Thursday, August 27, 2015

No comment

This news item was published yesterday on 网易 (Netease), one of China's most popular web portals. The comic effect was clearly intentional, and it looks like the website has already been forced to take it down, but before they did it had the time to make the rounds on Wechat.

Here's what it says:

Burma (Myanmar) unblocks Facebook. Only four countries now blocking it.

Burma recently announced that it was lifting the ban on Facebook, the world's most popular social networking site. There are at present only four countries in the world which still block Facebook, including North Korea, Cuba, Iran and others.

Wonder who the others might be?

Friday, August 21, 2015

China's economic slowdown: does it matter?

There's been a lot of hand-wringing about the Chinese economy's slowdown recently. In the space of a month, Shanghai's stock index suddenly dropped by 30%, and the Yuan was suddenly devalued by 4.4% against the US dollar. It has been speculated that the official figure of 7% annual GDP growth may well be exaggerated, and we may be talking about "only" 4 or 5%.

Quite frankly, all the concern sounds a bit over the top to me. The stock market's drop of 30% followed a rise of 150% over the previous year. The Yuan's devaluation wasn't really that huge, and it is a far cry from the years in which it was much more severely undervalued. What is true is that the Chinese authorities will always take draconian policy measures to try and fix any economic problem which presents itself, as can be seen from how they attempted to stop the stock market from dropping further. They are just congenitally incapable of not interfering heavily and unpredictably in the economy. Then again, leaving financial markets to fix themselves through market forces also produces dangerous imbalances, as the 2008 financial crisis in the US has shown.

The bottom line is that China's economy cannot continue growing by 10% a year for ever (and if it did, the world's natural environment would suffer all the more as a result). Even 4 or 5% growth is above the global average after all, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be satisfactory. China is already a moderately well-off country, and most of its problems are caused by social and political factors. Further GDP growth won't make them go away. Only political reform will. Even the dire poverty which still exists in the countryside and among the migrant workers could be ameliorated simply by distributing the wealth more evenly. After all, China has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world (going from one of the most equal in the early eighties).

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Are our kids tough enough? Hopefully not.

I have just finished watching the first episode of "Are our kids tough enough?", the BBC program in which a team of Chinese teachers take over a British school and conduct classes using Chinese methods and curricula.

The program is certainly entertaining and well made, as you would expect from the BBC. At the same time, it can hardly be taken as a serious comparison of the two educational systems. You can't just take a bunch of students out of the system they were brought up in, and expect them to adjust. It is also not surprising that faced with unfamiliar teachers who mostly speak their language less than perfectly, teenagers begin to act up (although the disrespectful behaviour of some British teens is a real problem).

As the BBC has made clear, the inspiration for the program came from the idea that Chinese schools are positioned at the top of world rankings, and that they outperform British ones. This notion was widely peddled by the British media as a result of the 2013 edition of the influential PISA report, which compares the educational achievements of students in different OECD countries. The result was that high school students in Shanghai ranked first for mathematics, reading and science, coming just above China's Asian neighbours, and way above Britain and all Western countries. The only problem is that the report's methodology was deeply flawed.

While all the other countries included were surveyed in their entirety, in the case of China only Shanghai was included in the report. PISA did survey some other Chinese provinces (all of them relatively rich and prosperous ones), but the authorities only allowed the results for Shanghai to be released, supposedly because they were the best ones.

The problem with this is obvious: comparing a single city to entire countries make little sense. Shanghai, the richest and most developed city in China, which contends with Beijing in attracting the nation's elite, is clearly unrepresentative of China as a whole. What's more, I have serious doubts that the survey even included the children of Shanghai's poor migrant workers. These children usually lack a Shanghai hukou, which means that they are effectively excluded from Shanghai's public schooling system, especially when it comes to high school. 

This didn't stop international and British news outlets churning out articles with headlines claiming that Shanghai's educational system was ranked "the best in the world", or that Shanghai's (or even China's) students are the "brightest in the world" (For examples, see here, here and here). 

Soon afterwards, British education minister Elizabeth Truss went on a visit to some Shanghai schools, and wrote an almost impossibly fawning and naive piece of flattery about the Chinese educational system and how great it is, especially at teaching maths. Apparently it is a myth that Chinese children are in school at all hours: "actually, their teaching time is similar to ours. But they use it much more efficiently". This is the country where some high schools have classes on saturdays and sundays as well, something I have personally witnessed.

The article concludes with the minister, clearly awe-struck by Shanghai's skyscrapers the way many first-time visitors are, claiming that the respect for maths and the belief in every single child on display in Shanghai should inspire us all. This was followed by a taxpayer-funded program to bring maths teachers from some of Shanghai's best schools to come to Britain and train local teachers in the Chinese ways. Suddenly, everyone is falling over themselves to praise a system they know nothing about.

It is true that Shanghai's results in the PISA test were impressive. It even outperformed Singapore. Clearly Shanghai's schools must be doing something right. I also don't find it hard to believe that the average Chinese student is three years ahead of the average British one in maths. It is a simple fact that Chinese schools (like other Asian ones) have a more demanding maths curriculum than what is normal in Western countries.

The jury is still open, though, on whether Chinese and other Asian students' superior achievements in maths and science are due to a different approach to teaching, or simply to much longer hours spent studying, whether at school, at home or in special after-school classes. It isn't hard to get better results, when you spend three times longer on your books. It is also the simple truth that Chinese education does not encourage critical thinking to the extent that the British one does. Nor does it seem to foster a real love of learning and of reading for reading's sake. It is more about working yourself stupid to get into a good university and have your future set. 

All in all, I don't think that China's educational system is geared to produce especially creative, enlightened or well-informed citizens. And what's more, many Chinese are well aware of this themselves and want reform. As long as China's universities remain average, claims to its educational superiority are going to sound pretty hollow. There may be a thing or two the British could learn from China about how to teach maths effectively, but it probably stops there. The discipline and dedication of Chinese students is the result of values and pressures which the British couldn't hope to replicate if they wanted to.

And by the way, when one of the Chinese teachers in the program claims that British kids aren't motivated to work hard because they know that in Britain "you are given money even if you can't find a job", she is wrong-headed. If British students don't spend all day doing homework it has nothing to do with the existence of a welfare state, which is something to be proud of. 

Maths teacher Zou Hailian patrolling his students in Bohunt comprehensive, Hampshire.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Five common misconceptions about Chinese history

Since China is a country which lends itself so well to myth-making and mystification, it is hardly surprising that popular myths and misconceptions about Chinese history abound. Some of them are more common amongst outsiders, some amongst the Chinese themselves, and some are shared by all sides.

Here are a few widespread misconceptions about Chinese history:

1) China was historically cut off from the world

Many outsiders see China as a country which was completely sealed off from foreign influence for thousands of years. Ancient China was indeed a relatively isolated civilization, surrounded by deserts and impassable mountain ranges. The Himalayas separated it from India, Asia's other great civilization, and its Northern and Western borderlands were made up of huge, inhospitable expanses of steppe and desert. Its main foreign contacts were with its own Confucian offshoots of Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Having said that, China was far from completely cut off or impregnable, both geographically and ideologically. In the most obvious case of ideological contamination, Buddhism was introduced to China from India over 2000 years ago, and became the country's most visible religion. Later on, the Silk Road brought a large amount of foreign people and ideas into China. Especially during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), often seen as China's most glorious period, the country was quite cosmopolitan.

The Tang capital Chang'an (modern Xian) was one of the most international cities in the world, as well as one of the largest. It included a Persian bazaar catering to Iranian tastes, and Nestorian Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Zoroastrian places of worship.  It was during this period that Islam arrived in China and drew quite a number of Chinese converts, as testified by the Hui Muslims today. It was also at this time that China's only traditional Jewish community was formed, by foreign Jews who settled in Kaifeng. They lived completely free of ethnic persecution for centuries, until they gradually assimilated. This shows that it wasn't always impossible for outsiders to become Chinese.

Of course China's traditional openness shouldn't be exaggerated either. Even during the Tang Dynasty, laws were passed segregating foreigners from Chinese in the capital. The Chinese attitude towards outsiders was always ambiguous and tinged with suspicion. Even though the definition of Chineseness was not racial, foreigners had to adopt Chinese customs in order to be accepted. The non-Chinese peoples in China's vicinity were looked down upon as Barbarians. In later dynasties, attitudes became increasingly negative and inward-looking.

2) Ancient China was sexually conservative

Many Chinese have come to see their own tradition as a sexually conservative one, while sexual openness is associated with the West (and the Japanese, who are seen as a people of closet perverts). The reality however is that for most of history the opposite was the case.

Since they did not follow monotheistic religions like Christianity or Islam, with their obsession over what people do in bed, in the past the Chinese had a much more relaxed attitude towards sexuality than Europeans did. The local religion/philosophy of Daoism saw sex as a path to happiness and longevity. Sex was not really a taboo, especially for the upper classes who knew how to enjoy themselves. Wealthy men would often have numerous concubines, and prostitution was allowed and regulated during some periods.

Even homosexual activity was tolerated in old China, at least as a way for men to release their sexual tension. Although the idea of people being exclusively homosexual was rare, just like in Ancient Greece homosexual relationships "on the side" were not seen as a problem. Some emperors even had male lovers within their harems.

The Chinese however shifted back and forth in their attitudes, and the Qing Dynasty was a comparatively puritan period. Then the Europeans came crashing into China's history, and the Chinese were influenced by the puritan Western attitudes on sexuality and marriage. Only now are attitudes starting to become more liberal again.

Having said that, I do think that some of the old tolerance is still visible in China today. In spite of homosexuality being illegal until 1997, most Chinese don't really seem too bothered by it (as long as it is not their own children, who must marry and give them grandchildren). Attitudes are certainly much more relaxed then in Muslim countries or Africa, where a violent opposition is still the norm. Sex shops also operate pretty openly in cities across China. And let's not forget the mind-boggling custom of inviting strippers to perform at funerals, which sporadically occurs in rural areas (although many people wouldn't dream of it, and the government keeps trying to put an end to it). Or Taiwan's half-naked "betel nut beauties".

3) China has 5000 years of history

Most people around the world would shake their head if asked exactly how long their country's history was. In China however, everyone knows the answer: China's history is 5000 years long. The 5000-year trope is learned in schools across the country and generally accepted as fact. Even foreigners who move to China quickly take it up. The problem is that it is a highly dubious claim.

It is hard to define when a nation's history starts, but no matter whether we take the adoption of writing or the emergence of the first cities as the starting point, China's history is not 5000 years old. The first accepted example of Chinese writing are the oracle bones, which date back to just over 3000 years ago. Chinese history prior to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) is hard to disentangle from myth. Farming probably did exist in China 5000 years ago, but this is true of many other places as well.

While is not true that China developed civilization earliest (Iran, Egypt and most of the Middle East definitely came first), there might be something to the claim that China is the world's "longest continuous civilization". Chinese imperial history does indeed present an amazing degree of coherence and continuity from the time of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the first real Chinese empire, until the Republican revolution of 1911.

The Chinese imperial system, based on the pillars of Confucianism and the examination system, was probably the longest lasting political construct of all times. It even maintained exactly the same official written language for over two millennia. No other country, from India to Egypt to Italy, can claim anything quite like it.

4) The Korean and Japanese languages come from Chinese

In spite of what most Chinese (and many others) believe, the Korean and Japanese languages do not derive from Chinese. To a linguist, they very obviously belong to a completely different family of languages. Their phonetics, structure and basic vocabulary all attest to this. Most linguists classify both Korean and Japanese as language isolates. Some see them as related to each other, and possibly even to Mongolian and Turkish (highly contentious). Nobody however relates them to Chinese.

The reasons for the persistence of this myth are easy to see: historically the Koreans and Japanese received much of their culture from China, which was the main center of civilization in East Asia. As such, a huge amount of Chinese vocabulary seeped into both languages. This can be compared to the way that a large amount of French vocabulary penetrated into English after the Norman invasion. Even nowadays, many Korean and Japanese words maintain a pronunciation similar to the Chinese equivalent.

What's more, both the ancient Koreans and the Japanese took to using Chinese characters to write down their own languages. The problem is however that the structure of these two languages differs considerably from Chinese. The latter is an analytic language, containing no grammatical inflections (no tenses, no voices, no singular and plural forms etc). Words never change their form. Korean and Japanese, on the other hand, do have plenty of grammatical inflections. As such, the non-phonetic Chinese writing system isn't really suited to representing these languages.

As a result, both the Japanese and the Koreans eventually developed phonetic alphabets of their own, which they would often mix with Chinese characters when they wrote. The Koreans have now almost abandoned the use of Chinese characters, except in ceremonial contexts. The Japanese continue mixing the different writing systems all the time.

To a linguist, however, the use of the same writing system and the presence of much borrowed vocabulary does not mean that Korean or Japanese can be said to derive from Chinese, in any way, shape or form. They are, rather, unrelated languages which were heavily influenced by Chinese throughout history.

5) Genghis Khan was Chinese

This particular misconception is only widespread within China, where most people take it as unquestionable fact. This is because of the way (modern) Chinese schoolchildren are taught their history.

To many Chinese, the Mongols are historically a part of the Chinese nation. It is true that the whole of what is now the Republic of Mongolia belonged to China throughout the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). China currently still rules over part of historic Mongolia, the province known as "Inner Mongolia". Although most of the province's population is not Mongol, there are still more Mongols within China's border than there are in the independent state of Mongolia. Mongols are thus officially classified as one of China's 55 ethnic minorities, which is reasonable enough.

The Mongols of the 12th century, however, were simply not Chinese. Genghis Khan, who was born North of Ulan Bataar, would never have seen himself as Chinese. If anyone had suggested it to him, he might well have cut their heads off. It is true that his grandson Kublai Khan conquered the whole of China and founded the Yuan dynasty. He then posthumously declared his grandfather to be the founder of the Dynasty, or 太祖.

Chinese schoolbooks now describe the Yuan dynasty as a legitimate Chinese dynasty, but at the time most Chinese despised the Mongols as foreign invaders. Even if you want to define China's Mongol rulers as Chinese, however, extending this posthumously to Genghis Khan is quite preposterous.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A few interesting facts about the Taiping Rebellion

Nanjing's Zhan Yuan Gardens, former headquarters of the Taiping rebels

During a recent trip to Nanjing I visited the Zhan Yuan Gardens, which date back to the Ming Dynasty. In the nineteenth century these gardens became one of the headquarters of the famed Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and they now contain an extensive museum on the Taiping rebellion. The visit inspired me to find out more about this fascinating chapter of China's past.

For those of you not too well-versed in Chinese history, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was an unrecognized state set up in 1851 as a result of a massive rebel movement known as the Taiping. The rebels, mostly disaffected peasants, were led by one Hong Xiuquan, a man who had convinced himself that he was the second son of God after having a nervous breakdown due to his failure to pass the imperial exams.

The Taiping Kingdom's capital was based in Nanjing, which was renamed Tianjing (the heavenly capital). This oppositional state managed to continue existing until 1864, when the weak and outdated imperial troops finally managed to defeat it (but only because the British and French decided to help). The Taiping ruled over a large swathe of Southern China at their peak.

The Taiping kingdom was run according to an egalitarian and pseudo-Christian ideology. The equality of the sexes and the equal sharing of resources were promoted, and the Taiping set up their own system of civil examinations, which were based on the Bible rather than the Confucian classics, and open to women. The rebel leaders however quickly slid into corruption an hypocrisy, keeping legions of concubines even though polygamy was banned.

The Taiping were finally defeated after years of warfare, which cost the incredible number of 20 million lives, especially since civilians were targeted by both sides. It is rather easy to see these peasant rebels, moved by egalitarian ideals and a half-understood Western religion, executing landlords in the areas they occupied, as a precursor of that other Chinese revolution a century later. Unsurprisingly the rebellion is now described positively in official Chinese accounts, and the museum I visited certainly made this clear.

There are some interesting but less commonly known facts about the Taiping rebellion: for one thing, it had an ethnic as well as a social dimension. A disproportionate number of the rebels were either Hakka or Zhuang. The Hakka are often compared to the Jews in Chinese history, since they are a minority who have been scattered across China, and often marginalized, but at the same time have produced a large number of famous politicians and revolutionaries. Deng Xiaoping, Sun Yat Sen and Lee Kuan Yew were all Hakkas. And so were Hong Xiu Quan and all the other leaders of the Taiping rebellion.

The Zhuang, on the other hand, are China's largest recognized minority, a people who speak a language related to Thai and live mostly in Guangxi province. The Taiping rebellion began in this province, although it did not in the end become part of the Heavenly Kingdom.  An awful lot of Zhuang joined in, perhaps because of friction with the Han as well as general discontent. The Hakka, the Zhuang and other minorities continued to feature prominently throughout the rebellion.

Another not commonly known fact, which I found out thanks to the museum in Nanjing, is that quite a number of Westerners fought for the Taiping. They were often missionaries, or sometimes just adventurers and sympathizers. They included Brits and Americans, but more surprisingly also Italians. A Corsican and a Sardinian even became officers in the Taiping army. The museum displays a list of names of foreign Taiping soldiers, including an Italian named "Antouio" (supposedly Antonio) and a "Moreno" from France (probably the Corsican). It even claims that Antonio led the "Italians and the Blacks fighting for the Taiping army". That there were even black people fighting for them is really surprising. I wonder if this is actually true.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

78th anniversary of Japan's invasion of China

Chinese soldiers fighting the Japanese in the battle of Taierzhuang, 1938

Yesterday was the 78th anniversary of the so-called Marco Polo Bridge Incident, known as the 七七事变 (Seventh of July Incident) in Chinese. This historical event, which occurred in 1937, is used to mark the official beginning of Japan's invasion of China (although Manchuria had already been occupied some years previously). It consisted of Japanese troops attacking Chinese ones near an ancient bridge on the outskirts of Beijing. The bridge in question was highly praised by Marco Polo, leading it to be called the "Marco Polo Bridge" in English (although it was rebuilt in 1698, long after the Venetian traveler lived).

As they do every year, the Chinese government held a ceremony near the bridge in question to commemorate the anniversary. This year however, it was only China's fifth ranking highest leader who took part, whereas last year president Xi Jinping himself participated and made a speech. Some have seen this as a sign that relations with Japan may be improving ever so slightly.

Meanwhile, these two news items from the last few days give a good idea of how hatred of Japan has become normalized in China to the point where people don't even notice it, and of how children are being indoctrinated into it.

In Shandong, a theme park for kids organized an activity in which dozens of children had to shoot with water guns at park attendants dressed as Japanese soldiers from World War II. The activity was called "the entire people attack the gui zi". "Gui zi" (devils or ghosts) is a derogatory term for the Japanese which was obviously used quite unthinkingly.

Meanwhile another theme park in Taiyuan organized a "defend the Diaoyu islands game", in which children navigated floating warship models adorned with Chinese flags via remote controls, while voices declaring China's sovereignty could be heard blaring from speakers. The Diaoyu islands are of course those little rocks in the sea which Japan currently controls, but which China claims were always part of its territory.

It's hardly surprising that amongst the Chinese hostility towards Japan actually seems to increase the further removed they are by age from Japan's actual invasion of their country. The truth is that in the vast majority of cases, this attitude is not linked to actual familial or personal memories of Japanese atrocities, but to an educational system which teaches children to be blindly patriotic and then turns hatred of Japan into a prime symbol of that patriotism, and a media which compounds this message.

Of course, it is true that Japan's occupation of China was pretty atrocious. Chin Ning Chu, the bestselling business-management author who was brought up in Taiwan and lived in America, recalls in one of her books how her mother, who came from North-East China, lived in a village which was occupied by the Japanese as a child. The village had a police station in it, and there was often a trail of blood leading to and from the station. Her mother had to walk over it when going to school. She also recounts how people were afraid of traveling, since Japanese soldiers would often check the papers of any Chinese waiting on the platforms at the local train station, and at the slightest sign of an irregularity they might well torture them on the spot.

It is a pity that the propagandistic use which is being made of this history in modern China, and the silly attitudes this propaganda engenders, make it very hard to focus on how terrible the Second World War actually was for the Chinese people. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

Why Greece should leave the Euro

Now that the Greek referendum's results have come in, I would like to briefly chip in with my views on the Greek financial crisis. In a nutshell, I think Greece should default and leave the Euro, for its own and everyone else's sake.

First of all, let me state that I am not against European integration as such. I think that the whole of Europe trying to move towards common laws and standards makes sense, and allowing Europeans to travel and live freely throughout the continent is a wonderful step forward. On the other hand, I feel that creating a single currency for such a lot of countries with quite different levels of economic development and differing political and economic systems has turned out to be a real mistake.

Looking back, it might have been better if only the richer countries of Northern Europe (Germany, Austria, the Benelux countries, Finland and at most France) had adopted the Euro. All of the weaker countries within the Eurozone (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece) have paid a heavy price for giving up on their own currencies. And Greece, the poorest country to adopt the Euro, has paid the heaviest price of all.

The truth is that Greece is not, in spite of popular perception, a Western European country. Socially and politically it belongs to the Balkans, or even the Levant. That it should be using the same currency as Germany and the Netherlands makes little sense. The responsibility for the mistaken decision of allowing Greece into the Euro has to rest mostly on the shoulders of the richer and more powerful countries in the EU, and of the European Union as a whole.

It is of course true that Greece engaged in some "creative accounting" in order to qualify for the Euro. But is it really believable that the other European governments and the European Central Bank didn't know about this? Misplaced idealism and an eye on quick profits obviously took precedence over caution.

On the other hand, Greece's ruling class also has to take some of the blame. In 2002 the vast majority of Greece's elite, just like the vast majority of the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese elites, where entirely in favour of adopting the Euro. It is quite understandable that the ordinary people were enthusiastic as well, seeing the adoption of the Euro as proof that their country had finally "arrived" and was going to turn into a little Germany on the Mediterranean. The politicians, on the other hand, might have seen what was coming.

Much of the public in Northern Europe takes the easy way out and blames the Greeks for not paying their taxes and being corrupt. The Greek system is indeed not on a par with Germany or Belgium in terms of efficiency and transparency, and that should have been assessed before allowing the country into the common currency to begin with. Blaming the ordinary people of Greece, most of whom have toiled honestly and paid their taxes all their lives and now find themselves suddenly tasting destitution, is unfair.

I am no expert on the Greek economy in particular or on the terms of the bailout. All the same, at the risk of sounding naive, I am going to state my opinion that the best course of action for the Greeks in the long run might well be to leave the Euro and adopt the Drachma again. They can then devalue their currency until the economy gets back on track.

As for the huge foreign debt the country faces, defaulting might be the best solution. Other European countries and the IMF have already poured a lot of money into Greece so that it could be used to pay back its debt to foreign banks. To a large extent the tax-payers of Western Europe paid to bail out their own banks. Now Greece is left with a huge debt to other European countries and the IMF, which it will keep having to borrow to repay. There will never be a route out of this crisis unless the debt stops being repaid, once and for all.