Thursday, September 21, 2017

Beijing's great bricking up: what lies behind it?

The "great bricking up" of 2017 would seem to be almost over, and the dust is settling again over the hutongs in the center of Beijing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small businesses have been forced to close by having their entrances bricked up (although many have valiantly tried to continue operating through a side entrance or a small window). Corner shops, hairdressers, restaurants and bars, no one has been spared. In the process, some of the city's greatest nightlife spots for foreign hipsters and alternative young locals have been mercilessly destroyed.

Workers brick up the entrance to a hutong restaurant

These are the facts. But what are the real motivations behind all of this? The official explanations don't necessarily have much to do with reality. The authorities claim the point of the campaign is to close down illegal hole-in-the-wall businesses, address "architectural violations" and "restore the hutongs to their original look'. This all sounds very reasonable, but these are not the real motivations. Calling the hutongs' small businesses "illegal" means very little, in a context where property rights are unclear and everything is a grey area.

Most of those in the know seem to think that the point of the campaign is to push the migrants (or in some cases, the foreigners) who operate these businesses out of Beijing, thus reducing the city's population. This is what the Economist claimed in its May article "The Wider Meaning of Change in a Beijing Alleyway", and James Palmer in his Diplomat article, "How to Destroy the Heart of a Chinese City". Some of the smarter analysts who I have spoken to, both foreign and Chinese, make the same claim. In their minds the campaign is linked to the stated policy of capping the capital's population at 23 million by 2020, and moving some of the government functions and a few million people from Beijing to the soon-to-be-constructed city of Xiongan, out in Hebei.

Personally, the idea that the main motivation behind all this closing down of bars and shops in Beijing's central cluster of hutongs is reducing the city's population doesn't strike me as realistic. After all, the vast majority of Beijing's residents don't live or work in the one-storey hutong houses of the center, but in the vast 30-floor tower blocks further in the periphery. A single 小区 (a kind of gated community) in a suburb like Sihui probably contains more people then all of Dongcheng's hutongs put together.

What I suspect is a better explanation for the campaign is one that Palmer's article touches upon: social control. Essentially, the authorities aren't comfortable with the kind of unregulated, spontaneous and cosmopolitan street life that has grown in some of the hutongs in question. Their vision is one of a uniform city where entertainment is provided by air-conditioned shopping malls, and every street just has the same repeated McDonalds, Starbucks and Chinese fast food branches.

If there must be hutongs where people go to have fun, they should be along the model of Nanluoguxiang: essentially horizontal shopping malls, completely commercialized and standardized, replete with a bit of packaged "traditional culture" for out of town Chinese visitors. Incidentally, Nanluoguxiang was also closed down for a few months and renovated last autumn. It's now even more awful than it used to be. Hilariously, this article in the Chinese media claims that it "got a facelift to bring out traditional character". Sadly, touristy towns all over China, from Lijiang to Pingyao, now present shopping streets that look exactly like Nanluoguxiang.

Shops in Nanluoguxiang

It is no accident, I would bet, that some of the hutongs well known as nightlife haunts for young foreigners and Chinese alike, like Fangjia hutong, have been among the hardest hit by the closures. To me they represent the best of Beijing, a place where people from all walks of life (including foreigners and ordinary Chinese) rub shoulders in a genuine traditional setting, and neighbours still know each other. To the decision-makers, they are something that doesn't fit in with their vision of a society "governed by law" with Chinese characteristics. It is also no accident that Sanlitun's famous (or infamous) bar street, which is not in a hutong, has received the same treatment. The dirty, wild and unmanageable bar street is going to be turned into just another extension of the glitzy shopping malls that surround it on both sides. The final result of all this may be to irreparably damage some of the few areas of Beijing that still have some real character and uniqueness to them, in favour of a standardized and soulless entertainment culture that looks the same throughout China.

People eating in front of Moxi Moxi, the now forcibly closed Israeli street food joint in Fangjia hutong 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Why won't China abandon North Korea?

A few years ago I happened to read "Dear Leader" by Jang Jin Sung, one of the best books around about North Korea. Jang Jin Sung is probably the highest-ranking North Korean ever to have defected and told his story in detail. And his story is quite remarkable: he was an ordinary boy from a provincial town who became a writer and got coopted to work in the heart of the regime's propaganda department, creating propaganda aimed at South Koreans. He was lucky enough that one of his poems was praised by the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il himself, and he thus gained the class status of "Admitted" in North Korean parlance. He was then given the honour to meet Kim Jong Il in person, which is what first caused his faith in the system to start wavering. Brought up to believe that his country was governed by an almost god-like figure, when he discovered that Kim Jong Il was actually a very ordinary man who spoke in coarse language and used high heels to mask his short stature, the esteem in which he held his leader took a serious dent.

Although he lived a sheltered life in the capital, when Jang travelled back to his hometown of Sariwon and witnessed the effects of the last gasps of the famine that ravished North Korea in the late nineties, any remaining loyalty to the regime collapsed. While there he saw corpses lying unclaimed outside of the train station, and a farmer publicly executed in the town market for stealing some rice. It disgusted him when undernourished relatives and acquaintances asked him for information about the health and wellbeing of the "selfless Dear Leader" with genuine concern in their voices.

Jang made friends with a colleague who shared his distaste for the system he lived in, and when his friend accidentally mislaid "forbidden" reading material from the propaganda department in the Pyongyang subway, they were both forced to flee the country in 2004. After crossing the border into China and almost getting caught in the process, they were forced to lay low to avoid getting arrested by the police and sent back. Jiang managed to get in contact with South Korean agents who smuggled him into their embassy and give him a diplomatic passport, but his friend was unfortunately caught and committed suicide rather than being sent back.

The book is a compelling read, and its description of North Korea from the inside is fascinating, although by now rather dated. There is however one passage which is very relevant to the contemporary crisis in the Korean peninsula. Jiang Jin-sung recounts a private conversation he once had in Pyongyang with an ex-classmate from Kim-Il Sung University, a government cadre involved in establishing connections with ethnic Koreans in China. Apparently there was then a rule in North Korea that private conversations between cadres could not be used as a basis for prosecution unless there was independent evidence of them having taken place. This rule was made to prevent personal vendettas from spiralling out of control, and it allowed members of the elite to establish friendship and trust by sharing the dangerous truths behind the official narrative.

Jang's ex-classmate spilled his guts out regarding the true state of China-North Korea relations at the time. He told Jang about the background to Kim Jong Il's visit to China in 2001. In 2000 Kim Jong Il apparently came across an internal document of the Chinese government regarding the pact made between China and the DPRK after the Korean War. The document contained statements by some Chinese policy-makers suggesting that China should call off the mutual aid pact, or even ask North Korea for reparations for China's support during the war. Kim Jong Il was furious and went straight to the Chinese embassy to reprimand the ambassador, without any prior warning. North Korea's state news agency also announced the visit to the Chinese embassy without first telling the Chinese. The whole thing was seen as a diplomatic snub to China.

In response, China withdrew its ambassador and sent in a new one who was far less friendly to the North Koreans. A couple of months later, dozens of North Korean agents were arrested in North-East China for trying to groom local cadres within the government and police. Then for a while China even put a stop to aid to North Korea. After making their point, the Chinese authorities invited Kim Jong Il to visit China in January 2001, and he had no choice but to make the trip. The Korean delegation was even made to wait outside Beijing for days before being received. Then Kim was forced to go down to Shanghai and tour the skyscrapers of the Pudong special economic zone, and declare his praise for China's economic reform. This was reported in the international media as a sign that North Korea's leader wanted to emulate China's economic reforms. The reality is that he was forced to go to China as a kind of penance for daring to challenge his Chinese backers.

What is telling are the phrases that Jang's ex-classmate uses when talking about North Korea's relationship with China: "(...) I bet that's the first and last time our general tries to play with China the kind of games he plays with the US. We all know that if they squeeze us, we're dead.". And then later: "If they decide that our regime must go, it will go".

If this was true back in 2004, it is probably even truer now that cross-border trade between North Korea and China is much more large-scale. As others have recently pointed out, it is naive to think that the Chinese government couldn't bring North Korea to its knees if it wanted to. But it is also clear that they do not have any intention of pushing North Korea to the point where its regime may collapse. China's decision-makers may genuinely be frustrated at Kim Jong Un for his recklessness and threats (or they may be secretly pleased), but they appear to think that a reunification of the Korean peninsula would bring US troops all the way to their border. Although the reality is that in the long run the American army would have to pull out of a reunified Korea, the Chinese government probably doesn't believe this or see things that way. While it may not be a puppet, North Korea is essentially a buffer state, and for this reason it continues to exist.

Jang Jin Sung 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Is becoming Chinese a goal worth striving for?


Daniel A. Bell

Daniel A. Bell’s latest piece, “Why anyone can be Chinese”, has certainly raised a few eyebrows. In the article the Canadian professor, who has made a name for himself as a defender of China’s political system, argues that after twenty years in China he would like to be seen as Chinese. This silly reply has already been delivered in the Huffington Post, by someone far too steeped in American identity politics to have anything useful to say on this matter.

Daniel Bell is often dismissed as an apologist for the Chinese government. He is most well known for the contention that China’s political system is actually a “meritocracy” which produces leaders more capable than those elected in democratic systems. I don’t generally agree with his arguments, but I must admit that unlike certain other high-profile Western apologists for the Chinese system (for instance Martin Jacques or John Ross, who can’t speak a word of Chinese between them), he at least puts his money where his mouth is: he has lived in China for over twenty years and speaks fluent Chinese, as well as having a Chinese wife.

Bell argues that Chinese identity wasn't always racially defined throughout history, and that during much of China's ancient past the "dominant elite culture" saw cultural belonging, rather than race or ethnicity, as the bedrock for being Chinese, so outsiders could "learn to be Chinese". This was certainly true during certain periods, for instance the famed Tang Dynasty, when China's only traditional community of Jews established itself in Kaifeng and pretty much became Chinese, in spite of having arrived from abroad. 

Bell complains that nowadays, however, the Chinese view their identity through a racial lens, and in spite of speaking Chinese better than many Chinese, doing his best to fit in and being "committed to Chinese culture", he is still seen as a complete outsider (incidentally, his interest in Confucianism and his penchant for wearing Chinese-style clothing at conferences rather than a suit and tie are actually very un-Chinese characteristics).

Bell is correct that nowadays the Chinese see being one of them as a matter of blood lineage (even though in principle China is supposed to be a multi-ethnic country made up 56 ethnic groups, including a few thousand ethnic Russians in the North who may well look like me. But I think that for the average Han Chinese this is nothing but a detail they rarely think about). As a foreigner living in China I understand where Bell is coming from, but I think that perhaps arguing about whether a foreigner can ever be seen as Chinese is missing the point.

I personally do not feel Chinese, and have no particular wish to be seen by others as Chinese. I also think it is probably pointless to hope China will ever approach North American norms on this issue. In societies historically based on immigration, like the US, Canada, Australia or Brazil, foreign immigrants can reach a point where they feel they belong and are truly accepted by locals as their compatriots. In the rest of the world however this goal is generally unattainable, because national identity (as opposed to mere citizenship) is seen as something that you need to be born into. Even in European countries where a foreign immigrant may acquire citizenship and be treated by the authorities in all respects like a local, deep down they will still be viewed by most people as a foreigner. Asian societies tend to be even more closed, and "becoming" Korean, Vietnamese or Mongolian is likely no more possible than becoming Chinese. 

While fighting to be seen as Chinese is probably pointless, I think a more modest goal foreigners in China could aim for is to change the Chinese perception of what it means to be an outsider. It is one thing to be considered a foreigner, with a different culture and sense of identity. It is another thing for people to automatically assume that as a foreigner you 1) know nothing about China, or in any case cannot ever scratch below the surface, 2) are always going to be a transient "guest" with one foot back in your own country who can never really hold a stake in Chinese society, and 3) are always some sort of ambassador for your own country and its interests, rather than just an individual trying to get by in a new society. 

Not all of these assumptions hold for every single Chinese, but I would say that Chinese society as a whole views outsiders pretty much like that. Foreigners in China who develop close personal relationships with Chinese people will find that their local friends come to view them quite differently, but to most strangers they will still be the archetypal foreigner.

Connected with this change in attitudes would be policies that make it easier for foreigners to live and work in China, acquire permanent residency rights and, who knows, one day even citizenship (without this meaning that you have to "become Chinese" in your own mind and other people's, speak flawless Chinese or be an expert on Confucianism or Beijing opera). Bell's article calls for China to start competing for human talent worldwide, and provides a link to an article by Yan Xuetong, Tsinghua's foreign policy theorist, which claims that China should adopt a more open immigration policy that would "expand its economy while improving its moral standing globally". I fear this is one of those good suggestions that will never be acted upon. The Chinese government currently seems to be in no mood to make China a more open society, and as long as it controls public debate the way it does, I think neither attitudes towards foreigners nor immigration policies are going to change very much.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Is it too easy for foreign students to get into Chinese universities?

Peking University's famous Weiming Lake

Recently a spate of articles have appeared in Chinese social media lamenting the fact that it is too easy for international students to gain access to Chinese universities, compared to what it takes for local students. This may have been precipitated by a change to the regulations of some Chinese universities, including Tsinghua, which appear to have made it even easier for foreign students to apply.

It is certainly true that it is far easier for foreign students to gain access to Chinese universities than it is for their local counterparts. China's 高考 exams are notoriously hellish, and competition is cutthroat. By comparison, although things change according to the university and the case, very often a foreign student only needs to apply to get into a Chinese university, sometimes with a Chinese government scholarship to boot. For postgraduate courses, an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject may be required. Then again, sometimes even a degree in an unrelated subject may do.

Most international students who want to study in China do face one serious obstacle: they need to pass an HSK language exam to qualify for degrees taught in the Chinese language. Although some Chinese universities now offer special postgraduate degree programs taught in English, I think the majority of foreign students apply for degrees taught in Chinese, since they see learning Chinese as half the point of studying in China.

The fact that many foreign students need to pass a difficult language exam to study in China is not necessarily mentioned in these online diatribes. When it is, people lament that the policy favours foreign students with a Chinese background, who are already familiar with the Chinese language. Resentment of kids from rich Chinese families who have acquired foreign passports through various means and can thus apply to top Chinese universities as foreign nationals is often what lies behind these grumblings. As someone commented online, "years of strenuous study aren't worth as much as a foreign passport for getting into a Chinese university".

Other articles, like this one written by a university professor, lament the fact that the foreign students who come to China are not as "high-quality" as the ones studying in America, and not even as good as the local students. There is probably a certain closed-mindedness behind these assessments (the foreign students' mathematical skills aren't as good as the Chinese students' ones, while their critical thinking skills are not being considered), and hearing Chinese complain that the foreigners who come to their country are "poor-quality" is sadly a common refrain in all fields.

It is certainly true that Chinese universities are unable to attract the children of the global elite and the world's most brilliant students the way American or British ones can. In most developing countries, studying in China is a second choice for people who do not have the means to get a degree from a Western country. Students from the West who get degrees in China usually do so because they are curious to experience life in China for a few years, because they want to learn Chinese or because their field of study is related to China. But it is understood that the most brilliant students are not all clamouring to come to China, even to the top universities like Tsinghua and Beida.

The fact remains that if the Chinese want to attract the best international students from around the world, then they have to work on improving their universities. My prediction is that as long as China's political system doesn't fundamentally change, China's top universities will not be able to compete with the best global ones in terms of ground-breaking research and creating a lively intellectual atmosphere, no matter how many funds the government pours into them.

This is not to deny that the best universities in Beijing and Shanghai are actually quite good, with competent professors and students who regularly produce research published in top international journals. But the intellectual atmosphere remains stifling. The recently announced new rules for international students won't help matters. It is also noticeable that if you look at China's Oxford and Cambridge, Tsinghua and Beida (Peking University), the foreign students are intentionally being concentrated in Tsinghua, which focuses more on science and engineering, rather than in Beida, which focuses more on the social sciences. I think it isn't hard to see why.

For Chinese universities, accepting lots of foreign students is also a way of ensuring that they can climb up in the international rankings. Most such rankings include "internationalization" as one of the factors universities are assessed upon, something which also harms the notoriously insular Japanese institutions of higher learning. Having a high proportion of foreign students and staff gets you a higher ranking, and given that the Chinese government is obsessed with China's image and with world rankings of any kind, I find it quite probable that they are handing out scholarships to foreign students simply as a way to help Tsinghua and other universities climb up in the ranks.

Much of what lies behind these complaints about how easy it is for foreign students to get into local universities is a misplaced frustration over problems that are entirely internal and homegrown. The article I linked above starts off with the statement that Peking University enrols 200 South Korean undergraduates every year, and only 100 from the whole of Shandong province. In China this is an incendiary matter. Students from Shandong, an overcrowded province, notoriously have to go through hellish competition to get into a good university in Beijing, literally winning out over millions of competitors. Youngsters from Beijing or Shanghai can get in far more easily, something which causes much resentment. Would this state of affairs change if the university took in less South Koreans or other foreign students? Of course not.

If nothing else, such grumblings will pretty certainly have no effect whatsoever on the policies of Chinese universities and the educational authorities, who will continue to enrol international students to the extent that they feel is useful to their needs.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Rights for expats in China

While most Chinese are convinced that foreigners "have it easy" in China, the truth is that operating in China as an outsider can be very difficult.

A group of foreigners in China have now started a Wechat channel called "expat rights", which recently came to my attention. The channel is supposed to agitate for the rights of foreign expatriates in the country. Unsurprisingly, they do not publicize their names (although since Wechat is a Chinese app, this doesn't exactly guarantee their anonymity). They claim to be currently applying for NGO status, although I would be extremely surprised if this was granted to them.

The group's "manifesto" lists the following four demands: "1.We would like China to treat "expats" with legal protections like Chinese get in our home countries. 2. We want a national ID card 3. We want police raids on expat establishments to stop. 4. We're tired of carrying out passport everywhere."

The first two points strike me as well meaning, but naive. The legal protections Chinese people get in 'our home countries" (supposedly referring to Western democracies) are the same protections that everyone gets in those countries, due to the presence of a properly functioning rule of law. Unfortunately no one really enjoys such protections in China, neither foreigners nor locals. National ID cards are indeed available to resident foreign nationals in many European countries, but given the way China works, it is just unthinkable that foreigners will be given their own 身份证 any time soon (although perhaps asking for it might do no harm? Like Che Guevara said, "be realistic, demand the impossible").

The last two points seem more realistic. The constant raids that bars frequented by foreigners have been subjected to in Beijing are unjustifiable and serve no good purpose (or perhaps the purpose of scaring foreigners away from Beijing?). The legal requirement that foreigners who live in China carry their passport with them at all times is unreasonable and not in line with the laws of most countries of the world. Few foreigners follow it, at most carrying a photocopy with them. And while the police may normally accept a photocopy, the law states that you should have the original on you, leaving them an avenue to harass random foreigners when they want to (for instance during the above-mentioned raids).

The group's introductory page finishes with a call to "make a better China, together", trying to make use of the harmonious-sounding language employed by Chinese groups fighting for social change. The other articles on the Wechat channel include one entitled "We teach illegally for you, China", denouncing the hypocrisy behind the crackdowns on foreign English teachers without the right visa, an article calling for all hotels in China to accept foreign guests (some don't), and other articles denouncing cases of petty racism against foreigners. There is also practical advice on what foreigners should do if they are caught in a legal dispute with their employer, and on how to claim the money from their Chinese pension fund back before leaving the country.

I don't know who the people behind this initiative are and I don't necessarily agree with all their views, but whoever they are they've definitely got guts.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

In the Name of the People: a Chinese show on corruption

I've recently been watching China's new hit TV show, 人民的名义 (in the name of the people).
For those of you not in the know, the show focuses on corruption in Chinese politics. It is centred around a special squad of policemen trying to bust a ring of corrupt officials and businessmen in the fictional Chinese city of Handong.

As a Chinese TV show that is both popular and focuses on genuine social problems, 人民的名义 is probably a first. While it is no Prison Break the show is actually watchable, which for a Chinese TV show set in contemporary times is quite unusual. But what is more unusual is the sensitive issues that it portrays: it is certainly the first time I see a show in China that openly shows things like bands of thugs employed by developers pretending to be policemen while they go and demolish a factory and clear away the protesting factory workers.

For all that, the show is clearly an attempt by the government to spread its message on corruption and abuse of power in China: while they happen, the system is fundamentally good and working to rectify any problems and punish wrongdoers in the interest of the 老百姓, the common people. The government obviously considers it preferable to commission a TV show that talks about these problems openly in a way that it finds agreeable, rather than just not talk about them at all.

And while I do find the show watchable, mainly because it creates some real suspense, I find the star character, chief-inspect Hou Liangping, quite dislikable. He is supposed to be a role model, but comes across to me as arrogant, obnoxious and not really very credible. In fact, I find most of the policemen in the series to be quite unbelievable, probably because they are supposed to act as role models. On the other hand, I find some of the other characters much more believable and interesting, for instance Handong's Chief Party Secretary Li Dakang. I also can't help but take a liking for Chen Yanshi (who you can see pictured below), the idealistic retired official who really believes in "serving the people". I do believe that some such idealistic old party members actually still exist in China. I do have to doubt that in real life he would be allowed to take the lead in quelling a riot as he does in the show though, or that everyone would be so concerned with his opinion.

Anyway, if you are interested and know Chinese, you can watch the show on Youku with Chinese subtitles here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The University of Maryland and freedom of speech

An aerial view of the University of Maryland

Recently Chinese nationalism seems to have found a new target for its wrath: a young Chinese girl, originally from Kunming, who studies at the University of Maryland. Her talk on the clean air and free speech of the US during her graduation ceremony didn't go down well with the Chinese public. It is no exaggeration to say that if she had any ideas of going back to China to work she will have to put them aside, at least for the time being. You can find a good description of what happened here, and of the public reactions of some of Maryland's other Chinese students here.

Before I rush to defend her, I will concede that perhaps the phrase about "not being able to go out without a face-mask because she risked getting ill" is a tad over the top. Kunming is indeed one of the Chinese cities with the best air quality. But that is a bit like talking about the safest city in South Africa, or the most lively city in Norway: it is only an accolade in very relative terms. The truth is that, while nowhere near as bad as Beijing or any city up North, Kunming's air quality is by no means good by global standards. While a healthy person won't get ill in the immediate by not wearing a face-mask, I am sure the air in Kunming is noticeably more polluted than it is in Maryland.

More importantly, the girl's over the top description of the air pollution in Kunming has served to take the focus away from everything else she said, for instance the stuff about freedom of speech. While Chinese television actually went and interviewed people in the streets of Kunming to ask whether they wear face-masks (of course, none do), it would be unthinkable for them to go to the streets of any Chinese city and ask people whether they perceive a lack of freedom of speech in their country.

I am sure there are many other Chinese students in Maryland and the US who either agree with the girl, or at least are unhappy with the rather hysterical backlash to her speech (and back in China somebody wrote this sarcastic reaction to the whole drama, showing that they still have some critical thinking faculties left. Translation here at the bottom). Given all the criticism and public attacks that their peer has been subjected to back home, however, they are probably steering clear of any public pronouncements that don't toe the accepted line in China. At the same time, it is probable that the reactions against the speech by some of the university's other Chinese students were not in any way organized by the official Chinese student organizations linked to the government, but just a result of their sincere nationalism (and a certain naiveness about their home country). Of course people everywhere do tend to get defensive when their country is criticised abroad, but the strength of feeling directed against the "traitorous" girl coupled with the complete lack of genuine anger about China's dreadful air pollution and lack of freedom of speech is what leaves outsiders astounded.

Another thought strikes me: in the age before the internet, there was almost no way that a graduation talk by an anonymous Chinese student in Maryland could have become well known and attracted so much fury half way around the world. A world where any girl's graduation speech can be filmed with a mobile and then go viral across the globe produces these situations. But rather than allowing China's young people a greater freedom to express themselves, the internet seems to have backfired for them - it has now taken away their right to express themselves freely even when they are studying abroad. Any Chinese anywhere who steps out of line and publicly criticizes their country outside the bounds of acceptable public discourse within China is risking a public backlash, and even more so if they do it in front of a foreign audience.

The idea that a world where information could flow across borders in a micro-second would make people more informed, tolerant and wise is turning out to have been an illusion everywhere, and China is no exception.