Saturday, June 27, 2020

Black Lives Matter and the Cultural Revolution

Conservatives in the West and Chinese internet users seem to have come to an agreement on one point: 43 years after it officially ended, China's Cultural Revolution has come back to life on the other side of the Pacific; the Black Lives Matter movement protesting police brutality and toppling statues is equal, in its irrational fury and ideological rigidity, to the Red Guard mobs unleashed by Chairman Mao in 1966. The Cultural Revolution analogy is being pushed by conservative and alt-right media outlets from National Review to Spiked; but it has also become extremely common on Chinese social media, the only space in China where people can discuss these topics relatively freely.

That this historical comparison is overblown shouldn't be hard to see: the first act of China's Cultural Revolution came when the students of a renowned all-girls high school in Beijing tortured and beat their own principal to death (the high school is still a prestigious one today, and there is still no memorial or acknowledgment of what happened on site). This marked the start of Beijing's "Red August" of 1966, when a couple of thousand people were murdered by student Red Guards with the encouragement and explicit protection of Mao and of Xie Fuzhi, the Minister of Public Security. Over the next few years, countless innocent people would be killed or pushed to suicide, and countless more would have their lives overturned.

Not only are comparisons between the Cultural Revolution and the BLM movement completely hyperbolic, they also ignore the most fundamental point about China's "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution": it was a movement launched and promoted directly by a totalitarian leader, for reasons that are still debated today. While people were encouraged to lash out at figures of authority and traditions, the one figure of authority who could not be questioned was Mao himself. Even accidentally spilling ink on one of the characters that made up his name got one person into very serious trouble. It was impossible to oppose the movement or denounce its excesses without risking public humiliation, imprisonment or violent death. The whole of China spoke with one voice, and you could either play along or you could get persecuted.

In contrast, the BLM protests are a spontaneous bottom-up reaction against the brutal and unjustified murder of a black man by the police, the last in a long series. The protestors are very definitely acting against the will of government authority, at least in the US. One only needs to look at the harshness with which they have been met by the police, compared to the free hand that pro-Trump, anti-lockdown protestors carrying guns and assault rifles have been given. In fact, Trump has just threatened long prison terms against those who deface American monuments, memorials and statues - in a tweet, of course.

A statue of Confucius getting removed by the Red Guards

In spite of how over-the-top it may appear, talk of a 美式文革 (American-style Cultural Revolution) remains popular in China. It is of course not meant as a compliment; if there is one thing that almost everyone in China agrees upon, including the ruling party, it's that the Cultural Revolution was an unnecessary disaster.

It doesn't surprise me that the BLM protests are not particularly popular in China. Chinese political culture decries any form of mass movement, particularly by young people, as naive, manipulable and bound to lead to nothing but trouble. Mass protests in Western countries, from the Yellow Vests to this latest one, are derided in the media as examples of the West's chaos and moral decline compared with harmonious, well-ordered China. Government propaganda is also using the current protests in the US to denounce America's supposed hypocrisy ("they" quash riots on their own soil, but support them when they happen in Hong Kong). That's when government representatives aren't clumsily trying to express support for their "African friends" in America - also on Twitter. The two superpowers' race to the bottom never seems to end.

But these feelings are obviously rooted in more than just government propaganda. The fact is that their historical experience has left many Chinese suspicious of any movement made up of radical, idealistic youngsters attempting to right the world's wrongs and rectify the arts or target historical symbols. It is not uncommon to hear people in China claim that the Cultural Revolution was an example of "democracy" (and indeed, Mao Zedong said that the movement should be accomplished through 大民主, "big democracy", helping to cement the link between democracy and chaos in people's minds). The fact that the BLM protesters are very much targeting their own national leader, rather than worshipping him like the Red Guards were, may not mean much to their Chinese critics. To those who take a cynical view of democracy, this may just mean that someone else is manipulating and stoking the protests rather than the president himself.

There is also an ideological divide within China, which in this case mirrors the one we see in the West. China certainly has a minority of liberal intellectuals, feminist and LGBT-rights activists who are inspired by their counterparts in the English-speaking world. Protesting about discrimination against local minorities is unthinkable, because it relates to "national unity", but other sorts of activism are possible: China has even seen a "MeToo" movement of sorts. The majority of the youth tends more towards illiberal nationalism, however, and it is their views that receive backing from the state. To this group, idealistic, naive Western liberals have become a figure of disdain. That's why 白左, which can be translated either as "white leftists" or "stupid/naive leftists", became a term of abuse on the Chinese internet a few years back. Add the underlying prejudice against black people that is unfortunately strong in China, as in most of Asia, and it is hardly surprising that the BLM movement isn't winning too much praise.

To some extent, it's understandable that images of young activists targeting the statues of 19th century men for being racist would remind the Chinese of the Red Guards destroying temples and statues of Confucius for being "feudal". News of old films and TV series being cancelled because they are deemed racist has compounded the feeling that this is an intolerant, censorious movement. Reports on the temporary removal of "Gone with the Wind" from HBO Max due to racial sensitivities were met with overwhelming scorn in Chinese social media, and more talk of the Cultural Revolution and of "political correctness gone mad". This is a country where most people have far more experience of censorship than of racism, of course, and government censorship does bother many Chinese: when screenshots of the "I can't breathe" tweet by the foreign ministry's spokesperson were posted on Weibo, hundreds of users replied with "I can't tweet".

These attitudes may have a lot to do with nationalism, distance and distorted reporting, but it is striking how much similarity they bear with a certain rhetoric coming from the Western right. This points to how alienated and indeed threatened many conservatives feel by the wave of left-wing identity politics that has arisen in the US and the rest of the English-speaking world over the last few years.

It would be easy to dismiss the constant complaints about the mortal threat that "safe spaces", "cancel culture" and "de-platforming" pose to our freedoms as the whining of people whose privileges and views are for once being challenged. And indeed, the reality is that in Western societies the debate on these issues remains vigorous and quite free on both sides, if acrimonious. Jordan Peterson is a successful university professor constantly appearing on TV, rather than a dissident languishing in jail, under house arrest or even just out of a job, as one might expect if there was anything approaching an actual Cultural Revolution by the "woke left" taking place. If you know what being silenced really means, the right-wing victim complex appears rather ridiculous. Those who claim that toppling old statues is a "neo-Maoist war on the past" might want to ask themselves whether they would have reacted the same way to the destruction of Lenin and Stalin's statues in Eastern Europe after 1989.

I would be the first to agree that the identitarian turn of left-wing politics over the past few years has a troublingly illiberal and regressive side to it, especially in its more radical fringes. Its focus on who is saying something (specifically their race and gender), rather than what is being said, is fundamentally anti-intellectual. Its view of privilege as determined almost entirely by race and gender, rather than by class and bank account, is out of step with the world today. Its overly broad interpretation of the concept of cultural appropriation would lead to hilariously regressive results if it were applied literally (basically we would have to give up on adopting, let-alone adapting, foreign religious traditions, clothing and food). Its post-modern focus on feelings and subjective points of view, rather than facts, makes its claims essentially unanswerable. Any human ideology can become dangerous when its core tenets can no longer be questioned in the public sphere, and it is important to ensure that debate remains free on all sides.

I would also claim, by the way, that the same political movement can be credited with positive outcomes like an increased public awareness of sexual harassment and an increased push for diversity in companies and organizations. But more important than all of this, the current BLM protests are reacting against the unquestionable fact that the US police kills unarmed civilians far more than any civilized country should accept, and black people are disproportionately (although not exclusively) the victims of this. The protestors are pitted against America's most openly racist president in over a century, and the statues of confederate generals and slave owners are a fair target of their fury. I see no reason why they should not receive the support of all those who call themselves progressives.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

A snapshot of the plague: life in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

I am currently staying in the city of Yogyakarta, in Indonesia. Just like everywhere else on the planet, life here has taken a rather surreal turn over the past few months.

Here in Indonesia ordinary life started to shut down around mid-March, when coronavirus cases started multiplying. By then I had already been in Yogyakarta for around a month, and had some experience of what normal, pre-pandemic life looked like in this corner of the world. 

Indonesia has a reputation as an easygoing place, and its reaction to Covid-19 would seem to confirm it. The country's measures to contain the virus have generally been much less strict than those taken in neighbouring countries. People have not been ordered to stay home bar emergencies, as was the case in Malaysia, and cities have not been put under curfew like in Thailand. People are not being fined or jailed for failing to respect social distancing rules and encouraged to snoop on their neighbours, like in Singapore. Thankfully it also hasn't gone the way of the Philippines, where Duterte's police have been enforcing one of the world's strictest lockdowns with brutal methods.

Down over here, things have been a lot more relaxed. The strictest measures have been taken in Jakarta, the outbreak's epicentre, with businesses and restaurants being forced to close or only do home deliveries. But Indonesia is a huge archipelago made up of thousands of dispersed islands, with the fourth largest population in the world, and putting the whole country under lockdown was never going to be a straightforward process. 

In practice, policies and approaches have varied widely from one province to another. While Indonesia is not officially a federal country, since the fall of Suharto it has moved towards a "quasi-federal" approach, with the provinces enjoying a lot of autonomy. Yogyakarta, where I am staying, occupies a very special position in this regard. While this city of 2 million is far from being Indonesia's biggest, it gets its own autonomous region, the Special Region of Yogyakarta, which is also the only officially recognised sultanate in the country.

Until this day, the Sultan of Yogyakarta is automatically also the governor of the region, and enjoys genuine power as a result. Although there used to be many sultans in what is now Indonesia, this particular sultanate was the only one to receive official acknowledgement after independence, due to its unwavering support for the liberation struggle against the Dutch. The current sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, is genuinely popular with his people. His position as an unelected governor is an anomaly in modern Indonesia, where all other posts from villages heads to the president are now elected by popular vote. It must be added though that in 2010 a proposal by the central government to allow the governor of Yogyakarta to be elected by the people was met with angry protests by Yogyakartans, ready to fight to remain disenfranchised.

The sultan, who is a consummate politician, rejected the idea of enforcing a full lockdown in the city from the start, saying that it would have "very serious consequences", supposedly for people's livelihoods. At the end of March, he gave a speech inviting people to "calm down" since there was no "lockdown" (he used the English terms). At the same time, he invited people to stay home if they could, avoid crowds and wash their hands. At least he didn't call for achieving "herd immunity".

His majesty the Sultan of Yogyakarta announcing that there will not be a lockdown on the 23rd of March

Perhaps as a result of this stance, the measures taken in this city have been relatively lax. While schools are closed and people are encouraged to work from home, shops and restaurants have not been forced to close. There certainly are a lot of shuttered shopfronts around the city, but a fair number of businesses are still open. Shopping malls take people's temperatures at the entrance, but they have remained open too. And while a lot of restaurants are only doing deliveries, there are still a fair number of places that allow customers to sit down and eat. The fancier restaurants try and implement social distancing measures, but there are plenty of roadside stalls that seem to be operating as they always do. 

People are free to walk or drive anywhere within the city without restrictions. Masks are not mandatory, and while a lot of people wear them, there are plenty of others who don't bother. This is in contrast with many other Asian countries, where walking around without a mask has by now become taboo or even illegal. 

This is not to say that life here has gone on as normal, by any means. Much of economic activity has ground to a halt. Being able to work from home is a luxury for the few. Just like everywhere else in the world, a lot of people have lost their livelihoods. In Indonesia, a middle-income country where millions still eke out a living in informal jobs with little savings, this spells disaster for many. While the rural masses can live off the land to some degree, the urban poor have little to fall back on. Here in Yogyakarta, various charities have sprung up to deliver food to vulnerable families who are having trouble putting food on the table. Petty theft is also on the increase.

Yogyakarta's thriving tourist industry has been completely gutted. The city usually receives a constant flow of tourists from within Indonesia and from other countries, because of its cultural importance and its proximity to the ruins of Borobudur. But now Malioboro, a major shopping street and nightlife centre that is usually teeming with visitors, looks like a ghost town.

Indonesia suspended "visa on arrival" schemes in March, essentially banning all foreign tourism. At the same time, the authorities have announced that any foreigners already in the country will be allowed to stay "until the pandemic is over", regardless of whether their visa has expired. This has been convenient for me, since I would not normally be allowed to stay here longer than two months at a time. At the end of March the British and US governments encouraged any of their citizens still in Indonesia to return home, although those two countries are hardly the ideal places to be waiting out this pandemic. Unwilling to go back to Europe, and for the time being unable to go back to China, I decided to stay put.

Two months later, I am still here. Some of the worst predictions have not come to pass. Indonesia has not seen hundreds of thousands of deaths, and the health services have not collapsed. The official figure is 1351 deaths, although no one believes that the government's statistics are accurate. Indonesia's rate of testing is very low, and only people who died after testing positive are counted as coronavirus casualties. Figures for "excess" funerals in Jakarta over the last few months point to thousands of victims, including unfortunately many doctors and nurses. This is tragic, but still better than the picture in most Western countries, especially when you consider that Indonesia has 267 million people. While there has been much criticism of the state's handling of the situation, I can see that it is extremely tough to balance the need to stop a dangerous virus from ripping through communities, and the need to allow people to make a living in a country where the poor have few savings. 

Here in Yogyakarta there have officially been 225 confirmed cases and eight deaths. Even if the true figures are higher, there certainly doesn't seem to have been a huge wave of cases overwhelming the hospitals and filling up the morgues. Perhaps for this reason, or maybe because they are bored of being stuck indoors and need to make a living, people are starting to go out again. For much of April traffic was down to about 10 - 20% of its normal flow, and the streets were almost deserted. While things are certainly not back to where they were before the pandemic, over the last few weeks the streets have come alive again, and in some places you would struggle to believe anything out of the ordinary was going on. It is as if the people have unilaterally declared the end of a lockdown that was never really enforced in the first place.

On top of everything else, today is the start of Lebaran, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. As I write these words, the takbir (Allahu Akbar) is drifting in through my window from the loudspeakers of dozens of mosques, as is tradition on the first night of the holiday. In Indonesia this holiday is normally preceded by the mudik, a mass migration comparable to China's spring festival rush, if smaller in scale. In order to stop scores of migrant workers from going home to their villages and carrying the infection to every last corner of the country, at the end of April the government suspended all inter-provincial travel with only a day's notice (they have now allowed travel for work purposes). This measure has probably left millions of jobless and frustrated migrants stuck in Jakarta's massive urban sprawl. On the other hand it may have stopped the virus from spreading more widely around the nation, in a country which just cannot deal with massive rates of infection.

This whole situation has left a strange feel to life in Yogyakarta. It is currently quite hard to get in or out, but in many ways life in the city can feel almost normal. In the backstreets, neighbours huddle together and chat without bothering with masks or social distancing (but then you will see a family of three riding around on one scooter with no helmets, but wearing face masks just to be on the safe side). Peasants sell their vegetables on the side of the road, while buskers with guitars perform at traffic lights. Some bars are even open, but they limit the number of patrons and keep the tables far apart.

One thing that has struck me about the situation is the way that many suburban communities or Kampung, a term that refers to a village but also a kind of self-contained neighbourhood, have blocked off the entrances to their streets with barriers of various kinds, in an attempt to stop outsiders from entering and infecting people. Some of the barriers have an "official" look, but others are quite clearly set up by the residents. Some have banners with slogans scrawled across them, or with information on how to protect yourself from Covid-19. This mirrors the way that many Chinese villages unilaterally blocked themselves off from the outside world in February, when the pandemic was at its peak in China. Last week I walked around a bit in the northern outskirts of Yogyakarta and took photos of a few of these impromptu barricades, which you can see below.


Two men play chess on the pavement, with their face masks pulled down
The staff at a jewellery store in a shopping mall, wearing masks and protective gear

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Whataboutism and viruses: the coronavirus and H1N1 outbreaks

Over the last few days, an article entitled "Something's Not Right Here Folks" | A look at USA 2009 H1N1 Virus Compared to China 2020 Corona Virus has been widely shared and read on Chinese social media. The original article was published on LinkedIn, perhaps the only major Western social media site still unblocked in China, so English-speaking Chinese started off by sharing the original. But a Chinese translation quickly appeared, and now it is being shared more widely on WeChat and Weibo. Unfortunately this fits in with a general pattern: articles written by outsiders that coincide with the worldview which the Chinese government wants to promote often get translated and spread widely within China, while foreign contents that does not fit in with this worldview quickly gets censored.

The article in question is based on a kind of whataboutism which has become widespread on the internet: the argument is that China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak has been much more responsible and effective than the US's handling of the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 virus (ofter referred to as the "swine flu" at the time). It is also claimed that the international reaction to the coronavirus outbreak smacks of racism and double standards, since in 2009 Americans were not prevented from travelling to other countries or in any way quarantined or shunned, as is now happening to Chinese citizens in certain places. It may seem amazing that people are managing to engage in "whataboutism" regarding a virus, but such is the world.

The article's basic argument collapses when you take a brief look at the facts. First of all, the H1N1 outbreak started in the state of Veracruz, in Mexico, and not in the United States. From Mexico it quickly spread to the US, and then became a global pandemic. There was never a sense at any time that the virus was an "American" phenomenon, while the coronavirus cases are clearly concentrated in China for the time being (although this may well change). There was never any reason whatsoever to be wary of people coming from the United States, or to be scared of going there. The two situations are simply not comparable.

Of course, the author is right that other countries closing their borders with China or rejecting any visitors who have been there is overblown (but it is by no means only "Western" countries that are doing this. Russia and Mongolia closed their land borders with China quite fast). He is even more right when it comes to people refusing to eat in Chinese restaurants for fear of catching the virus, or shunning Chinese-looking people on the street. This is nothing but ignorance and racism, and unfortunately it is occurring all over Europe and elsewhere.

But when it comes to hypocrisy and double standards, it is instructive to take a look at how Mexicans were treated in China during the initial phases of the H1N1 outbreak, when the virus was still associated with Mexico. Jorge Guajardo, Mexico's ambassador to China at the time, has just written a pretty believable account according to which China suddenly stopped issuing visas to Mexicans, and Mexicans in China were quarantined regardless of whether they showed symptoms, not always in good conditions. It seems that when it comes to taking extreme measures against foreigners who might carry an infection, the Chinese authorities are second to none. And let's not even get started on the manhunt against people from Hubei which has been seen in some parts of China.

The article praises, predictably, China's "model response" to the viral outbreak, with its "broad and aggressive domestic response" combined with "the voluntary dutiful cooperation of its citizens". The delay in reporting the new illness is blamed entirely on "a few local government officials in Wuhan". It should be noted that authorities in Mexico, the country in which the H1N1 outbreak actually started, did respond by closing down the public and private facilities in Mexico City, to no apparent effect. It may well be that in China such measures can be instituted more effectively and completely. The question is whether the extreme lockdown currently in place in much of China, which is taking a huge economic toll and threatening the livelihood of the poor, and which is even costing lives, is really useful or worthwhile. This is a question that deserves some serious discussion. I am not an epidemiologist, and cannot judge how dangerous this virus could become, nor how effective these measures can really be at stopping its spread. It may even be true that China is taking a hit for the good of us all, but I wouldn't be so quick to make this judgement. And I am pretty sure the author of the piece has no more qualification than I do in this regard.

The author of the LinkedIn article turns out to be an American commentator who has lived in China for two decades. As he says towards the end, "I am truly blessed with my lovely Chinese wife and our family living here in Shenyang, in China's Northeast. You get my meaning?". He has written a couple of books. The subtitle to one of them reads "Compared to divisive western societies, middle class life in China is like Disneyland; happy, stable & safe, better than ever for 600 million people." It would seem that he is a "China expert" along the lines of Martin Jacques and John Ross, who is now having his moment in the spotlight thanks to this well-timed bit of sophistry. 

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Chinese high schools the best in the world. Or maybe not?

They've fallen for it again. A couple of weeks ago the world's media pounced upon the results of the latest PISA evaluation, churning out headlines along the lines of "Chinese schools now the best in the world". You can see some examples from Bloomberg (China's schoolchildren are now the smartest in the world), CNN (Teens from China's wealthiest regions rank top of the class in global education survey) and Singapore's SME (China's students best in the world). The Chinese press also didn't hesitate to chime in, with the notorious nationalist tabloid the Global Times coming out with "China's education is fuelling its unstoppable rise", and the more serious 观察者 publishing an article entitled "Who are the world's best 15 year old students? China comes first in the world again" (in Chinese).

If you get past these articles' headlines and read carefully, most of them do actually mention the crucial fact that, while all the other countries in the survey were assessed in their entirety, the results for China were based solely on four areas of the country: Beijing, Shanghai, and Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, in other words China's two richest municipalities and its two most prosperous and developed provinces. But the headlines talk simply about "China" and "Chinese students", and that is credibly what will stay with most readers.

The influential PISA report compares the educational achievements of dozens of different countries, testing 15 year-olds in the three areas of reading ability, maths and science. It is organized by the OECD, and the tests include all of the OECD countries and a number of others. The report is released every three years.

In 2009 and 2012, the first years that PISA carried out its assessments in Mainland China, the final reports only included results for Shanghai. While assessments were conducted in various other provinces, the Chinese authorities did not allow the results to be released, so that only Shanghai made the final ranking. And guess what? China's richest metropolis came above all the countries surveyed. This led to a flurry of headlines like "China: the World's Cleverest Country?" from the BBC, and "China Beats out Finland for Top Marks in Education" in Time magazine. The point that comparing a fancy metropolis to entire countries is not very fair was only timidly hinted in most of these reports.

In 2015, the PISA report included assessments for Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong. While the results were respectable, they were hardly incredible: the Chinese students came 27th, sixth and tenth in reading, maths and science out of the 78 countries surveyed. Then in the 2018 assessment, the one that's just been published, they suddenly leaped into first place in all three categories. 

Some Chinese educational experts have suggested that the leap to the top spot is due to the replacement of Guangdong with Zhejiang province. This makes sense: while Guangdong is known as an industrial powerhouse, it has a huge population of 113 million and great inequalities, with lots of poor migrants and areas in the North that are not very prosperous. Zhejiang is a smaller, more compact province with higher standards of living and less inequality. 

The difference it made to replace one province with another only confirms the general point that proclaiming Chinese schools to be the best in the world based on a ranking of nations where China is only represented by its most advanced regions makes very little sense. It makes little sense not only because those regions are not typical, but also because of the country's deep-rooted educational inequality. China's hukou system means that, particularly in Beijing and Shanghai, the children of the migrant workers who do the menial jobs are locked out of the local educational system by the time they are 15, the age when the PISA test is administered.

Many of them are forced to go back to their home province so they can go to high school and take the gaokao, the highly competitive examination that will determine their chances of getting into university. This means they not only have to leave their families behind and live in boarding schools or with their grandparents, but they also need much higher grades to get into a good university in a city like Beijing than they would if they could just take the test in Beijing.

PISA's reports have been criticized in the past for holding up Shanghai's educational system as a model, while seeming to outright deny the problem of lack of access to education for the children of the migrants who make up the city's working class. There is also a lack of transparency about how the Chinese provinces are picked, and why.

Essentially, the PISA report has turned into a regular occasion for China's educational system to bask in some mostly undeserved glory. It would appear that PISA and the OECD, like many other international institutions have done, are bending over backwards to get access to China, acquiescing to conditions which most other countries would not be able to get away with. 

Monday, November 25, 2019

Why won't foreign tourists come to China?

It seems that a few people high up in the Chinese hierarchy are finally starting to realise that, when a country operates on a parallel system to the rest of the world and does nothing to accommodate foreign visitors, there are costs.

In a post last year, I talked about the large gap between the number of foreign tourists that visit China and the number of Chinese that holiday abroad, and how this is hurting the country's capital account balance. The figures for 2017, which I provided in my post, were 130 million trips abroad made by Chinese citizens, as opposed to only 30 million trips to China made by foreigners. It appears that in 2018 the gap got even wider, with 30 million trips to China against 150 million trips abroad by the Chinese. These figures for inbound tourism are seriously unimpressive, with even far smaller countries like Thailand or Turkey managing to attract more visitors over the course of a year.

According to a report by Sixth Tone, based on previous reports in the Chinese-language press, it seems that a real effort is now being made to address this deficit. In August the Chinese government published a set of proposals to encourage inbound tourism (although they don't appear to address any of the real issues, talking only about "developing new tourist routes, performances and local products to attract visitors"). Then last week Shanghai brought a bunch of foreign exports on tourism together at the China International Import Expo, and announced a number of projects designed to attract foreign visitors.

Most importantly, earlier this month Ant Financial and Tencent announced in quick succession that it has now become possible to link foreign credit cards to Alipay and WeChat. Alipay is rolling out a system geared specifically to foreign travellers, who will be able to use it for a 90-day period. In principle this would go some way towards solving one of the biggest difficulties that short-term visitors face in China, in other words the impossibility to pay via mobile phone, in a country where using cash is now probably rarer than it was at the peak of Maoism.

If this could finally happen, it is only because the People's Bank of China took the step of allowing the two companies to open up to foreign bank accounts, abandoning concerns about money laundering and cross-border cash flows. Leaving aside the fact that Alipay's new feature for foreign users doesn't seem to be working all that well, this suggests that an effort is being made all the way at the top to start making China a bit more convenient for foreigners to navigate.

Some of the reasons for this shift aren't hard to see: James Liang, the co-founder and chairman of Ctrip, who has long been calling on the government to make China more open to foreign visitors, claimed at a conference in May that the deficit between inbound and outbound tourism is costing China a figure equal to 1.7% of its huge GDP. At a time when economic growth is at the lowest point in decades, and the trade war with the US is causing much damage, this state of affairs is obviously becoming a problem. Since restricting foreign travel for ordinary Chinese remains politically impractical, there is no alternative but to try and make the country a little bit more inviting for outsiders.

At the end of October the Ctrip chairman, who seems to have made this his mission, gave a talk at the "World Culture and Tourism Conference 2019" in Xi'an which was summarized in a popular WeChat post, entitled 携程梁建章:为什么外国游客不愿意来中国? (Ctrip's James Liang: why won't foreign tourists come to China?). The post has gained over 100,000 views, showing that this topic is finally gaining some traction. Mr. Liang claimed in the talk that while outbound tourism has been growing fast over the past decade, foreign tourism to China hasn't really grown at all. He pointed out that foreign tourism makes up 1-3% of GDP in most of the world's biggest economies, while in China's case it only accounts for 0.3%. In his estimate, China's tourist sector still has the potential to rake in an extra 1-200 billion dollars annually.

Mr. Liang then outlined the three main reasons why, in his view, foreign travellers are not coming to China. The three points he made are the difficulty of getting a Chinese visa, the inconvenience of not being able to access mobile payments, and the "cost of internet controls". The last point is eye-catching, because it is rarely made in public in China: the Ctrip chairman pointed out that the blocking of foreign websites (which he euphemistically referred to as "foreigners not being able to access their own country's internet after reaching China") makes it hard for Chinese travel destinations and businesses to promote themselves abroad, while also making it hard for foreign travellers to share their experience of China on social media.

As the WeChat post's author adds: "foreign travellers make an effort to get here, and then you don't even let them post in their "Moments". That's not beneficial for the reputation of China's travel industry" ("Moments" is where you post photos in WeChat). The article then suggests lifting the restrictions on the internet for foreign travellers, which seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

In any case, it may well be that a shift in thinking is indeed happening, and that the leadership is waking up to the fact that the lack of foreign visitors is an economic issue. It is even possible that more measures are on the way. But whether these efforts to attract more tourists will lead to anything is an open question.

Making mobile payments easier is certainly an important step, but I suspect the biggest issue remains the difficulty and trouble in obtaining tourist visas, especially considering that citizens of developed countries no longer need visas at all to enter most of China's neighbouring countries. If the government really wanted to attract more foreign tourists, this would be a good place to start. Then there is the mind-boggling fact that a large proportion, perhaps even a majority, of hotels around China will not accept guests with foreign passports. This is seriously inconvenient for the independent traveller, not to mention unnecessary and unfair. Changing this state of affairs should not be all that difficult.

The larger point is that, beyond a certain point, isolationism has real economic costs. Over the last decade the general trend has been for China to become more closed towards foreigners, whether long-term residents or visitors, in step with the tightening of restrictions and ideological controls and the creation of a local internet that runs separately from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the great firewall has become higher and harder to get around than ever before. Apart from tourism, there are certainly many other ways in which this is constricting economic growth and dynamism. It will be interesting to see if the pressure brought on by the trade war and the economic downturn may actually exert a push in the other direction, towards greater openness and global integration.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

All is Well: the Chinese show that talks about sexism (a bit)

I have just finished watching the entire 46 episodes of 都挺好 ("All is Well"), a Chinese TV drama that's been a huge hit this year (yes, 46 episodes is a perfectly normal length for a Chinese show. They don't even have seasons, they just release them all in one go. But it seems like this practice may change soon).

The show is genuinely entertaining and well-acted, which makes it a rarity for Chinese TV. The other reason for its popularity is that it touches upon some genuine social issues and paints a realistic and unflinching portrait of middle-class life in a big Chinese city. The show revolves around the Su family of Suzhou, a family that has been thrown into disarray by the death of its matriarch. Many of the characters are pretty dislikable and sadly realistic, starting with the main ones: the Su family's patriarch, Su Daqiang, is cowardly, childish and selfish, and now that his wife is dead he thinks nothing of manipulating and pestering his grown-up children until they give him what he wants.

Su Mingzhe, the oldest son, is well-educated and lives in the States, but he has inherited his father's cowardly and irresolute nature, and feels much more duty-bound towards his original parents and family than towards his own wife and daughter. The Su family's second son, Su Mingcheng, is lazy, irresponsible and generally unpleasant, and has been bleeding his parents dry for years. But there are other more minor villainous characters who also strike a chord, for instance the brothers' uncle, an uneducated, greedy ruffian who tries to extort them for money after Su Mingcheng is unable to pay back a minor debt.

Then there is Su Mingyu, the show's hero, played by superstar 姚晨 (Yao Chen). She is the Su family's youngest daughter and outcast who has bloomed into a wealthy, successful and beautiful businesswoman. The series starts off with a flashback that reveals how she was subjected to some shocking sexism from her parents, and particularly her domineering mother, who directed all of the family's resources onto her two brothers while Su Mingyu was ignored and mistreated for being just a girl who would eventually be "married off" to another family. Some on the Chinese internet have claimed this depiction to be over the top and inaccurate, but others have said that it actually reflects their own experience.

This early foray into gender inequality is intriguing, but unfortunately the show doesn't really keep it up. Instead, we are treated to an entertaining family drama that focuses mostly on the squabbles between the siblings and their father, and on the intrigues and power struggles within Su Mingyu's company (which include the boss passing himself off as comatose to see who will try and take over). Some episodes do portray broader problems in Chinese society, for instance both Su Daqiang and Su Mingcheng invest in enterprises which then disappear overnight along with their investors' money, falling victim to the scammers that prey on people's "get rich quick" mentality. The social commentary, though, feels more accidental than intentional.

At some point the endless subplots begin to get repetitive (after all there are 46 episodes), and some characters are less than believable, for instance Su Mingyu's boyfriend, who looks like a model and body-builder but actually works as a cook in a restaurant. Still, all in all a pretty good job is done of keeping viewers entertained. The ending, when it finally comes, is genuinely moving. What's more even the three lead male characters, in spite of all their unpleasant traits, end up becoming almost likeable in their flawed humanity.

You can watch the show here (with English subtitles). 

Friday, July 26, 2019


A few weeks ago I took my first ever trip to Singapore. I went there for work, but it was a nice opportunity to see the famous city-state for myself.

Singapore turned out to be a very comfortable place to spend a few days. Perhaps unfairly I found myself comparing it with Hong Kong, a place I am more familiar with. Both cities are self-enclosed entities that remain autonomous from the landmasses around them (although how much longer that will go on for Hong Kong is unclear). Both are ex-British colonies, both serve the Asian region as financial and cultural hubs, both are glamorous and wealthy, and both have ethnic majorities originating in Southern China.

I have to say that Singapore strikes me as the nicer of the two cities. It seemed less crowded and claustrophobic, with more one-storey colonial houses and less 50 floor high-rises. It is also far more diverse than Hong Kong, with large Malay and Indian minorities living alongside the Chinese majority, and a very large proportion of recent foreign immigrants. About 40% of the population is foreign-born, mostly coming from other Asian countries. My hotel was located in Little India, an area where most of the faces, shops and restaurants are indeed very Indian. All the cheap and authentic Indian food available at every street corner made me very happy. Curiously, while Singapore's hotels are expensive by the standards of cities in Mainland China, eating out is cheaper, with a better and more diverse selection available.

Singapore seemed compact and easy to get around, but then I live in Beijing, so my standards in this department are not very high. It also has some excellent museums, including the Asian Civilizations Museum which I visited. The display of artwork and relics belonging to Indian, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian and other Asian cultures is truly impressive, certainly the best I have seen anywhere in Asia. It is also all nicely labelled and presented in a way that cannot always be taken for granted in this part of the world.

Of course, in many ways Singapore is not a particularly progressive country. Its draconian laws make headlines worldwide. The judiciary still makes liberal use of punishments like caning and hanging, which were part of the legal code the British left behind. People from poor countries getting hanged for drug smuggling is a sadly common occurrence. The political system is quasi-authoritarian, and the People's Action Party has been in power non-stop since 1960, with its worst ever result in the national elections standing at 60%. The current prime minister is the son of Lee Kuan Yew, the man who founded Singapore and ran the country from 1959 until 1990. Freedom of the press and the right to protest are quite severely curtailed. Gay relationships are also illegal, at least in principle.

The ruling elite has sought to justify this system by pointing to their success in running the country and the necessity to maintain peace between the different ethnic groups, as well as fostering a siege mentality towards the larger and less stable neighbouring countries. Establishment intellectuals like Kishore Mahbubani defend the system by talking about Asian values and how they differ from Western ideas of democracy and human rights. In fact, when the concept of "Asian values" became common currency in the nineties, it was promoted most strongly by the governments of Singapore and Malaysia.

None of this authoritarianism is visible or of any bother to the casual foreign visitor, and probably not even to the pampered expats who spend a few years working in the city and then move on. While the system is strict, governance is mostly uncorrupt and the legal system is considered to be quite reliable, at least for non-political cases. This mix of authoritarian rule with clean governance and meritocracy is often called the "Singapore model", a model for which Deng Xiaoping once expressed admiration and which many Chinese officials talked openly about imitating. In today's more self-assured atmosphere one is less likely to hear such talk in China, however, and in any case what worked for Singapore won't for China, as I have argued elsewhere.