China

China’s ironic “open internet”

At China’s annual “World Internet Conference” held this week, Chinese government officials lauded the country’s “open internet” in front of top executives from American giants like Google and Facebook. This is despite the fact those two firms remain blocked in China, along with a host of others including Youtube, Twitter, the New York Times and even Skype. You can’t get any more ironic that, can you?

A case in point is what just happened in Beijing, when the authorities forcibly evicted thousands of residents as part of ostensibly efforts to uphold safety regulations but really was an attempt to force out poor migrants and beautify the city. Kicking out multitudes of your poorest residents onto the streets is ghastly, but it’s not too surprising as this is in line with what China has done, which is take shortcuts to becoming powerful and wealthy by taking advantage of its own people, clamping down when necessary, and censoring any criticism and bad news. As much coverage as the evictions received in the international press, local media coverage of the evictions was actually banned, and social media was heavily censored.

Censorship, control and surveillance of information, whether online, tv or print, ensures that the Communist authorities can keep its people ignorant and fearful, making them unable to openly agitate or form bonds. Unfortunately, what was once seen as backwards and crude, now looks to be the future. I won’t be as pessimistic as these writers who claim that China looks to be “winning” the internet, but it is a very worrying trend, one in line with China’s rise. The fact that the heads of Google and Apple attended China’s internet conference and had to listen to Chinese officials and tech moguls like Jack Ma crow about government policies, including more aggressive intervention, was a sign of China’s growing prowess in tech.

But I was wrong about one thing in my first paragraph. The only thing more ironic about China praising its “open” internet is that it censored social media mention about this very event where it said that. At the end of it, is this what winning the internet is?

Advertisements
China

Beijing kicks out migrant workers

On November 18, a fire broke out in outer Beijing, killing 19 people, most of whom were migrant workers staying in small housing quarters. Since then, the Beijing authorities launched a massive eviction of tens of thousands of migrant workers, claiming unsafe violations of their residences as the reason. As a result, police have simply just showed up at people’s doors and ordered them to leave within days or even hours! Many of these people were forced to leave hastily without guaranteed accommodation and in some cases, leave for their hometowns. It’s obvious the authorities have used the fire as a convenient excuse to evict these outsiders, something which some Chinese have not failed to note.

It’s a very troubling act, but it’s in line with the crackdowns the government has launched on society. Lawyers, NGOs, journalists, Christians and even billionaires have felt the brunt of Xi Jinping and his regime, and migrant workers in the capital are now the latest.
It’s also a vivid sign of the sheer power and cold-heartedness of the Communist Party and Xi. It is good to see a number of Chinese speaking up and doing things like setting up shelters. But even then, the government has already censored some of these efforts.

These migrant workers are Chinese citizens, who come from other provinces and do a lot of the manual and low-income jobs that locals won’t do and which keep society running. Basically, most deliverymen, construction workers, waitresses, repairmen and service staff in Beijing are migrant workers. When I was in Beijing, the people who cut my hair, the real estate agents, plumbers and waitresses I met were all migrant workers. Some also do white-collar and office jobs, such as a lot of my colleagues, though their living conditions are better.

The authorities have announced plans to reduce the number of people in Beijing, whose population as of a few years was at least 23 million. But the way they’ve done it is wrong. Instead of say, trying to boost development or provide more resources and funds to neighbouring cities and provinces, the government has resorted to heavyhanded efforts and outright force to force the most vulnerable people out. Kicking migrant workers out, after having benefited from their cheap labour, is a callous and flawed way of population control, doubly so given these are their own fellow Chinese. Since I left Beijing a couple of years ago, the government has closed down major wholesale clothing markets, shut down small stores on entire streets and torn down houses in hutong lanes.

This government cares little for the rights of its citizens and will continue to arbitrarily use its power to control its people whenever and however it wants. But as long as people in China accept this and don’t try to face up to the party, things will never change.

Hong Kong · Taiwan · Travel

Photo roundup-Asian airports

When you travel a lot, whether as a tourist or an expat returning home, airports become a familiar place. In Asia, there are a lot of modern, large, and sleek airports. It’s even better when they are attractive or have interesting features, like the ones below.

Taiwan’s Taoyuan Airport might be small but the slanted latticed roof of Terminal 1’s immigration hall is a very attractive and welcoming sight for visitors, especially with the reflection on the floor. Every time I see this roof, I never fail to be impressed.

I’ve passed through Hong Kong’s airport, one of the largest in Asia, so many times but it’s still one of the best I’ve been too. The Terminal One departure gates as well as the newer and smaller Terminal Two check-in hall are attractive, especially the wavy ceiling of the latter.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport is another large and attractive one in the region. But despite the throwback metal shed-like appearance of the check-in hall, the departure gate area is another story.

Beijing’s airport is one of the largest in the world but even then, it isn’t as modern as Hong Kong’s airport, as sleek as Bangkok’s, or welcoming as Taipei’s. As with a lot of things in China, size and grandeur take priority over actual convenience and warmth. It does have a cool red ceiling with a layer of stripes below it.


Kuala Lumpur’s airport features a unique brown, lumpy ceiling that is probably based on indigenous hut design.

China · China travel · Travel

Beijing travel- Yonghegong Lama Temple and Imperial Academy


Beijing has so many famous sites that it’s not surprising that its largest temple is somewhat overlooked. But the Yonghegong Lama Temple is still a nice place to visit, being a rare instance of Tibetan Buddhist building that blends both Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist architectural aspects. Built in the late 17th century during the Qing Dynasty, Yonghegong actually was a residence for an imperial prince, before being converted into a lamasery, a monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks. I first visited it during my first week in Beijing when I came to work there in 2013, then brought a friend visiting from Trinidad there. The temple is always full of worshippers and tourists, and saffron and red-clad Buddhist monks can be seen walking around as well. Unlike some other Chinese temples, the commercial aspect is toned down so there isn’t a ton of vendors and stalls in the temple ground. While the worship halls and the largest building, the three-storey Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses at the northern end, are all interesting, the most fascinating aspect of the temple is the exhibit of small Buddhist statues, specifically deities wrapped up in erotic Tantric coupling, as you will see in my photos below.

Across the street from Yonghegong temple in a nearby lane is the Imperial Academy or Guozijian, a former imperial college for officials. As the name implies, it was the highest place of learning in the country and used for training and testing officials throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Built in 1306, making it older than the Yonghegong temple by centuries, the Guozijian is also worth a visit and is a quieter place than the Yonghegong Temple. Inside the ground is also the Confucius Temple, the second largest in the country.

Outside the temple, there are a bunch of fortune-telling and Buddhist paraphernalia stores along Yonghegong street, as well as sadly, numerous beggars, some of whom are handicapped and missing limbs. It might be different now, but back then, there was always a lot of them on that street.


  

After you are done with the Yonghegong Temple, head to the Confucius Temple nearby.

The famous Chinese sage

Emperor’s seat 

Rows of massive stele inscribed with Confucian classics

  


Yonghegong Temple from outside

Nearby Hutong, which may or may not still be around, given Beijing’s recent destruction of hutongs

Books · China

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds- book review

In the early 20th century, a Swedish-Finnish nobleman by the name of Baron Gustaf Mannerheim undertook a secret mission for the Russian Tsar to spy on China. Starting from Moscow, Mannerheim crossed Russia, traveled through Central Asia and across China to collect information on the country’s reforms and development. 100 years later, in 2006, Canadian writer Eric Enno Tamm decided to undertake the same journey as Mannerheim, going through the Central Asian Stans and into China, from Xinjiang to Beijing.

Even 100 years after the original, Tamm’s voyage is a remarkable journey. Going through Central Asia, the author sheds light on little-known countries like oil-rich quasi-authoritarian Azerbaijan and repressive and secretive states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The murkiness and poverty of the cities in those states is balanced by the beauty of the sparsely-populated, desolate wilderness of mountain passes, desert and plains. In China, Xinjiang is already heavily policed and Sinicized as cities like Kashgar are built up while having their historic neighborhoods ripped apart. Tamm visits famous cities like Xian and not-so-famous ones like Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, and the holy sites of Wutaishan, one of China’s holiest mountains, and Dunhuang, site of one of China’s greatest Buddhist grottoes.

At every stage, Tamm describes fascinating accounts of Mannerheim’s trek, which was especially sensitive as he had to deal with rival European explorers and spies, and the Qin Dynasty authorities. Besides the historical and nature aspect, the book also features a lot of interesting descriptions of the diverse cultures and ethnicities that is present across Western China, such as small Mongolian and Tibetan sub-tribes as well as the local Uyghur majority.

Despite the 100 years separating the journeys of Mannerheim and the writer, there is a striking similarity between how China was going through significant change in the form of economic and industrial development during Mannerheim’s journey under the Qing Dynasty, as it was during Tamm’s journey and to the present. Tamm raises a provocative point about the parallels between the present and in Mannerheim’s time, as the Qing embraced Western industrial technology and economic changes, but not values and ideas, in an attempt to make the country prosper while retaining power, which ultimately proved futile. The Qing Dynasty would fall just a few years after Mannerheim’s journey when a successful revolution broke out in 1911. The recent news of China’s supposed banning of VPN by early 2018 and the death of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo is a reminder that China’s impressive economic rise and might has been accompanied by greater censorship and repression. I’ve never read this specific view linking the last years of the Qing with the present time expressed before, despite the abundance of predictions about the fall or decline of the Chinese Communist Party, and I admit it is partially convincing.

Tamm also notes the tensions in China’s borderlands, especially the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the Muslim Uyghurs chafe under harsh Chinese rule. Indeed, Xinjiang is China’s most heavily policed region, and there are restrictions on the Uyghur’s practice of their religion and culture. It is obvious that Tamm is not too positive about his observations and experiences during his travel through China.

Tamm also coins a word for China’s pervasive technological censorship – technotarianism. Back then, China had just erected its “Great Firewall” and Google provided a limited version for use in the country, which didn’t prevent it from being banned completely. The censorship has only gotten worse so Tamm’s “technotarianism” is still in place.

Another serious problem Tamm observes is China’s dire environment, especially the heavily polluted air or smog which is as much of a problem in Beijing and much of China now as it was 11 years ago.

Coincidentally, much of Tamm’s journey traces the ancient Silk Road, as he goes through Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Shanxi to get to Beijing. He also visits Henan and Inner Mongolia. Given that the Belt and Road (also known as One Belt, One Road) is meant to recreate the Silk Road and passes through the countries Tamm traveled to, I was thinking it would be fitting if Tamm could go on another journey through Central Asia and China and write a new book.

Incidentally 2017 is the 100th year of Finland’s independence from Russia. After Finland became independent, Mannerheim became its regent and then a national war hero by defending Finland from the Soviet Union during the 1940s as the Commander-in-Chief and Marshal of Finland.

While the book was published 6 years ago, several of the observations are still very relevant. It is a little sad that not only do issues like the severe pollution and the repression in Xinjiang and Tibet still exist in China, but they are perhaps worse now than when Tamm undertook his journey.

Books · China · Hong Kong

Beijing’s international literary scene takes a hit

Back in Beijing, one of the events I really looked forward to were the annual literary festivals, specifically the Bookworm and Capital M. The Bookworm, located in a compound on a corner of the main intersection in Sanlitun, is regarded as an institution in the local literary scene, with sister branches in Suzhou and Chengdu. So it’s a little sad to read about how they had to suspend their literary festival for 2017 due to a lack of funds. Coupled with Capital M’s cancellation of its literary festival in 2015 and Shanghai M’s downsizing of its 2016 festival, things seem kind of bleak. These festivals brought in a lot of Western, Asian and Chinese writers and it was where I saw writers like Evan Osnos and Xiaolu Guo. As they would run for two weeks and hold events every day, you can imagine the variety and diversity of the programs.

In related developments, City Weekend Beijing recently announced it would stop publishing which is a blow to the city’s English-language expat magazine scene. I actually helped out and contributed a couple of articles to the magazine but that is not the reason I’m concerned (I readily admit That’s Beijing and TimeOut were always more interesting and fun to read). The most likely reason is financial because print publishing is certainly not a very profitable venture, especially when it caters to a small market like expats in China.

Obviously it affects Beijing expats, which some people might just dismiss as not a big deal, but it makes the city less vibrant and international. Losing major literary festivals and expat magazines makes the city less international in terms of the literary scene, not to mention the arts in general. Coupled with the crackdowns on clubs and concerts in Beijing, the increased climate of censorship and repression that has afflicted almost all of Chinese society has certainly hit the arts and cultural scene hard.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, which held its own literary festival a couple of weeks ago, the local chapter of PEN was re-launched on the final day of the festival. Led by local writer Jason Ng, who has been outspoken and written a lot about local politics including the Umbrella Movement, the PEN chapter will advocate for the right of writers and journalists to express themselves and resist censorship, specifically that brought on by the giant neighbor next door. At the panel, Ng and four other writers spoke about why PEN is needed and the increased censorship in China and Hong Kong. One of the panelists, a local poet and academic, spoke about the danger of self-censorship by telling a story of a friend warning her not to publish a Facebook photo which had a caption critical of a local university for refusing to let a student graduate because he carried a yellow umbrella to the grad ceremont. The panelist’s friend thought that someone could see that photo and use it to get her fired from her job (she didn’t take down the photo and she ended up getting her contract renewed).
Unlike its predecessor, it will also aim to become bilingual and trying to bridge the English and Chinese writing community. At a time like this in Hong Kong, this is a welcome development.

imag9089

Books · Hong Kong

Umbrellas in Bloom- book review

When what was to be the Umbrella Movement unfolded in 2014, few imagined it would turn out to be the way it did. The initial standoff with police saw hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers take to the streets to voice their anger against Beijing and then occupy an entire stretch of land in the Admiralty business district, as well as two other parts of town, for months. These Umbrella activists formed a beacon of resistance that endured for 79 days, capturing the world’s attention and frustrating the Hong Kong government and Beijing.
Jason Ng’s “Umbrellas In Bloom- Hong Kong’s occupy movement uncovered” covers this entire movement giving both a superb broad overview and an on-the-ground view, courtesy of spending evenings and nights amid the protesters at the main protest site or village. It’s a fine piece of reporting that explains not just the Umbrella Movement, but how Hong Kong has gotten to where it’s at with the increasing authoritarian influence from Beijing and its voiceless minions in the HK government, and worsening socio-economic conditions in Hong Kong.
Ng breaks down the Umbrella Movement from how it started all the way to how it ended, describing how protesters braved police tear gas to stay their ground and settle in for the long term. They did so by creating a huge makeshift camp that temporarily turned a business district into a surreal village of goodwill and benevolence run completely by volunteers with impressive administrative and logistical operations. Mainland authorities and “analysts” claim, with absolutely no proof, that foreign agents like the CIA were involved.
The author visits the Umbrella village at lunchtime and in the evenings to offer tutoring, then stays overnight and gets to know some fellow activists, including office workers turned volunteers and students turned social activists. It is interesting to see how positive the vibes are at first, with people putting aside their studies or work to commit themselves, but gradually tension builds up as the more extreme protesters get frustrated with the lack of progress and slam the student leaders for inaction.
Besides the reportage of the protest, there are extensive explanations of Hong Kong’s political system and parties, so readers can be fully aware of which parties are pro-Beijing and what the others stand for. If you know nothing about Hong Kong politics, by the time you get through the book you will be a semi-expert.

Whatever one thinks of the effectiveness or futility of the Umbrella Movement, it is undeniable that it awakened strong consciousness amongst many Hong Kongers that cannot be contained. In these seemingly dark times, with a reprehensible Communist regime becoming increasingly blatant and authoritarian, doing things like kidnapping Hong Kongers at will outside the mainland and parading them on TV to “confess,” the resistance and passion that arose during the movement is even more vital now.

IMAG8783

China

One year after Beijing

DSC00083

One year ago, I left my job in Beijing and set about making my exit from mainland China. Now, I’ve been in Hong Kong for three months in a new job and gradually settling in. I sometimes think that just a few months ago, which included a trip to Sri Lanka, I would never have imagined I’d be working here, taking the tram to work everyday and getting used to high prices for everything from rent to food. I’ve traded smog for fog, Mandarin for Cantonese, the chaotic, every-man-for-himself bustle of Beijing for the frenetic but orderly energy of Hong Kong.

I didn’t exactly leave Beijing with a heavy heart, in fact it was the opposite, but recently, I occasionally have slightly fond memories about a few bits of Beijing.

I certainly don’t miss the daily nonsense, the rudeness and the deceitfulness that was common, the awful smog and nasty water, nor living in a society governed by one of the worst regimes in the world. But I do miss the sense of being in a famous city with a grand history and the center of a massive albeit very flawed civilization, interesting and wacky scenes of a society in flux with great divides that is still developing (or going backwards depending on your perspective). Hong Kong has a lot going on and there are many interesting scenes in daily life, but it is a more sophisticated, polished and developed society. Hong Kong also doesn’t have the mix of people from across China (my Chinese colleagues were from at least 8 provinces), the historical sites with many hundreds of years of history, the hutongs, which I appreciate though I don’t have the soft spot for them like a lot of expats do, or real winter. I’ve put up a few photos of the better bits of Beijing I liked.

IMAG5200
IMAG4093IMG_2229aIMAG5017IMAG2582 IMAG2879
IMAG4985

But this, I certainly am glad not to see again
IMAG3510

China

Marking the June 4 tragedy in Hong Kong

IMAG8497
Last Saturday, June 4, was the anniversary of the tragedy that took place in Beijing, China in 1989. In Hong Kong, this tragedy is commemorated every year with a huge outdoor rally that often attracts over 100,000 people. This year was a little different because a public dispute broke out before the event, when several students associations publicly announced they would stay away from the rally because they didn’t feel it was relevant to Hong Kong anymore.

According to these groups, it was futile rallying to remember the 1989 tragedy and advocating for democracy in China, which is one of the main goals of the June 4 rally organizers, because it had nothing to do with Hong Kong. It would be better to fight for Hong Kong’s goals such as autonomy, a sentiment that is line with a growing “localization” feeling that has manifested in political parties agitating for such goals. I sympathized with them and I understood some of their frustration, which I would also venture might be augmented by the fact some mainlanders, including people I know, didn’t support or empathize with Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement.

However, I still decided to go to the rally because it was my first time having the opportunity to attend it and I think it is worthwhile to commemorate the tragedy. I arrived right around the time it started, which meant having to first pass through shopping streets in Causeway Bay that had been turned into an activist zone with political groups lining both sides of the streets, then gather in an adjoining field rather than the main area at Victoria Park and watching the speakers on a giant screen.

It didn’t dull the effect as passionate speaker after speaker appeared, and videos of one of the Tiananmen victims’ mothers, the kidnapped Hong Kong booksellers and the rights lawyer crackdown in China players. The organizers also didn’t shy away from confronting the issue with the student groups. In the middle of the event, three speakers, an adult, a female university student and a male high-school student came on stage to give some youth perspectives. Battling away tears, the female student called out her university and said “the student body association doesn’t represent me!” and “you can talk about Hong Kong’s rights everyday but you can only mark June 4 on one day.” The adult talked about his university and that he had been the student body president, then denounced them for staying away from the rally.

The student bodies who stayed away held separate events on their campuses that marked the tragedy but mainly focused on Hong Kong-related issues. They got a decent turnout apparently. This split won’t end anytime soon.

IMAG8493  DSC00140
DSC00139IMAG8492

China · China travel

Beijing travel- Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills)

IMG_2961

A lot of people probably don’t realize Beijing has mountains. This is because much of the city center is flat (and smog often obscures the views), but Beijing is actually ringed by mountains that extend from Haidian district all the way to the Great Wall and towards Hebei.
When I lived in Beijing, I only did two hikes near the city. Both were in Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills). Located in the northwestern part of the city in Haidian district, a little further beyond the old and new Summer Palaces, the 557-meter-tall Xiangshan is a decent, scenic choice for an outdoor outing. The whole place is a park, created all the way back in 1186, and was visited by emperors. At the foot of the hill are a garden, a Buddhist pagoda and Biyun Si (Temple of Azure Clouds), which features a large white stone pagoda called Vajrasana Pagoda. While Xiangshan isn’t too high, there is also a chair lift which I never took but I wish I did. The hill is nicely forested, though the path is a concrete stairway with little pavilions along the way. Interestingly, Biyun Si also has an exhibition dedicated to Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese political icon. This is because after Sun died in Beijing in 1925, his body was placed at the temple until being taken to Nanjing to be buried.

The first time I went there was in the afternoon and I only went halfway up the hill because I didn’t think I had enough time, but the second time I went up all the way. The summit was crowded with people, noisy and shouting and creating quite a commotion, as Chinese tend to do. On top, you can look onto urban Beijing but still feel that you are in a completely separate place, with forest and mountains all around you. You can even see the Summer Palace’s lake. I always intended to go back again, but given I lived all the way on the other side of the city, I never did.

IMG_2971
IMG_3059
IMG_2977 IMG_2983 DSC00249
Continue reading “Beijing travel- Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills)”