Thursday, October 19, 2017


Last week I finally visited Shanghai.

Although this may seem surprising for an old China hand like me, I actually hadn't been to Shanghai for years, and was quite unfamiliar with the city. The high-speed trains which travel from Beijing to Shanghai in around five hours at a whopping 300 km/h make the journey relatively convenient and hassle-free, but I still hadn't had the incentive to go down there. This year a friend's relocation to Shanghai finally gave me the excuse I needed to go and take a better look at Mainland China's other metropolis.

This particular friend had been gushing to me for ages about how Shanghai beats Beijing as a place to live in every respect, not just because of the better air, but also in terms of the general quality of life. In his view the city is easier to get around, less congested, more sophisticated and international, has a more law-abiding and civilized society and feels less like a police state.

This is a view of life in Shanghai that I have heard repeated by a lot of other expats in China. People from Shanghai and the surroundings often tell me pretty much the same thing, complaining about the haphazard way in which things are done in Beijing, and the lack of sophistication of the Northern Chinese. Chinese from other parts of China, on the other hand, will often tell you that the Shanghainese look down upon Chinese from other areas and are unfriendly towards them. This is one of those "facts" that everyone in China thinks they know: the Shanghainese despise 外地人 (Chinese from other provinces) and "worship" foreigners and foreign culture. Beijingers do not stand accused of being unfriendly towards other Chinese nearly as much as the Shanghainese do.

After having stayed in Shanghai for four days, I can see where my friend's enthusiasm for the city is coming from. Shanghai is indeed a considerably easier place to live than Beijing, that much is obvious. Part of it is just to do with better urban planning: while the city is also enormous (in fact it has slightly more people than Beijing), the center is less spread out and objectively easier to get around. Traffic is not nearly as bad as it is in Beijing, and if you live somewhere in Pudong (the more residential district on the East side of the river) you can expect to ride a taxi to the French concession, where most of the action takes place at night, in a reasonable amount of time, like 20 or 30 minutes, without encountering dreadful congestion of the kind that makes getting around Beijing such a nightmare at times.

While Shanghai essentially looks like other Chinese cities, everything feels a little cleaner, neater and better organized than it does in Beijing. The difference would probably not be noticeable to a foreign tourist, but to those who live in China it is quite obvious. Even the touristy shopping district of Tianzifang manages to be far nicer and have a better atmosphere than Beijing's equivalent, Nanluoguxiang.

What is also striking is that Shanghai has a much higher proportion of foreign residents than Beijing. You simply see more of them on the streets, and in the French Concession especially the proportion of non-Chinese faces is far higher than what you find in Sanlitun or Gulou. I think the difference would not have been that noticeable say 5 or 10 years ago, but in the meantime there has been quite an exodus of foreigners from Beijing. The pollution has driven a lot of them out, and the increasing hostility towards foreigners on the part of the authorities has worked to drive out a few more.

Not that these problems don't exist in Shanghai. Air pollution is still bad enough, as I could see when I went up to the 92nd floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center and looked out at the horizon across the river like all the tourists do. While the view was impressive, visibility was not clear enough for me to see all the way to the edge of the city. And while the police may not be making a point of raiding expat bars, visa regulations are obviously just as tight as they are elsewhere in the country, and the general system you are dealing with remains the same. As a matter of fact, statistics show that the number of foreigners is dropping in Shanghai too, but it still remains a lot higher than in Beijing (about 250,000, compared to 100,000 for Beijing).

If there is one area where Beijing beats Shanghai, it is probably in the variety and number of interesting people one can meet there. Beijing is China's cultural and political center, and as such it has a lively intellectual scene, both within the Chinese and foreign communities. Foreigners who live in Beijing are more likely to speak Chinese and have a genuine interest in China, while more conventional types would probably not be able to put up with living there (or else work in an embassy). Writers, NGO staff, artists and people in similar lines of work abound. I have a feeling that the social scene in Shanghai would be a lot more shallow, although I have not really been there long enough to experience it for myself. On the other hand, with Beijing getting no easier to live in, and Shanghai remaining China's main window to the outside world, even Beijing's foreign intellectual circles might gradually start to relocate down south.

The view of Shanghai from the top of the World Financial Center

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Five books that will help you understand modern China

Reading books about China can become quite addictive once you get started. There are lots of them, and many are just run of the mill. There are some however that can really give you fresh insight into how this confusing country works. Below are five I would recommend to anyone interested in modern Chinese politics and society.

China Alone: the Emergence from and Potential Return to Isolation by Anne-Stevenson Yang

Anne-Stevenson Yang is an American lady who has spent most of her life in China since the mid-eighties, working as a journalist, executive and researcher. She writes about China perceptively and knowledgeably, giving an overview of the political-economy's current woes, from real estate to government debt. She also provides an insightful description of how the country is run, explaining for instance about the networks of "red princelings" that act as intermediaries between the different government departments, in spite of their lack of formal positions in the bureaucracy. Finally she takes a broader view to look at where China is headed. The old model of development has outlived its usefulness, she argues, and China may well be heading back into isolation and insularity. Only real systemic change can break the cycle of opening up to the outside world and then closing down again.

China's Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know by Arthur R. Kroeber

This book provides an excellent overview of all of the salient facts about the Chinese economy in every sector, from agriculture and industry to finance and real estate. Without getting excessively technical or falling into too much detail, it gives the reader a realistic picture of the economy's strengths and weakness, and how they link to the political system. It avoids being too catastrophic, for instance it gives little credit to the idea that China is set for some kind of terrible financial crash due to the real-estate bubble popping or a credit default. At the same time it also avoids the silly triumphalism of certain works about China, arguing that the talk about China becoming a hub of creative innovation is basically hot air, and will remain so as long as the political system doesn't loosen up.

Gao Village: Rural Life in Modern China by Mobo Gao

This book by Mobo Gao is an unusual one, but definitely deserves to be read by anyone interested in China's recent history. It is an account of the history of the author's birthplace, Gao Village in Jiangxi province, since the Communist Party took power in 1949. Mobo Gao was only the second person from this village to gain a higher education in its 200 year history, and ended up becoming a university professor in Australia. His views are controversial, as he is a "leftist" (in Chinese terms) with a tendency to minimise the impact of the disasters of the Mao Era, claiming that they mainly affected the elite, while the peasantry that constituted the overwhelming majority of the population actually benefitted from the era's radical policies, and even from the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, he is disparaging about most current Chinese policies, claiming that they do not really benefit the poor.

While his defence of Mao's rule, which he lays out in his other book "the Battle for China's Past", might seem to be based on a certain selective blindness, this book does a good job of explaining where he is coming from. Enriched with personal memories and anecdotes, but by no means a memoir, the book gives you a vivid picture of this little village and its recent history. He claims that the Great Leap Forward's craziest polices were mitigated by the common sense of the villagers, while the only local culture that was actually lost during the Cultural Revolution was the original copy of the local genealogical tree, which was burnt. He later describes the return of clan-based local struggles, the unjust taxation, the increase in general amorality and insecurity, and the continuing poverty of the villagers during the market reforms of the eighties. He claims that the first real material improvements for the villagers only came in the nineties when the young started to go out and work in the nearby cities, where they were often horribly exploited.

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics by Huang Yasheng

This book by Huang Yasheng, a Beijinger who teaches at Harvard, offers a different set of insights into how modern China works. Huang is also motivated by concern for the poor and underprivileged, but he sees things very differently from the aforementioned Mobo Gao. Huang is a great fan of the policies followed under Deng Xiaoping in the eighties, which in his view were able to free up the great reservoir of enterpreneurial potential of the Chinese countryside. Peasants were enabled and encouraged to start their own businesses, which they often did quite successfully. After the sad events of 89, however, China changed course. The new model of growth favoured the urban areas, the state-owned enterprises and foreign invested companies, while it was inimical to small indigenous entrepreneurs, and the countryside became nothing but a reserve of cheap labour. While the GDP continued to grow impressively, this form of growth was less beneficial for the well-being of the ordinary Chinese. He calls China's current system "crony capitalism", and calls for genuine protection of property rights to be ensured as a way of checking the system's inherent corruption and cronyism.

You Don't Know China: 22 Enduring Myths by John Ross

China is a country that lends itself uniquely well to myth-making and urban legends. This book is a really good take down of some of the most widespread myths about China, from the mundane (cats and dogs as an everyday dish) to the more consequential (the supposed Dickensian conditions in Chinese factories, China as the new "place to be"). The book does a great job of disposing of some of the new myths about China created by the international media, for instance the huge ghost cities sitting in the desert that on further inspection are not quite as deserted as they seem. Not everyone might agree with some of the authors' points, for instance his complete rubbishing of traditional Chinese medicine, or his contention that China was never really that isolated from foreign influences throughout its history. The inclusion of the Tiananmen Square massacre as a myth, purely because the killings didn't take place within the square itself, strikes me as rather unconvincing. But all in all the book is still a compelling read, and it finishes with a convincing take down of one of the most consequential modern myths about Chinese history, the occurrence of a "century of humiliation".

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Beijing's great bricking up: what lies behind it?

The "great bricking up" of 2017 would seem to be almost over, and the dust is settling again over the hutongs in the center of Beijing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small businesses have been forced to close by having their entrances bricked up (although many have valiantly tried to continue operating through a side entrance or a small window). Corner shops, hairdressers, restaurants and bars, no one has been spared. In the process, some of the city's greatest nightlife spots for foreign hipsters and alternative young locals have been mercilessly destroyed.

Workers brick up the entrance to a hutong restaurant

These are the facts. But what are the motivations behind all of this? The official explanations don't necessarily have much to do with reality. The authorities claim the point of the campaign is to close down illegal hole-in-the-wall businesses, address "architectural violations" and "restore the hutongs to their original look'. This all sounds very reasonable, but I would bet these are not the real motivations. Calling the hutongs' small businesses "illegal" means very little, in a context where property rights are unclear and everything is a grey area.

Most of those in the know seem to think that the point of the campaign is to push the migrants (or in some cases, the foreigners) who operate these businesses out of Beijing, thus reducing the city's population. This is what the Economist claimed in its May article "The Wider Meaning of Change in a Beijing Alleyway", and James Palmer in his Diplomat article, "How to Destroy the Heart of a Chinese City". Some of the smarter analysts who I have spoken to, both foreign and Chinese, make the same claim. In their minds the campaign is linked to the stated policy of capping the capital's population at 23 million by 2020, and moving some of the government functions and a few million people from Beijing to the soon-to-be-constructed city of Xiongan, out in Hebei.

Personally, the idea that the main motivation behind all this closing down of bars and shops in Beijing's central cluster of hutongs is reducing the city's population doesn't strike me as realistic. After all, the vast majority of Beijing's residents don't live or work in the one-storey hutong houses of the center, but in the vast 30-floor tower blocks further in the periphery. A single 小区 (a kind of gated community) in a suburb like Sihui probably contains more people then all of Dongcheng's hutongs put together.

What I suspect is a better explanation for the campaign is one that Palmer's article touches upon: social control. Essentially, the authorities aren't comfortable with the kind of unregulated, spontaneous and cosmopolitan street life that has grown in some of the hutongs in question. Their vision is one of a uniform city where entertainment is provided by air-conditioned shopping malls, and every street just has the same repeated McDonalds, Starbucks and Chinese fast food branches.

If there must be hutongs where people go to have fun, they should be along the model of Nanluoguxiang: essentially horizontal shopping malls, completely commercialized and standardized, replete with a bit of packaged "traditional culture" for out of town Chinese visitors. Incidentally, Nanluoguxiang was also closed down for a few months and renovated last autumn. It's now even more awful than it used to be. Hilariously, this article in the Chinese media claims that it "got a facelift to bring out traditional character". Sadly, touristy towns all over China, from Lijiang to Pingyao, now present shopping streets that look exactly like Nanluoguxiang.

Shops in Nanluoguxiang

It is no accident, I would bet, that some of the hutongs well known as nightlife haunts for young foreigners and Chinese alike, like Fangjia hutong, have been among the hardest hit by the closures. To me they represent the best of Beijing, a place where people from all walks of life (including foreigners and ordinary Chinese) rub shoulders in a genuine traditional setting, and neighbours still know each other. To the decision-makers, they are something that doesn't fit in with their vision of a society "governed by law" with Chinese characteristics. It is also no accident that Sanlitun's famous (or infamous) bar street, which is not in a hutong, has received the same treatment. The dirty, wild and unmanageable bar street is going to be turned into just another extension of the glitzy shopping malls that surround it on both sides. The final result of all this may be to irreparably damage some of the few areas of Beijing that still have some real character and uniqueness to them, in favour of a standardized and soulless entertainment culture that looks the same throughout China.

People eating in front of Moxi Moxi, the now forcibly closed Israeli street food joint in Fangjia hutong 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Why won't China abandon North Korea?

A few years ago I happened to read "Dear Leader" by Jang Jin Sung, one of the best books around about North Korea. Jang Jin Sung is probably the highest-ranking North Korean ever to have defected and told his story in detail. And his story is quite remarkable: he was an ordinary boy from a provincial town who became a writer and got coopted to work in the heart of the regime's propaganda department, creating propaganda aimed at South Koreans. He was lucky enough that one of his poems was praised by the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il himself, and he thus gained the class status of "Admitted" in North Korean parlance. He was then given the honour to meet Kim Jong Il in person, which is what first caused his faith in the system to start wavering. Brought up to believe that his country was governed by an almost god-like figure, when he discovered that Kim Jong Il was actually a very ordinary man who spoke in coarse language and used high heels to mask his short stature, the esteem in which he held his leader took a serious dent.

Although he lived a sheltered life in the capital, when Jang travelled back to his hometown of Sariwon and witnessed the effects of the last gasps of the famine that ravished North Korea in the late nineties, any remaining loyalty to the regime collapsed. While there he saw corpses lying unclaimed outside of the train station, and a farmer publicly executed in the town market for stealing some rice. It disgusted him when undernourished relatives and acquaintances asked him for information about the health and wellbeing of the "selfless Dear Leader" with genuine concern in their voices.

Jang made friends with a colleague who shared his distaste for the system he lived in, and when his friend accidentally mislaid "forbidden" reading material from the propaganda department in the Pyongyang subway, they were both forced to flee the country in 2004. After crossing the border into China and almost getting caught in the process, they were forced to lay low to avoid getting arrested by the police and sent back. Jiang managed to get in contact with South Korean agents who smuggled him into their embassy and give him a diplomatic passport, but his friend was unfortunately caught and committed suicide rather than being sent back.

The book is a compelling read, and its description of North Korea from the inside is fascinating, although by now rather dated. There is however one passage which is very relevant to the contemporary crisis in the Korean peninsula. Jiang Jin-sung recounts a private conversation he once had in Pyongyang with an ex-classmate from Kim-Il Sung University, a government cadre involved in establishing connections with ethnic Koreans in China. Apparently there was then a rule in North Korea that private conversations between cadres could not be used as a basis for prosecution unless there was independent evidence of them having taken place. This rule was made to prevent personal vendettas from spiralling out of control, and it allowed members of the elite to establish friendship and trust by sharing the dangerous truths behind the official narrative.

Jang's ex-classmate spilled his guts out regarding the true state of China-North Korea relations at the time. He told Jang about the background to Kim Jong Il's visit to China in 2001. In 2000 Kim Jong Il apparently came across an internal document of the Chinese government regarding the pact made between China and the DPRK after the Korean War. The document contained statements by some Chinese policy-makers suggesting that China should call off the mutual aid pact, or even ask North Korea for reparations for China's support during the war. Kim Jong Il was furious and went straight to the Chinese embassy to reprimand the ambassador, without any prior warning. North Korea's state news agency also announced the visit to the Chinese embassy without first telling the Chinese. The whole thing was seen as a diplomatic snub to China.

In response, China withdrew its ambassador and sent in a new one who was far less friendly to the North Koreans. A couple of months later, dozens of North Korean agents were arrested in North-East China for trying to groom local cadres within the government and police. Then for a while China even put a stop to aid to North Korea. After making their point, the Chinese authorities invited Kim Jong Il to visit China in January 2001, and he had no choice but to make the trip. The Korean delegation was even made to wait outside Beijing for days before being received. Then Kim was forced to go down to Shanghai and tour the skyscrapers of the Pudong special economic zone, and declare his praise for China's economic reform. This was reported in the international media as a sign that North Korea's leader wanted to emulate China's economic reforms. The reality is that he was forced to go to China as a kind of penance for daring to challenge his Chinese backers.

What is telling are the phrases that Jang's ex-classmate uses when talking about North Korea's relationship with China: "(...) I bet that's the first and last time our general tries to play with China the kind of games he plays with the US. We all know that if they squeeze us, we're dead.". And then later: "If they decide that our regime must go, it will go".

If this was true back in 2004, it is probably even truer now that cross-border trade between North Korea and China is much more large-scale. As others have recently pointed out, it is naive to think that the Chinese government couldn't bring North Korea to its knees if it wanted to. But it is also clear that they do not have any intention of pushing North Korea to the point where its regime may collapse. China's decision-makers may genuinely be frustrated at Kim Jong Un for his recklessness and threats (or they may be secretly pleased), but they appear to think that a reunification of the Korean peninsula would bring US troops all the way to their border. Although the reality is that in the long run the American army would have to pull out of a reunified Korea, the Chinese government probably doesn't believe this or see things that way. While it may not be a puppet, North Korea is essentially a buffer state, and for this reason it continues to exist.

Jang Jin Sung 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Is becoming Chinese a goal worth striving for?

Daniel A. Bell

Daniel A. Bell’s latest piece, “Why anyone can be Chinese”, has certainly raised a few eyebrows. In the article the Canadian professor, who has made a name for himself as a defender of China’s political system, argues that after twenty years in China he would like to be seen as Chinese. This silly reply has already been delivered in the Huffington Post, by someone far too steeped in American identity politics to have anything useful to say on this matter.

Daniel Bell is often dismissed as an apologist for the Chinese government. He is most well known for the contention that China’s political system is actually a “meritocracy” which produces leaders more capable than those elected in democratic systems. I don’t generally agree with his arguments, but I must admit that unlike certain other high-profile Western apologists for the Chinese system (for instance Martin Jacques or John Ross, who can’t speak a word of Chinese between them), he at least puts his money where his mouth is: he has lived in China for over twenty years and speaks fluent Chinese, as well as having a Chinese wife.

Bell argues that Chinese identity wasn't always racially defined throughout history, and that during much of China's ancient past the "dominant elite culture" saw cultural belonging, rather than race or ethnicity, as the bedrock for being Chinese, so outsiders could "learn to be Chinese". This was certainly true during certain periods, for instance the famed Tang Dynasty, when China's only traditional community of Jews established itself in Kaifeng and pretty much became Chinese, in spite of having arrived from abroad. 

Bell complains that nowadays, however, the Chinese view their identity through a racial lens, and in spite of speaking Chinese better than many Chinese, doing his best to fit in and being "committed to Chinese culture", he is still seen as a complete outsider (incidentally, his interest in Confucianism and his penchant for wearing Chinese-style clothing at conferences rather than a suit and tie are actually very un-Chinese characteristics).

Bell is correct that nowadays the Chinese see being one of them as a matter of blood lineage (even though in principle China is supposed to be a multi-ethnic country made up 56 ethnic groups, including a few thousand ethnic Russians in the North who may well look like me. But I think that for the average Han Chinese this is nothing but a detail they rarely think about). As a foreigner living in China I understand where Bell is coming from, but I think that perhaps arguing about whether a foreigner can ever be seen as Chinese is missing the point.

I personally do not feel Chinese, and have no particular wish to be seen by others as Chinese. I also think it is probably pointless to hope China will ever approach North American norms on this issue. In societies historically based on immigration, like the US, Canada, Australia or Brazil, foreign immigrants can reach a point where they feel they belong and are truly accepted by locals as their compatriots. In the rest of the world however this goal is generally unattainable, because national identity (as opposed to mere citizenship) is seen as something that you need to be born into. Even in European countries where a foreign immigrant may acquire citizenship and be treated by the authorities in all respects like a local, deep down they will still be viewed by most people as a foreigner. Asian societies tend to be even more closed, and "becoming" Korean, Vietnamese or Mongolian is likely no more possible than becoming Chinese. 

While fighting to be seen as Chinese is probably pointless, I think a more modest goal foreigners in China could aim for is to change the Chinese perception of what it means to be an outsider. It is one thing to be considered a foreigner, with a different culture and sense of identity. It is another thing for people to automatically assume that as a foreigner you 1) know nothing about China, or in any case cannot ever scratch below the surface, 2) are always going to be a transient "guest" with one foot back in your own country who can never really hold a stake in Chinese society, and 3) are always some sort of ambassador for your own country and its interests, rather than just an individual trying to get by in a new society. 

Not all of these assumptions hold for every single Chinese, but I would say that Chinese society as a whole views outsiders pretty much like that. Foreigners in China who develop close personal relationships with Chinese people will find that their local friends come to view them quite differently, but to most strangers they will still be the archetypal foreigner.

Connected with this change in attitudes would be policies that make it easier for foreigners to live and work in China, acquire permanent residency rights and, who knows, one day even citizenship (without this meaning that you have to "become Chinese" in your own mind and other people's, speak flawless Chinese or be an expert on Confucianism or Beijing opera). Bell's article calls for China to start competing for human talent worldwide, and provides a link to an article by Yan Xuetong, Tsinghua's foreign policy theorist, which claims that China should adopt a more open immigration policy that would "expand its economy while improving its moral standing globally". I fear this is one of those good suggestions that will never be acted upon. The Chinese government currently seems to be in no mood to make China a more open society, and as long as it controls public debate the way it does, I think neither attitudes towards foreigners nor immigration policies are going to change very much.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Is it too easy for foreign students to get into Chinese universities?

Peking University's famous Weiming Lake

Recently a string of articles have appeared in Chinese social media, lamenting the fact that it is too easy for international students to gain access to Chinese universities compared to what it takes for local students. This may have been precipitated by a change to the regulations of some Chinese universities, including Tsinghua, which appear to have made it even easier for foreign citizens to apply.

It is certainly true that it is far easier for foreign students to gain access to Chinese universities than it is for their local counterparts. China's 高考 exams are notoriously hellish, and competition is cutthroat. By comparison, although things change according to the university and the case, very often a foreign student only needs to apply to get into a Chinese university, sometimes with a Chinese government scholarship to boot. For postgraduate courses, an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject may be required. Then again, sometimes even a degree in an unrelated subject will do.

Most international students who want to study in China do face one serious obstacle: they need to pass an HSK language exam to qualify for degrees taught in the Chinese language. Although some Chinese universities now offer special postgraduate degree programs taught in English, the majority of foreign students apply for degrees taught in Chinese, since they see learning Chinese as half the point of studying in China.

The fact that many foreign students need to pass a difficult language exam to study in China is not necessarily mentioned in these online diatribes. When it is, people lament that the policy favours foreign students with a Chinese background, who are already familiar with the Chinese language. Resentment of kids from rich Chinese families who have acquired foreign passports through various means and can thus apply to top Chinese universities as foreign nationals is often what lies behind these grumblings. As someone commented online, "years of strenuous study aren't worth as much as a foreign passport for getting into a Chinese university".

Other articles, like this one written by a university professor, lament the fact that the foreign students who come to China are not as "high-quality" as the ones studying in America, and not even as good as the local students. There is probably a certain closed-mindedness behind these assessments (the foreign students' mathematical skills aren't as good as the Chinese students' ones, while their critical thinking skills are not being considered), and hearing Chinese complain that the foreigners who come to their country are "poor-quality" is sadly a common refrain in all fields.

It is certainly true that Chinese universities are unable to attract the children of the global elite and the world's most brilliant students the way American or British ones can. In most developing countries, studying in China is a second choice for people who do not have the means to get a degree from a Western country. Students from the West who get degrees in China usually do so because they are curious to experience life in China for a few years, because they want to learn Chinese or because their field of study is related to China. But it is understood that the most brilliant students are not all clamouring to come to China, even to the top universities like Tsinghua and Beida.

The fact remains that if the Chinese want to attract the best international students from around the world, then they have to work on improving their universities. My prediction is that as long as China's political system doesn't fundamentally change, China's top universities will not be able to compete with the best global ones in terms of ground-breaking research and creating a lively intellectual atmosphere, no matter how many funds the government pours into them.

This is not to deny that the best universities in Beijing and Shanghai are actually quite good, with competent professors and students who regularly produce research published in top international journals. But the intellectual atmosphere remains stifling. The recently announced new rules for international students won't help matters. It is also noticeable that if you look at China's Oxford and Cambridge, Tsinghua and Beida (Peking University), the foreign students are intentionally being concentrated in Tsinghua, which focuses more on science and engineering, rather than in Beida, which focuses more on the social sciences. I think it isn't hard to see why.

For Chinese universities, accepting lots of foreign students is also a way of ensuring that they can climb up in the international rankings. Most such rankings include "internationalization" as one of the factors universities are assessed upon, something which also harms the notoriously insular Japanese institutions of higher learning. Having a high proportion of foreign students and staff gets you a higher ranking, and given that the Chinese government is obsessed with China's image and with world rankings of any kind, I find it quite probable that they are handing out scholarships to foreign students simply as a way to help Tsinghua and other universities climb up in the ranks.

Much of what lies behind these complaints about foreign students getting into local universities too easily is a misplaced frustration over problems that are entirely internal and homegrown. The article I linked above starts off with the statement that Peking University enrols 200 South Korean undergraduates every year, and only 100 from the whole of Shandong province. In China this is an incendiary matter. Students from Shandong, an overcrowded province, notoriously have to go through hellish competition to get into a good university in Beijing, literally winning out over millions of competitors. Youngsters from Beijing or Shanghai can get in far more easily, something which causes much resentment. Would this state of affairs change if the university took in less South Koreans or other foreign students? Of course not.

If nothing else, such grumblings will pretty certainly have no effect whatsoever on the policies of Chinese universities and the educational authorities, who will continue to enrol international students to the extent that they feel is useful to their goals.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Rights for expats in China

While most Chinese are convinced that foreigners "have it easy" in China, the truth is that operating in China as an outsider can be very difficult.

A group of foreigners in China have now started a Wechat channel called "expat rights", which recently came to my attention. The channel is supposed to agitate for the rights of foreign expatriates in the country. Unsurprisingly, they do not publicize their names (although since Wechat is a Chinese app, this doesn't exactly guarantee their anonymity). They claim to be currently applying for NGO status, although I would be extremely surprised if this was granted to them.

The group's "manifesto" lists the following four demands: "1.We would like China to treat "expats" with legal protections like Chinese get in our home countries. 2. We want a national ID card 3. We want police raids on expat establishments to stop. 4. We're tired of carrying our passport everywhere."

The first two points strike me as well meaning, but naive. The legal protections Chinese people get in 'our home countries" (supposedly referring to Western democracies) are the same protections that everyone gets in those countries, due to the presence of a properly functioning rule of law. Unfortunately no one really enjoys such protections in China, neither foreigners nor locals. National ID cards are indeed available to resident foreign nationals in many European countries, but given the way China works, it is just unthinkable that foreigners will be given their own 身份证 any time soon (although perhaps asking for it might do no harm? Like Che Guevara said, "be realistic, demand the impossible").

The last two points seem more realistic. The constant raids that bars frequented by foreigners have been subjected to in Beijing are unjustifiable and serve no good purpose (or perhaps the purpose of scaring foreigners away from Beijing?). The legal requirement that foreigners who live in China carry their passport with them at all times is unreasonable and not in line with the laws of most countries of the world. Few foreigners follow it, at most carrying a photocopy with them. And while the police may normally accept a photocopy, the law states that you should have the original on you, leaving them an avenue to harass random foreigners when they want to (for instance during the above-mentioned raids).

The group's introductory page finishes with a call to "make a better China, together", trying to make use of the harmonious-sounding language employed by Chinese groups fighting for social change. The other articles on their Wechat channel include one entitled "We teach illegally for you, China", denouncing the hypocrisy behind the crackdowns on foreign English teachers without the right visa, an article calling for all hotels in China to accept foreign guests (some don't), and other articles denouncing cases of petty racism against foreigners. There is also practical advice on what foreigners should do if they are caught in a legal dispute with their employer, and on how to claim the money from their Chinese pension fund back before leaving the country.

I don't know who the people behind this initiative are and I don't necessarily agree with all their views, but they've definitely got guts.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The University of Maryland and freedom of speech

An aerial view of the University of Maryland

Recently Chinese nationalism seems to have found a new target for its wrath: a young Chinese girl, originally from Kunming, who studies at the University of Maryland. Her talk on the clean air and free speech of the US during her graduation ceremony didn't go down well with the Chinese public. It is no exaggeration to say that if she had any ideas of going back to China to work she will have to put them aside, at least for the time being. You can find a good description of what happened here, and of the public reactions of some of Maryland's other Chinese students here.

Before I rush to defend her, I will concede that perhaps the phrase about "not being able to go out without a face-mask because she risked getting ill" is a tad over the top. Kunming is indeed one of the Chinese cities with the best air quality. But that is a bit like talking about the safest city in South Africa, or the most lively city in Norway: it is only an accolade in very relative terms. The truth is that, while nowhere near as bad as Beijing or any city up North, Kunming's air quality is by no means good by global standards. While a healthy person won't get ill in the immediate by not wearing a face-mask, I am sure the air in Kunming is noticeably more polluted than it is in Maryland.

More importantly, the girl's over the top description of the air pollution in Kunming has served to take the focus away from everything else she said, for instance the stuff about freedom of speech. While Chinese television actually went and interviewed people in the streets of Kunming to ask whether they wear face-masks (of course, none do), it would be unthinkable for them to go to the streets of any Chinese city and ask people whether they perceive a lack of freedom of speech in their country.

I am sure there are many other Chinese students in Maryland and the US who either agree with the girl, or at least are unhappy with the rather hysterical backlash to her speech (and back in China somebody wrote this sarcastic reaction to the whole drama, showing that they still have some critical thinking faculties left. Translation here at the bottom). Given all the criticism and public attacks that their peer has been subjected to back home, however, they are probably steering clear of any public pronouncements that don't toe the accepted line in China. At the same time, it is probable that the reactions against the speech by some of the university's other Chinese students were not in any way organized by the official Chinese student organizations linked to the government, but just a result of their sincere nationalism (and a certain naiveness about their home country). Of course people everywhere do tend to get defensive when their country is criticised abroad, but the strength of feeling directed against the "traitorous" girl coupled with the complete lack of genuine anger about China's dreadful air pollution and lack of freedom of speech is what leaves outsiders astounded.

Another thought strikes me: in the age before the internet, there was almost no way that a graduation talk by an anonymous Chinese student in Maryland could have become well known and attracted so much fury half way around the world. A world where any girl's graduation speech can be filmed with a mobile and then go viral across the globe produces these situations. But rather than allowing China's young people a greater freedom to express themselves, the internet seems to have backfired for them - it has now taken away their right to express themselves freely even when they are studying abroad. Any Chinese anywhere who steps out of line and publicly criticizes their country outside the bounds of acceptable public discourse within China is risking a public backlash, and even more so if they do it in front of a foreign audience.

The idea that a world where information could flow across borders in a micro-second would make people more informed, tolerant and wise is turning out to have been an illusion everywhere, and China is no exception. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Recite Confucius and get in for free!

I have just got back from a short break in Qufu (曲阜). Qufu is a small town in Shandong, famous for being the birthplace of Confucius. It is the reason why all of Shandong's 100 million people always introduce their province to the foreigner who has never heard of it as "the hometown of Confucius". The town has been recognized as the sage's place of origin for over 2000 years, and as you can imagine it is full of historical sites connected with Confucius. It is also now a stop on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway, meaning that it can be reached from Beijing in just two hours and twenty minutes, even though the distance is actually quite huge.

The town has a small historic centre where most of the sites lie, surrounded by a (of course totally reconstructed) Ming-era city wall. The area was surprisingly un-crowded, considering that I went there during a national holiday. Outside of the historic centre Qufu seemed small and non-descript, and after 5 PM when the sites close the whole town becomes quite dead.

While in Qufu I had a funny experience. When I reached my youth hostel, I saw a notice claiming that it is possible to get into the town's main attractions for free if you can memorize five phrases by Confucius. When I asked I was given a sheet with twenty quotations from the Analects, out of which I could choose any five to memorize. The phrases all had an English translation, which was useful because the quotations are in Classical Chinese and their meaning was not necessarily obvious to me at first glance, although with the help of the translations I could make sense of the characters. Quotations by Confucius are still read and written in Classical Chinese or 文言文, the style that remained China's unchanged written standard for over 2000 years, until the early twentieth century when it was replaced with the modern standard.

I decided to memorize the following five phrases:

(clever talk and ingratiating manners are seldom found in a virtuous man)

(a gentleman is not a tool)

(the gentleman is at peace with himself, but there is no rest for the wicked)

(virtue is not left to stand alone. If you practice it you will have neighbours)

(While the parents are alive, the child must not travel afar. It they do travel, they must have a place to which they go).

As you can see classical Chinese is always very concise, which is much of the reason that these sentences are impossible to understand in Chinese unless you see the characters written down. Those who wrote in classical Chinese only cared about whether the sentences made sense when read on paper, not when spoken out loud. Due to the nature of the Chinese writing system, the two things don't necessarily go together. This problem is much less pronounced in modern Standard Chinese, but it is far from completely absent.

In any case, armed with my five phrases I went to the town's ticket office, where you can buy a single ticket for 150 Yuan that covers Qufu's three main attractions (the Confucius Temple, the Confucius Mansion and the Confucius forest). Given that this is about 20 euros, you can see that getting in for free is an attractive proposition. Once I got to the counter, I asked about getting in for free by memorizing Confucius, and without batting an eyelid the attendants said "next door".

This is where things got a bit weird. I went next door, and found a special office entirely dedicated to letting travellers prove that they have memorized five phrases by Confucius. At the reception desk I was met by two unfriendly clerks who told me that there were already a lot of people waiting to recite their five phrases, and I would have to wait in a line. Outside, in the boiling heat, behind what seemed like an organized tour group of Chinese tourists all armed with sheets like the one I had been given, memorizing their phrases so they could get in for free. What was really strange is that the whole place had the musty and slightly ramshackle feel of a Chinese government office, and people were being conducted one by one into a room in the back so they could recite their Confucius and get their free tickets.

When I asked how long I would have to wait, I was told an hour. I decided to give up and come back next morning, in case there were less people. I did indeed come back the following day, although it was actually more like noon by the time I arrived. This time there were no people. Another extremely cold and unfriendly clerk gave me a form to fill in, with my name, nationality and passport number. After a minute or two I was called into the ominous room in the back, and sat in front of a desk, where the same clerk prompted me to recite the five phrases with the tone of an oculist asking me to read the letters on the wall. The whole thing was beginning to feel like a driving licence examination. I akwardly recited the first phrase, at which she told me that I had to add 子曰 ("Confucius says" in Classical Chinese) in the beginning. I then proceeded to recite the other phrases, always prefaced with "Confucius says".

I was then given a certificate with my photo (which had just been taken), name and passport number, which would allow me free entry into the town's three main tourist sites. It looked just like a certificate of the kind they give you for passing exams in China. My long Italian surname had also been totally misspelt by the clerk. Be it as it may, I used it to get in for free and save 150 Yuan.

All in all, I think the idea of allowing people to get in for free by memorizing Confucius is actually a really good one. It certainly ensured that I memorized five quotations that I shall never forget again. Having said that, the whole experience was quite different from what I originally expected, which was that I would reach the gates of the tourist site, recite the phrases in front of smiling ticket vendors who would tell say "wow, your Chinese is amazing", and then be allowed through without paying with a pat on the back. I even imagined a few local tourists filming me on their phones during the process. Instead, I had basically had to go through a rather strange examination in the backroom of a government office. Another one of those weird and slightly wacky experiences that can make travel in China such a great source of anecdotes.

A statue of Confucius in Qufu

Friday, April 28, 2017

The "little pink" and online nationalism

Last month's protests over the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile defence system in South Korea turned into the latest bout of nationalistic hysteria to hit China in recent years, with Lotte supermarkets boycotted and closed down by the authorities, travel agents being pressured to stop sending tour groups to South Korea, and videos appearing of Chinese primary school children encouraged to chant slogans against Korea and Lotte at rallies in their playground.

I would say that the level of hysteria was about equal or superior to what was seen last summer after the UN ruling over the South China Sea dispute, but still nowhere near as bad as what went down in 2012 over the Diaoyu islands dispute with Japan. Living in China I have come to see such bouts of collective insanity as akin to episodes of extreme weather: they happen regularly, they are unpredictable, they are annoying but fortunately they don't normally cause anyone much genuine harm, and they pass relatively quickly.

Much has been said and written about China's popular nationalism, its legions of "angry youth" spewing their bile online, the way that the educational system inculcates resentment of Japan and other foreign powers into the minds of young students. The latest development is the appearance of the term xiao fenhong, or "little pink", as a new label for the legions of young Chinese who take part in online campaigns aimed at vilifying the targets of nationalistic rage, and whipping up support for patriotism.

Last summer Australian swimmer Mack Horton became the target of concerted attacks by legions of such young Chinese patriots, after he called his Chinese rival at the Rio olympics a "drug cheat". His social media accounts were bombarded with derogatory and aggressive messages in both Chinese and English. What is striking is the readiness of these young people to take their nationalistic campaigns onto foreign websites like Facebook that are blocked in China, implying that they are either living abroad, or more likely are using a VPN to get round the Chinese government's firewall.

The term "little pink" apparently started off as a disparaging term, because the "movement" began on a well-known Chinese chat group called the Jinjiang forum, whose site has a pink background. A lot of the xiao fenhong are women, making the term even more apt. Later the People's Daily ran an article praising the xiao fenhong as a community of millions of internet users, mostly female, who are patriotic and defend the state online. Since then some have started using the term as a badge of honour.

Essentially we are looking at young, well-educated, middle or upper-middle class young people who know how to access censored foreign websites and in many cases are quite able to argue in English, and use these skills to show support for their country and state and hurl invective at those who they perceive as unfriendly to China. Many of them are indeed women, something that will hopefully put to rest the misguided Western commentary claiming that all these young Chinese nationalists are frustrated "excess men" who can't find a woman due to the gender imbalance created by the one-child policy.

It may seem strange that some of China's most privileged young people, the ones who come from the sort of social classes who tend to send their children to study in the West, take part in such nationalistic online ranting. But as a person with a long connection with Chinese society, it doesn't surprise me. Some of the most unreasonable, extreme, wilfully closed-minded nationalists I have had the misfortune to meet here in China have been young people from the country's privileged classes who had studied or lived abroad, and spoke pretty fluent English.

This is of course by no means a rule. I have also met plenty of young Chinese from such backgrounds for whom studying abroad was a genuinely eye-opening and enriching experience, and who refuse to be roped in by simple-minded chauvinistic discourse. It does appear to be the case, however, that in modern China nationalism does not decrease as one moves up the social scale. It may actually be strongest among the wealthier classes, although they express it in a more sophisticated fashion.

I could give the example of a colleague of mine. She is a 23 year old girl, a native of Beijing, who has just come back after getting a master's degree in a European university. She likes travelling and once took the Trans-Siberian Express all the way to Moscow, in spite of knowing no Russian. She is energetic, opinionated and independent. Recently a conversation I was having with her and another colleague turned to the topic of politics. She started saying that she knows that she was "sort of brainwashed" in school, but she just can't help herself. When she hears people criticise the Communist Party she just has to defend them as the people who liberated the country, even though she knows it isn't really that simple.

The topic then turned to Taiwan. She said that she will resolutely oppose any Taiwanese who claims that Taiwan isn't part of China, because this is a 民族的问题 (ethnic/national question). She said she doesn't understand why the Taiwanese always have to 抱美国大腿,抱日本大腿 (Cling to America and Japan for protection, said using a derisive expression). She then said she wished her government wasn't so kind and understanding towards Taiwan, and showed some muscle by boycotting them and destroying their economy if they continued talking about independence.

Young people of this kind may have grown up in a nationalistic bubble, but they are by no means unable to find out about the world from independent sources. Even when they are not abroad they are quite able to use VPNs and connect to any website worldwide, and can read material in English as well as Chinese. It would not be difficult for them to find out how things look from the perspective of, say a Taiwanese student who took part in the Sunflower movement. The point is that they display little interest in doing so.

Many dismiss such people as brainwashed, but the word doesn't quite do the situation justice. I often notice a disconcerting willingness, almost a conscious decision, to wallow in a bubble of unjustified nationalistic attitudes, instead of questioning comforting but wrong-headed and dangerous beliefs. Of course it could be argued that most people anywhere are not keen on questioning their long-cherished beliefs. That's probably how religions manage to keep going down the generations, even when their core axioms have become quite untenable. On the other hand the way that in China people's core beliefs currently revolve around nationalism, and tend to be similar for large swathes of the population, make them potentially explosive.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Travels in Sichuan's ethnic corridor: Taoping Qiang Village and Gyarong Tibetans

This Spring Festival I headed over to Sichuan. I had a fun and full trip, watching pandas, attending a friend's wedding in the countryside of Northern Sichuan, hanging out with the local Esperanto-speaking community in Chengdu, eating hotpot and even becoming a bit of a champion at the local variety of Mahjong (I won at least 300 Yuan at the game). But the experience most worthy of being written about is probably my visit to a Tibetan village in Western Sichuan.

As you may be aware, the West of what is now Sichuan province forms the easternmost part of the Tibetan plateau, and is historically and culturally part of the Tibetan world. Tibetans call the region Kham. As you travel West and North from Chengdu, you gradually start to feel Han China turn into Tibet. As is the custom of Chinese administration, the region is divided into two "autonomous prefectures" named after the most prevalent local ethnic groups. These are the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. It was to the second prefecture, north-west of Chengdu, that I ventured.

My destination was Taoping, a well-preserved village of the Qiang people which has now been turned into a tourist attraction. The Qiang are one of China's 56 recognized ethnic groups, but I must admit that I had never previously heard of them. They number about 200.000 in total, just a drop in China's ocean, but they do manage to make up 19% of the prefecture's inhabitants, while Tibetans make up 57% and the Han make up the remainder. The Qiang speak a group of related idioms known as the Qiangic languages, a sub-group of the wider Tibeto-Burman family. The language is divided into dialects that may not be mutually intelligible, and attempts to provide it with a writing system of its own have failed. Qiang culture is influenced by both Tibetan and Han Chinese elements, since historically they have fallen under the domination of both.

The village I visited is in the county of Wenchuan, which was the epicentre of the dreadful Sichuan earthquake of 2008. 69.000 people died in the earthquake, and literally millions were displaced. I had to change buses in the county capital, where in typical Chinese style everything has been rebuilt and there are no visible traces of what happened. I don't know if the new buildings and schools are earthquake-proof, but I hope so.

After another half-hour bus ride through splendid mountain scenery I got to Taoping. The village does indeed have a genuine historic centre that has survived, but unfortunately that was not the first sight that greeted me. Taoping has now become a weekend getaway for holidaymakers from Chengdu, and just like any Chinese tourist site it has become fully commercialized and filled with kitsch. An entire new section has been added onto the village in typical "fake-old" style, filled to the brim with hotels and restaurants. The locals, some of them old women in traditional costumes, mostly seem to be selling trinkets for visitors at road-side stands.

That was the area at which the bus dropped me off. Although I was initially disappointed by the mundane atmosphere, the beautiful mountains surrounding me on all sides and the fresh, warm air raised my spirits, and I decided to look for a place to stay. Although touristy the place was far from crowded. The village is after all only well known in the region, not nationally and certainly not internationally (Lonely Planet fails to even mention it in passing). After dropping off my bag at a hotel run by two local women, I went off to look for something to eat. It was already 4 in the afternoon, hardly time for lunch in China, and most restaurants turned me away. I finally found a place that was open, and I went in and sat down.

A family of Chinese visitors saw me, and the father invited me over to sit at their table. He lived in a small town in Sichuan, and was eager to chat with me. I ended up sharing the family's food for free, and having a conversation with the well meaning middle-aged man who had invited me, who was full of questions about life in other countries. His other relatives seemed a bit put out, which made the situation rather awkward. His daughter, a high school student, was of course egged on by her relatives to practice the English she had supposedly learnt in school on me, and predictably refused. This same scene always seems to play out in such situations.

After some awkward goodbyes, I continued walking until I found the genuine old town, which was nice to wander around. I climbed up to the top of the hill overlooking the town, and took some photos. The town is dominated by a traditional Qiang watchtower. Every Qiang settlement used to have one of these, and many still do. In the past the different villages were constantly fighting each other, so the watchtowers served as a warning against raids. The houses were also built of thick stone walls, which might be why they seem to have survived the devastating earthquake better than most modern buildings in the region did.
The old centre of Taoping, with the Qiang watchtowers

The new section of the town built to house tourists. In the background you can see the cluster of white houses where most of the locals actually live.
As I wandered round the narrow alleys, I came across an old house that looked intriguing. When I tried to get inside, however, I was asked to pay a 20 Yuan fee to look around. I refused and started to walk on, but the young man at the door called after me, saying that I was welcome to have a look for free. Foreigners are still rare in these parts, and he was obviously willing to make an exception for me. The house was impressive, genuinely old and full of artefacts. After seeing a few rooms I found a family sitting round a stove. There was a man who looked a bit like a teacher, who invited me to sit down. It turned out he was a university professor in Chengdu, but his family were the owners of the house. They apparently used to be the local chieftains before the communists took power, or so I was told.

The man went into a long lecture about the differences between the Chinese and Western political systems, to which I listened politely and made a few comments. Fortunately his views seemed relatively liberal. He then asked me if I wanted to stay and have dinner with the family. I of course agreed. After the last visitors had left, I was brought into a private back room where a huge dinner had been prepared. There was a big round table and a much smaller, lower one. All the men sat round the bigger table. The women and the children sat at the smaller table. There was only one woman sitting with the men, and I was told she has an especially strong and decisive character, and is a good drinker. I think the bigger table might have been reserved for those who wanted to drink alcohol, rather than for the men as such.

The food was great Sichuanese fare, and everyone was very friendly. It wasn't much of a Qiang cultural experience though, since the family were clearly very urbane and spoke to each other exclusively in Sichuan's Chinese dialect. After dinner we retired to a courtyard where the family organized a barbecue and the men played cards and gambled (I joined them and embarrassingly managed to win 100 yuan). At around 10 I finally retired to my hotel. It struck me that I had just been wined and dined for free not once but twice. Stuff like this would never happen in Beijing or anywhere in its vicinity.

The next morning I determined that before going back to Chengdu I would walk around a bit in the area and try to find somewhere less touristy. There is a major road passing next to Taoping, so I set off along the road with my rucksack. Although the scenery was majestic, the walk itself was hardly pleasant. There were cars driving past, and construction sites nearby. I passed a few villages where people stared at me in surprise, but there was nowhere one could really hang out. After walking for about 40 minutes, I decided to turn back. While I was walking back a young lady driving a car stopped and asked me if I was lost and if I needed a lift. I told her I was going back to Taoping, and she offered to take me. It turned out that she had seen me walk in one direction and then turn around, and wondered what was the matter. She was actually not driving towards Taoping at all, but was still happy to give me a lift. She said that she had once travelled abroad and people had been helpful towards her, so she felt she should do the same with foreign travellers in her country.

The road where I was offered a lift
Road sign in Chinese and Tibetan. The Chinese, being the language most people in the area are actually literate in, is much larger, while the Tibetan writing is included as a matter of policy

I started telling her that I had been looking for a place where I could see a bit more of the local culture. She told me that she was actually an ethnic Tibetan, and she originally came from a Tibetan village a bit further north. She lived in Chengdu, but she was back in her village for the Spring Festival. She ended up taking me to another tourist site near Taiping, which turned out to be a completely reconstructed Qiang village that wasn't even finished, but was clearly waiting to become another tourist trap. Since she had never been there herself, she got out of the car and had a look around with me. We both agreed that the fledgling tourist site had very little charm to it. Seeing my genuine interest in the local culture, the young woman ended up inviting me to go and see her village with her. I refused at first, but she insisted and the idea of visiting a Tibetan village was intriguing, so I ended up agreeing.

We drove north for about an hour, up into the mountains, until we reached Li county. Then we drove off the main road and into an isolated valley with mountains all around it. The young lady's village was in this valley. It consisted of a collection of a few dozen newly built houses. I was told that the original village used to be up on the mountain, but it was destroyed in the 2008 earthquake, and then the government rebuilt it down in the valley. Apparently the locals were satisfied with this, since the living conditions were better in the new village.

The girl's family had a three storey house facing the village's main gathering point, a little square with a basketball court in front of the local government headquarters. Just behind the headquarters there was a small area that seemed to be dedicated to religious practices. There was a series of golden prayer wheels like the ones you find outside of every Tibetan temple, surrounding a drab concrete structure. Next to it there was a space with a much larger prayer wheel and a few old sofas. There were five or six elderly ladies sitting on the sofas, all but one wearing colourful Tibetan outfits. The young lady introduced me in the local Tibetan dialect, and I sat on one of the sofas.

The old ladies continued chatting, then they suddenly got up and started walking around the building turning the prayer wheels while chanting in Tibetan. Encouraged by my new local friend I actually followed them around a few times, spinning the wheels while chanting Om Mani Padme Hum, the most famous Buddhist mantra and the only one I know. Of course we were all walking clockwise, as is the custom. Spinning prayer wheels is supposed to allow you to accumulate wisdom and merit, or good karma, and even an insect that crosses a prayer wheel's shadow is supposed to accumulate some merit, which I suppose it can store up for its next life.

Local ladies spinning a prayer wheel

I spent the rest of the day hanging around in the village and in the family's house. It soon became clear that I would be their guest for the night, especially since the girl was only going back to Chengdu the next day and there was no way on earth I could leave this place in the middle of nowhere without a car of my own. There was exactly nothing to do in the village but sit on the family's front porch and read my kindle while eating sunflower seeds, which suited me fine. I walked once around the village, which took me all of five minutes. As I was walking an old lady in Tibetan clothing approached me and said something. She seemed not to speak Chinese, so all I could do was answer "Tashi delek", the supposed Tibetan greeting that has now become famous throughout China and beyond, even though it is really just a religious invocation and its use as an everyday greeting is very recent. In the old days Tibetans would greet each other by sticking their tongues out. Once I got back to my host family, I learnt from them that the woman had actually wanted to invite me to her home. Word travels fast, I thought.

The weather was quite warm during the day time, although it got very cold at night, as you might expect at such high altitudes. The house was fairly comfortable compared to many where I have stayed in rural areas. It had a modern bathroom, although there was no real shower. I ate both lunch and dinner with the family, and both were delicious. Dinner included a grilled lamb leg with the hoof still attached. The grandmother of the girl who brought me to the village ate with us, wearing her impressive local dress. Although I couldn't really speak with her, the girl told me that she was an open-minded and curious old lady, in spite of the fact that she had never seen much of the world. She reminded me somewhat of my late Italian grandmother.

Lamb leg during and after cooking
As the girl who brought me there had told me, the area's inhabitants are extremely Sinified Tibetans, and I could see this very clearly in the younger generation. Not only did they dress in modern clothing, but they seemed to speak to each other mostly in Sichuan Chinese rather than in Tibetan, and they looked and behaved just like youths throughout China. Although they still have to speak the local Tibetan dialect to communicate with the elderly, there is clearly a language shift towards Chinese going on. This is an area relatively close to Chengdu though, and the girl assured me that if you travel further North you can find more "genuine" Tibetans whose culture is more intact. The girl herself had grown up mostly in other parts of China, since her parents had worked in various cities. She spoke Chinese without the trace of a Tibetan accent, and would have been in no way identifiable as an ethnic minority in any other context. She came across as a cool young Chinese urbanite, and told me that she owns her own business in Chengdu.

Local ladies on the street

The following day I ate an interminable meal with my host family outside another relative's house. This time relatives and friends all collected, with at least 20 people present. The food was grilled on large flat stones, something I had never seen before. There was all sorts of food being grilled, including things like octopus and other seafood which I suppose cannot be part of the traditional menu in an area so tremendously far from the sea. After a lengthy meal the girl and I finally set off for Chengdu in her car. I drove most of the three hour drive, happy to have the chance to finally give something in return for the hospitality. As the mountains turned into the suburbs of Chengdu and the traffic got heavier, I began to think of the flight back to Beijing that awaited me the following day, and I felt my holiday was over.

A few days later, back in Beijing, I shared photos of my trip with an Esperanto-speaking friend from Chengdu, an erudite man who is very familiar with the culture of the Tibetans and other ethnic groups of his native Sichuan. After looking closely at the women's costumes he at first thought that these were not actually Tibetans at all. After finding out exactly where I had been, he concluded that I had in fact stayed in a village of so-called Gyarong (Jiarong) Tibetans, a sub-branch of the Tibetan people so remote they do not even have the honour of a Wikipedia entry. They have their own distinctive customs and identity, and what they speak is in fact a language of their own, distantly related to Tibetan but quite distinct from it and unintelligible to anyone else.

My local host washing her car, while Tibetan prayer flags flutter overhead

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The spring festival survival guide - a humorous song about going home for Chinese New Year

Tomorrow the year of the rooster begins, and China is in full Spring Festival mode. The doors have spring couplets pasted around them, much business has finally come to a halt, the sound of fireworks is everywhere, and China's bigger cities have emptied out as hundreds of millions of people go back to the places where they grew up to visit their families.

For a lot of young Chinese, going back home to see their parents for the spring festival isn't entirely something to look forward to. It means spending a week listening to their parents and other relatives prod them about not being married yet, criticising their life choices, or comparing them to others. 

A Shanghai amateur choir, known as the Rainbow Chamber Singers, have now come up with an entertaining and creative piece of music on what it's like to go home for the spring festival. The song is called 春节自救指南 (spring festival survival guide). The phrase 都是为你好 (it's all for your own good), which often recurs, is exactly what many Chinese parents will say to their children while pushing them to get married, change jobs, not go abroad etc...

The same Shanghai choir had already attracted attention with a humorous song about working overtime, but this one's much better. The video below has English subtitles.

Happy year of the rooster and have a good spring festival!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia

A street in Penang

I have just got back from a one week trip to Malaysia.

Although I only got the briefest glimpse into the country, Malaysia struck me as a fascinating example of a true multicultural society in Asia. The countries I have previously visited in East Asia have all essentially been monocultural, or at least dominated by a large ethnic-linguistic majority making up over 90% of the population. This would be the case for China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Malaysia on the other hand, with its large proportion of Chinese and Indians living alongside the native Malay and the other indigenous groups, is a true melting pot. What's more it is quite a successful one, and the different ethnic and religious groups seem to coexist relatively well.

I am of course aware that there is tension and resentment caused by the government's affirmative action policies that favour the bumiputera, Malaysia's "sons of the soil". But all the same, the fact that the country's last episode of actual racial violence took place in 1969 suggests that it must be getting something right. Malaysia's successful economy and relatively liberal politics, in a country with a Muslim majority, also point to a success story.

While in Malaysia I visited the island of Penang, one of the country's main draws for visitors. The island's main city, known as Georgetown, was established by the British in 1786, and soon became an important colonial hub. It is still Malaysia's second biggest city, and the entire historic centre is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its streets are a fascinating mix of colonial architecture, Chinese temples, mosques, Hindu shrines, and a variety of languages and faces.

Penang is also considered to be Malaysia's gastronomic capital, although to be fair, after constantly hearing people telling me that Malaysian food is amazing and some of the best in Asia, I failed to eat anything truly delicious during my time in the country. Most of the cheap restaurants appear to be of the self-service kind, with Malay or Indian food that you scoop out of big trays onto your plate. The food just lies around for hours in these trays, and in many of the places I visited there were flies buzzing around the food. It didn't look especially hygienic, although I eat in such establishments a few times and never actually got ill. While in Penang I did go to the famous Gurney night market, where you can eat snacks from stalls. There was some pretty good Chinese-style sea food, although nothing that amazing.

Another place I visited in Penang was the Khoo Kongsi clanhouse. In the nineteenth century, Chinese overseas communities would set up clan associations which would include individuals with the same surnames. The Chinese word gongsi or kongsi (公司), now used to mean company, then indicated such clubs. These associations would serve as mutual aid societies and points of social gathering. The Khoo Kongsi (邱公司) served as the headquarter for all the immigrants surnamed 邱 (Khoo or Qiu) in Penang, and it is the most impressive Chinese clanhouse surviving in Malaysia. Originally built in 1851, it was destroyed by a fire in 1894, and rebuilt in 1906. Although it is no longer an important centre of social activities, it has become a tourist attraction. It includes a clan temple and a traditional theatre.

The Khoo clan also became involved in the Penang Riots of 1867, in which the two main Chinese secret societies fought on the streets for days over competing commercial interests. Apparently a cannonball was fired from the clanhouse, which is why the square outside it is known as Cannon Square. The fighting only subsided when the British brought in reinforcements from Singapore.

The Khoo clan is Hokkien, in other words hailing from China's Fujian province, which alongside neighbouring Guangdong and Zhejiang has always been the point of origin of most Chinese emigrants. Many Chinese Malays still speak Hokkien Chinese (known as Min Nan in China), which is essentially the variety of Chinese spoken in Southern Fujian. Outside the clanhouse I happened to see an interesting diatribe against Mandarin Chinese and in favour of Hokkien, which is pictured in the photos below.

I wouldn't fully subscribe to the diatribe, especially since I don't see the problem if Mandarin was influenced by non-Han peoples from the North. Languages evolve and inter-mix, and viewing Mandarin as inferior because it was influenced by outsiders is suspicious. The content of the text is also not all linguistically sound, although it is indeed the case that many Southern Chinese dialects are closer to the Chinese spoken in the Tang Dynasty than Mandarin is. I found a refutation of the text's exaggerated claims here. Still, it was interesting to see this example of Hokkien pride, which would probably be hard to find in Mainland China. I suppose it is also a reaction againse the cultural insensitivity of some Mandarin-speaking visitors from China.