming his son to succeed him - and the kid is only eleven.

Lukashenko is often referred to as Europe's last dictator, and not without reason. He has ruled over Belarus for over 20 years, during which the country's opposition has been completely crushed. Although elections are held, they are not generally seen as free or fair, and he wins them by a landslide. His regime is steeped in nostalgia of the Soviet Union, and the economy is still heavily ran by the state. He claims that his authoritarian style has helped Belarus to avoid the poverty and turmoil of other former Soviet countries, a claim which appears to have at least some grounding in fact. Belarusians are consistently more prosperous than Ukrainians, for instance.

Unsurprisingly, Lukashenko used to receive strong backing from Russia. The curious thing is, however, that since 2010 his relationship with the Kremlin has seriously deteriorated. Last year Lukashenko even publicly criticized Russia's actions in the Ukraine, and expressed support for the new government in Kiev. No one seems to be quite sure whether the Belarusian leader is really trying to reposition himself, or just get better trade terms from Russia, which remains the country's largest trading partner.

The Chinese, meanwhile, happily maintain excellent relationships with both Lukashenko and Putin, as yesterday's parade attests.

Lukashenko and his son pose with Xi Jinping and his wife

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The great parade

And so ends the great parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Anti-Fascist Victory.

The whole of Beijing, the capital city of the world's second largest economy, a modern metropolis of 15 million souls, has been basically put on standby for the sake of this parade. The whole city center has been pretty much in a state of lock down for the last few days, with important avenues and subway stations closed to the public, and many establishments also forced to close. Beijing's usually busy streets were practically empty of cars this morning.

To a great extent, not only Beijing but the whole country has been gearing up for the occasion for days. The entire nation got a special holiday today so they could watch the parade. Chinese TV has been showing almost nothing but programs about the parade and documentaries and old films on the "War of Anti-Japanese Resistance" for the last few days, with most normal programming suspended.

I watched the parade on TV in my flat (although I actually saw some of the fighter jets from my window). It was certainly a huge and impressive display, spectacularly well choreographed, but you would expect nothing less from the Chinese state. If there's one thing they are good at, it's putting on a show. All the same, the whole event left a bad taste in my mouth.

It's not that I have a problem with celebrating the victory against fascism in the Second World War, and in fact I hope it is never forgotten. That many Chinese contributed to this struggle with their lives is also undeniable. What I do have a problem with, on the other hand, is the way that it is officially commemorated in China. In contemporary government discourse, there is very little focus on fascism as an ideology, and what it actually means. In fact, usually the word fascism is barely used, and the enemy is simply referred to as Japan or "the Japanese devils". And there is little attempt to present the Chinese fight against Japan as part of a wider global struggle against injustice and inhumanity.

Instead, the lesson which the Chinese people are supposed to draw from this chapter of their history is narrowly nationalistic: "we, the Chinese people, struggled against the Japanese, the last in a line of foreign invaders. Now we must make China strong, so nobody invades us again". In modern Chinese discourse, the Japanese are often demonized as a people who have an eternal instinct to invade other countries, and who still remain militaristic and aggressive towards China. And this in spite of Japan's army never firing a shot in anger since 1945.

Let's also not forget how the struggle against Japan is now officially presented as being led by the Maoists, when actually the Nationalist party bore the brunt of the fighting. And of course, the downplaying of the fact that it was mainly the United States who beat Japan in the Pacific, enabling China's liberation (this can be compared to all those European countries where the role of the local resistance in defeating the Nazis is exaggerated, while that of the US/Britain is downplayed).

The message today's parade was supposed to send to the ordinary Chinese is "look how powerful our military is; nowadays no country would dare to mess with us". Not really much of a celebration of world peace and the values of anti-fascism, then. It certainly had the desired effect on some people: my wechat feed is full of nationalistic posts from Chinese acquaintances, expressing their pride at seeing their country displaying all those tanks, jet fighters and ballistic missiles. Having said that, a Chinese journalist friend wrote the following post in her wechat: "they are using the fascists' methods to celebrate the anti-fascist victory".
military helicopters form the number "70" in the skies of Beijing