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Archive for January, 2010

Google Whacked

January 13, 2010 2 comments

There’s a myth that China needs saving from evil dictators, or that Chinese people need to be somehow civilized.  That’s simply not true.  The truth is that there’s little in the way of mass oppression as there once was, and most of the so-called political maneuvers are more than likely to be economically motivated than political – so much so that that when the Chinese government blocked the movie portal IMDB in China, I instantly commented that there must be a Chinese–backed version of the site to open in mainland China soon.

I don’t think that western countries have the best way of doing things, (in much the same way that I don’t think the Chinese way is the best way) as anyone who has been through an election year in the UK can testify.  No, it’s just that when I see a good idea rejected for no good reason, I don’t really see any reason to waste time, energy and money on getting the idea accepted.  I don’t think, for example that IMDB should be blocked in mainland China, I don’t think that “because of the Korean War” is a good excuse to give to me when I ask why can’t I exchange Won in Beijing and I don’t think that the answer to winter heating is to sling another block of coal on the Aga.

All of these things and more hurt China and Chinese people, and they hurt China in the worst possible way, they are rules enforced for the good of the minority that will benefit only in the short term.  The foreigners sure as hell aren’t going to hang around if Beijing air starts to melt their fillings, but thanks to the shortsighted government policies, Chinese people have little choice but settle back in with a bottle of Tsigntao to watch The Happy Show while their face melts.  Sure, the laowai are going to uproot their families and they may never eat gong bao chicken ever again, but then again, who wants to drink milk that could land you in the emergency room?

The one reason why I like the Internet is that it’s a major pain in the ass for the Chinese government.  The Internet is a problem, not only because it allows the free flow of ideas, but because it allows people to easily compare their living standards.  At one time in China it was easy to tell people that they were doing good work and that they were beating the evil Americans when it comes to wheat production.  Nowadays, it’s not so easy.  The Internet is open and accessible to everyone.  Peer review has never been so easy – anyone can look at it, and anyone can poke holes in it, sniff it, lick and get up close and personal to it.  The only problem is that the Chinese are not really used to people being able to look at it and poke holes in it.  Only last week a large fraud was discovered by an obscure science journal in papers that were authored by Chinese scientists.  Acta Crystollographica Section E found that all that Chinese researchers had done was to alter certain, existing crystal structures by one or two atoms with the intention of making the structure seem entirely new.  The discovery led to the withdrawal of the papers by the two groups that submitted them in the first place – a total of 70 between them.

The big money in China these days is to be made in the online sector – after all, it’s the largest in the world.  The problem is, there isn’t one large Chinese dotcom that isn’t a copy of an existing western site – Facebook has Kaixin, Flickr has Yupoo, Google has Baidu and Youtube has Youku.  The sad truth is that the Chinese can’t do much on their own.  They can’t even make a good movie with a panda in it.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Chinese cyberspace.  Chinese companies take and existing western idea, add various China-centric bells and whistles to it (for example, Kaixin has a hugely popular car-park based game that would only be successful in China) and then market it with the usual censorship and the all important Chinese character set.  Even the censorship software that was produced at the government’s behest used a blacklist and source code that was pirated from an American company.  It’s a game that been well played in the US movie industry – we suffer endless remakes of Mission:Impossible, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, ad nauseum – good ideas that worked in the past are much safer to invest in.

American companies have taken a lot of heat for even setting foot in China.  Yahoo!, Cisco and Google have all been hauled up in front of the US senate to explain just what the hell they’re up to in China.  Getting into bed with the commies still rattles some cages up on Capitol Hill.  Cisco has been suspiciously quiet about supplying hardware and software that runs the Great Firewall, Yahoo! handed over emails that got a human rights activist thrown in the slammer, and as for Google.  Well.

Google made a convincing argument when they started running Google.cn.  They pointed out that a limited search engine is much better than no search engine at all.  For a long time, they had me convinced.  They spouted at length the need to comply with local laws, as did Yahoo!  But that was before they felt the sharp end of Chinese business practices.  But that’s all changed for the time being.  For the time being, it’s Google vs. China.

It’s not the first time that big business has gone head-to-head with the Chinese government.  Green Dam/Youth Escort (remember that?) was effectively retired after a number of Chinese companies complained that the deadlines imposed by the Chinese government were impossible to abide by, and that the software itself was buggy beyond belief.  It was the first time that business had won out over the mandate of the Chinese government.  Now it looks like Google is trying to do the same thing.

There’s a lot riding on this.  Apart from the thousands of people that are employed at Google China – and it’s a good bet that a number of fine upstanding party members have sons and daughters working there – a growing number of businesses and individuals have become increasingly reliant on Google technology.  The grievances that Google has are pretty serious, it’s been well known that Chinese hackers have not been shy in recent years, to the point that they’re now posing a serious threat to the US.  The problem is that that Google has discovered that at least 20 other countries that have had major security breaches inflicted upon them that originated in the Chinese mainland.  While these companies haven’t yet been named, what should concern the Chinese is if Google has enough clout to convince the others that operating within Chinese law and getting your hand bitten for your trouble simply isn’t worth it.

UPDATES

Since the above was put together while I was waiting to make phone calls to some of the good folk of Beijing, much has beeen written in the last 8 hours, so here is a short collection of links that didn’t exist at the time of writing.

Imagethief
James Fallows (The Atlantic)
Global Voices Online
The Peking Duck
Shanghaiist
China Hearsay

The Little Chinatown That Could

January 9, 2010 1 comment

There are few pleasures in life that come close to having a meal with Chinese people.  The beer, tea, cigarettes and conversation flow freely, and for a couple of hours on a snowy London afternoon, you can sit islanded from the rest of the world.

London’s Chinatown – which will be of particular interest to any fan of Pirates of the Caribbean in that it was originally founded by Chinese employees of the East India Trading Company – is like most other Chinatowns.  It offers a kind of Disneyfied version of China,  but it does offer to a pleasant stopgap to those who are suffering extreme MSG withdrawal.  In Kobe, Chinatown is rather distastefully known as Nakin-machi – literally Nanjing-town – where I was offered Chinese food – fried rice and chicken.  In my home city of Manchester (at one time the largest Chinese community in Europe before), Chinatown shares a street (and restaurants) with Korean and Thai entrepreneurs.  Well, foreigners I guess they all look the same.

Things hadn’t been going too well for China at the turn of the century during the Qing dynasty.  The country had suffered humiliation after humiliation – The Japanese had invaded and the only thing that had quelled the Boxer Rebellion was another war against the Eight Nation Alliance.

The Chinese were used extensively and abusively by both the French and the British.  The then Chinese government had forbidden Chinese nationals from fighting (it later declared war in 1917), so, especially for the French, they were a source of cheap, desperately needed labour.  Field-Marshall Haig requested an initial 21,000 men, but in an agreement engineered by the French war cabinet, 50,000 ended up being shipped to Dagu and Marseille.

The Chinese men, mostly between the age of 19 and 25 were put to work unloading ships and refueling bombers.  After the fighting ended they were used to clear the bodies of dead servicemen from the battlefields.  The young men that had been drafted from Jiangsu, Heibei  and Shandog soon had their ideals of western life shattered under the harsh, unforgiving work conditions they found themselves in.  By the end of 1917, 54,000 Chinese men were employed by the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) in France and Belgium, and by the time of the Armistice that number had ballooned to 96,000.

Eager to bolster their “common man” image during the formation of the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese intellectuals looked back on their time in the CLC with a certain pride.  Chen Du Xiu, the first Chairman and General Secretary of the CCP, wrote that “while the sun does not set on the British Empire, neither does it set on Chinese workers abroad.”

The town of Montargis has been most kindly described as “an inconsequential backwater”, and it hides the secret of being the ultimate Chinatown.  Few Chinese actually live there, but this unremarkable town, about 100km south of Paris has a unique and revered place in modern Chinese history.  Deng Xiao Ping, then aged 16, worked in the Hutchinson rubber factory there (and was consequently fired for refusing to work) and he later found work in the Renault factory in Paris.  Such was his naivety that he Deng gave his birthday as calculated by the Chinese lunar calendar, rather than the western Gregorian calendar.  According to Wang Yi, the first secretary of the Chinese embassy in Paris, all Chinese know Montargis (or they should know Montargis), and it’s where a lot of the revolutionaries where “inspired” to revolutionize China

It all started with Li Shi Zen who was the son of an empirical councilor.  It was thanks to the connections he made while studying at an agricultural college that students would visit as part of the Work-Studies Movement in 1912.  Amongst these students were to go on to be the stars of the embryonic Chinese Communist Party.  Almost 2000 students made the three month journey by ship to France.  Zhou En Lai wrote a poem about the journey, reflecting his hopes of what the modern west could offer him: “Go abroad through the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Waves are surging forward, carrying you to the coast of France, the homeland of freedom.”

A series of plaques now mark points of historical interest in Montargis – a town of 15,000 inhabitants that now has to cope with a deluge of Chinese tourists every year.  The Chinese trail winds through the streets, over the bridges and along the canals.  A propaganda official from Guangdong says that the town was “our teacher, and a cradle of our revolution.”  It’s a testament to unpredictable nature of the country that I’ve made my second home in that, on a day trip in France, you can end up knee deep in Chinese history.

Wiff-Waff, China and Why I Hate the English

January 5, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s been almost impossible for Chinese people to explain to me the overwhelming sense of patriotism that borders on nationalism in mainland China.  I have, after all, taken leave of my home country, and found happiness of a sort in the Far Eastern reaches of Beijing.  National identity and pride are alien concepts to me.   I go to great lengths to point out to people that I’m not English.  At the very least, I’m British, and at the most, I claim to be Irish under the same rules published by the Football Association.  I’ve been home for about 10 days now, and I can categorically say that I hate the English.

Much has been written about the uniqueness of British culture. What’s left of it is unique, which just shows you how much apathy there is in this country that I’ve spent the last three and a half years trying to avoid.     Parallels had been made while I was living in Japan that the British and the Japanese are quite similar – both are island nations, both had prominent roles in World War II, we both have odd, off-the-planet senses of humor, and both nations are known for their odd attitudes towards sex.

The Japanese have sushi bars where patrons can eat raw fish off a naked Japanese girl, and in the UK, politicians are found hanging from a door jamb, with oranges laced with amyl nitrate stuffed in their mouths.   Jeremy Clarkson thinks that British culture is watching The Great Escape on TV on Christmas Day, and that’s pretty much the extent of it – a British nuclear family huddled around widescreen TV, scarfing down their dinner that’s balanced on their laps.  At one time, British people were worried that technology was replacing British customs, so the Victorians made customs up and pretended that they’d been doing them for thousands of years.  Now we’re content with Simon Cowell.

There are other things that the English have in common with the Japanese.  Their contempt towards learning, their apparent complete ignorance of the geography and culture of other countries, the expectation that everyone can speak their language, and the assumption that national stereotypes are true.   The Japanese saying that “the nail that stands up gets hammered down” can just as describe the attitude that the British take to anyone who doesn’t conform.

One particular English custom is that of bullying.  The Chinese and the Americans will have little idea of what it is to have your entire future defined by what school you went to.  My parents had to go through the 11-Plus exam which essentially determined if people could continue onto grammar school, or if they should just give it all up and become a secretary.  Boarding schools – an essentially English invention where kids are sent away from home for their schooling – are famous for being hives of physical, verbal and sexual abuse.  The entire sense of English humour is based on the high school bully.

A laugh in England that isn’t made at someone’s expense is a rare laugh indeed.  The Chinese rely on wordplay and observation to get their laughs.  The English rely on finding anyone who is different and shining the world’s biggest spotlight on for as long as possible.  Only the English could go to a football match, and make hissing sound in order to unsettle the Jewish players in the opposing team by imitating the sound of carbon monoxide entering the slaughter chambers in a Nazi concentration camp.

The Chinese (and North Korean) sense of reliance and pride in their nation comes from being under the thumb.  The Japanese and the Mongols both took China from the Chinese.  The same can be true of England, invaded countless times by the French, the Vikings and the Romans – it’s why the language is such a mess – but the English have never really twigged the idea of self-reliance, the idea that you can outsell and outperform your oppressors was twisted into the idea that you can thumb your nose at the people that bastardized your country and your language by creating the black slave trade.  Americans are a watered down concentrate of English repression – the Puritans who settled America were kicked out by the English for being too uptight.

AA Gill wrote that the English have a default setting of angry.  I believe the English have a default setting similar to that of perpetual disappointment.  The English spawned the language (do tell me if I’m going too fast for you) and now, thousands upon millions are spending millions upon thousands to learn the language – not to speak to the English, but to speak to Americans.  There’s little in the way of English culture, heritage or even a sense of national pride.  There’s no other country where the national flag is more of a symbol of division than of unity.  The English invented cricket, and promptly were overtaken by their former colonies in almost every cricket competition you can care to mention.  And then there’s wiff-waff.

Boris Johnson, the current mayor of London says of Wiff-Waff:  “Other nations, the French, looked at a dining table and saw an opportunity to have dinner. We looked at a dining table and saw an opportunity to play Wiff Waff. That is why London is the sporting capital of the world.”

Wiff-Waff is probably better known as Ping-Pong, and it was invented by the English, and, given the current state of British-Sino relations right now, it might be time for another round of Wiff-Waff diplomacy.  It can only be hoped that they don’t try to hit the middle ground and try to call it Wiff-Pong.  Of course, Ping-Pong is something else that the English gave away to the world and haven’t seen since, let’s just hope the same isn’t true of diplomatic relations.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Law is an Ass

January 2, 2010 Leave a comment

A quick primer on Chinese law:

The Chinese chief justice, Wang Sheng Jun has never been to law school.

Wang Sheng Jun says that Chinese courts should work on the principle of interests of the Communist Party first, the people’s interests second, and the rule of law last.

At the end of November, No 1 Intermediary People’s Court handed down the surprise decision that Microsoft should stop selling copies of its software that contains the illegal material. The argument has developed into an intellectual property (with no intellectual property, they’re fonts) row that has no doubt fired up nationalists across the country, ready to both espouse the glories of China’s modernization and they’re able to cheer on the fact that according to Chinese law, an American company has been told to where to stick it’s nasty pirated goods (outside the subway station on Chongwenmen) by the little court that could. In a report in the Financial Times, Zhongyi, the Beijing software company that developed the fonts for MS, reckons that the big bad evil Microsoft has been using the Chinese character set and the input system as “a pillar for the windfall profits Microsoft is extracting from China.”

Also in November, Huang Qi was sentenced to three years imprisonment after he was found guilty of being in possession of state secrets.  As well as establishing an organization that spoke out against human trafficking, Qi had doggedly pushed and criticized both the national and local governments over the shoddy building practices that helped to kill over five thousand schoolchildren when northern Sichuan was hit by the biggest natural disaster in China for decades. During a 10 minute “hearing”, Qi was charged with illegal possession of state secrets, officially having “certain documents from a certain city” in his keep.   Of course, we never actually find out what the documents are, or which city they came from.Similarly,  Beijing artist, Ai Wei Wei, who helped design the Olympic National Stadium  2008 Olympic Games has been documenting the deaths of the schoolchildren, and publicizing them has been routinely harassed by Beijing police officers, who have repeatedly been trying to invent crimes for him to be guilty of.

Anyone who reads James Fallows excelleny blog at The Atlantic will have followed the stories that have emerged from across China after it was ruled that foreigners over the age of 60 years will not be eligible for a work (Z) permit.  Before we continue I must point out that this age limit on teachers is not uncommon.  Singapore has the same age limit, and lots of other countries have limits around the age of retirement (55, 60, 65, etc).  The problem has been that although the law has been passed, it’s not really been enforced with much consistency across the country.  There was a typical lack of transparency from the authorities, with conspiracy theories and excuse being made in favour of the decision, ranging from the idea that older men are much more of a “sex predator” problem than the younger men to the theory that people over the age of 60 are just health problems on legs that the local doctors and hospitals either don’t or can’t deal with.  One reader emailed in:

“I read your article on the banning of teachers over the age of 60 in China and I just wanted to let you know that this is not true across the country.  For years, we [a volunteer group] have been sending  60-100 teachers a year to teach in a number of universities in China and for the most part, they are retired, over the age of 60 and the schools are now saying that they should be under the age of 80!  Many of the teachers we send are for short-term summer and fall classes, but many stay on for long-term teaching assignments.  I suspect that they are watched closely to see that their characters are acceptable before the offers of longer contracts are made.”

All of which brings us the merry little Christmas present that was the execution of bi-polar wannabe popstar Akmal Shaikh who was arrested in 2007 for possession of 4,030 grams of heroin.  The Chinese spokeswoman (who also mistook Shaikh for a drug dealer) said that this would enough to kill 26,800 people.  The Chinese have done a good job of demonizing him in the Chinese press – assuming that they’re the same officials who called the Dalai Lama a devil with horns – but have talked little about his mental illness.  Shaikh, unfortunately, was not the wicked drug baron that the Chinese had made him out to be. Polish smugglers had convinced him that he would be a pop star in China with the release of his awful, self written single, Come Little Rabbit, which Shaikh hoped would bring about world peace.  Conveniently avoiding the truth once again, the mission statement of the Chinese Propaganda Department seems to be “it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as we can convince everyone that the cat doesn’t have a history of mental illness that would, in other countries, be taken into consideration.”  Chris Hogg, the BBC’s Beijing Correspondent followed the trial up to the execution, and commented that “There’s very little discussion of the mental health issue on the websites and discussion boards. In terms of the discussions here in China, it doesn’t seem to be registering.”  In response, the Chinese spokesperson Jiang Yu said quite bluntly, “Nobody has the right to speak ill of China’s judicial sovereignty,”.

Which is of course, where it’s all wrong.  Everyone has the right to speak ill of China’s, and indeed any country’s judicial sovereignty.  Especially if it’s sovereignty built on corruption and nepotism.  What is clear from the attitude that Chinese officials had towards the Briitish lobbyists and petitioners and the way that China was represented at the Copenhagen talks is that China is settling into its role as a major superpower quite nicely – they’re being nasty to everyone on the way up, and one can only assume that they’re going to be nasty to everyone on the way down too.  Everyone has the right to criticize, especially when the Chinese are ignoring their own Criminal Code (in this case, Article 18 of the 1997 Criminal Code which states that the mentally ill should be treated more leniently in criminal cases).

Some say (that is, Chinese netizens) that the British let him die because they didn’t negotiate “in secret” with the Chinese government to obtain his release.  Others say (that is, Chinese netizens) that he was guilty of a crime in Chinese territory and should be punished according to the published law, and others (that is, Chinese netizens), including the judge who was hearing him beg for clemency in the Supreme Courts of China, laughed at him as he made his final, desperate and somewhat rambling statement in Xinjiang pleading for his life.  Beyond anything else, the timing of the execution was almost bang on perfect, and maxmised the coverage of the execution in nearly all the national British and European newspapers.  For future reference, the Chinese should make note that executions over Christmas are usually frowned upon in most western countries.  Unless you’re a turkey, which Wang Sheng Jun almost certainly is.

The reaction of the Chinese to the outrage from the UK has been to bring up the old evergreen sob-story, The Opium Wars.  Recycling events that not many people actually remember anymore, and that fewer survivors have partaken in, is part and parcel of the Chinese way of living. It’s not as overt as “look what good Chairman Mao has done for the country”, but the little reminders are always there to, well, remind Chinese people how bad things were and how good they are now, and how grateful they should be (please don’t riot and cause problems like you did last time).   Right now, it’s easy to make those comparisons between old China and the modern dragon that we all know and love today.  As time goes on, and the living standards of ordinary Chinese continues to improve, the less relevant these comparisons will be.  Soon the irrelevant will become immaterial, but for now double standards work wonders when you’re a one-party dictatorship trying desperately to find something to help you stay in power.   

Failure Is An Option

January 2, 2010 Leave a comment

If the reports are to be believed, there’s nothing quite like a Chinese student.

The attitude that I have towards China and its administration is that it’s better for them to make mistakes that cost them economically, because I would rather have British companies making money from the Chinese than have Chinese companies making money from British people. Thomas Friedman pointed this out in one of his columns for the New York Times, recounting how he addressed a Chinese motor show audience and he told everyone that he wanted everyone in China to continue to use fossil fuels, and ignore renewable energy.  The point was that while fossil fuel consumption was going up, there was little in the way of development of renewable energy – and this was important because not only would it do the environment some good, it would also give the fastest developer a greater advantage in what would be the next global market.

The money is better in your pocket than in theirs.

Unfortunately, I haven’t told many Chinese people this, and for some reason, they don’t want to cooperate with my vision of seeing thousands upon thousands of Chinese people buying products that were designed, invented and manufactured in Europe.  The scary thing is that, as you might well expect from the fastest growing economy in the world, the people that are going to make the difference in China aren’t even a generation away from us.  They’re about 10 years behind us.

As anyone who’s taught English in China will know, Chinese people place a premium on education.  The English training sector is booming to the point of saturation, and the rise of China’s middle class means that more people than ever are going to universities across the middle kingdom.  It seems that in one respect, like Communism, Confucianism is working.  All this from a country whose founding father shut down most of the learning centers in China to fuel his own cultural revolution.

30 years ago, Chinese writer Jung Chang was taken on a tour of her native Sichuan.  The idea was that young students would see all how beautiful China was, and would never forget to return once they had completed their studies.  30 years ago, all of the students that had their “backgrounds” approved for overseas study fitted on one bus; last year 57,451 graduate students along with 26,275 undergraduate students were sent to the US alone.  The language problems are already showing that there are large rifts between the US students and the Chinese students.

Writing for the Boston Globe, Kara Miller noted that “My “C,’’ “D,’’ and “F’’ students this semester are almost exclusively American, while my students from India, China, and Latin America have – despite language barriers – generally written solid papers, excelled on exams, and become valuable class participants.”.  Of her American students, she said “too many 18-year-old Americans, meanwhile, text one another under their desks (certain they are sly enough to go unnoticed), check e-mail, decline to take notes, and appear tired and disengaged.”.  It seems that where the Chinese students lack comprehension skills, they make up for with their work ethic, eagerness and contributions to their classes.

Of course, anyone who has had to explain to a Chinese student that British people don’t actually celebrate Thanksgiving, and that “going shopping” is not the proper way to celebrate Christmas would call into question Millers numbers that all is lost for the Americans.  She writes that “a National Geographic-Roper survey found that most 18- to 24-year-olds could not find Afghanistan, Iraq, or Japan on a map, ranking them behind counterparts in Sweden, Great Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan, France, and Germany. And in 2007 the American Institutes for Research reported that eighth graders in even our best-performing states – like Massachusetts – scored below peers in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, while students in our worst-performing states – like Mississippi – were on par with eighth graders in Slovakia, Romania, and Russia.”.  The reason for all this is, of course, that no one bothered asking the Chinese or the Japanese any of the basic, general knowledge questions that were on this survey.   Most pig farmers in Wuhan would have problems pointing out where Australia was on the map, as would too many of the unemployed, fluent English speaking Japanese housewives that keep all the English school owners nests feathered inTokyo.  In Japan, a white man who speaks English is obviously an American, and a black man in China is obviously a drug dealer.

My first impressions of Japanese students were not good.  For a developed country, and one that had a rising economic behemoth on it’s doorstep, the level of spoken English in Japan was much, much poorer than the level that I had come to expect from my Chinese students.  Usually in China, I couldn’t get on the bus without someone coming up to me and practicing their English with me.  In Japan, the same thing happened twice in 15 months.  The width, and indeed depth of the gulf between the two old rivals was put into perspective when I was engaged in a conversation about British and Chinese history with the guy who was making my coffee in a Dongzhimen coffeeshop.  To have this type conversation with a barista in Japan would almost be unthinkable.

So, the Chinese are going to be ruling the world in the future?  Not really.  What’s interesting is that for every Chinese person who goes to American to study now, there are probably the same number of American students who have arrived in China with the firm intention of learning Chinese.  In December 2009, I ran into at least six Americans who were studying up on their HSK exam.  Most of them were 22 or 23 years old, and all of them spoke, read and wrote pretty decent Chinese.  Education is one of those things that everyone can get involved in.  While there are always slackers – and I met more than my fair share of them while I was teaching English in Beijing – the slackers are almost always outnumbered by the nerds and the geeks.  And it’ll be the geeks that inherit the earth.  Or at least, a decent apartment in Ya Yun Cun.