Monday, June 20, 2016

Travels in Ningxia

Last week I spent four days travelling in Ningxia province with my girlfriend. I managed this by carving a holiday out of the break for the Dragon Boat Festival, taking an extra day of vacation at the end.

Ningxia is the kind of place which only old China-hands will have even heard about it. Small, landlocked, arid, remote and little visited by anyone, it is China's proverbial middle of nowhere. The province's distinguishing feature is its large population of Chinese Muslims, thanks to which it has become one of China's five "autonomous regions". The autonomy granted to such places has little to do with the kind of autonomy enjoyed by places like Scotland and Catalonia, for instance: it certainly does not refer to the local people choosing a regional government free to make its own laws in particular areas. It does mean however that certain policies are put in place to protect the culture of the main local minority group, and especially its language. 

We arrived in the provincial capital of Yinchuan after a two-hour plane ride from Beijing. Yinchuan turned out to actually have a youth hostel, showing that youth hostels have now become well and truly established as a concept in China, and are no longer the preserve of places where foreign backpackers like to go. The youth hostel was quite pleasant, although the beds mimicked the traditional Kang beds of Northern China, and the mattress was far too thin for my liking. Outside of the hostel, however, the city did not give a particularly good impression: it seemed more like a county town than a provincial capital, and it lacked much in the way of charm and pleasantness. It did turn out to have a square with a replica of the Forbidden City's facade, replete with the picture of Mao and the two quotations on each side, although "Long Live the Unity of the World's Peoples" was replaced by "Long Live the Communist Party".  Perhaps internationalism is no longer expedient?

One interesting fact was that all the names of the roads were written in Arabic as well as Chinese, and this holds true throughout the province. In every one of China's Autonomous Regions the language of the local minority holds some kind of official status (although this is often symbolic). The Hui Muslims of Ningxia don't really have a language of their own, since their daily communication takes place entirely in Chinese, as it has done for centuries. However, in a decision which got some Chinese nationalists muttering, it was decided to give co-official status to Arabic, which in spite of being their holy language is not really spoken by any of the local Muslims. The result is that Arabic is found on all the street signs, and exactly nowhere else except for mosques. The translations of the street names into Arabic are often phonetic and meaningless. 


Before getting the hell out of Yinchuan, I decided to go and have a look at something I had read about in this report a few months previously: the huge "Hui Muslim Culture Park" built on the outskirts of the city, apparently in a bid to attract Arab and Muslim tourists. According to the report, the Park is supposed to showcase the culture and history of the Hui people, and direct flights have actually been established between Yinchuan and Dubai as part of the scheme. At the city's main square, we boarded a public bus which took us on the one hour ride to the park. I wasn't expecting anything much: a rather kitsch presentation of Chinese Islam with a lot of imposing new buildings and little substance was my best guess. Once we got there, it turned out that the Park looked decidedly unfinished. The huge main gate, built in a faux-Middle Eastern Style, was closed, and visitors had to enter through a side gate. Although there was a smattering of locals visitors around, there were certainly no hordes of Arab tourists anywhere in sight. The tickets cost 60 Yuan per person, and the inside didn't look promising. I made what I think was a good decision, saved myself 60 Yuan and went back to the city in order not to be stuck in Yinchuan another night. 

The (closed) entrance to the "Hui Muslim Culture Park"
Soon afterwards we boarded a bus to Guyuan, the main urban center in the South of Ningxia. Trains in Ningxia are still slow and old-fashioned, and long-distance buses remain the best way to get around. As the bus left the city, the landscape started getting more and more arid and desert-like, although never actually turning into full-blown desert. It reminded me strongly of certain landscapes in Israel. We slowly made our way down to Southern Ningxia, the remotest area of an already remote province. While Northern Ningxia is more fertile and prosperous and inhabited mostly by Han, the South is poorer and more strongly Muslim. Guyuan is the only city of any size in the area. Mostly newly built, it felt nicer than Yinchuan at any rate. We stayed in one of the city's fanciest hotels for relatively little money, one of the advantages of travelling in small and remote Chinese cities. 

The next day we woke up early and set out to visit the Xumishan Grottoes, the most famous site in the area. It is a collection of 130 Buddhist cave temples which were built between the fifth and tenth century, when the area was traversed by the Silk Road, and before Islam had arrived. The site is at the base of a mountain known as Xumi, the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word Sumeru, the name of a mythical sacred mountain in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Getting to the site itself proved to be problematic. Unable to find a public bus going in the right direction, we took a taxi whose driver initially agreed to take us to the mountain for 60 Yuan, but then changed his mind after driving us out of the city for about 20 minutes, asked for more and when we refused, dropped us off at a petrol station. Luckily we were able to board a bus from somewhere nearby, which took us to Sanying, the town nearest to the mountain. From Sanying we took another taxi after negotiating a price with the driver. 

The site itself was interesting, and thankfully completely lacking the crowds of the more famous sites in Eastern China. In spite of this being a public holiday, visitors where relatively few and far between, something which would be unthinkable anywhere near Beijing. Given how hard the place is to reach without a car, and that it is in a remote part of the country, it is not really surprising. The surrounding landscape is one of majestic, empty mountains and red earth. 



The most iconic element of the site is the 65 meter statues of the Maitreya, sometimes referred to as the "future Buddha", who according to tradition will be a successor to the present Buddha. According to Mahayana Buddhism, this enlightened being (known as 弥勒佛 in China) currently resides in the Tushita heaven, where he can be reached through meditation. One day he will appear on earth and teach the pure dharma, at a time when the Buddha's teachings have been all but forgotten by humanity. According to certain traditions, this will take place at a time when human beings will live to be 80 thousand years old. 



The entire site is apparently classified as endangered, due to erosion and improper conservation. At the very least the giant Buddha has not been subjected to the same fate as the ones in Afghanistan that the Taliban vandalised. After leaving the mountain we hitched a ride back to Sanying, the nearby town. The town is heavily Hui Muslim, with most of the women wearing veils and most of the men sporting little round hats. For the first time I notice the unusual purple veils worn by many Hui women, which look more like a baker's hat than a Muslim veil, at least to my eyes. We entered the courtyard of a local mosque (the town had several), where there was a crowd of local children playing. A local young man in Islamic dress explained to us that there would be a big feast after sunset in order to celebrate the breaking of the Ramadan fast. His Chinese had a strong enough local accent that I had trouble following him.

We then walked down the town's main street. As a foreigner I was subjected to a level of attention which I don't remember feeling since I first visited China in 2004, at least in towns of that size. The surprise and curiosity foreigners garner in Ningxia, and especially Southern Ningxia, has remained what it used to be. We bought a delicious local bun from a street vendor, after which a lady even took a photo of me eating on the street. 

Back in Guyuan, we had a nice meal of mutton. This is always the local speciality in Muslim areas of China, where pork is obviously avoided. This is something most Chinese find hard to understand and accept, perhaps more than they do women wearing veils. Pork is an absolutely core part of the diet in a nation where even the character for home (家) shows a pig under a roof. There is a myth among the Chinese, which I have heard repeated with my own ears, that the Hui won't eat pork because they believe they are descended from pigs. God knows how offensive they must find this misconception.

The next day we had lunch in a local restaurant which was almost empty, possibly due to Ramadan. After that we decided to make our way back north. Our first stop was Tongxin, a town which houses the only ancient mosque in Ningxia to have escaped the ravages of the Red Guards, China's equivalent of the Taliban. Tongxin is one of the main centers of Hui Muslim culture in China. It is also a small and remote place, and although its mosque is actually mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook, it is certainly not a common destination for visitors, either domestic or foreign. 

We went to the bus station in Guyuan and got on the bus for Tongxin. Once we were on the bus, two policemen suddenly got on and started checking people's IDs. A routine check. As soon as they saw me, the policemen forgot about all the other passengers and went straight up to where I was sitting in the back row. After determining that Ting Ting and I were travelling together, they asked us why we were going to Tongxin. We replied "tourism", at which they just repeated "tourism?" in a disbelieving tone. We mentioned Tongxin's ancient mosque, something they had probably never heard of, but they accepted our explanation. They then proceeded to check my passport and her Chinese ID, taking photos of the main page with their phones, and left. 

After a two-hour drive we got off at Tongxin's main bus station, and caught a cab to the Great Mosque. The Mosque started life as a Buddhist Temple built by the Mongols, but once the Mongols were thrown out, it was turned into a mosque. It was renovated a few times, most recently in 1907. Most importantly it wasn't destroyed during the anti-religious drive of the Cultural Revolution. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, this is because Mao Zedong himself visited the mosque during the Long March. According to Michael Dillon's book on Hui culture, the mosque was protected by the proud local people, but it was also spared because Tongxin was the seat of the first contacts between Hui Muslims and the CCP. Whatever the truth, the impressive building shows you what mosques used to look like in China: it is built in the style of other Chinese temples, and the only sign you are in a mosque is the ornate Arabic writing on the walls. Most of the other mosques in the area are newly built in a faux-Middle Eastern style, with minarets and bell tops. Typically for China, most of them look cheap and tacky, with none of the majesty of real Arab mosques. When we entered the inner courtyard of the old mosque, there were lots of local men and children chatting.

Tongxin's ancient mosque

 A newly built mosque
The town of Tongxin looked like a typical poor county town in China's interior, with the difference that the people were heavily Muslim. I even saw men wearing white dresses of the kind you might see in the Gulf countries or in Pakistan. As a foreigner, I provoked even more surprise and stares than anywhere else I had visited up to then. Unfortunately we had little time to explore the town, as the last northbound bus left at 4.30.

As the bus made its way northward through the countryside, you could feel the Muslim presence gradually dissipating, and the villages becoming more and more Han in their feel. Although I did not have enough time to really get to know local society and research the matter, I am left with more questions than answers about Hui Muslim society. It certainly has all the outward signs of being Muslim, with the women wearing veils and most people fasting during Ramadan. But up to what extent do these people living in the middle of China and speaking Chinese, so isolated from the rest of the Muslim world, really follow the religion? To what degree is the Islam taught in the local mosques a watered down promoted by the authorities? I have heard of complaints that Saudi Arabia now funds mosques and Islamic schools in the region, and spreads its extremist message. Given what I know about how suspicious the Chinese government is of foreign influence, especially in the area of religion, I find it hard to believe that this would be allowed. As much as Hui society appears Muslim, it certainly doesn't feel like one of those conservative Muslim countries where women and men go out separately or the women are segregated in the home. Behaviour in this area seems much closer to what you might find anywhere in China. Then again, some would argue that segregation of the sexes is a tribal Arab custom which has little to do with Islam anyway.

Local girl in a veil, Sanying
Whatever the case, while I was visiting the Hui areas I had the same refreshing feeling I have felt while visiting minority areas of China in the past. People always seem a bit friendlier, more relaxed and less materialistic than they do in areas where the Han live. When we got to Zhongwei, I had the strong feeling of being back in ordinary China, with all the consequent behaviour I have got accustomed to. On the other hand, Zhongwei turned out to be quite a nicely planned and well developed city, far nicer than either Yinchuan or Guyuan. We got to stay in another nice hotel for little money, and the next day we set off for the Shapotou, a little town that serves as a gateway to the Tengger Desert.

The Tengger desert is a patch of sandy desert which is located mostly in Inner Mongolia, but is reachable mainly from Ningxia. It has become a popular destination since an episode of the Chinese show 爸爸去哪儿 was filmed there. The town of Shapotou is now trying to reinvent itself as a tourist hotspot, and on the way to the desert we saw huge hotels and tourist developments still being built. Near the town there is an area where tourists can go and engage in activities like riding a camel and driving a dune buggy. The area was a bit like I expected it to be: expensive and touristy, but worth it for people who have never seen a real desert before. I had actually agreed to go there mostly for the sake of my companion, since I have already been lucky enough to visit deserts in the Middle East, and did not feel a great need to pay in order to ride a camel round a bit of desert.

Camels waiting to give tourists a ride

By Beijing standards the place was far from crowded, owing to its remoteness. Most of the visitors seemed to be from places like Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi and Sichuan. After paying for an 85 Yuan ticket (to enter the desert!) and a 160 Yuan ticket for the activities, we went in. We got to ride on camels through the dunes for about ten minutes. There was a line of about a dozen camels tied to each other, each one ridden by a tourist. The camels didn't look terribly healthy or happy, although I don't really know what camels normally look like. We then got to drive a dune buggy for a while, and then sit in the back while a local guide drove over the sand dunes at incredible speed, making it feel like a roller coaster. 


Just outside this patch of desert there was an incredible view of the Yellow River snaking through the mountains, which provided for some really good photo shots. After taking a few good photos, we hitched a ride back to Yinchuan's airport and boarded our flight back to Beijing. In the airport I saw a group of foreign visitors, and it struck me that these were the first obvious foreigners I had seen since arriving in Ningxia province four days previously. 


Saturday, June 4, 2016

Goodwill suggestions and groundless accusations

The image below has been circulating on the Chinese internet. It hilariously paraphrases the Chinese foreign minister's angry outburst during a press conference in Canada, which followed a local journalist asking him a provocative question about his country's human rights.




Here is a translation of the text:

First policeman: Someone reported that you were beating your wife. We have come to check things out.

From behind the door: Do you understand my family? Have you ever visited my home?
Do you know the process by which we went from selling pancakes from a street stall to opening restaurants? If I were beating my wife, do you think we could have developed so well? Do you know that we have already made "wife protection" part of our own family law? I have to tell you that the ones who best understand our spousal relationship are ourselves, and not you. You have no right to express your views on this, only we do, so please don't ask such irresponsible questions again. 
Our family welcomes goodwill suggestions, but we reject groundless accusations.

Second policemen: Captain, we better get out of here. We are no match for this guy's wit.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Strawberry Music Festival: China's answer to Woodstock


Last weekend I went to the Strawberry Music Festival, China's answer to Woodstock (I make the comparison tongue-in-cheek, but it is a rock festival which lasts three days, and you can camp there). The Beijing edition takes place every year over the three-day holiday for the First of May.

This year's festival actually didn't take place in Beijing itself, but rather in Lanfang, a county of neighbouring Hebei province, which is however relatively close to the city (in the sense that it only takes an hour to drive there from the Eastern edge of Beijing). Last year's festival was abruptly cancelled by the Beijing police alongside all of the other music festivals planned over the holiday, for reasons unknown. That may be why this year the organisers decided to move out to Hebei, in search of friendlier police bureaus.

I went to the festival on the first of May, the day when Prodigy were slated to appear. The festival was held inside a golf course surrounded by a huge replica of Beijing's old city walls, the ones that were regrettably knocked down in the fifties. The air pollution was unfortunately really bad when we first arrived, prompting us to wear masks (luckily it got better later in the day). Hebei is after all China's most polluted province.


The tickets were expensive, costing 240 yuan for a single day (and 600 for the whole three days). The festival grounds were huge, with about seven different stages with different bands performing simultaneously. Most of the bands were Chinese, but there were a few foreign guests. Some people had brought tents and were camping there for the whole three days. There was a section with lots of stands selling food and drink, all reasonably priced. Fortunately alcohol was on sale, although there was only a meagre selection of beers at a couple of stands. This was still an improvement over a few years ago, when no alcohol was sold anywhere on the premises. All the same, you could see none of the heavy drinking you would find in a rock music festival in most countries. Obviously in China heavy drinking is the preserve of government officials and old men, not cool young rock fans.

The crowd was mostly composed of young Chinese, with quite a few Westerners thrown in. I seem to remember there being more foreign faces the last time I went. Perhaps the drop in the number of foreigners in China is beginning to show? Or perhaps the festival being so far out of the city put off a lot of people from going? Still it was nice to see a diverse crowd hanging out together listening to rock music.

One of the coolest acts I saw was the Taiwanese reggae group Matzka. The singer is a Taiwanese aboriginee from the Paiwan tribe who sports dreadlocks and completely gets the whole reggae attitude and look. Prodigy, the festival's biggest draw, performed last. They were good fun for a while, although I am really not a big fan of electronic music.


All in all, it was quite an enjoyable experience. The festival was large and well organised, with none of the outrageous rip offs I experienced at other such events. The acts were mostly good quality, although the state of Chinese rock music continues to be dire. The heyday of Mainland Chinese rock remains the late eighties/early nineties, when Chinese youth was in a rebellious mood, and their music reflected this. Nothing produces good rock music like dissatisfaction.


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Raoul Pal: Beijing more impressive than Tokyo, newer than Shanghai.

I was recently skimming through the book "A Great Leap Forward?: Making Sense of China's Cooling Credit Boom, Technological Transformation, High Stakes Rebalancing, Geopolitical Rise, & Reserve Currency Dream".

The book is actually a collection of essays on the Chinese economy by different analysts. Some of it is pretty interesting. But then I came across the essay "There's Something Wrong in Paradise" by Raoul Pal. The author is an esteemed American financial analyst, and the founder of an elite global macro-strategy and consulting service. Clearly nobody's fool. His analysis of China's economy has its worth. The introduction to his essay, however, is based on his personal visit (or perhaps even multiple visits) to China. And that's where it becomes very clear that he has no real knowledge of the country and what it's like. 

First the author goes on about how China has the feel of a "liberated country", with domestic package tours everywhere full of "happy smiling faces" and "excited mannerisms". He adds that if you just go to a local bar on a Saturday night, you can apparently see that there is no turning back for the government, because the Chinese are "having way too much fun testing their newfound freedoms". I can understand people writing this stuff in the early nineties, but in 2015?  

Then comes a passage which made me cringe:

"Most of you will not have been to China and those that have will be stunned how quick its still changing. Beijing is a brand new City. Essentially give or take a few buildings it was built from scratch. It looks stunning. There are wide shopping streets with Starbucks, Esprit etc on every corner. Think Tokyo but more impressive, more technology, more mobile phones, more shops. Think new roads, new cars, new bridges, new flyovers, new skyscrapers, new houses, and new apartment blocks. Everything is made of the highest quality. In fact it's hardly an emerging country at all. It has arrived. 

Shanghai is a more traditional Asian city, older, more chaotic but it happens to be the size of Tokyo and looks sort of like KL or Bangkok. Again lots of technology, amazing buildings and busy, busy people."

To anyone familiar with China and Beijing, this description comes across as incredibly inaccurate. The passage is really just a testimony to Beijing's ability to impress visitors on business trips, and leave them with an overwhelmingly positive and completely inaccurate impression of the place.

"Beijing is a brand new city. Essentially give or take a few buildings it was built from scratch." First of all, Beijing's city centre is still full of Hutong dating back at least a hundred years. They are the one thing which gives the city colour and character. But even in the rest of the city, there are still lots and lots of decrepit apartment blocks built during the Mao era. They would hardly qualify as brand new. I would say that the fancy new housing blocks, although plentiful, are still in a minority. 

"It looks stunning. There are wide shopping streets with Starbucks, Esprit etc on every corner. Think Tokyo but more impressive, more technology, more mobile phones, more shops." This guy obviously never left the admittedly impressive Central Business District and the shopping malls in Chaoyang. Most of the city is hardly like that. Much of Beijing outside of the city centre consists of pretty ugly and uninspiring concrete jungles without any Starbucks or Esprit in sight, although I will admit that you can find a McDonalds literally on every corner. And let's not even talk about the more slummy areas where the poorest migrant workers collect. More impressive and technological then Tokyo? That's a huge stretch.

"Think new roads, new cars, new bridges, new flyovers, new skyscrapers, new houses, and new apartment blocks. Everything is made of the highest quality."  Everything is made of the highest quality? It's true that Beijing has some impressive new roads, subway lines and skyscrapers which are nice to use and work in. But just like everywhere in China, it is also full of shoddy, low-quality construction. Even some of what looks new and shiny turns out to be made to pretty low standards on further inspection. 

In fact it's hardly an emerging country at all. It has arrived. Suddenly Beijing represents the whole country, which is "hardly an emerging country at all". Perhaps he'd like to travel outside of the few major cities a little bit? 

"Shanghai is a more traditional Asian city, older, more chaotic but it happens to be the size of Tokyo and looks sort of like LK or Bangkok."  This is also highly inaccurate. Shanghai is a more traditional Asian city? Older, more chaotic? Anyone who knows the two places will tell you the exact opposite. Shanghai may have some old European buildings in the center, but it's not older then Beijing, and it's most certainly not more chaotic. In terms of traffic, transport and general urban planning, Shanghai is actually far less chaotic and more livable then the capital city. It also feels less traditionally Chinese, whatever that may mean. 

In fact, what really distinguishes Beijing from cities like Shanghai or Shenzhen is that it preserves some cultural and historical heritage, and a bit of genuine local character. But more modern and newer? No way.

Goes to show how unreliable even smart people's impressions of China can be.

Beijing's Central Business District skyline

A typical hutong street scene

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Why are foreigners leaving China?


It is a fact: over the last few years, there have been more foreigners moving out of China then moving in.

The exodus of foreigners has been especially pronounced in Beijing, and even the Chinese media has reported on this (here's an English translation, and here's the original). But the situation is essentially the same all over the country: foreigners are leaving in larger numbers then they are arriving. A new study by a company which helps relocate expats has confirmed this trend, claiming that twice as many expats left China than arrived in 2014.

Most of the articles covering this phenomenon, including the Wall Street Journal one linked above, note a few specific reasons behind the trend. First of all there is the dreadful air pollution, which has only worsened in the last few years, and is scaring people off. This factor looms especially big in the case of Beijing, where the air quality is way worse then it is in Southern cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen (where it's still pretty bad, by the way). Then there is the slowdown in China's economic growth and the rising productions costs, which may be pushing some multinational companies to relocate elsewhere in Asia. Finally there is the rising cost of living in China's big cities.

All of these factors seem perfectly plausible to me. Living in Beijing, I personally know people who have left due to the pollution. Costs of living have risen, especially if you want to maintain a decent lifestyle: you have to pay for expensive air purifiers to keep your flat breathable, you have to shop for imported food if you want to be certain of its safety, you have to take taxis rather than the subway in order to avoid being driven crazy by the crowds etc... Rents in the major cities are now almost as expensive as they would be in Western Europe, and healthcare at international standards costs a bomb.

I am surprised that none of the articles on the exodus of foreigners mention another obvious annoyance of life in China: the censorship of foreign websites, which has become more and more extensive over the last few years. Even though there are ways to get around the firewall (but it's getting harder), it still complicates the lives of foreign expats and serves as a constant reminder of the sort of system they are living under.

This leads me to another factor which looms big, although it isn't usually mentioned in a direct fashion: there is a distinct feeling that China is no longer as welcoming as it used to be for foreigners. This begins at the institutional level. It has become harder and harder for foreigners to receive Chinese work visas over the last few years. This is partly a matter of the rules themselves becoming tougher, and partly a result of the pre-existing rules being applied more strictly (in China one always has to look at how the rules are applied, and not just at what they say on paper).

Both international and Chinese companies are now more likely to try and recruit local talent for positions for which they previously recruited expatriates. This is partly due to the large numbers of Chinese who have returned from studying abroad and are assumed to have a good grasp of international business culture. But it is also due to how difficult it has been made to recruit foreigners. Chinese companies especially are only allowed to employ foreigners under very specific conditions which are hard to meet. And while in the past it was fairly tolerated for foreigners to work on a business or even a tourist visa, the authorities have now become stricter on this front too.

The truth is that those in power have never viewed a multicultural society or the integration of foreign immigrants as desirable goals. The presence of foreign nationals working in China is seen more as something to be tolerated if it helps the country develop. Foreigners are in China to the extent that they are needed, but they do not acquire any kind of stake in the society. If there are Chinese who are capable of doing the same jobs, then it is preferred that Chinese do them. Of course attracting talented immigrants would appear to be a hallmark of most successful modern countries, at least in the West, but as far as the current Chinese government is concerned, the benefits just do not outweigh the hassle of integrating all those un-harmonious foreigners.

Receiving a permanent residence permit is extremely arduous for a foreign national, and receiving Chinese citizenship practically impossible (and not too desirable, especially since you would have to give up your own citizenship in the process). No matter what you do in China, you will eventually be confronted with the fact that you have no permanent basis to reside in the country. Visas have to be renewed at least once a year, and if you want to change occupations you will have to consider what your chances are of getting a new visa in time. Constant "visa runs" to Hong Kong are obviously not a safe and long-term solution (then again, Shanghai has just announced new rules making it easier for foreigners to get permanent residence permits. What this will mean in practice remains to be seen).

I also think that the worsening political climate is playing its part. In the old days (say the first decade of the 21st century), there was a distinct feeling among foreign residents that China was on a path towards becoming a more open and liberal kind of country, slowly but surely. With this belief in mind, people could tolerate a lot. Nowadays that feeling has basically gone, at least among those who take an interest in Chinese affairs. The current atmosphere of repression (which has caught even the odd foreigner in its net) and the mounting populistic nationalism are not exactly encouraging people to remain in the country.

All of these factors, I am convinced, are pushing people to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In the long run, the loss will mostly be China's. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

And finally, a woman president!

So the Taiwanese people have just elected a woman president.

The only time China was ruled by a woman during its two and a half millennia of imperial rule was with empress Wu Zetian, who ruled from 690 to 705 AD. The famous (and infamous) Empress Dowager Cixi, who was the de facto ruler of China from 1867 to her death in 1908, was never officially made empress.

In modern times, none of the countries which could be termed the "Chinese cultural sphere" had ever had a woman leader until a couple of days ago. Not the PRC, not Taiwan, not even Singapore. In fact, before Park Geun-hye's election in South Korea in 2012, there hadn't been a single woman leader in any East Asian country, including Korea and Japan.

It is interesting to note that by contrast, many countries in other parts of Asia have had important women leaders, from Indira Gandhi in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan to Corazon Aquino in the Philippines (the first two were of course the daughters of celebrated male heads of state). Many of these countries might come across as more sexist than China, but in this particular area they fare better. Even though in a Chinese context it is perfectly normal for women to work and quite possible for them to be respected and reach the top tiers in business, they have found it much harder to rise to the top in politics.

Taiwan has now become the first Chinese-speaking society to break the spell and choose a woman leader (although many of her followers reject the "Chinese" label altogether). Appropriately, she represents a party which was born out of a popular uprising against an authoritarian state, and which has overwhelmingly won the youth vote. These elections only confirm that, in this as in other areas, Taiwan is the most progressive society in the Chinese world.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Five great China expat memoirs

Many foreigners who have spent time in China feel compelled to write a memoir about their experiences in this big, mysterious country. Unfortunately many of these books turn out not to be especially entertaining or interesting. Just because you've lived in China, it doesn't mean you have either good writing skills or anything insightful to say about the place. Every now and again though, a book comes out which really manages to capture the essence of the foreign experience in China. Here are a few of the best ones I have read so far.

River Town, by Peter Hessler

This classic remains the standard for the "foreigner in China" genre. In 1997 young American literature graduate Peter Hessler ends up on a two year stint teaching english in Fuling, a small town near Chongqing, in the proverbial middle of nowhere. New to China and not knowing a word of Chinese, he has to figure everything out for himself. His book is a superbly crafted description of his experiences, and what he comes to understand about China and his own culture in the process.

The book doesn't gloss over some of the less savoury aspects of the society which Hessler finds himself immersed in, but he always does his best to find poetry and beauty where he can. Hessler's students, young adults from the Sichuanese countryside training to be teachers, really come alive in his description. The challenges and the fun of teaching English literature in the middle of China are also described quite vividly.

After writing this book Hessler moved to Beijing, where he wrote another two books about China and became well known for his ability to describe the country to American audiences. He has now moved to Cairo, where he is trying to learn Arabic and write about the Middle East.

Mr. China, by Tim Clissold

A memoir by Tim Clissold, an englishman who set up shop in Beijing in the early nineties as a young, starry-eyed businessman with dreams of making it big in China's new market economy.

After a year of studying Chinese in Beijing, Tim was hired by a Wall Street banker referred to only as "Pat" (in actuality Jack Perkowski), who needed someone to oversee how the millions of dollars he was pouring into Chinese factories were being put to use. Inevitably all sorts of unforseen problems arose, from factory bosses escaping to Las Vegas with 58 million in cash, to other bosses transferring land to rival factories personally owned by their associates. Tim had to run around China from one end to the other, trying to deal with all the mishaps and explain them to incomprehending American investors.

The book is certainly entertaining, and does its best to be culturally sensitive. At the same time, it reads a bit like an expose' of the kind of business ventures which unprepared, amateurish Westerners would throw themselves into in the China of the nineties. Apparently Jack Perkowski now blames Tim Clissold for many of the problems the book describes, and has refused to read it. Perhaps he should have thought it through before hiring a clueless young man with one year's experience in China to oversee 418,000,000 dollars in investment?

The Forbidden Door (La Porta Proibita), by Tiziano Terzani

Tiziano Terzani was an Italian writer, journalist and adventurer who spent decades living all across Asia. He was well known in Italy for his deep knowledge of Asian languages and cultures, and for his fascinating travel books.

Terzani and his wife eating with some Chinese friends
Terzani was fluent in Chinese, a language he learnt in Stanford in the late sixties, and always curious about China. As soon as the country opened up slightly to the outside world in the early eighties, he moved to Beijing as a correspondent for a German magazine. Terzani arrived in the Chinese capital in 1980, when foreigners where still extremely rare. He immediately did his best to integrate and learn about his new home, refusing to remain confined within the diplomatic compound where foreigners were forced to live at the time. He rode a bike, sent his children to a local school (which they hated), travelled around the country hard class, and got to know as many people as possible. In the end the authorities got fed up with this man who just wouldn't stick to the script; in 1984, Terzani was arrested on the fabricated accusation of smuggling artistic treasures out of the country, "re-educated" for a month (which mainly consisted in him having to write nonsense confessions), and then kicked out of China.

The book he wrote on his years in China (called La porta Proibita in Italian) is a fascinating portrayal of the country in the early eighties: in some ways so different from now, and in some ways exactly the same. It also offers something different from the Anglo-Saxon perspective of many foreign authors who have written about China. Although Terzani was enthralled by Maoism as a young man, he became highly critical of the Chinese system after moving there. At the same time he discovered the real, human side of China, which he found much more interesting and exciting than the faultless facade which the authorities attempted to show the outside world.

Unfortunately Terzani died of cancer in 2004, after spending his last few months in the hills of his native Tuscany. No other Italian has since written about China as insightfully as he did.

Foreign Babes in Beijing, by Rachel DeWoskin

Rachel DeWoskin, the daughter of an American Sinologist, arrived in Beijing in 1994, aged 23, to work in an American PR firm. Before long Rachel, who had no acting experience and shaky Chinese, was offered the starring part in a TV soap on a foreign lady who falls in love with a Chinese man. The show was hugely successful, gaining over 600 million viewers, and Rachel turned into a celebrity and a sex symbol overnight.

Her memoir is a sensitive, amusing description of her five years in the Chinese capital, during which Rachel delved into the city's emerging alternative arts and rock music scene and met all sorts of curious characters, while holding down a variety of jobs. China was an exciting and bewildering place to be at the time, and Rachel always did her best to keep an open mind on what she experienced.

The book is a great portrayal of what expat life was like in Beijing in the nineties, a time when you could receive an offer to appear on TV just for having a foreign face and being able to put three words of Chinese together, everyone was curious about Westerners and their culture, foreigners were only allowed to live in certain neighbourhoods but would happily flout the law, and the traffic and pollution were still at bearable levels.

Why China will Never Rule the World, by Troy Parfitt

After a decade spent living in Taiwan as an anonymous English teacher, Canadian Troy Parfitt got fed up with hearing supposed experts back in the West go on about how China was going to become the next superpower and a dominant influence throughout the world. This just didn't chime with his experience. So armed with his ability to speak Chinese and his first-hand knowledge of Chinese culture, Parfitt decided to embark on a long journey through Mainland China and Taiwan, and craft it into a travelogue with an agenda.

The first part is a bitter and sometimes hilarious description of his travels through the Mainland, which are replete with the sort of of misadventures any old China-hand will be familiar with: revolting restrooms, rude, unresponsive or just plain idiotic staff, dismal accomodation, tacky "ancient ruins" rebuilt 20 years ago, scams and touts etc.... Parfitt finds almost nothing to like in China, and he is not afraid to say it like he sees it. His descriptions of his travels are replete with historical and cultural digressions, during which he dismisses Chinese culture and all it stands for. In the end, Parfitt concludes that China is condemned to remain authoritarian forever, and has no hope of gaining any kind of real global influence any time soon. Although he has no love for China's current rulers, he sees the roots of the problem as lying even deeper, in Confucianism and the country's basic cultural identity.

In the second part of the book, Parfitt tours his adopted homeland of Taiwan, and meanwhile tells us his impressions of Taiwanese society which he gained from his years of living there. He describes Taiwan as being a better place than the Mainland in almost every way, but he still finds Taiwanese society to be lacking in many important respects, and he blames Chinese culture and education for the lack of critical thinking, ignorance and obtuseness which he perceives all around him.

Obviously Parfitt's conclusions are highly provocative and debatable, and not everything he claims about China is true. It is not true, for instance, that you never see people exercise outdoors. (Has he ever been to a Chinese park?) I don't find it to be the case that nobody ever knows the way to anywhere, a constant theme throughout the book. Parfitt's historical anecdotes are interesting and informative, but often biased, and dismissing the whole of Chinese history as nothing but war and chaos is highly simplistic. At the same time, I think anyone who knows China properly will find themselves secretly agreeing with him every once in a while.

If this book deserves to be read, it is mainly because it gives vent to some of the negative attitudes and frustration which many long-term foreign residents develop towards Chinese culture. At the end of the book Parfitt describes how he decided to move back to Canada, finally fed up with Taiwan and Chinese society as a whole. This was clearly a long overdue decision.