I’m Swiss. I live here now, but I’m actually a Swiss… nationally.

June 16, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s been kinda difficult to be British in Beijing lately- first there was the spectacular Youku implosion of a video of drunken/stoned/retarded/possibly-all-three Briton attempting to rape a Chinese woman in Xidan.  Now we’re even more in hock with the CCP because David Cameron met up with His Holiness The Dalai Lama.

With panther-like reactions, the Global Times churned out an op-ed that lambasted the UK and Norway for their arrogance (yes, that’s Chinese men calling other countries arrogant, just in case you didn’t get it first time around.  Incredible I know).  Like a lot of Chinese tub thumping, the actual content is questionable, and the article is one of those paper-rattling nationalist things that Chinese people like so much.

The speculation is probably correct. In both cases China’s core interests have been offended. Proper countermeasures are necessary for a big country. If China takes no action, it would be tantamount to tolerating a vicious provocation. This indifference would be despised at home and in the world.

Er.  No.  Just at home, as it happens.  No one else cares.  Ok, so the anonymous author doesn’t really point out why China has the right not to be offended.  Lots of countries and lots of governments are attacked by media outlets everyday.  China’s just going to have to grow up and learn to take it’s knocks like everyone else.

Since its reform, China has accepted some political concepts of the West, but that is not the same as unconditionally following orders from the West. Studying the West has to take place under the condition of resisting its pressure, otherwise, it is to accept being conquered by the West.

As I commented on the story itself, China didn’t really “reform and open up”, the government just stopped interfering with people’s lives so much after Mao died.  A classic CCP maneovre of waiting and seeing and then taking credit for what happens next.  As far as anyone knows, the political system that China did take from the west was one of the worst political ideologies created that China’s inept leaders of the time thought they needed in a deperate bid to modernise the country.  Almost every country that embraced communism (and most have subsequently discarded it) ain’t exactly the type of place that you’d want to retire in.  With the exception of Cuba, but they’ve actually got a decent health system.

The UK and Norway are developed countries with relatively small populations. China is aware of their political advantages. However, governing a country of 1.3 billion people is beyond their imagination. It is naïve and arrogant to try and teach China what to do. 

It was only a matter of time before one of the Holy Trinity of Chinese excuses was trotted out.  Chinese people are immensely proud of their immense population, and their apparent inability to manage it properly.  Corruption running rampant?  Well, China has a large population.  Poison in your milk?  Well, China is a developing country, you know. 1.3billion people isn’t beyond our imagination, it’s just that the systems that the corrupt morons that run China can’t scale up beyond the neighbourhoods of the politicians that dream them up over a baijiu soaked dinner.

 They must pay the due price for their arrogance. This is also how China can build its authority in the international arena. China doesn’t need to make a big fuss because of the Dalai or a dissident, but it has many options to make the UK and Norway regret their decision. 

The way to build authority in an international arena is to stop personalising every little slight and stop making overblown puff pieces about how sensitive you all are and how we should treat you all with respect.  If Chinese politicians actually just stopped brown-nosing the CCP machine for just five minutes, and started doing things for the good of the people, rather than saying that they’re doing stuff for the good of the people, we might be able to make some progress.

Spending thousands of RMB on banners saying that Chinese people are 文明 doesn’t actually do anything to change people’s minds.  Becoming civilised and not acting like a dick in public is not something that people can osmotically achieve simply by being bombarded with thinly veiled propaganda day and night.

Oh, and by the way, outside of Bond villians, no one “must pay the price” for shit these days.

China-UK cooperation will have to be slowed down. Free trade agreement talks between China and Norway have also been upset. The ensuing loss is a small one for China. 

Free trade won’t be upset, the sky will not fall, and the worst that would happen is that China goes a sulks in the corner for a while.  No one likes a cry baby and you have to stop playing the victim.

It’s not easy to have Chinese society’s sympathy on China’s sovereignty issues. The West has presented various honors to Chinese dissidents, and Chinese people won’t be fooled into believing it is a simple coincidence.

Shockingly, what happens in “the West” is that people that try and change things actually get recognised for trying to change things.  We don’t give out random gongs to people just because we want their job when they retire (with the obviously exception of the British Civil Service, naturally).  To get a pat on the back, you need to do something other than get fat and smoke cigarettes and retire to go die of cancer, it’s just doesn’t work like that.  The Chinese government has to stop looking at everything as though governance is one long gaokao.  There are certain things that you can’t be taught, and as long as current status quo exists, it never will be.


Good, Good Study. Day, Day Up.

June 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Education has famously been part and parcel of Chinese culture for millennia.  While the Japanese were relying on their social standing and the prestige of their families to ensure a decent salary, the Chinese were introducing standardized testing, and encouraging children to get at least as far as their parents got, so that the parents could live in relative comfort during their retirement.  The idea is that you spend whatever is needed on your child to make sure they get the best job, because you’ll be relying on that job to provide financial support after you finish working.  

Most universities, indeed most high schools, focus on learning by rote, usually in classes of about 30 to 40 students.  The teacher stands at the front of the class, tells the students how to do things.  The problem is that, for some unknown reason, the Chinese look towards the top 5% of successful Chinese, and deduct that because 5% made it, the system must work.  Of course, since the system fails people 95% of the time, one can also deduce that something is terribly, terribly wrong with the education system in the PRC. 

This week, Chinese high school students will take the gaokao – the national college entrance exam where 9.15 million students will compete for 6.85 million university places.  It lasts for three straight days, and will ultimately determine the entire future of a student’s life.  Students regularly study sixteen hours a day in order to get the all important perfect score.  Competition, is, as you can imagine, pretty tough.  It’s so tough in fact that the university have instigated a kind of upgrade/downgrade system that you usually find on airlines: if the  places on a particular course have been filled, the students simply get bounced to another course – whether they like it or not.    

As part of the modernization drive to educate it’s people into the 21st century, the Chinese government has made English lessons compulsory up to the second year of university – so students typically go through nearly 7 years of language instruction, and still manage to level out at a mediocre level of second language ability.  Conversations with a Chinese English student are riddled with Chinglish – a particular blend of directly translated English that grates on the nerves after six months in the country – and other fossilized errors that students apparently show little intention of making any effort to eradicate.  

That’s not to say that some people make it.  The laws of chance dictate that at least some of the unfortunates that are forced through the Chinese higher education system make it to a decent level of fluency, but for most, speaking English is a tool, something that will get them a certificate that will get them a job – job that many thousands of other similarly qualified Chinese graduates will be competing for.  

The obsession for learning English is such that with only 59 “schools” in China, Wall Street Institute – a private language school – was bought by publishing giant Pearson for $92 million.  And it’s the money that is increasingly dictating the quality of education one receives – if you have enough you can send your child abroad to an American or, more commonly, a Canadian university (the visa application is a little less stringent in Canada), if you don’t have enough hard cash for that, you’ll have to settle for a “top-tier” university.  Chinese students are enrolling in US universities in droves, but the rote style of education isn’t preparing them for the Socratic methodology used in western countries, inevitably leading to friction between the American and Chinese students.  

Zhao Jun, in an interview with The Atlantic, says that he supports his son’s decision to study in the US – and he’s the editor-in-cheif of a government produced education journal.  He gave a fairly damning description of the current Chinese educational system, “the course design is too rigid, the method of teaching is too mechanical, and the standard for measuring talent is too one-dimensional.”  He’s not the only one, either, Gaokao applications have declined by 700,000 students since 2009, many of the students favouring the best education that money can buy – outside China

Money and Cigarettes

May 16, 2012 3 comments

I’m a great smoker.  When I was looking for advice on how to be a successful writer, I was told that to take up smoking is a must.  “No non smoker is worth reading”, AA Gill once wrote, “And writers who give up become crashing bores.”

It soon became one of the few things that I do well.  I enjoyed the privilege of an unrepentant, unapologetic, shameless and guilt-free nicotine habit.  

Or rather, I did.  

Today marks the end of day four of my smoke-free life.  It’s not been too bad, since I was never a hardcore smoker (I was what Malcolm Gladwell would call a “chipper” – I enjoyed a smoke, but I never smoked enough to become completely addicted), it was mostly the fact that beer and cigarettes went very well together, and the smoking culture in China meant that there was always a cigarette to be had.  

Part of my desire to quit was my new found love of running, and the fact that while my liver may be able to renew itself in between baijiu binges, I’d be pushing the boundaries of science when fantasizing about growing a new lung.  

Cigarettes are everywhere in China, and I’ve no idea how sharing a pack of cigarettes became a sign of enduring friendship.  It’s pretty impossible to do business in China without giving the gift of, er, death to the keep the local officials happy, and you’re not a true man unless you can buy someone a pack of 45rmb fags – and those aren’t the cheapest to be had.  Good Cat Cigarettes sell for nearly $900, and Deng Xiao Ping’s favoured Panda cigarettes are nearly $110 per pack.  a pack of Marlboros will set you back nearly a tenth of the price of a pack in the UK, and the cheapest on will cost you about 2p.  

The prices of the smokes is just one of the endlessly jaw-dropping statistics in the Middle Kingdom – nearly half the male population smokes, two thirds of doctors smoke, no smoking signs are routinely flaunted and people think that its ok to smoke in a subway toilet.  A million Chinese every year die from a smoking related disease, and the bank balance of China National Tobacco keeps on raking in the cash – in 2011, profits were up a mindboggling 17%.  

Efforts to fight back haven’t been successful, with a smoking cessation clinic at the Sino-Japanese Hospital closed down after a couple of months due to lack of interest.  In 2009, officials in Hubei were ordered (yes, ordered) to smoke more cigarettes in order to boost the economy.  Ash trays were inspected for rival brands, and those who were found smoking brands manufactured in rival provinces were punished.  Teachers at a local school were given smoking quotas (public minded officials subject the poor folk at the school with random spot check, sifting through ashtrays and bins to make sure teachers were smoking Hubei branded cancersticks), and officials light up nearly 230,000 cigarettes worth in excess of four hundred thousand pounds.  

So you can imagine that it’s not easy to give up the evil weed completely.  Cigarettes, fake cigarettes and cigars will be around for a long time here, much longer than the people who smoke them anyway.  


Categories: Uncategorized

Microwaves Make Headline News

March 22, 2012 Leave a comment

When Attaturk wanted to modernize Turkey, he wanted to ban the use of the veil by women. He didn’t ban the veil outright, as a boring, conventional thinker might have – he made the veil compulsory for prostitutes. Since China can’t really avoid the encroachment of the Internet and social media, some lateral thinking will be needed if the CCP wants it’s citizens to toe the line online.

China has embraced capitalism in all it’s glory, unfortunately, in their scramble to get their hands on as much money as possible as soon as possible, they tend to clone what they deem to be successful in another country (usually America) and set it loose on an unsuspecting population. A false sense of “if you build it they will come” is the chronic mindset, Chinese English school owners despair that people aren’t falling over themselves to throw buckets of cash at them and shameless clones of western websites get themselves into endless amounts of trouble with their user bases because they delete messages and search results from their databases.

There’s a reluctance to embrace new ideas here. The people have a strange way of making one feel that they’ve made an important contribution to a discussion, or proposed an effective solution to a problem, but at the same time, there’s a lurking sense the idea has been pretty much instantly dismissed in favor of what you might term an old school solution. The closed-shop boys club of the government departments doesn’t really help, and the yes-man mentality compounds matters, all you can really do is sit back and watch them fail, hoping against hoping that someone somewhere learns their lesson.

The Chinese people have figured out one pretty safe rule in life: if it gets blocked on the Internet, it’s probably worth gossiping about. This week, quite a few things, despite the hugely popular microblog service instituting it’s real-name registration, have been blocked: A mysterious crashed Ferrari, the fate of politician Bo Xi Lai, and now, images of tanks rolling down Chang’an Avenue as an alleged military coup gets underway.

Of course there was no such thing as a coup d’tat in Beijing – surely a Beijing correspondents wet dream – and the whole thing started with a single tweet.

Pan Shi Yi, a property magnate with 9.2 million followers has garnered a reputation for posting cryptic messages on his Weibo account. On Monday night, he posted “This evening Weibo was strange indeed, there were some words that could not be sent out on Weibo. I saw a line of commentary dropped several times from Weibo, but what I saw made my scalp tingle; was it gremlins? Better to turn off the computer and go to sleep.”. Over 3,000 users commented on the post, some trying to figure out what exactly Pan was getting at, and others simply advising him to get some sleep.

On Tuesday morning, someone posted a message claiming that “According to reports, Beijing people said that last night the 38th Army was seen on Chang’an Avenue [which runs in front of Zhongnanhai] and an accumulation of police and military vehicles were in front of the Diayoutai State Guesthouse, signaling there will be big changes soon in our government.”. The Epoch Times, a Chinese news portal with Falun Gong (a banned Chinese spiritual movement) published a photo that supposedly showed that there was indeed military action taking place in the capital. Research by Chinese netizens finally debunked the photos, showing them to be nothing more than night rehersals for the 2010 National Day celebrations.

Of course all this rational thinking didn’t do much to stop the single tweet snowballing, turning it from a paranoid delusion limited to a small number of online freaks into stuff that people were gossiping about around the water cooler. One SMS message that I received about the strange case of the black Ferrari suddenly had two naked girls in it. Aside from the fact that the night the accident happened was so cold that snow fell in Beijing, the only details given to the press about the two female passengers were about their injuries and their ages, and since the crash happened at 4am in the morning in the northern part of Beijing, it’s unlikely that there were many eyewitnesses. But we never let the facts – or lack thereof- get in the way of a good story

Rumors, gossip and unhelpful stories fanned by text messaging and microblogging are pretty much part and parcel of life in a country where government departments and spokesmen live in a walled garden sheilded from the people that they’re actually supposed to be interacting with, and simply blocking out stuff that you don’t want people to talk about isn’t the best way to enforce any kind of rumor control, transparency and accessibility is the best way to go because even if you pull the wool over the eyes of the Chinese people, western audiences are much more sophisticated and cynical enough to flatly reject the “because we say so” attitude towards governace.

It’s Been a Funny Old National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference

March 21, 2012 Leave a comment

The Internet is almost inaccessible, dissidents, writers, bloggers and activists are “disappeared” – bundled off to black jails to be tortured, and an apparently unending stream of armed troops descend on restive regions of the country.  No, it’s not a dystopian vision of the future, it just means that the NPC/CPPCC is in town.  Referred to as The Two Meetings, this the place were Five Year Plans are approved, the Beijing Police do their best to outwit foreigners and prevent them from getting up to anything subversive, like filming and taking photos.  And of course, there was the Bo Xi Lai Thing.

The drama that has been playing out since February starring Bo Xi Lai and Wng Li Jun was never really going to end happily.  Something of a mix between Nero and Warren G. Harding, Bo managed to economically cripple Chongqing, spending huge amounts of money importing ginkgo trees, and supporting the local satellite TV station.  Subsidizing the TV shows took at least 50% of the budget, and importing the ginkgoes (and watching them promptly die off in the unsuitable soil and climate) cost something in the region of 10% of the annual government budget.  Things came to boil when the head of the local PSB, Wang Li Jun spent the night at the local US Embassy, sparking rumours that he was ready to defect, and had amassed a documents that proved the connection between Bo and his dodgy deals with a local property tycoon Weng Zhenjie.

About a month later, The Two Meetings hit full tilt boogie, but Bo Xi Lai was the only member of the 25-strong ruling Politburo not to attend one of the first high-level sit-downs.  Later, towards the end of the gathering, Wen Jia Bao roundly rejected Bo Maoist efforts to force people to sing “Red Songs”, saying that “Reform has reached a critical stage. Without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost.  The new problems that have cropped up in China’s society will not be fundamentally resolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.”

The day after, news broke that Bo Xi Lai has been removed of his government post.  But it didn’t end there.  The week after his removal from the Politburo, unconfirmed reports now suggest that Bo has been placed under house arrest, and that he attempt to block a criminal investigation centered on his wife.

Little more than a rubber stamp parliament, the 2012 NPC saw several new toothless laws were passed, including one that addressed the problem of illegal detentions by the police.  Reforms to the Criminal Procedure Law were, at least on paper, intended to give citizens more protection and reduce the powers of the police.  That was the theory anyway, closer inspection reveals that while the law requires the police to notify the detainee’s relatives, it doesn’t require them to tell the relatives where the detainee is being held, as well as giving the police powers to deny the suspect access to a lawyer, and if the police deem that informing relatives of the arrest could impede the investigation, then they don’t need to do it.

It was only 50 years ago that the first few National People’s Congress was performed to a select few, and behind closed doors.  In 2012, enterprising young Weibo members are combing through hi-res images taken in the conference hall to find out who’s sleeping, texting and gaming their way through the proceedings. This year’s NPC/CPPCC has been particularly entertaining, if not for the fact the while The Two Meetings were going on, air quality improved as clampdowns on car usage and making sure that while the politicians were in town, the factories toed the pollution line. This year we’ve had Tibetan representatives fleeing in terror at the sight of a foreign correspondent, the ongoing, epic saga charting the eventual downfall of Bo Xi Lai and Wang Li Jun that made Dr. Zhivago pale in comparison.

The Mystery of the Black Ferrari

March 20, 2012 Leave a comment

For some reason best know unto themselves (or until CDT publishes a new version of it’s Ministry of Truth Directives) all references to a car crash that killed it’s driver and injured two female passengers are being scrubbed from Chinese language Internet sites.

Netease, Sohu, and Tencent have removed references to “black Ferrari” from their databases and the usual “in accordance with local laws” message is being displayed instead of search results.  According to the Global Times, the police “received the call around 4:24 Sunday morning. One injured woman, 31 years old, sustained a head injury and a fractured right leg, and she was sent to the [nearby] 306th Hospital of PLA for treatment.”  And that’s about all we know.  The PSB is refusing to comment on the case or on any progress that might be being made in the investigation, and thus online speculation is even more rampant, with many jumping to the right conclusion that the identity of the car’s owner is the reason for the information clean-up.

The latest rumor is that  Jia Qing Lin‘s illigitimate son may have been in control of the car at the time of the crash.

Daisey, Daisey…

March 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Fargo, the Coen brothers admit is not based on a true story, despite opening with”This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”  If you change the date and the place to China, and 2010, the same could be said for Mike Daisey’s monologue, and his subsequent report that was subsequently retracted on This American Life. 

He’s never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, “he says it’s a kind of magic.”

According to those in the know, this was apparently one of the more emotional points in Mike Daisey’s stage monologue, The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs.   Emotional, dramatic, the performance formed the basis of an NPR report, Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.  There was only one thing wrong with it – what Mike told NPR  wasn’t entirely true.  Actually not true at all.  In fact it was so not true that This American Life not only retracted the story, but made a story about the retraction of the story.

I think that one takeaway from this particular China story is how American “news” broadcasters leapt on the monlogue and presented Daisey as a journalist rather than a performer who used dramatic license to tell a story.  About things that didn’t happen.  NPR is guilty as hell, and they managed to take their own gullibility into a very well deconstruction of how they were duped.  Statistician guru Hans Rosling once commented that the worldview of his students at the Karolinska Institute corresponded with the reality of the year that their teachers were born, and it’s that ignorance that Americans have of modern China that Daisey exploited with his stage show.  The story he concocted had almost everything you needed – illegal unions banned by the state, workers that made machines they could never afford to buy, child laborers, guns and mysterious Chinese woman called Cathy.  Or Anna.  Probably Cathy.  No wonder NPR smelled fresh meat.

Lots of other bloggers have pointed out that if it wasn’t for Mike Daisey, then America wouldn’t have taken notice of what was going on at Foxconn – the apparently endless suicides that plagued the company for a good long while, and the fact they did in fact hire around 91 underage workers in 2010 – then things wouldn’t have improved at the factories.  The sad thing is that now the story isn’t about factory conditions in China, it’s about Mike Daisey, despite his protestations that we are losing sight of the bigger picture.  Daisey has returned to the stage with a modified version of his monologue, adding a disclaimer that the performance is only based on a true story, and actually isn’t.  The odd thing is that by becoming the story, Daisey is just as guilty as Apple in terms of exploiting anonymous Chinese workers for his own gain.