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.

Monday, December 7, 2015

"Red Alert" over smog in Beijing

The Chinese government has issued its first ever "red alert" over Beijing's air pollution. The entire population of Beijing, myself include, received text messages both yesterday and on Sunday warning about the upcoming pollution. The first message warned about severe pollution from Monday to Wednesday, and said that schools should suspend outdoor activities, and vehicles which transport earth from constuction sites should suspend their operations.

The second message spoke about terrible pollution from Tuesday to Thursday at midday (when strong winds are predicted), and warned that cars will only be allowed on the roads on alternate days. It also suggested (the Chinese term used was 建议) that Middle and Primary schools suspend classes, and that enterprises consider "flexible working arrangements". My company is actually allowing everyone to work from home tomorrow.

The funny thing is that the pollution is nowhere near as bad as it was on Monday and Tuesday last week, when the PM 2.5 index reached 600, a level which hadn't been seen since the first "airpocalypse" in 2013. And yet because of the lack of an official government alert, people seemed to be less concerned than they are now, when the PM 2.5 still hasn't gone above 300. The difference is apparently that the heavy pollution has to be forecast to last over three days in a row for there to be a "red alert". Go figure.

If you don't live in China or another place with dreadful air pollution, you are probably unaware of the significance of the PM 2.5 index. In order to give you an idea, the WHO considers safe levels to be below 25. In no major European city does it usually go beyond 100 even on the worst of days. Once you get past a level of 150-200, the pollution becomes visible to the naked eye. Especially in the winter, this is a common occurence in Beijing. Like most Beijingers, I can eyeball the PM 2.5 level based on how far I can see out of my window. If I can make out the high rises in the next neighbourhood, I know it can't be too bad.

The air quality may not be improving, but what has changed enourmously since I first came to Beijing is the level of public awareness. Just a few years ago, most people here had no idea about PM 2.5 levels, and did not give the air quality too much thought, or even distinguish between smog and natural fog. Only very few wealthy people and foreigners possessed air purifiers, and almost no one wore a face mask.

Especially since 2013, awareness has increased exponentially. Air purifiers have appeared in many households of ordinary means, and those who can't afford the expensive ones buy cheaper and less reliable ones. Although you can still hear people say that it's better not to use a purifier at home in order to for your body to "get used to the pollution", such attitudes are on the decrease.

More and more people also wear masks on smoggy days, and not just the useless little surgical masks they used to wear, but the imported masks with a filter which you can buy in 7-11 (25 yuan for a packet of five). Recently, a small but increasing number of people are actually going around with a mask connected by a tube to a little oxygen tank strapped to their arm. Below is a photo a friend of mine took today on the Beijing subway. Underneath it is an advertisment for such a contraption.


The extraordinary measures that ensured clean air during last year's APEC summit and this year's military parade have shown the people that smog in China's capital is not actually unvanquishable. Now that they've understood that air pollution is bad for them, I wonder how long it will take for them to start considering such dreadful air quality to be unacceptable on principle, rather than an annoyance which you just have to bear.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New bout of dreadful air pollution in Beijing

Over the last couple of days, Beijing has been struck by one of the most dreadful spells of pollution of the last few years. PM 2.5 levels have soared to 600, and the entire city has been covered by a thick, grey blanket of smog of the kind which smells bad and makes it dark and gloomy even in the middle of the day. This morning however strong winds finally arrived and blew it all away, allowing us to see the sky again.

Here's a couple of photos taken by a friend of mine from inside Beijing's famous CCTV tower. The first one shows the view out of his window this morning, and the second one shows the same view yesterday. Scary stuff.

People were beginning to hope things were looking up for Beijing' air quality, after a comparatively smog-free 2015, but the last few days has brought everyone back down to earth. At least this time most of the people out on the streets wore face masks. It seems like awareness of the ill health-effects of smog is increasing.