Archive for the ‘More Directly China News/ Politics Related’ Category
Mark Kitto wrote a challenging piece in Prospect Magazine recently that highlighted a few realities about life in China today. Not least was the issue bound up in the title of his article: “You’ll Never Be Chinese”.
Now, Mark, as he explains, was never trying to don the cap and gown, or learn to spit in places that really should never be spat in. What he did want to do, however, was build and live a life in China with his family, and live it “normally”. This seemed to mean to him a life where wealth and status, and the “Great China” narrative didn’t infect all forms of social interaction, all business opportunities, and all educational institutions. It also meant a life lived with the laws of the land applying equally to all, no matter their background.
Mark’s discussion does not, though, simply orientate around his own personal experiences but attempts to outline a few worries he has about Chinese society generally. His views are particularly noteworthy given that his love affair with China – nearly 25 years in the making – has, in his own words, now died. You can read his article to get a much clearer and more nuanced sense of his experiences and where he is coming from.
I will briefly note a couple of my own thoughts on Mark’s basic premise: that one will never be Chinese.
First, it seems to me that the sooner one acknowledges to oneself this reality the better. No matter how long we foreigners stay in China, we will always be perceived – by a majority – as coming from outside and treated as a visitor. If we can assimilate this fact it into an “it is what it is” worldview, then we should be able to go on with a “normal” life, quite happily. In this way, we will be more equipped to bear the ubiquitous reminders of the fact that we are “not from around here” without high levels of surprise or frustration, disappointment or anger.
I remember quite early on in my time in Xi’an becoming very conscious of having this feeling: that no matter how long I lived here, how much I did here, or how well I spoke Chinese, I would always be the alien, the “not from around here” guy, even if I felt happily at home. And, that feeling hasn’t changed. It may turn out that one day I have a more subtle appreciation of ancient Chinese philosophy than some, use chopsticks with the dexterity and precision that many can only dream of, and I may even be able to speak Putonghua better than a fair few; but it won’t matter. I will always be to many the “where do you come from, how long have you lived here, wow, you can use kuaizi” guy, who can be easily disparaged with a quick laowai quip.
I don’t really follow the news cycle and I haven’t kept up to twitter-speed with all the developing aspects of the Chen Guangcheng case, although, I am of course aware it is going on, and that it will continue to go on for years to come, whatever happens in the next few days and weeks.
It does seem to me that in some ways during stories like this the modern media world of major corporations, blogs and social media show their worst side, even if we like to think they show their best. The desire to have the next part of the story – whatever the story is – every few minutes or seconds, leaves everyone chasing each other’s tails for that next instalment, to stay in the loop, or just to stay on the edge of their seat. Until, the story actually reaches a point where we can begin to take stock and see where it sits in a wider context. Or, when another story just simply comes along to wipe it off the front pages, and the cycle goes again.
“[I]t’s time to learn more about how he [Chen Guangcheng] got there, and where he goes next.”
So, as I do not know a great deal about Chen, over and above the basic facts of the case, that is what I shall do.
I will write a comprehensive Note in due course, once I have gathered more information about Chen’s tragic yet inspiring life to date, but for now I will include an extract and link to an interesting piece over at The New York Review of Books. Where the author, Perry Link, compares Chen’s contemporary case with that of Fang Lizhi in 1989:
“I do not know what US officials are saying to Chen at the moment, but I can report first hand what they said in a strikingly similar case twenty-three years ago, when the physicists and human rights advocates Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian took refuge at the US embassy following the Tiananmen Square massacre.”
As I am contemplating re-focusing my mind somewhat by beginning a Masters programme, it seems as good a time as any to go back to basics and start to pay a little more attention to some of the more concerning aspects of our societies. And, I do not mean just in China. I mean parts of a society, or even whole societies, where there exists a distinct inability to allow full lives and more equal communities to flourish, but where there is a desperate desire for wealth and power (on a multitude of levels).
Christmas is coming and the geese and turkey that have gotten fat are sadly feeling a little apprehensive, while I am just feeling a bit ambivalent about this yuletide time of year. But, while preparations for this festive season have been passing me by there have been a few other things to keep an eye on.
The EU has entered into a period of disintegration or rejuvenation – depending on whom you are talking to – leaving debt issues still unresolved and the whole continent on the verge of collapse or at the point of renewal. In the US, the Occupy Wall Street movement managed to highlight that only 1% of the population owns half of all financial assets and investments. At the same time the movement’s actions shone a light on the growing number of worker collectives being established in America. In China, the townsfolk of Wukan have taken a significant step by cooperating to oppose the land grabs and private developments being pursued on their lands.
The town-wide cooperation in Wukan was fuelled by the fact a member of the community mysteriously died while in custody. At the point of writing the town was free of all government officials, while there was a military blockade to stop anything going in or coming out of the town. Only time will tell how this particular situation will be resolved, but these are issues that go deeper than what form of political organization or monetary system we have. Whether we look at these land rights confrontations in China; disgust about Wall Street bonuses in the US; or concerns about runaway debts in mainland Europe, there is an underlying constant. And that is that our governments are, on the one hand, unable to guarantee what many of us have gotten used to, and on the other, unable to guarantee what many have been looking forward to getting used to, and that is economic stability and opportunity based on a system of profit and growth.
A week or so ago as I got bogged down in trying to protect this site from a malware attack – no easy task, I can tell you, for this computer illiterate fool - I did pay attention to the fact that a reasonable amount of content has been added here during the last three years, now over a 100 Notes. So, for my own simple pleasure, and as I have not given myself much time to write recently, I will pick a few Notes that I have liked for whatever reason and put them up in two parts – 5 Notes in each. The first 5 of Part I can be found here, and were written during 2009. The second 5 included below in Part II all come from the last couple of years.
1.Oh Sweet Cháng’ān Lù, Is It Really You? 2. Chinese Conceptions of Time (Part I) and a Question of Western Maturity 3. NoNo Cafe: An Apology, a Cathartic Process and a Less Than Turquoise Hue 4. Mr. Lǎo Bǎi Xìng, A Bit Of Income Inequality, An Archbishop And Some Social Solidarity 5. Master Orwell, Garton-Ash, Facts, Politics And The English Language
Oh Sweet Cháng’ān Lù, Is It Really You?
This is just a Note that has been brewing for a while.
*Cháng’ān Lù 长安路
We have grown up together side-by-side but now your behaviour has gotten to a point that I cannot abide, nor simply hide or ignore that which crosses my mind. But, first I gotta ask: “Sweet Cháng’ān Lù: Is it really you?”
I am sure, back then, it wasn’t just me who revelled in the criss-crossing mass of humanity, which descended on the Junction of Shi Da Lu; like some joyous, incongruous stew. No matter spluttering car or steaming truck, we strode out with a little good luck and little regard knowing, in fact, it was we who would pass.
Halting the traffic in our wake we grasped our long fought for humanitarian stake. But, make no mistake Chang’An Lu, you must take responsibility for the lack of humanity that now resides at your gate, you leaving us simply to wait and to wait. But, I ask… for what?
Back then buses would halt as an aged old lady would take to the street, simply sweeping a broom made from plastic bagged sheets, while motorcycles still weaved between pockets and sleeves. But, the time most enjoyed was when we all at once directed and objected from the centre of stage, before being forced to turn the page: losing that urgent, organic, glistening spell which storybooks will never be able to retell. We all halted, we all moved, the life was all there at that crossroads at Shi Da Lu.
A tear now crosses my eye for the deep sadness of goodbye and a progress more reminiscent of a creational mess than a strategic game of post-war chess. The shiny black wasteland that one-day you will be now carries eight high-speed lanes of immovability, directly dissecting our community.
Oh Chang’An Lu, I stood there at your side as the last roll of new tar was itself applied, giving your potholed visage a life a new. That night we watched as an aged old man not far from his grave, contributed his last efforts for you to be paved. So hot, it was steaming in the dark of the night, but we, a few, gathered in the future knew, one life had passed and another… who knew?
You changed then Cháng’ān Lù, you were never the same once this glistening black coat was tied at your neck. I wanted to believe it could be as before but now the reality has sunk in, there is no drop of that past left for us to draw. Today, we are no longer allowed even to gather at your side. “Take a chance” I hear you say, but sweet Cháng’ān Lù that’s a thing of the past, it just wasn’t able to last. A fact we cannot hide, if only you knew, no chance now, unless of course we are ourselves taken for a ride.
Don’t look back I hear wise words say but it was actually you who taught us that way, back in the day: “Don’t look back, stride out, you are Kings on my road”, you would say, and we believed you. Because be sure back then, as those who travelled with us knew, looking back was not something we knew how to do. We strode with criss-crossing glee, oh yeah, really quite free. May be some say it is not the case to be true, but today is a place less free: to be true, to be true. Oh Cháng’ān Lù what has happened to you?
Just a day or so ago, I was thinking of you as I held up a bus, of course, not wishing a fuss, but when I looked out from the North to the South do you know what I could not see Cháng’ān Lù? It was you. I could not see you, for a continuous, sickening metallic hue, which had morphed into one almighty incomprehensible queue: that quite simply had obliterated you.
But now, at the dawn of a new modern era, it does in turn dawn upon me what I probably always could see. You have gone Cháng’ān Lù. It is no longer you. I talk to myself now it does seem but if that is all I have left then what I wish say I wish to be clear, to be fresh, to be seen.
Oh consume, Oh swoon, Oh legitimate heir, Oh the reason so fair, Oh fair: the fair of fair rides, fair maidens and fair despair. Oh pollution, Oh evolution, Oh ignominious death, Oh development, Oh wither, Oh sickened river, Oh imbedded, hot headed, earnestnessness. Sweet love, sweet freedom and sweet redress.
Oh Sweet Cháng’ān Lù, I really miss you.
While I am still in a post-nuptial state of flux, or rather more disconcertingly a post-matrimonial photo-shoot state of mind, and as my next atom-splitting Note is still only in the gestation stage, I am going to have to follow the lead of prolific blogger David Wolf at Silicon Hutong. I will do what I rarely do and that is simply post an extract from another blogger (or two). I will however throw in the odd comment for good measure, or at least for my own small sense of ownership.
I agree with David’s appraisal that Patrick Chovanec’s Primer on China’s Leadership Transition is well “worth reading and absorbing”. For those of us uneducated about all things Chinese, or more specifically uneducated in things Chinese government, this article is a godsend.
I will however go a step further and throw in a second extract, from another great blogger, Sam Crane, whose perspective on China comes from a slightly different domain to Patrick’s Business, Economics and Management perspective. Creator of The Useless Tree, Sam is a professor of political science who focuses on ancient Chinese thought, and who approaches the issues covered on his blog from that multi-faceted but concentrated perspective. He wrote a piece last week, titled Understanding China – Or Not, in response to Vice-premier Wang Qishan’s recent emotive comments that Americans are a simple people who don’t understand China.
“Over the past few months, several people have written asking me to offer a short “primer” on China’s upcoming leadership transition, which begins next year. The handover to a new president and premier has generated plenty of speculation in the press, about who the leaders are and what is will all mean, but sometimes it’s useful to go back and fill in the very basics, since China has a unique and in some ways quite confusing political system.
I have been summered. It probably started when wandering around the Botanical Gardens last week, but it has really hit home this week.
It wasn’t long ago that I was taking on all comers when defending the locals’ wisdom for not only donning those almost magical long johns during the harsh winter months, but to also still be wearing them after the centrally governed heating was turned off and the outside temperatures remained low. Those arguments are now lying dead in the rapidly evaporating water of the Wei River basin.
Summer arrived this week, making its presence felt with a few smouldering temperatures and some perfectly blue skies. Not to mention a brightness of almost religious light that should help lift the soul of even the most disgruntled laowai, suffering from the China Blues. For me, and call me shallow, but a bit of sunlight makes all seem perfectly well here in the Middle Kingdom. My cheerful, but until recently hibernating, elderly neighbours have awoken; there is street after street of blossom-filled joy; and not a few summer beauties are to be found strolling happily arm in arm.
Now, given the right information and arguments, I might admit that under the surface of these quite probably government-inspired levels of sunshine and blue skies, all is not perfectly well. But, I am just going to have to savour the moment for a while longer before allowing myself to again dwell on some of the less-inspiring aspects of modern Chinese society, and before the days come where I am actually hankering for a cool autumn breeze. (more…)
‘Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing… What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.’
The above extract is taken from George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, it comes after he quotes from 5 examples of English usage that he found, for different reasons, somewhat vexing. This particular Note From Xi’an will break from a recent pattern of Notes and will exist in the category (if there was one) of note-to-self. This will be where I give myself a bit of time to dwell upon thoughts articulated by an historical great, Orwell, as well as ideas expressed by a contemporary man of precise political thought and concern, Timothy Garton-Ash.
The subject matter of this Note was brought on in-part from rediscovering Orwell’s above article over at the marvelous site Arts & Letters Daily; in-part from re-watching a lecture given by Garton-Ash about his book ‘Facts are Subversive’, and in-part from reading Garton-Ash’s own article Orwell’s List, as well as a consequence of briefly reflecting on my own reading, some time ago, of Orwell’s disturbing text, Nineteen Eighty-Four, after a friend of mine was discussing his reading of it with me recently.
This Note may be somewhat symptomatic of these end-of-February days: a bit of a hotchpotch; wet afternoons, holidays over; Winter’s gone but Spring has not yet sprung; a world of potential, and a potential for disorder; a host of things to come, but none yet arrived; good news, bad news and a million comments on the news; damp and dark, leaves amazingly still falling; Arab world, another world; wise people, knowledgeable people and in spite of those people people; disinformation, inspiration and what does the future hold; I can jump, you can jump, what about now those billion Chinese have jumped?
That is by way of an introduction to this slightly more eclectic Note. It will include an extract from Jonathan Watts’ own introduction to his book: When A Billion Chinese Jump, which I have just got a hold of for the first time. I will add to Mr. Watts’ words a few pictures taken by Lu Guang (卢广), a Chinese photographer who captured what are now quite renowned images of ‘Pollution in China’. I will also include a couple of photographs from a photo-journalist mate of mine in Beijing, the pictures he takes always give me pause for thought; as well as often managing to bring a smile to my face.
In addition, I will add to the mix a couple of maps of China and the US that express the GDPs of their respective Provinces and States in comparison with smaller Nation States. To finish, there is an infographic showing the rise in Chinese language usage on the Internet, [Update 08/03: I have also added an infographic on China's Social Media Evolution] as well as links to a couple of good recent articles on the ‘Internet in China’.
First, a couple of Chris Cherry’s evocative pictures, more of his work can be found over at his Flickr page (elephantonabicycle) or on his own site (christophercherry.net); where his mastery of the written word certainly supports his eye for a resonating picture. As an aside, the lostlaowai flickr page is also worth passing through.
Whatever might be said by some and whatever some people might tell you, there is no question that this is an amazing country, at a particularly incredible stage of development.
Of course, no one really knows where it is all going, but when you are being zipped along by an immensely smooth 350km/h fast train and you look out to see still-underused, but ready-to-go wide-laned motorways, as well as gleaming new train stations, dissecting and standing out respectively from within the terraced fields that make up the majority of this new route, you think the future may not be too bad at all: those chuffing chimneys aside. Well, at least not too bad for those actually riding the train, may be less so for those still working the fields.
Although, when I was talking to a couple of village labourers recently they were seemingly very proud and excited about the new gāo tiě 高铁 (high-speed train), and were aware of its speed and the various destinations along this new route. Time will tell how long it takes for them to be riding it, but that may well be missing the point, or it might actually be hitting it straight on (more on this below when I move away from this unadulterated positivity and highlight some of the concerns that are surrounding this rapidly developed rail project).
This is a country whose people have historically travelled by train; there has been a boom in air travel recently, but if the government continues to play its cards right (or wrong, again see below), this may well be a people happy to return to the tracks, rather than continuing to take to the airways.
And if this experience is anything to go by, that’s no bad idea. I must say from a personal point of view, I would choose this 300-mile train journey in roughly 2 hours, with half an hour cab ride each end, over the shorter flight and longer airport waiting time and travel. These trains are comfy enough, the seats recline and the legroom is fine, they could be a bit wider, but then I could be a bit smaller, and the average Chinese person actually is. Plus, give me a choice of looking out at some fields through a landscape-wide window or a pokey view of some clouds from a plane porthole and I’ll take the fields all day long.
I have also come across quite a few Chinese people who are not actually that enamoured by the air travel experience. If you don’t have much of a choice and money isn’t a factor but time is, which no doubt it often is, then the plane is for you. But when you’ve got more of a choice then that decision is not so straightforward. Whether the majority are able to ride these trains or not, there is a lot of pride swilling about at present, and they have got a pretty amazing system in development to be excited about. These developments may well also have some considerable environmental benefits, if they are not too careful.
However, there are some logistical and quality concerns arising from this new system, a couple of which I will outline below these brief references to Xi’an’s new station: (more…)
This Note continues on, in part and/or in spirit, from the one below: ‘Mr. Lǎo Bǎi Xìng, A Bit Of Income Inequality, An Archbishop And Some Social Solidarity’.
I don’t know if it is this time of year, with its cold weather and deep chill, which can enter peoples’ spirits and make life seem that much more difficult, or whether it is bound up in end of year reflection, but certainly, recently, it has been a time to take note of the difficult lives that do face so many people here.
After a long chat with an English friend of mine about the not so good looking prospects for Britain these days, it seemed possible to place this contemporary Chinese scenario in a wider context and to dwell on it a little.
Concerns about Britain’s present day economic realities were compounded somewhat recently when reading an article discussing the increasing number of people paying their rents or mortgages with credit cards. The story may in fact carry slightly more symbolism than empirical weight, but it doesn’t require a trip down to the Yellow River Soup Kitchen in the city here to put a longer-term face to that particular situation for those involved.
And it doesn’t take an exceptionally deep understanding of modern China to see a not too dissimilar scenario emerging here in the not too distant future. It is interesting to note the lǎobǎixìng (common person) realities of these two quite different societies, China’s and Britain’s, which are at different ends of the so-called development cycle.